Saturday, April 28, 2012


I've been pulling up some old DVD and Video Risk reviews from the cybertomb that once was Hope you enjoy. This was a paper I wrote for a college class back in the day. I posted it at in November 2000. The top two picture are of me and my daughter Christy from my interview with Ray Harryhausen in Kentucky in 2004.

Before the days of computer animated dinosaurs ala "Jurassic Park" there existed a refined gentleman artist who labored long and hard to bring to life magical, mythical creatures much to the delight of young baby-boomers all over. Ray Harryhausen's work drove my imagination as a child, and fueled my love for monster and science-fiction films. I wrote the following as a research paper for a film class I took in undergraduate school. I hope you will forgive this detour from my usual reviews while I share my love of the work of a master with you.


The level of an audience's willing suspension of disbelief may depend greatly upon the production values of the play or film being presented. This is especially true of films in the science-fiction/fantasy genre. The audience must believe they are seeing the impossible if they are to enjoy the story. This is true whether the film takes place in the future, the present time, or in a galaxy far, far away. The atmosphere for these films is largely the responsibility of special effects crews and art directors. During the 1950s, the golden age of science-fiction films, one man stood head and shoulders above his peers in the field of special effects. Ray Harryhausen built his reputation as the world's premiere stop-motion animator in a series of science-fiction and fantasy films. He revolutionized the art invented by his mentor, Willis O'Brien. His innovations, coupled with other technological advances in the world of film-making, allowed the apprentice to become the master. While none of Harryhausen's films have captured the public's imagination to the extent that O'Brien's "King Kong" did, his work is clearly superior to O'Brien's. His work spawned a profitable sub-genre in the science-fiction field. His technological innovations improved the looks of animated films and brought down production costs considerably. The latter influence enabled Harryhausen to amaze and entertain audiences for nearly thirty years.

Harryhausen set his mind on becoming an animator at the age of thirteen when he saw O'Brien's "King Kong." His interest in fantasy and science-fiction lead to Harryhausen's CO-founding a short-lived science fiction magazine with two of his boyhood friends, Ray Bradbury and Forrest J. Ackerman. The three teenagers failed at their first attempt to break into the business, but all three eventually left their mark on the world of science-fiction. Harryhausen began dabbling in animation; and as a student at Los Angeles City College, be began work on a 16 mm animated short titled "Evolution of the World." Though he never completed the film, the rough footage impressed producer George Pal ("War of the Worlds," "When Worlds Collide"), and he hired Harryhausen as an animator on his "Puppetoon" children's stories. The college film also led Harryhausen to his mentor, Willis O'Brien.

Willis O'Brien invented the stop-motion animation process in the early 1900s. O'Brien made one-foot high wooden skeletons, later made of metal, and covered them with rubber skin. The animals (usually dinosaurs) were placed on scaled sets to give the illusion of immense size. where they would be filmed, one frame at a time. After each exposure, the models were moved slightly; the figures would appear to move in the finished film. Two major problems that faced O'Brien were incorporating live actors into the frame with the animated figures, and making the dinosaurs look huge in comparison with the human beings in the frame. He used a time-consuming and expensive process which utilized elaborately painted glass mattes, and rear screen projection to combine the figures. The glass matte paintings were used to give the finished product the illusion of depth. The models were place between the painted glass mattes. This made the dinosaurs look huge in comparison to the surrounding jungle. For the most part, the actors were melded into the picture through the use of rear screen projection, or the people in the picture were actually animated figures themselves. Under O'Brien, Harryhausen fine tuned his craft. The two men worked together on the 1949 film "Mighty Joe Young" for which O'Brien won his only Oscar, even though Harryhausen is reported to have animated 85% of the picture. Following "Might Joe Young" no further feature films were forthcoming so Harryhausen returned to work on George Pal's "Puppetoons." The successful 1952 reissue of "King Kong" showed the money men in Hollywood that there was a market for the animated films. This event put Harryhausen in the right place, with the right skills, and at the right time in history to become an innovative power in the movie business. The golden age of American science-fiction films was just beginning. Harryhausen was introduced to producer Hal Chester who wanted to make a movie about a sea monster, and the rest is history.


"The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" was produced by Mutual Pictures at a budget of $210,000. The budget presented Harryhausen with some major problems. He rose to the challenge though. Harryhausen was quoted in the book "Future Tense" by John Brosnan saying that "Beast" was "the first film where I was in sole charge of the special effects. It was also the film for which I developed a simplified technique of combining animated models with live backgrounds...{because of the budget}, I couldn't afford the complicated and expensive technique of using glass paintings combined with miniature rear screen projection in the manner of "King Kong" and "Mighty Joe Young."

Harryhausen developed an in-camera traveling matte shot which cut costs and which produced an impressive image. Mutual sold the film to Warner Brothers. Warner rescored the film, added one scene and launched a massive ad campaign. "Beast" was one of the first films to use TV for widespread advertising. The campaign worked as "Beast" made five million dollars for Warner Brothers and begot a score of imitators.

"Beast" concerned a prehistoric dinosaur freed from an Arctic grave by an atomic bomb test. This was the first film in which a creature was either revived or mutated by an atomic bomb test. It was also the first film to be based on a Ray Bradbury story. The beast attempts to return to its old stomping grounds. Of course, his previous abode is not occupied by New York City. After destroying much of the city, the beast is killed with a radioactive isotope in the climatic scene in a Coney Island amusement park.

The film contains many of the characteristics of the science-fiction film. An alien invader (in this case an alien out of time) threatens the American way of life. The nature of man to play God via science leads to trouble, but the same curious nature allows man to fight off the unwanted invader.

The story may have enough plot holes big enough to drive a brontosaurus through, but as is the case in most of Harrryhausen's films, the special effects were the stars. Many critics pointed out that "Beast" had a mediocre plot, but they fail to realize that without the financial success of "Beast" it is very unlikely that Warner Brothers would have put as much effort into their follow-up film, the Oscar winning "Them!."


Part of Harryhausen's longevity is due to the fact that he was able to form a partnership with independent producer Charles Schneer. Schneer produced "It Came From Beneath the Sea" for the Clover Films Company. Schneer would produce all of Harryhausen's films except for the forgettable "Animal World" and the 1960's hit film "One Million Years B.C.." One may say that Harryhausen's talent alone would attract any number of producers, but a cursory examination of Willis O'Brien's sad career shows a continuous series of projects which never got off the drawing board due to lack of financial backing. For no other reason than his patronage which enabled millions of fans to enjoy Harryhausen's magic, Charles Schneer will have a permanent place in motion picture history.

"It Came From Beneath the Sea" also showed more of Harryhausen's inventiveness under difficult situations. The plot of "It Came From Beneath the Sea" was very similar to that of "The Beast From 20.000 Fathoms" in that an atomic test in the Pacific kills off most of the fish, causing a giant octopus to search elsewhere for food. Millions of humans know that some of the best seafood in the world is found at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco; in an ironic and humorous twist, the giant octopus goes to Fisherman's Wharf for a taste of some "landfood." The city fathers of San Francisco did not see the humor in the situation and denied Harryhausen permission to film in the city. Harryhausen overcame this denial by using stock footage and by sneaking around the city filming in secret from a place of concealment in a phony bread truck. Costs were also a major problem for the production company, so Harryhausen was forced to only give the octopus six tentacles. To allow himself more flexibility in animating the destruction of downtown San Francisco, Harryhausen also built a large tentacle to give the illusion of greater size and detail. While Harryhausen did his animation in the camera, he did resort to an optical printer in order to show foam and turbulence as the octopus broke the surface of the water. It was time consuming, but it added greatly to the realism of the scenes. Realism was important to Harryhausen. He animated the octopus at a slower rate of speed fro the underwater scenes in order to show the resistance of movement caused by the water pressure. Due to the difficulty of animating water, Harryhausen animated a dry octopus model and coated the skin with glycerin to give it a wet look. Next to "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger" this was probably Harryhausen's worst film. This was not due to the animation, which is its one redeeming factor, but rather due to the preposterous story line and wooden acting.


Following "It Came From Beneath the Sea," Harryhausen teamed up with Willis O'Brien for a short dinosaur battle in Irwin Allen's forgettable "The Animal World" and then began work on his next solo project, "Earth Versus the Flying Saucers." After the success of George Pal's "War of the Worlds," producer Schneer realized there was money to be made in UFOs. He and Harryhausen began work on developing a script with writer Curt Sidomak.

"Earth Versus the Flying Saucers is unique in Harryhausen's career because the animation involved inanimate objects. Harryhausen was intrigued by the challenge of making a round inanimate object visually interesting. Author Bill Warren stated that Harryhausen's saucers are the best ever done. One detail in particular adds immensely to the visual excitement of the ships in flight. Harryhausen added rotating rings on the ships. The forward motion of the saucers in flight is accented by the hypnotizing spiral of the rings which results in a rewarding tease for the eyes.

There are two major destruction scenes in the film. One takes place at night as the saucers set a forest ablaze in an attempt to kill the film's hero, Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe). The lighting in this scene gives the saucers a truly terrifying appearance. The reflection of the fire on the saucers contrasted with the pitch black night sky results in an atmosphere which ranks among the eeriest in science fiction film. Unlike the claustrophobic setting of "Alien" in which the characters had no where to run, the characters in the fire scene are in a wide, expansive terrain, and still they are trapped like sinners fleeing the wrath of God. The scene is a major accomplishment of Harryhausen's special effects.

The second major scene of mayhem is the film's climax: an attack on Washington D.C. by the saucer fleet (Now there's an idea!) Harryhausen produced some of his best and intricate work. Instead of animating dinosaurs or mythical beasts, Harryhausen brought life (and death) to the Washington Monument, the Supreme Court Building and the Capitol Building. Dr. Marvin invents an ultrasonic gun which disrupts the saucer's power-drive and causes them to fall from the sky. Of course, the fall into the aforementioned objects. Harryhausen had to animate the destruction of the buildings brick by brick. Each brick was suspended on invisible wires as Harryhausen worked his meticulous magic.

The scene in which the Washington Monument collapses on a crowd of people was so effective that it was lifted for use in the low-budget stinker "The Giant Claw." Less anyone think that Harryhausen would be upset by this practice, they should look quickly for the destruction of L.A.'s City hall which was lifted from George Pal's "War of the Worlds" and inserted into Harryhausen's film. Borrowing scenes from other movies and using stock footage were two economical ways that Harryhausen and many other low-budget filmmakers cut production costs in the 1950s. Sometimes it worked well, and at other times you had glaring mistakes such as the battery of army cannons firing on the flying saucers as they attack Washington D.C.. The battery of cannons are obviously out in a desert of the western United States. All of that aside, Harryhausen's destruction of America's Capitol was a monumental achievement.


One critic said, "the monster is a marvel of technological achievement and is terrifyingly realistic." The monster is Harryhausen's creature from Venus: Ymir; and the film is "20 Million Miles to Earth." This was Harryhausen's last black and white film, and his last low-budget, exploitive, science-fiction film. After "20 Million Miles to Earth," Harryhausen shifted to the fantasy phase of his career. He did return to science fiction twice, but those films focused more on fantasy than science.

"20 Million Miles to Earth" was the last Harryhausen film from the golden age of science fiction films; it was also far and away his best work from this period. The film was another fear-of-science film. This time the viewer learns the horrible things that await man kind when they dare to try interplanetary travel. An egg is brought back from Venus by an American space expedition. The egg hatches and the Ymir grows until it becomes a giant.

The film's climax places the monster in Rome, where it destroys much of the city before meeting its demise. The plot is interchangeable with numerous other monster-on-the-loose movies; Harryhausen's animation lifts this one above the mundane hoard of imitators, though. This film contains a multitude of animation sequences which show the Ymir's growth from one foot high to twenty feet. They are notable not only for the excellent design of the creature, but also for the locations used. Ymir is chased from Sicily to Rome. Along the way Harryhausen shows the creature in action in such varied locations as a barn at night; under a waterfall; in the brightly lit Italian countryside; and in Rome. Harryhausen commented on the Roman scenes, "we used all the Roman ruins and monuments, including the coliseum. The creature was matted into the real scenes, (rather than model sets)."

Ymir is a lively creature, pacing through the film like a cagey boxer. Like a child with ADHD, Ymir is rarely still. Like the forest fire scene in "Earth Versus the Flying Saucers," Harryhausen matches the lighting of the diversely lit live-action scenes with uncanny accuracy. Author Bill Warren wrote that "the Ymir's first appearance, trotting on a tabletop is one of the best sequences of his films. Joan Taylor (in the background plate) enters the room and switches on the light. The light falling on the Ymir is precisely correct...and the illusion of reality is almost perfect....When you realize the animation was filmed months after the live-action footage, the accomplishment becomes astounding."

By now, Harryhausen had experimented with various methods of filming animation. On "20 Million Miles to Earth" he settled on the process he would use for the rest of his career. It involved rear-screen projection, a foreground matte, with the animated figure between them. Harryhausen dubbed this process "Dynamation" for the release of his next film, "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad."


In 1958, Harryhausen and Schneer shifted gears and moved into the fantasy film field. They would make six fantasy films together from 1958 to 1981. Harryhausen soloed on the Aforementioned "One Million Years B.C.." Harryhausen and Schneer paid tribute to Willis O'Brien in the 1969 cowboys and dinosaurs saga "The Valley of Gwangi." Their final two science-fiction films were part of the cycle spawned by the success of Disney's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." This was a wholesome family-oriented film, with more emphasis on action and adventure than on science fiction. Other films in this cycle included "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and "Master of the World." Harryhausen's contributions to this cycle were 1961's "Mysterious Island" and 1964's "The First Men IN the Moon."

Harryhausen began making color movies with "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad." "Mysterious Island" is aided and hurt by the use of color. The creatures are very lifelike (especially the crab!), but the matte paintings of the landscapes are obviously just that, paintings. The film also depends as much on plot and character development as it does on Harryhausen's animation, though the animation is some of the best of his career. Most notable among the scenes are the soldier's battle with the giant crab, and the attack on the castaways camp by a comical prehistoric chicken. The film also contains one of the worst sequences animated by Harryhausen: the underwater battle with a giant nautilus.

Harryhausen attempted to solve one of the last problems facing animators while working on "Mysterious Island." Strobing is the phenomenon caused by the animation process. When a live-action scene is filmed, blurring occurs due to the natural motion of the object being filmed. This blurring does not occur in animation since it is shot a frame at a time, and the subject is still. Harryhausen attempted to solve this for the giant bee sequence, with little success. Harryhausen's protege Jim Danforth claimed to have solved this problem by double exposing each frame in "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth."

Harryhausen's last science fiction film, "The First Men IN the Moon" contains very little animation. The movie was more a labor of love than anything else. Harryhausen had always wanted to film the H.G. Wells story, but producer Schneer always nixed the idea because there was not enough animation to fill a feature length film. Harryhausen persuaded Schneer to produce the film by concocting a modern day prologue in which a United Nations space shot discovers a rotting Union Jack flag on the surface of the moon, setting off a search for the aging space explorer. The film has a lighthearted tone, as the serious scientist of the 1950s science fiction film was replaced by a bumbling, veddy, veddy English scientist (Lionel Jefferies). The only animated creature in the film is a gigantic lunar centipede. The moon is occupied by a race of Selenites which look more like children in grasshopper suits than anything else. The film may be a disappointment to Harryhausen fans, but it is an entertaining and enjoyable family film.


Harryhausen retired from film after the release of the 1981 film, "Clash of the Titans." He said he was "tired of spending year after year locked inside a dark room." The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Harryhausen a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to the world of film in March 1992. One writer commented that it was appropriate that he was honored with a statue of a a man only 13 1/2 inches tall. An obvious reference to Harryhausen miniature models. Though Harryhausen has retire from the business, his influence is seen in the work of current model and computer animators. Those of us who give ourselves over to the magic of Harryhausen "believe" the creatures are alive, just as we pay homage to the man who breathed life into them.


Because I origonally wrote this as a research paper in college I feel obliged to include the bibliography.
Brosnan, John (1978) Future Tense. New York: St. Marten's Press.
Frank, Alan (1982). The Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Handbook. Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble Books.
Kinnard, Roy (1988). Beasts and Behemoths: Prehistoric Creatures in the Movies . London: Scarecrow Press.
Luciano, Patrick. (1987). Them or Us. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Menville, Douglas and Reginald R.. (1977) Things To Come: An Illustrated History of Science Fiction Film. New York: New York Times Books.
Perry, Danny. (1984). Omni's Screen Flights Screen Fantasies: The Future According to Science Fiction Cinema. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
Rovin, Jeff. (1977) The Fabulous Fantasy Films. New York: A.S. Barnes and Company.
Shipman, David, (1985). A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films. Twickingham, England: Hamlyn Publishing.
Shipman, David. (1982). The Story of Cinema. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Sobchack, Vivian Carol. (1980). The Limits of Infinity: The American Science Fiction Film 1950-75. New York: A.S. Barnes and Company.
Warren, Bill. (1982). Keep Watching the Skys: American Science Fiction movies of the Fifties-Volume 1 1950-1957. London: McFarland.
Warren, Bill. (1982). Keep Watching the Skys: American Science Fiction movies of the Fifties-Volume 2 1958-1962. London: McFarland.
Wloszczyna, Susan. (1992). "Ray Harryhausen, a man of many mini miracles." USA Today. March 30, 1992. P.9E.

1 comment:

Raymond Jameson said...

Your essay is excellent and very well illustrated with photos. In your final paragraph you failed to mention that Ray now also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, across the street from Graumann's Chinese Theater, where Ray first saw his favorite film, "King Kong," in the spring of 1933. Both the campaign to get Ray his star, succesfully completed in June 2003, and the campaign to get Ray an Honorary Oscar in March 1992 were accomplished by Arnold Kunert, whose 2-disc DVD, "Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection," contains virtually all of Ray's early tests, experiments and short films.