Decades before Jurassic Park revolutionised the art of visual effects, the late, great Ray Harryhausen was enchanting cinema audiences with a menagerie of stop-motion animated fantastical creatures. His 33-year career spanning 16 films delivered some of the greatest special effects creations in cinema history, including the celebrated and influential skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts (1963).
Seven of his classic films have now been assembled for the Ray Harryhausen Ultimate Collection, together with a wealth of bonus content that provides a fascinating insight into Harryhausen’s genius and the art of stop-motion animation.
THE VOYAGES OF SINBAD
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1957) sees the titular sailor journey to the island of Colossa to retrieve a roc’s egg, which will break a spell cast on his beloved Princess Parisa by a sorcerer. The first stop motion feature shot in colour provided a veritable showcase for Harryhausen’s fantastic creations – a Cyclops, roc, dragon and animated skeleton – and also introduced the term ‘Dynamation’ (dynamic animation) to distinguish his process from traditional ‘cartoon’ animation. Harryhausen constructed the Cyclops model using the skeletal armature of his Ymir monster from 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), which he originally conceived as a Cyclops!
The best and most iconic of Harryhausen’s Sinbad trilogy is The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), which sends the intrepid adventurer in search of three golden tablets that will reveal the location of the fabled Fountain of Destiny. Harryhausen highlights include a battle between a griffin and one-eyed centaur, and a show-stopping sword fight with an animated statue of the six-armed Hindu goddess Kali. Look out, too, for Tom Baker as the sorcerer Koura – a performance that was instrumental in him landing the role of Doctor Who in 1974.
Sinbad sets sail for another lost island to reverse a witch’s spell in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), the most expensive of the three films. The ambitious stop motion FX took Harryhausen 18 months to complete and include a sabre-tooth tiger, a troglodyte, a giant walrus and the mechanical Minoton – the latter played by Peter Mayhew (aka Chewbacca) in the live-action sequences. Released the same year that Star Wars revolutionised visual effects, Eye of the Tiger would be the penultimate film to feature Harryhausen’s marvellous animation – the final being Clash of the Titans (1981).
FROM BENEATH THE SEA AND OUTER SPACE
Having created The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in 1953, Harryhausen unleashed another monster from the deep two years later in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) – a giant radioactive octopus that inflicts some major damage on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Working with a low budget, Harryhausen built the octopus with only six tentacles – which he called “a sixtopus” – and purchased a model ship for the sinking sequence from a variety store.
Harryhausen revealed that he had visited a ufologist (that’s a UFO expert) to consult on spacecraft designs for the alien invasion flick Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). As well as animating the distinctive saucers, he also orchestrated the destruction they wreak – notably the climactic attack on Washington, D.C., which Harryhausen fan Tim Burton would later recreate in his 1996 film Mars Attacks!.
THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960)
Based on Jonathan Swift’s classic 1726 novel, castaway Lemuel Gulliver’s adventures on the islands of Lilliput and Brobdingnag were largely achieved using forced perspective, oversized sets and foreground miniatures. Harryhausen contributed a stop motion giant squirrel and crocodile, and his patented Dynamation process was upgraded to ‘Super-Dynamation’ to sell this visually ambitious adventure to audiences.
CHILDREN OF THE HYDRA’S TEETH
Alongside Kong’s dramatic final battle atop the Empire State Building in the 1933 classic King Kong, the skeleton fight at the conclusion of Jason and the Argonauts (1963) is the most famous stop-motion animation sequence in the history of cinema.
Harryhausen – a student of Willis O’Brien, the animator who brought Kong to life – had already built and animated a skeleton in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, but in Jason and the Argonauts he wanted seven to feature in the memorable climax.
In the scene, King Aeétes confronts Jason and two of his Argonauts after they have just killed the monstrous seven-headed Hydra. Scattering the teeth of the slain beast on the ground, Aeétes summons an army of skeletons that rise from the earth: “Kill, kill, kill them all!” he bellows. What follows is a desperate fight to the death between the reanimated bones and Jason and his men, set to a compelling score from Bernard Herrmann.
To achieve the effect, Harryhausen enlisted the help of sword master Fernando Poggi (who also plays one of the two Argonauts). Poggi worked with the animation master to choreograph the fight, using stuntmen wearing numbered sweatshirts as a guide in place of the skeletons. Once the sequence was thoroughly rehearsed, it was shot sans stuntmen; the three men fighting their imaginary opponents using a handclap beat to determine the length of the scene.
Harryhausen constructed a further six skeletons to join the one he had previously created and began animating the 10-inch models against the back projection plate of the live-action fight. It was painstaking work for the animator, who on some days would only harvest a second’s worth of film after a full day’s work. The sequence in the film runs for just over four minutes, yet the animation took Harryhausen four and a half months to complete.
Despite the challenges, Harryhausen declared the skeleton fight as one of his favourites. His only regret was that he didn’t film the battle at night for additional effect and atmosphere, fearing the censorship board would deem it too frightening for children.