Ray Harryhausen and the Giants of Special Effects


Written by Georgie Hobbs
14 Sunday 14th August 2011

Ahead of the screenings, the BFI’s Justin Edgar conducted a discussion called 'Creature Features: Ray Harryhausen and the Giants of Special Effects' with Harryhausen’s friend, film historian Tony Dalton, Oscar-nominated stop-motion animator Barry Purvesand director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent). All men are serious admirers of the 91-year-old whose mythic hand-built, hand-cooked clay figures changed special effects forever. Harryhausen’s final film was the classic Clash of The Titans – remade with 3D CGI monsters and Sam Worthington as Perseus last year. Harryhausen has never seen the Warner Bros remake, and the jury’s out as to whether he’ll go see next year’s Clash of The Titans 2

Harryhausen always calls his creations “creatures”, not monsters. What’s the difference?

Tony Dalton: I live on the Isle of White so I think of a monster as Great White shark – that’s far more terrifying. Ray would say Frankenstein is a monster…

Barry Purves: …monsters are eating machines! Monsters have often been produced via science or society whereas creatures are people gone wrong. They are twisted version of humans; our dark side. Do monsters have personalities like creatures do? I think they are more interesting when they have flaws, as Ray’s creatures do.

T: Ray’s always very careful not to say that his films are horror films, that they are fantasy films. We’re doing a new book on his work at the moment and we are trying to convince the publisher not to use a horror font on the cover! He has done 16 films and none of them are horror. Ray will call his creations, “misunderstood creatures”. None of them had a say in what they do – Medusa was a victim of a jealous God, King Kong was brought to New York against his will etc.

What other creatures/monsters are worth drawing attention to?

Barry Purves: As an animator, I’m obsessed with the transformation of the human body and of beautiful woman transformed into creatures. Think of Freaks,where the ‘normal’ female circus performer is turned into a bird-woman as punishment for marrying the dwarf for his money while cheating on him with the muscle man. It raises the question of who the real monster is. I also love the sexiest monster you’ll ever see – the Bride of Frankenstein. I’m fascinated by things coming to life and so I curse James Whale for only putting her in the film for five minutes! She’s brought to life, meets Frankenstein and of course he scares her off. Her legacy – seen as far as Marge Simpson – is in the simplicity of her image. Such a classic.

T: I love her hairstyle. Ray has said she influenced him tremendously. If you look at his figurehead in The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad  and at his Medusa you can see it. Personally, the thing I like about monster features is the anticipation before the creature appears. I like the scene in RKO Radio Picture’s The Thing From Another World before it busts their lock-up open. If you just watch that flashing light on the table… the monster isn’t as exciting as the build-up. The best directors really know how to play with anticipation in these kind of movies, you see it the Alien movies and in Neil Marshall’s films.

Directors like Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, John Lassester, John Landis have all cited Ray as being a massive influence on their career - why is that?

T: Because Ray really showed the creatures and that hadn’t been done before! He saw RKO’s Son of Sinbad in 1955 and saw the actors talk about the Cyclops but never show it. It made Ray think ‘I want to show it’. Anything that was out his this world, Ray wanted to show it on screen. And his creatures have believability because they move in a certain way. I love his Cyclops; the arms move back in a way that impressed a lot of people then and still does today. He was consistently original; once he’d conquered one thing he would try and do something differently next time.

B: There’s always a thought process to his creatures. Take King Kong; Kong’s just snapped the jaws off a T Rex but then he makes sure to have a look and check if he’s dead. You think – he’s a massive gorilla and he has a moment of doubt?! It gave King Kong some humanity.

T: Also it’s worth pointing out that Ray was a one-man band. If you look at the special effects credits at the end of a movie today, it’s hundreds of names, whereas Ray modeled everything in great detail alone, even cooking his the models in his own kitchen.

B: And he had no point of reference as to what it would look like on screen because there was no video assist. These days animators make a move, check back, make a move, check it etc.

T: He’d often have to wait 48 hours before he’d see what he’s done, he’d send the film off to the labs and just wait thinking ‘hopefully it’ll be all right!’

B: In a way, Ray’s movies are structured like musicals in that there’s little dialogue and then, instead of a big a song, there’s a big creature.

T: Hah! Well, Ray does like musicals!

B: Can he sing? Either way there should be Harryhausen: The Musical. I’ll write it!

Neil, tell us how you decided on the design of your own monsters.

Neil Marshall: I remember just after he’d made Alien, Ridley Scott said “if you can shoot it for real, shoot it for real.’ He meant that tangible things translate better to the screen. In a lot of CGI today you’ve got 50 – 100 people working, and I think the humanity gets dissipated in the process. When I made Dog Soldiers, I had a tiny budget and was determined that I wasn’t going to do CGI werewolves. I wanted “practical” werewolves but I had neither the time nor budget to show the transformation from man to werewolf on screen. Rather than use a ropey CGI morph in there, which is what it would have been, I went down the Carry On Screaming! route, lots of hiding behind the sofa! It meant I did the transformation beneath the table so you don’t see it. I wanted to keep the dog soldiers real so I hired dancers and put them on stilts. I wanted them to both graceful and ‘too big’ so I designed them not to be able fit into the set, they had to stoop over everything.  When I made The Descent I hid the creatures from the female actors entirely. They never saw the designs or the actors playing the creatures. When we filmed the scene, I turned off the lights on set and when I said “action” the girls were so terrified. They screamed and literally ran off the set.

B: And I thought Hitchcock was mean to his actresses!

What are your favourite monsters and movies with monsters in?

N: I would choose John Carpenter’s The Thing. Anyone interested in monsters has to put this in their top ten. Nobody has come close since. At the time it was so shocking that audiences turned away in disgust. Now it’s par for the course and we can’t get enough of it.

B: To see our bodies corrupted and perverted is so unsettling. Our body is so sacrosanct; it’s our worst fear to see our head turned into a spider!

N: I like to imagine Carpenter pitching it to the studio: “first his stomach explodes, then his head pops off and his tongue latches onto the furniture, then spider legs pop out of his eyes and he starts scuttling around the room…”

T: I like the giant crab in Mysterious Island and love the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Yes, I can see all the strings, every last one, but I still love it. My old friend Bill Nighy and I used to act out the scene with the giant squid! I doubt he remembers it now but I certainly do. I also love Aliens, again for the anticipation. I love the scene where Sigourney Weaver is trying to rescue Newt. You see the little girl very briefly but it's the build up to the girl trapped in the water and then, after, you see her doll's head float by...

B: Like shadows, water is terrifying isn’t it? We know something lurks within. Personally, for sheer technical bravado I choose Talos in Jason and The Argonauts but for sheer absurdity I choose the Penisosaurs in Flash Gordon. It’s a significant film but please don’t watch it. It’s a terrible film. 

Rise of the Planet of The Apes is out and I’ve heard the CGI and motion capture apes out act the actors… What is the future of animation?

T: CGI can be wonderful but sometimes it looks ‘too real’, it’s not fantastic enough. I think CGI is great for tidal waves and buildings collapsing whereas stop-motion can’t do that. Ray tried and he couldn’t do it.

B: Ray was not scared of showing us that what was on screen was real and had been physically made. Back when there was no CGI, stop-motion had to fulfill all the roles required of fantasy. Now CGI is nowtaking the burden off stop-motion to just let it be. Animation has been liberated! It is always going to look artificial so why not let puppets be puppets as has been done to great effect in Fantastic Mr Fox and the play War Horse.

N: I see flaws in Harryhausen films and it’s not Ray’s fault, the fault lies with the compositors. If you want fluid movement but an unreal quality, go for CGI and if you want real but your model to look a bit stiff, go for stop-motion.

B: I agree, Neil. Shall we make a film together?

Film4 Summer Screen ran from July 27 – 7 August 2011.

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  • Guest: pande_press
    Mon 15 - Aug - 2011, 22:31
    It's not unusual for Tony Dalton to claim that Ray Harryhausen did everything himself in ALL of his films. Mr. Dalton's penchant for erroneous information is the reason all three of his Harryhausen books are filled with errors of all types---release dates, cast and crew mispellings, etc. Ray always had people helping him on all of his films, but he tended to do all of the anmation himself. However, with the 1981 "Clash of the Titans" he had the able assistance of both Jim Danforth and Steve Archer. This might have been a nice thing to mention, particularly since the introductory paragraph mentions the remake of "Clash of the Titans."