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Ray Harryhausen Medusa Detail

They say there’s an exception to every rule. Normally, I would balk at this a little bit. But when it comes to my extreme dislike (okay, my sheer terror) of stop-motion animation, surprisingly, this is all too true.

My completely rational fear of stop-motion/Claymation all stems from one fateful Christmas time viewing of “The Little Drummer Boy” in grade 2. Seriously, the kid’s father gets knifed (er, sworded?) right in front of him. And ME. So while the rest of the class was all “Aww, he’s playing his drum for Jesus!”, I was sitting in the corner, crying and traumatized for the rest of my life. I’m 28 years old, and if you handed me $100 to watch that now? I’d emphatically decline your offer. You sick sadist.

But in that dark, disturbing world of creepy clay models, moving literally one frame at a time, lies something truly incredible. Something that I can’t help but like. And his name was Ray Harryhausen.

Harryhausen was a true pioneer. A legend in the realm of animation, his scale model creatures breathed life into a pre-CGI film world. Perhaps his most recognizable work (and my personal favourite) is the skeleton army from “Jason and Argonauts”.

Ray Harryhausen Skeleton Army

Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton army from “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963)

Omigosh, they’re so cool.

Ray Harryhausen skeleton army concept art

Ray Harryhausen skeleton army concept art

This was 1963, long before realistic-to-the-point-of-being-unrealistic computer-generated monsters were a dime a dozen. I read that Harryhausen never liked referring to his models as “monsters”, and when you consider how remarkable those little creations of his were, the time and effort to build them, and then the tedious task of bringing them to life on film? I would have to agree that a generic, run-of-the-mill term like “monster” is simply not adequate for describing Harryhausen’s work. Each model is a masterpiece.

Ray Harryhausen and some of his creatures

Ray Harryhausen and some of his creatures

Take for example this stunning life-size sculpture of Ray’s Medusa from “Clash of the Titans” (1981).

Medusa Ray2

It’s scary and oh, isn’t it just terribly cool? Every scale has been painstakingly sculpted. From her sharp teeth to her glowing eyes, she may not be a beauty, but this Medusa is simply stunning.

Ray Harryhausen with Medusa's severed head

Ray Harryhausen with Medusa head

But Ray’s Medusa wasn’t exactly conventional: “Some of the early films, [featuring a Medusa character] they just took an actress and put rubber snakes in her hair, which looked rather artificial. When she walked, they just all bounced in unison, and I didn’t want that. So I had to redesign her so that she had a serpentine body. But every statue I’d seen, she was just a woman with a pretty face, and had snakes in her hair. Well, that wasn’t very dramatic, so I gave her a rather demonic look. We gave her a rattlesnake’s tail so that she could be a menace from the sound effect point of view. It was a shock to see her come out from behind the wall crawling on her hands because that was the only way she could propel herself.”

Ray Harryhausen Medusa concept art

Ray Harryhausen Medusa concept art

Ray Harryhausen original Medusa model, on display at the RH Exhibit held at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, California in 2010

Ray Harryhausen’s original Medusa model, on display at the RH Exhibit held at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, California in May 2010

She’s just incredible. I mean, for goodness sake, if you watch the scene, her eyes actually move back and forth in their sockets! Harryhausen credits sculptor Janet Stevens with modeling his design for Medusa. “Janet did a marvelous serpentine texture and scales on Medusa. She manufactured this bald-headed lady with a serpentine body which we made a mold of, and then cast it in rubber over an armature made of metal that would be flexible and movable.”

As an artist, I just stand in awe of the talent involved in creating such a thing.

Ray Harryhausen Medusa2

Harryhausen is the creator of what he and producer Charles H. Schneer dubbed “Dynamation”. Schneer described it as “a photographic process which combines a live background, in colour, with a three-dimensional animated figure in combination with flesh and bone actors.”

Ray Harryhausen Dynamation

Don’t ask me to explain all the technical aspects of Dynamation. Here’s a little illustration I found that will probably make more sense than I would!

And the results are actually quite remarkable. This cost-effective procedure allowed Harryhausen’s model figures to seamlessly interact with the live actors in the film.

From "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" (1973) Koura (Tom Baker) with Harryhausen's Homonicus

From “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” (1973): Koura (Tom Baker of “Doctor Who” fame) with Harryhausen’s Homunculus

Our first taste of Dynamation was in 1958’s “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”. The opening credits boast: “In Dynamation, the new miracle of the screen.”

Harryhausen’s portfolio contains a plethora of mythical creatures. In “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”, you’ll find a Cyclops, serpent woman, a mythical two-headed bird of prey called a “roc” along with its hatchling, a dragon, and a sword-swinging skeleton — a definite precursor to the more famous skeletons we’ll see in “Jason and the Argonauts” a few years later.

Ray Harryhausen's Cyclops from "The 7th Adventure of Sinbad" (1958)

Ray Harryhausen’s Cyclops from “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958)

I always preferred the past rather than the future. I think that’s more romantic. The future is mostly silver rocket ships and explosions, each character trying to blow the other out of the universe, and it never appealed to me that much. The past appealed to me much more.

Now, everyone knows how much I enjoy horror movies, but I am a complete and utter sucker for this type of science fiction/fantasy/adventure film. I absolutely adore them. They’re simple and fun and just damn good entertainment.

And to tell the truth, you can get some pretty good scares from some of these Harryhausen creations. When the figurehead breaks free of the ship’s bow and then proceeds to strangle one of the sailors before throwing him overboard in “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” (1974), it’s actually very frightening!

Ray Harryhausen's figurehead comes to life in "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" (1974)

Ray Harryhausen’s figurehead comes to life in “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” (1974)

Or the six-sword wielding statue of Kali who takes Sinbad head-on in a fight to the death.

The statue of Kali comes to life and (literally) takes up arms against Sinbad in "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" (1974)

The statue of Kali comes to life and (literally) takes up arms against Sinbad in “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” (1974)

There’s something deliciously endearing about this slightly jerky, somewhat primitive-looking type of animation. Though again I stress that this applies only to Ray Harryhausen’s dynamic work. I truly don’t feel this way about other stop-motion-type productions. They are just NOT the same.

Visually, though, I feel it is far more important to create a dramatic illusion than to be bogged down with detailed accuracy.

I really like this quote from Harryhausen. He said this in reference to some of his dinosaur models, but it perfectly illustrates a very strong feeling I have about painting. What makes a painting special and more desirable than a mere photograph is that it allows the artist to create what I would call an enhanced reality. A work of art can remain true to life and yet capture that little something extra that tells you it’s still a painting. Something that makes it an impossibility in the real world, but it’s still real enough to trick you into believing that it’s perfectly natural. Whether it’s highlights and shadows that have no discernible light source, or an object that appears to float in a way that your mind knows isn’t possible, these are those “dramatic illusions” that Harryhausen is talking about here. It’s what turns a plain painting into art. Detailed accuracy, while commendable, can simply be boring. Where’s the sparkle? Where’s the excitement? And maybe this is why I like Harryhausen’s work so much. He uses that artistic license to create something that’s in some ways better than reality.

Some people think it’s childish to do what I’ve done for a living. But I think it’s wrong when you grow to be an adult to discard your sense of wonder.

Ray Harryhausen Decapitated Medusa Model

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Ray Harryhausen the Gordon E. Sawyer Award for technical achievement in 1992. But an Oscar is the least of what Harryhausen deserves for his contribution to the entertainment (and art) industry.

Ray Harryhausen2

He inspired an entire generation of film makers with his ground-breaking work. Steven Spielberg said, “Without Harryhausen’s effects work over the last five decades, there never would have been a ‘Star Wars’ or a ‘Jurassic Park.’ His films continue to set our imagination on fire.”

Ray Harryhausen died at the age of 92 on May 7, 2013. But what he left behind is a legacy that changed not only the way we watch films, but also the way films are made. His ingenuity and creativity continues to fuel the imagination of both future animators and casual movie-goers alike.

It doesn’t matter that stop-motion is no longer considered the pinnacle of animation. I believe Harryhausen himself best described its everlasting appeal.

There’s a strange quality in stop-motion photography, like in ‘King Kong,’ that adds to the fantasy. If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to the mundane.