Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles, California, the son of Martha L. (née Reske) and Frederick W. Harryhausen. Of German descent, the family surname was originally spelled “Herrenhausen”. After having seen King Kong (1933) for the first of many times on its initial release, Harryhausen spent his early years experimenting in the production of animated shorts, inspired by the burgeoning science fiction literary genre of the period. The scenes utilising stop-motion animation (more accurately called model animation), those featuring creatures on the island or Kong, were the work of pioneer model animator Willis O’Brien. His work in King Kong inspired Harryhausen, and a friend arranged a meeting with O’Brien for him. O’Brien critiqued Harryhausen’s early models and urged him to take classes in graphic arts and sculpture to hone his skills. Meanwhile, Harryhausen became friends with an aspiring writer, Ray Bradbury, with similar enthusiasms. Bradbury and Harryhausen joined a Los Angeles-area Science Fiction League formed by Forrest J. Ackerman in 1939, and the three became lifelong friends.
Harryhausen secured his first commercial job, on George Pal’s Puppetoons shorts, based on viewing his first formal demo reel of fighting dinosaurs from a project called Evolution of the World which was never finished. During World War II, Harryhausen served in the United States Army Special Services Division under Colonel Frank Capra, as a loader, clapper boy, goffer and later camera assistant, whilst working at home animating short films about the use and development of military equipment. During this time he also worked with composer Dimitri Tiomkin and Ted Geisel (“Dr. Seuss”). Following the war he salvaged several rolls of discarded 16 mm surplus film from which he made a series of fairy tale-based shorts, which he called his “Teething-rings”.
One of Harryhausen’s most long-cherished dreams was to make H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. After World War II, he shot a scene of an alien emerging from a Martian cylinder showing the fearsome being from Mars fatally succumbing to an earthly illness, contracted from the air the natives breathe harmlessly. It was part of an unrealized project to adapt the story using Wells’ original “octopus” concept for the Martians. In 1947 Harryhausen was hired as an assistant animator on what turned out to be his first major film, Mighty Joe Young (1949). O’Brien ended up concentrating on solving the various technical problems of the film, leaving most of the animation to Harryhausen. Their work won O’Brien the Academy Award for Best Special Effects that year.
The first film with Ray Harryhausen in full charge of technical effects was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) which began development under the working title Monster From the Sea. The filmmakers learned that a long-time friend of Harryhausen, writer Ray Bradbury, had sold a short story called “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (later retitled “The Fog Horn”) to The Saturday Evening Post, about a dinosaur drawn to a lone lighthouse by its foghorn. Because the story for Harryhausen’s film featured a similar scene, the film studio bought the rights to Bradbury’s story to avoid any potential legal problems. Also, the title was changed to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Under that title, it became Harryhausen’s first solo feature film effort, and a major international box-office hit for Warner Brothers.
It was on The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms that Harryhausen first used a technique that split the background and foreground of pre-shot live action footage into two separate images into which he would animate a model or models so seemingly integrating the live-action with the models. The background would be used as a miniature rear-screen with his models animated in front of it, re-photographed with an animation-capable camera to combine those two elements together, the foreground element matted out to leave a black space. Then the film was rewound, and everything except the foreground element matted out so that the foreground element would now photograph in the previously blacked out area. This created the effect that the animated model was “sandwiched” in between the two live action elements, right into the final live action scene.
In most of Harryhausen’s films, model animated characters interact with, and are a part of, the live action world, with the idea that they will cease to call attention to themselves as “animation.” Most of the effects shots in his earliest films were created via Harryhausen’s careful frame-by-frame control of the lighting of both the set and the projector dramatically reduced much of degradation common in the use of back-projection or the creation of dupe negatives via the use of an optical printer. Harryhausen’s use of diffused glass to soften the sharpness of light on the animated elements allowed the matching of the soft background plates far more successfully than Willis O’Brien had achieved in his early films, allowing Harryhausen to match live and miniature elements seamlessly in most of his shots. By developing and executing most of this miniature work himself, Harryhausen saved money, while maintaining full technical control.
A few years later, when Harryhausen began working with color film to make The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, he experimented extensively with color stock to overcome the color-balance-shift problems. Ray’s producer/partner Charles H. Schneer coined the word Dynamation as a “merchandising term” (modifying it to “SuperDynaMation” and then “Dynarama” for some subsequent films).
Harryhausen was always heavily involved in the pre-production conceptualizing of each film’s story, script development, art-direction, design, storyboards, and general tone of the his films, as much as any auteur director would have on any other film, which any “director” of Harryhausen’s films had to understand and agree to work under. Only the complexities of Director’s Guild rules in Hollywood prevented Harryhausen from being credited as the director of his films, resulting in the more modest credits he had in most of his films.
Throughout most of his career, Harryhausen’s work was a sort of family affair. His father did the machining of the metal armatures (based on his son’s designs) that were the skeletons for the models and allowed them to keep their position, while his mother assisted with some miniature costumes. After Harryhausen’s father died in 1973, Harryhausen contracted his armature work out to another machinist. An occasional assistant, George Lofgren, a taxidermist, assisted Harryhausen with the creation of furred creatures. Another associate, Willis Cook, built some of Harryhausen’s miniature sets. Other than that, Harryhausen worked generally alone to produce almost all of the animation for his films. The same year that Beast was released, 1953, fledgling film producer Irwin Allen released a live action documentary about life in the oceans titled The Sea Around Us, which won an Oscar for best documentary feature film of that year. Allen’s and Harryhausen’s paths would cross three years later, on Allen’s sequel to this film.
Harryhausen soon met and began a fruitful partnership with producer Charles H. Schneer, who was working with the Sam Katzman B-picture unit of Columbia Pictures. Their first tandem project was It Came from Beneath the Sea (aka Monster from Beneath the Sea, 1955), about a giant octopus attacking San Francisco. It was a box-office success, quickly followed by Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), set in Washington D.C. – one of the best of the alien invasion films of the 1950s, and also a box office hit.
In 1954, Irwin Allen had started work on a second feature-length documentary film, this one about animal life on land called The Animal World (completed in 1956). Needing an opening sequence about dinosaurs, Allen hired premier model animator Willis O’Brien to animate the dinosaurs, but then gave him an impossibly short production schedule. O’Brien again hired Harryhausen to help with animation to complete the 8-minute sequence. It was Harryhausen’s and O’Brien’s first professional color work. Most viewers agree that the dinosaur sequence of Animal World was the best part of the entire movie. (Animal World is available on the DVD release of O’Brien’s 1957 film The Black Scorpion.
Harryhausen then returned to Columbia and Charles Schneer to make 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), about an American spaceship returning from Venus. The spaceship crashes into the ocean near Italy, releasing an on-board alien egg specimen which washes up on shore. The egg soon hatches a creature that, in Earth’s atmosphere, rapidly grows to gigantic size and terrifies Rome. Harryhausen refined and improved his already-considerable ability at establishing emotional characterizations in the face of his Venusian Ymir model, creating yet another international box-office hit film.
Schneer was eager to graduate to color films. Reluctant at first, Harryhausen managed to develop the systems necessary to maintain proper color balances for his DynaMation process, resulting in his biggest hit of the 1950s, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). The top grossing film of that summer, and one of the top grossing films of that year, Schneer and Harryhausen signed another deal with Columbia for four more color films.
After The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) and Mysterious Island (1961), both great artistic and technical successes, his next film is considered by film historians and fans as Harryhausen’s masterwork, Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Among the film’s several celebrated animation sequences is an extended fight between three actors and seven living skeletons, a considerable advance on the single-skeleton fight scene in Sinbad. This stop-motion sequence took over four months to complete.
Harryhausen next made First Men in the Moon (1964), his only film made in the 2.35:1 widescreen format, based on the novel by H. G. Wells. Gulliver, Mysterious Island, Jason, and First Men in the Moon were all box office disappointments at the time of their original theatrical release. That, plus changes of management at Columbia Pictures, resulted in his contract with Columbia Picture not being renewed. Also, as the 1960s counter-culture came to influence more and more and younger filmmakers, and failing studios struggled to find a new audience, Harryhausen’s love of the past, setting his stories in ancient fantasy worlds or previous centuries, kept him from keeping pace with changing tastes in the 1960s. Only a handful of Harryhausen’s features have been set in then-present time, and none in the future. As this revolution in the traditional Hollywood movie studio system, and the influx of a new generation of film makers sorted itself out, Harryhausen became a free agent.
Harryhausen was then hired by Hammer Film Productions to animate the dinosaurs for One Million Years B.C. (1966). It was a success at the box office, helped in part by the presence of Raquel Welch in her second film. Harryhausen next went on to make another dinosaur film, The Valley of Gwangi with Schneer. The project had been developed for Columbia, who declined. Schneer then made a deal with Warner Brothers instead. It was a personal project to Harryhausen, which he had wanted to do for many years, as it was story-boarded by his original mentor, Willis O’Brien for a 1939 film, Gwangi, that was never completed. The Valley of Gwangi is a parallel Kong story—cowboys capture a living Allosaurus and bring him to the nearest city for exhibition. Sabotage releases the creature, and it wreaks havoc on the town. The film features a roping scene reminiscent of 1949’s Mighty Joe Young (which was itself recycled from the old Gwangi storyboards).
After a few lean years, Harryhausen and Schneer, talked Columbia Pictures into reviving the Sinbad character, resulting in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, often remembered for the sword fight involving a statue of the six-armed goddess Kali. It was first released in Los Angeles in the Christmas season of 1973, but garnered its main audience in the spring and summer of 1974. It was followed by Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), which disappointed some fans because of its tongue-in-cheek approach. Both films were, however, box office successes.
Schneer and Harryhausen finally were allowed by MGM to produce a big budget film with name actors and an expanded effects budget. The film started out smaller but then MGM increased the budget to hire stars such as Laurence Olivier. It became the last feature film to showcase his effects work, Clash of the Titans (1981), for which he was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Special Effects. For this film, he hired protégé model animators Steve Archer and two-time Oscar-nominated Jim Danforth to assist with major animation sequences. Harryhausen fans will readily discern that the armed-and-finned kraken (a name borrowed from medieval Scandinavian folklore) he invented for Clash of the Titans has similar facial qualities to the Venusian Ymir he created twenty-five years earlier for 20 Million Miles to Earth.
Perhaps because of his hermetic production style and the fact that he produced half of his films outside of Hollywood (living in London since 1960), reducing his day-to-day kinship with other more traditional, but still influential Hollywood effects artists, none of Harryhausen’s films were nominated for a special effects Oscar. Harryhausen himself says the reason was that he worked in Europe. In spite of the relatively successful box office returns of Clash of the Titans, more sophisticated technology developed by ILM and others began to eclipse Harryhausen’s production techniques, and so MGM and other studios passed on funding his planned sequel, Force of the Trojans, causing Harryhausen and Schneer to retire from active filmmaking.
In the early 1970s, Harryhausen had also concentrated his efforts on authoring a book, Film Fantasy Scrapbook (produced in three editions as his last three films were released) and supervising the restoration and release of (eventually all) his films to video, laserdisc, DVD, and currently Blu-ray disc. A second book followed, An Animated Life, written with author and friend Tony Dalton which details his techniques and history. This was then followed in 2005 by The Art of Ray Harryhausen, featuring sketches and drawings for his many projects, some of them unrealized. In 2008 Harryhausen and Dalton published a history of stop-motion model animation, A Century of Model Animation and to celebrate Harryhausen’s 90th birthday The Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation published Ray Harryhausen – A Life in Pictures. In 2011 the last volume, called Ray Harryhausen’s Fantasy Scrapbook, was also published.
Harryhausen continued his lifelong friendship with Ray Bradbury until Bradbury’s death in 2012. Another long-time close friend was “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine editor, book writer, and sci-fi collector Forrest J Ackerman, who loaned Harryhausen his photos of King Kong in 1933, right after Harryhausen had seen the film for the first time. Harryhausen also maintained his friendships with his long-time producer, Charles H. Schneer, who lived next door to him in a suburb of London until Schneer moved full-time to the USA (a few years later, in early 2009, Schneer died at 88 in Boca Raton, Florida); and with model animation protégé, Jim Danforth, still living in the Los Angeles area.
Harryhausen and Terry Moore appeared in small comedic cameo roles in the 1998 remake of Mighty Joe Young, and he has also provided the voice of a polar bear cub in the Will Ferrell film Elf. He also appears as a bar patron in Beverly Hills Cop III, and as a doctor in the John Landis film Spies Like Us. In 2010, Harryhausen had a brief cameo in Burke & Hare, a British film also directed by Landis. In 1986 Harryhausen formed The Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation, a registered charity in the UK and US, which preserves all of his collection and promotes the art of stop-motion animation and Harryhausen’s contribution to the genre.
In 2002, young animators Seamus Walsh and Mark Caballero helped Harryhausen complete The Story of the Tortoise and the Hare. This was the sixth and final installment of the Harryhausen fairy tales. The film was started in 1952 and completed in 2002, 50 years later. Caballero and Walsh refurbished the original puppets and, under Harryhausen’s guidance, completed the film. The film went on to win the 2003 Annie award for best short film and gained world wide attention. Walsh and Caballero have since moved on to form their own stop motion company, Screen Novelties which is based in Los Angeles, California.
Ray Harryhausen lived in London, England. For his ninetieth birthday, he was given a special tribute at The BFI Southbank theater which was attended by all the top visual effects directors and technicians and was hosted by director John Landis. At this event he was presented by Peter Jackson with a special BAFTA award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. In 2009, he released colorized DVD versions of three of his classic black and white Columbia films: 20 Million Miles to Earth, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and It Came from Beneath the Sea, and of She (1935), in tribute to its producer Merian C. Cooper (who had supervised King Kong). In June 2010, it was announced that the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation had agreed to deposit the animator’s complete collection of some 50,000 pieces with the National Media Museum in Bradford, England.
Harryhausen had married Diana Livingstone Bruce in 1963, and they remained together until he died; the couple had a daughter, Vanessa. The family announced his death via Twitter and Facebook on May 7, 2013. The Daily Mirror quoted Harryhausen’s website, saying his “influence on today’s film makers was enormous, with luminaries; Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, George Lucas, John Landis and the UK’s own Nick Park have cited Harryhausen as being the man whose work inspired their own creations.” Harryhausen himself drew a distinction between films that combine special effects animation with live action, and films that are completely animated, such as the films of Nick Park, Henry Selick, Ivo Caprino, Ladislav Starevich and many others (including his own fairy tale shorts) which he sees as pure “puppet films”, and which are more accurately (and traditionally) called “puppet animation”.
The BBC quoted Peter Lord of Aardman Animations, saying he was “a one-man industry and a one-man genre” on Twitter. They quoted Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright: “I loved every single frame of Ray Harryhausen’s work … He was the man who made me believe in monsters.” In a full statement released by the family, George Lucas said, “Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars”. Terry Gilliam said, “What we do now digitally with computers, Ray did digitally long before but without computers. Only with his digits.” James Cameron also paid tribute by saying, “I think all of us who are practitioners in the arts of science fiction and fantasy movies now all feel that we’re standing on the shoulders of a giant. If not for Ray’s contribution to the collective dreamscape, we wouldn’t be who we are.”
- June, 29, 1920
- Los Angeles, California
- May, 07, 2013
- London, England