Some of cinema's most iconic monsters, ferocious dinosaurs, and sword-wielding skeletons would never have gotten a chance to scare and delight audiences had the legendary stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen not been born, 100 years ago today. Harryhausen, born on June 29, 1920, brought incredible special effects to life in films like Jason and the Argonauts, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. His creations have entertained audiences time and time again, and inspired generations of viewers to create fantastic worlds, creatures, and films of their own.
George Lucas, one of the many artists Harryhausen influenced, has said: “The worlds of my own movies could not have been possible without the precedent he had set with his imaginative effects and the fantasies they conjured.”
Lucas isn’t the only major talent Harryhausen influenced. “Dennis Murren, Phil Tippett, all those people in the world of special effects look upon Ray as their inspiration,” film historian Bruce Crawford tells SYFY WIRE. “They grew up watching his films and are recreating Ray’s magic for audiences today.”
Crawford, whom we interviewed about Harryhausen last year, was a personal friend of the legendary animator. SYFY WIRE speaks to him again about how Harryhausen has influenced well-known films and franchises.
Crawford: When they made the first Jurassic Park (1993), originally the full-body shots of the dinosaurs were to be realized through a form of stop-motion animation called go-motion, to be done by Phil Tippett. And even though they ended up using CGI instead, Tippett stayed on as one of the lead technicians, and many people on the crew, including Dennis Murren at Industrial Light & Magic — not to mention director Steven Spielberg — are huge admirers of Ray’s. Many of them cite movies like One Million Years B.C. (1966) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969) as the most inspirational dinosaur films ever made. That shows in the film. For example, the scene where the T. rex attacks the Gallimimus was modeled specifically after a key moment in The Valley of Gwangi.
Also, remember when the T. rex eats the lawyer? Well, the lawyer survived in the book. But in the movie, the T. rex bites him from the head down and lifts him up in his mouth — very much like that scene in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), where the Rhedosaurus is rampaging around the city and snatches up a police officer. It’s one of the most iconic scenes in monster movie history, and Ray recognized that moment in Jurassic Park as an homage to his work. He was really touched by that.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Crawford: In the second film of this series, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), there’s the scene with the Kraken, which can also be read as an homage to Ray. Clash of the Titans (1981) was instrumental in making the name “Kraken” well-known among ordinary moviegoers, and it definitely helped popularize the idea of a sea monster which can be awakened to do the bidding of its master, if you will. So while the Kraken in the second Pirates film doesn’t look like Ray’s Kraken from Clash of the Titans, it serves a somewhat similar function in the story, as the villain unleashes it to attack the heroes. Also, one cannot help but look at shots of tentacles wrapping around the ship and lashing at people and not think a little bit of the giant octopus scenes in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955).
The Lord of the Rings
Crawford: Peter Jackson was a good friend of Ray’s, and the Lord of the Rings films are loaded with references to his work.
In the first film, when the main characters are going downriver and they see those giant sculptures of rock — they look like Talos from Jason and the Argonauts (1963)! Also, the fight with the cave troll — Jackson specifically modeled that scene after fight scenes in Ray’s pictures, with the characters throwing rocks and spears at the monster, hiding behind obstacles. Even the look of the films — the art direction, the production design, the epic nature — have that look of Ray’s biggest fantasy films.
I should also mention that Randy William Cook, one of the head special effects people on the trilogy, had previously been a stop-motion animator — also inspired by Ray.
Crawford: George Lucas wrote the foreword for a book called Ray Harryhausen: A Life in Pictures, in which he said: “Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars. Ray didn’t work on the films, but his influence is felt in every frame.” He recalls how there wasn’t much to do in his hometown of Modesto, California, when he was growing up, and he credits Ray for helping him develop his love for the fantastic. “It’s Ray who gave us the visual language to truly experience things beyond our empirical knowing, to pull back the curtain on imagination itself and make real the stuff of dreams.”
Needless to say, the special effects guys who created all the creatures and machines in the original trilogy were huge Harryhausen fans as well. In that same foreword, Lucas says, “They were burgeoning artists seeking a master, and they found Ray. [...] These young artists were hungry to show what they’d learned by his example, and Star Wars was the result.”
The original Star Wars trilogy also has a number of stop-motion effects for full-body shots of creatures, such as the Tauntauns and mechanical Walkers from The Empire Strikes Back (1980).
Crawford: The first Godzilla movie was inspired by the success of Ray’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and both films are about giant prehistoric reptiles awakened by atomic explosions.
However, Ray didn’t have many positive things to say about Godzilla. With rare exception did he ever approve of monsters played by men in suits. He was occasionally forgiving when it was used for a man-like creature. But something like a dinosaur, with a tail and an anatomy totally unlike that of a person? He didn’t think it was appropriate, and he’d devoted his career to trying to get away from that. It was his personal taste, his acumen. He could never get behind the technique they ended up using.
That’s what Ray would say when he did go into detail about men in suits. But more often than not — and I’ll quote him directly here — when people asked for his thoughts on Godzilla, he would just politely comment: “I have nothing to say.”