Vintage creature storytelling at its best: Ray Harryhausen

October is the month made for ‘creature features’, and one of my favourites is Jason and the Argonauts (1963). The story is a classic from the mythology of ancient Greece. It’s a grand heroic tale full of adventure, love and betrayal.

Jason was the son of Aeson, the rightful king of Iolkos, as well as the great-grandson of the messenger god Hermes, through his mother’s side, so perfectly endowed to try to reclaim his throne and overthrow the evil usurper, Pelias.

Pelias, Jason’s uncle shared the same mother as Aeson, but was fathered by the sea god Poseidon. Power-hungry, he overthrew Aeson and attempted to kill all of his half-brother’s descendants. However, Aeson’s wife Alcimede had a newborn son named Jason, and was able to save him from Pelias by having her female attendants surround the baby, wailing as if he were stillborn. Then Alcimede sent Jason away to be reared by the centaur Chiron to keep him safe and out of sight.

Pelias, still fearing that his unlawful kingship might be challenged one day, consulted an oracle, who warned him to beware of a man wearing only one sandal. Many years later, when Jason had grown into a man, Pelias hosted games in honor of Poseidon. Jason arrived in Iolkos, half-shod, (he lost one of his sandals in the river while helping an old woman, who was actually the goddess Hera in disguise, to cross). She blessed him, knowing what Pelias had planned.

The ancient Greeks’ lives were heavily entwined with the games and machinations of their gods, who seemed to have nothing better to do than interfere in the destinies of their subjects. One thing that did accomplish was great stories that continue to inspire storytellers and Hollywood to this day.

Anyway, when Jason entered Iolkos, he was announced as a man wearing only one sandal, and claimed his throne, to which Pelias replied, “To take my throne, which you shall, you must go on a quest to find the Golden Fleece.” Not sure why, but instead of defying Pelias on the spot, Jason accepted the challenge, perhaps to bolster his own claim through a show of courage and daring. Of course, he then gathered a ship and crew and embarked on the voyage that made him one of the most famous characters in Greek lore. Pelias, of course, was hoping that Jason would perish on the voyage and be out his hair forever.

The ship was called the Argo, and his crew of heroes were called the Argonauts. It was quite a cast of sailors, including Heracles (better known by his Roman name, Hercules); Castor and Polydeuces (aka Castor and Pollux, twin half-brothers, one of whom was the son of Zeus); the winged sons of Boreas, the North Wind; and even a female hero, Atalanta, cast out and exposed to the elements by her father, who’d wanted a son (a common practice in those days), but who was raised by a she-bear and became a fleet and strong warrior.

En route to Colchis, the land of the magical Golden Fleece, Jason and the Argonauts had to brave many adventures, and their work didn’t end when they finally arrived. The king of Colchis, Aeetes, naturally, was reluctant to part with one of his great treasures, but his daughter, Medea, a sorceress, fell in love with Jason and helped him, although after their successful escape with the Fleece, he betrayed her with other women (after which she exacted a terrible revenge). Later in life, Jason also ended up pissing off his powerful patron goddess, Hera, and died when his own ship fell on him. Such a tangled web of alliances made and broken, not all of which made it into the brilliant movie created in 1963.

The story of Jason and the Argonauts was so popular in ancient times that there were many variations on it. Hollywood chose a simple version that made a great script, and then brought on the fantastic animator, Ray Harryhausen, to produce the special effects.

Storytelling is a great gift of humanity, used from the dawn of language to pass along information, and then to entertain as well. Our brains are hard-wired to engage in a narrative – think of listening to someone’ funny story, or a sad one. These tale resonate with us because we can see ourselves in them, in the real-life foibles.

Telling a fantasy or science-fiction story, or a piece of lore/mythology, is harder to get across because as listeners/readers we have no direct reference to the monsters or alien places. The storyteller’s job, then, is to make these narratives relatable through emotion, or describing an unusual setting in such a way that we can picture it for ourselves.

The early radio plays had the art mastered, using “Foley artists”, named after sound-effects artist Jack Foley, a pioneer in the creation and use of sound effects to help listeners visualize what they were hearing over the radio.

With the advent of moving pictures, film producers had to invent special effects to be able to do the same thing for viewers – after all, the dastardly villains didn’t actually get killed off during the course of the movie, although sadly many animals were harmed.

To bring ancient and more modern stories to the big screen, exceptional techniques had to be developed, all without the use of computers. Actual models had to be constructed in miniature, and positioned many times to film them as if they were really moving.

Watching these movies, I’m always so impressed with how well the creatures work. As mind-blowing as a lot of the CGI effects are today, allowing producers to take us to impossible worlds, they just don’t have the ‘presence’ of an actual figurine or setting. The best movie producers still combine as much reality as possible into their films.

The Rhedosaurus attacks a lighthouse in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
By Warner Bros. – Trailer for the film, Public Domain,

Ray Harryhausen was one of the greatest special effects producers of all time. His work influenced some of the most famous producers today, including Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, James Cameron, Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson.

Ray grew up in Los Angeles, and developed a love for both dinosaurs and fantasy stories at an early age, both of which influenced his later career as a pioneering effects artist. His parents encouraged his interests in films and in models, and he was inspired by the cinematic effects in such movies as The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933). He began experimenting with puppets and stop-motion animation, and started making short films in his parents’ garage.

After high school he met noted animator Willis O’Brien, who encouraged him to refine his skills. Harryhausen enrolled in both art and anatomy courses at Los Angeles City College, and later in film courses at the University of Southern California. He began developing the technique that made him a household name in the film industry: “Dynamation”, which made it appear that actors on film were interacting with life-sized monsters that were actually animated models.

So what is Dynamation exactly? If you’re a fan of mid-20th century sci-fi and fantasy movies, you’ve seen it in action, and it’s remarkably effective. The process is painstaking.

Creatures were constructed in miniature, with posable limbs and bodies, then brought to life through a technique called ‘stop-motion animation’. Typically, the miniature model of the creature was placed in a miniature set and photographed by a motion picture camera one frame at a time. For each frame, the pose of the model was changed slightly, so that when the film was played rapidly through a projector, it would appear as if the creature was moving by itself.

However, the technique had its weaknesses, as the miniature sets were expensive to construct and it was challenging to combine live action in the same frame as the slowly-posed creatures. But Ray Harryhausen came up with a better technique while working on a low-budget film called The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

He used a split screen, with rear projection. Split screen involved masking part of the camera lens to film one sequence, then changed the mask to the other part of the lens, rewound the film inside the camera, and filmed the complementary sequence. The technique was used for decades, particularly when the same performer played twins, as in the Patty Duke series and the Disney movie The Parent Trap.

For Dynamation, first the background image was filmed in actual space, such as a city street, with live actors doing something like running down the street away from a monster. The movie camera was locked into place to keep it from moving position.

The background film was then developed and loaded into a projector back at the studio, where the first frame was then projected from the rear onto a back projection screen made of a thin sheet of plastic, with the image appearing on the front of the screen. Another movie camera was then locked into position in front of the screen to rephotograph the film clip as it was projected onto the screen, to capture the new action.

A piece of glass was then placed between the camera and the screen, painted with black paint to block out portions of the image on the screen that were to be in front of the monster (the foreground) when seen by the camera. In our example this would be the bottom of the screen and the building from behind which the dinosaur emerges.

The miniature monster model was set up between the glass and the screen on a table, along with any props that the monster might interact with during the scene, like stomping on a car. The model had to be carefully positioned so that it matched size and position with the image on the screen as seen through the camera.

The film in the projector was then advanced one frame at a time, changing the model’s pose in each frame to simulate what it was doing (probably rampaging through the city). After the entire scene had been filmed both the projector and the camera were rewound back to the beginning, the sheet of glass was replaced by a new one painted differently in black to reshoot the foreground image that had been blacked out before.  

Models for the Allosaur in One Million Years B.C. (1966) and Talos from Jason and the Argonauts (1963) at the National Media Museum
By Chemical Engineer – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

While that all sounds infuriatingly detailed and time-consuming, Dynamation did allow Harryhausen to avoid making a lot of expensive miniature sets, and also show close interaction between the human actors and the animated creature(s). He could synchronize the movements of the models with the previously-filmed action because the model was animated directly in front of the screen showing the human actors. This technique was used brilliantly in Jason and the Argonauts in the famous sword fight between the Argonauts and skeletons raised from the teeth of the Hydra by King Aeetes. Harryhausen made the fight even better, anticipating our modern ‘motion capture’ suits (such as the one used to film actor Andy Serkis’ physical portrayal of the creature Gollum in The Lord of the Rings) by using real stuntmen as doubles for the skeletal figures, which were later inserted into the scene.

Dynamation did have its own drawbacks, such as matching the different filmed sequences for lighting and colour, but it ushered special effect into a new era that lasted until CGI was invented.

In 1940 Harryhausen landed his first animating job, working for producer George Pal on a number of “Puppetoons”, which were short films that animated puppets by using a type of stop-motion photography. During a stint in the U.S. Army, he worked with director Frank Capra on propaganda films for the war effort. After being discharged, he created a series of short nursery-rhyme-based films for schools, but was  soon contacted by Willis O’Brien to help on Mighty Joe Young (1949), which featured an enormous ape. That film received an Academy Award for special effects. Harryhausen became the go-to animator for many movies during the course of his lengthy career, and a legend in the industry. He was well known for the Sinbad series of movies, and also created the special effects for the star-studded Clash of the Titans (1981).

In Harryhausen’s earliest films, the effects shots were created with careful frame-by-frame control of the lighting of both the set and the projector, dramatically reducing much of the degradation common in the use of back-projection at the time.  

He also used diffused glass to soften the sharpness of light on the animated elements, allowed better matching of the soft background plates.

Jason and the Argonauts is now considered a classic. Harryhausen regarded the film as his best, as do fans and film historians.

Among the film’s several celebrated animation sequences, the extended fight between three actors and seven living skeletons took over four months to complete, illustrating Harryhausen’s dedication to the art of storytelling.

Fighting Off The Children Of The Hydra’s Teeth | Jason and the Argonauts | Creature Features

Incredibly, none of Harryhausen’s films were nominated for a special effects Oscar. He claimed it was because he worked in Europe, producing half of his films outside of Hollywood while he was living in London, but this oversight by the AMPAS visual-effects committee continued when Harryhausen lived in Los Angeles.

At the Academy Awards in 1992, actor Tom Hanks, in honoring Ray with a lifetime-achievement award, said, “Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane. I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made”. In 2008, the American Film Institute nominated the film for its Top 10 Fantasy Films list, and in 2004 Empire magazine ranked Talos, the gigantic metal statue protecting the Isle of Bronze that chased Jason and his crew after Hercules stole an artifact, as the second-best film monster of all time, after King Kong.

A few years later, when Harryhausen began working with color film to make The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, he experimented extensively with color film stocks to solve the color-balance problems.

Directors of Ray’s films had to agree to give him control of the conceptualizing of each film’s story, the script development, and the art-direction, design, and storyboards. His father machined the metal armatures of the creatures, while his mother helped make miniature costumes.

It was Ray’s producer/partner Charles H. Schneer who actually coined the word Dynamation as a merchandising term.

Harryhausen authored several books, beginning with Film Fantasy Scrapbook, followed by Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, then The Art of Ray Harryhausen, featuring sketches and drawings for his many projects. In 2008, A history of stop-motion model animation, A Century of Model Animation, was produced, and to celebrate his 90th birthday, the Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation published Ray Harryhausen – A Life in Pictures.

Harryhausen even had fun as an actor, including small comedic cameos in the 1998 remake of Mighty Joe Young, and the voice of a polar bear cub in the film Elf. He also appeared as a bar patron in Beverly Hills Cop III, and as a doctor in the John Landis film Spies Like Us.

In 1986, Harryhausen formed the Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation, a registered charity in the U.K. and U.S. that preserves his collection and contributions to the genre.

His influence on later producers and directors was profound. George Lucas said, “Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars“. According to James Cameron, “… 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.” Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright stated, “I loved every single frame of Ray Harryhausen’s work … He was the man who made me believe in monsters.”

Harryhausen perhaps expressed the concept of storytelling best when he said, “If you try and make a fantasy too real, you bring it down to a mundane level. I never felt that was the final aim, to make everything too real in a fantasy film. It’s a dream.” I feel that’s where a lot of modern fantasy and sci-fi movies fail: the overwhelming urge to put too much realism into them, instead of including just enough to fire the imaginations of the viewers, just like the venerable radio broadcasts accomplished so well.

If you’ve never watched Jason and the Argonauts, you’re in for a real treat. It’s a first-class adventure movie, visually spectacular and so much fun to view. Then watch the 1995 series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys episode “Once a Hero” (season 2, episode 14), wherein Hercules, Iolaus and other former Argonauts help their former leader Jason, who’s lost his kingdom after leaving Medea for another woman and seeing his new family murdered. The Golden Fleece has also been stolen, and the heroes band together once more to bring it back on the Argo. In a delightful tribute to the movie, the goddess Hera, who hates Hercules, sends skeleton warriors to destroy them.

You can never have too many great skeleton fights, can you? Hope you enjoyed this retrospective, and some of Ray Harryhausen’s terrific special effects, just in time for a Halloween movie night perhaps.

The Hydra battle sequence in Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
By Columbia Pictures – Trailer for the film, Public Domain,

2 thoughts on “Vintage creature storytelling at its best: Ray Harryhausen”

  1. Charmaine Grace

    Memories: When I was preteen and into early teens we went to the “show” on Saturdays to watch movies like Jason and the Argonauts and Sinbad and the seven sees. I remember the skeleton fight. Thank you for this interesting background.

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