In Our Opinion

RAY HARRYHAUSEN CELEBRATES HIS 90TH BIRTHDAY

By • Jun 24th, 2010 •

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Ray Harryhausen and Medusa, whose sequence is one of the great fantasy moments in all of cinema. Photo by the author.

On June 29th, 2010, depending on when you read this, Ray Harryhausen will or did celebrate his 90th birthday.

To the geek squad of science fiction and stop motion animation enthusiasts (yours truly included), Ray Harryhausen is a name which is more than respected; it’s revered.

However, the more general readership at FIR perhaps should be told from the outset that his importance is so great that the following can be legitimately understood to be true: in the long-term perspective of things, so influential has Ray Harryhausen been that he – to a great extent literally single-handedly – changed the face and direction of motion pictures, probably for all time.

Quite a claim, to cite a single individual who by sheer enthusiasm and dint of effort changed with small films an entire industry operating on many times the GDP of legitimate free nations and run by often ruthless powerbrokers by the hundreds, but thus it has come to pass.

To those who may not know, Ray Harryhausen, known primarily for his stop motion special effects, is the auteur of approximately 18 feature films, many of which sprang, initially unscripted, from theme-based drawings created by him years before and put away before being eventually presented to his long-time producer, Charles Schneer. Among these is a small “children’s fantasy”, THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, which was the hit of 1958 and, in historical hindsight, truly changed everything.

Ray Harryhausen’s history, in a nutshell, goes like this: influenced in 1933 at the age of 13 to the point of obsession by the stunning visuals in the original KING KONG, he worked tirelessly, at first as a hobbyist, and then eventually as the head animator under his hero, Willis O’Brien (creator of the animation and many designs and scenarios of KING KONG) on the feature MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, which could be described as “KONG Light”. Short films, both as an employed animator and creating his own educational works followed in what was sometimes a family affair, with his skilled machinist father creating rigs and steel articulations for his figures while his mother created miniature clothing and other artistic touches. Eventually this led to his first feature solo FX assignment, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), a low budget film in which his visual effects were so realistic for the time that the modestly-produced film was an industry-changing runaway smash hit. In that film, an atomic blast test in the arctic releases a enormous prehistoric beast who winds up eventually surfacing off a pier in New York City, leading both to panic in the streets and, at the time, a motion picture riot of copycats of variations on the theme.

Here begins Ray’s turning of the motion picture industry into an imitation of his own imagination: this single film ignited the science fiction movie craze of the 1950’s like a brushfire, and in so doing, created by proxy a media empire for Toho studios in Japan started with GODZILLA – which continues to spawn sequels and is a multimillion dollar merchandizing juggernaut even today – a clear though fanciful knock-off of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. That industry-wide frenzy to cash in on the success of BEAST would not have likely happened had Ray not infused the film with a standard of realism and special effects dramaturgy that can be plainly said to have exceeded by far anything that had come before, regardless of budget.

20 Million Miles To Earth - The Ymir

Warner brothers demonstrated it clearly understood what Ray had created when they advertised it with such lines as, “They couldn’t believe their eyes – and neither will you!” – an unambiguous reference to the realism of Ray’s achievement. This he did through his own sheer artistry and ingenuity, as his budget allowed for little else.

Somewhat sadly, in this one premier effort, Ray essentially eclipsed his idol and mentor, O’Brien, who would find himself playing catch up several years later, creating the visual effects for even lower budget knock-offs of the BEAST and not faring at all well in the head-to-head competition. O’Brien was a man of large budget operations, like KING KONG, who simply failed to demonstrate the artistry to turn on a thin dime like his young protégé.

THE BEAST caught the attention of Charles Schneer, a young and ambitious producer at Columbia Studios, who contacted Ray about doing a similar version of that very film, only this one about a giant octopus. While not the runaway smash of BEAST, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA made a great deal of money for Columbia and started a relationship between Ray Harryhausen and Charles Schneer that would last for three decades and leave indelible impressions on hundreds who would come to matter a great deal in Hollywood in every possible aspect.

At this point something needs to be said to enrich the record: producer Charles Schneer, who passed away last year, is generally and correctly credited as being the man who made it possible for Ray to bring his visions to feature film life. The industry otherwise was very staid at that point and had not yet been influenced by Ray himself, quite frankly, to be receptive to his unbridled imaginative and fanciful ideas. Schneer saw the artistic and commercial value in Ray that few others had and thus continued to make possible platforms on which Ray could express himself. While there is no lack of truth to this, another name has been overlooked.

Hal Chester.

Hal Chester was a rough-around-the-edges producer from New York and originally a tough-guy child actor. Turning to producing later on, he in fact made not one but two genuine classics of the genre: The sublime NIGHT OF THE DEMON (UK) and the aforementioned THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. While it is indeed readily known that Chester hired Ray Harryhausen, placing enormous faith in the talent he recognized, this producer, for whom a reported lack of personal sophistication has led to often near-character assassination by smarmy aesthetes, also gave Ray an extraordinarily good deal, essentially setting Ray up as an independent special effects creator for life.

When Chester met with Ray, Ray owned only his 16mm equipment (35mm was the standard of the day, as it remains). After a few meetings and a signed contract, Chester started an unusual process with Ray: he took the trouble to find what Ray needed. This was not a terribly common method for producers of the day. Ray suggested to Chester that the sometimes custom-created equipment from MIGHTY JOE YOUNG might still be available at RKO. RKO was looking to dump it, and offered it to Chester for $6,500.00 (approximately $50,000 today), which was a fraction of its actual value (approximately a full half million today adjusted for inflation). It needs to be known that most producers would have simply set up shop with the equipment under their ownership, have Ray use it, and then sell it off for far more than the price for which he bought it (Schneer himself did that on some abandoned camera equipment on location left behind from another feature by other producers, and used it to partially offset the costs of one of Ray’s features). This was some of the finest equipment of its kind anywhere, and had a pedigree to boot, in that MIGHTY JOE YOUNG won an Academy Award for best special effects. So good was that equipment that Ray continued to use it for the entire length of his career, through his last film, 1981’s $20 million CLASH OF THE TITANS.

Ray Harryhausen and two seldom-seen friends from his early, storybook days. Photo by the author.

In other words, when Charles Schneer approached Ray, Ray was already set up and ready to go with some of the finest equipment the era had to offer, thanks to Hal Chester. Would Schneer, then young and on very low budgets, have been able to get what Ray needed with the finance available if Chester had retained ownership of that equipment, as was the common practice? Would Schneer have done it if he could? And would he have offered ownership of it to Ray as part of the deal, knowing how he handled the situation with the abandoned camera equipment? We can only speculate. But Chester’s basic altruistic decency might have made all the difference between what Ray’s career ultimately became and what we might speculate it could otherwise have been. Hal Chester has become a footnote in the career of Ray Harryhausen and the fact is that he deserves more praise than history has thus far allowed.

Eventually, more amazing films sprang from Harryhausen’s imagination, each filling the screen with sights and ideas that were so amazing that he was – never, mind you – nominated for an Academy Award. We can only speculate on that, too, but the reason seems clear: Hollywood was still operating with large studios, and most had a special effects department, filled with people who punched a union time card every day and went home to wives and kids whose lifestyle depended on that job. These were also the men (primarily) who voted for the Special Effects Oscars. Knowing the world as we do, how can anyone believe that they could not see the artistry in work that left millions of common ticket holders in theaters in absolute jaw-dropping awe while their own collective efforts, with large overheads and overtime, were sometimes met with unintentional laughter? The almost certain probability is that Ray was perceived as a genuine threat (as a good example of this mindset, Bud Westmore, in the early 50’s, apparently demanded, until Universal Studios nixed, the continued personal and television appearances of artist/ actress Millicent Patrick who designed THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON for Universal, opting to lay claim to the creation himself. As the makeup department head from a prestigious family of makeup artists, he could make the demand and have Universal decide in his favor).

So they didn’t nominate Ray. Not once. Until he retired, that is, whereupon Tom Hanks, who said that Ray’s JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS was the primary influence that made him decide to be an actor, handed Ray his lifetime achievement Oscar, presumably when it was safe for all those union effects department workers to vote for him. In other words, after Ray had retired and was no longer a threat, though the prestige of that award when it was deserved for individual films could have helped his career enormously.

However, even being passed over for Oscar after Oscar, Ray was having an impact that would reshape motion pictures. Throughout the 60’s and into the early 70’s, artists of all cinematic varieties were growing up fancying themselves to be next-generation Harryhausens (the author sheepishly raises his hand in admission), and Ray’s reputation grew, not only as an artist delivering fantasy with the passion of a religious convert, but as an underdog folk hero as well. “How could he not even be nominated?!”, the cry would go every few years when a new Harryhausen film would be passed over by the Academy. “How could this happen?!” And indeed, most were at a loss to explain it. As I sat as a student in the late 70’s in the auditorium classroom of one of the most celebrated film historians ever, the late William K. Everson, even he went on at length about the insane injustice of such a situation with a passion that left many of us amazed, as this portly, old-school English gentleman was not prone to dramatic outbursts.

Admittedly, it is this author’s unconfirmed speculation alone that he was regarded as too great a threat to be nominated for an Oscar, since to nominate Ray would prove to the department worker’s bosses that they and their large operations were mostly superfluous. Should anyone have a more conclusive answer, this author is open to suggestions. Ray’s films were occasionally box office smashes and therefore impossible to ignore and everyone understood his primary stop motion technique. There has been speculation that his techniques were so well executed that fellow special effects technicians and artists simply did not understand what they were looking at. Had that been true, however, it would have been all the more reason to nominate him, not less.

Jason Battles The Skeletons

And thus his underdog folk hero status, combined with his obvious passion for his art showing with each new and more technically improved film, and the pure inspiration of his fantastic internal vision, began to make the folk hero a legend – and a legend of the rarest variety – a legitimate one who deserved the designation.

Then in the late 70’s, the “Children Of Harryhausen” had grown up and were beginning to make an impact. People with names like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg readily admit Ray’s significant artistic influence on them, and that influence is readily apparent in some of their films. More to the point, the large number of people they first needed in the beginning, Lucas particularly as he set up his own special effects shop called Industrial Light and Magic to produce a little movie called STARWARS, were available and skilled and passionate and ready to work long weeks for very low wages because they, too, had been impassioned from their teenage years by Ray’s singularly unbridled imagination coupled with his stunning technical virtuosity.

A bronze of  “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms”, the one and only film that started the “giant monster craze” of the 1950’s, also at the Harryhausen home. Photo by the author. While the bronze was a separate sculpture not related to the original animation model, the lighthouse is the same prop used in the film. – DR

Though inspired by many sources, these eclectic individuals from diverse backgrounds were mostly all coming from one primary artistic influence: Ray Harryhausen, and they were and are more than happy to admit it. Many of them even have photos and 8mm films available from their formative childhood years, and over and over again you see clay variations of the Beast, the Cyclops from THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and other childhood creations patterned after Ray’s designs. Even if Lucas had decided to make STAR WARS and had not been inspired by Ray Harryhausen, the chances are that the homegrown special effects fanatics he needed to work long and to get the ball rolling probably would not have existed to do it. Remember, without Ray, not only would his films not exist, but the 1950’s science fiction craze almost certainly would not either, and all that was the fertile breeding ground for most of the people who in time would turn STAR WARS and similar films into stunning visual realities. And without the STAR WARS franchise breaking box office records at every turn in the late-seventies through the mid-eighties, everything would be entirely different today. Of that there can be no discussion.

Had Ray not done what he had done, then, so far we can count the following: probably no science fiction boom of the ’50’s, no GODZILLA mythology and probably no STAR WARS, or at the very least, not remotely realized to be the stunning achievement that broke all records and changed the way motion pictures looked an felt initially from the 1980’s and onward.

But Ray was still not through. CLASH OF THE TITANS, his final feature released in 1981, boasting a cast of some of the finest actors ever to grace the screen, was, along with E.T., one of the two smash hits of that year.

Lucas, Speilberg, James Cameron, Tim Burton, other directors, special effects technicians and artists, cinematographers, writers, actors, the list of people very directly influenced and to a great degree set on their professional paths by Ray Harryhausen is almost endless, and much of their work still bears the imprint of his influence. From video games with sword fighting skeletons to a myriad of design features which often have some mark of someone having grown up to want to be Ray Harryhausen, there is no escaping his brilliant and exciting shadow. Tim Burton’s CORPSE BRIDE, for example, shut down the entire animation production one afternoon when Ray visited in order to show him around and offer some inspirational thanks. He has had exhibitions of his art and animation figures at some of the world’s most prestigious museums, including the New York Museum of Modern Art. Turner Classic Movies occasionally runs a night, and once in a while a weekend, of Ray Harryhausen films. And DVDs of his motion pictures continue to be strong sellers.

From Harryhausen’s home, this magnificent bronze is an interpretation of the classic scene in which Kong slays the Tyrannosaurus. Note the beautiful completion of the composition in the piece by the Ann Darrow character in the lower left. Photo by the author.  A more studied shot of this sculpture from a different angle, can be seen in the very highly recommended book by Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton, “The Art Of Ray Harryhausen” on page 219. The full painting in the background can be seen on page 25 of the same book. – DR

Today, Ray continues on with his fine art sculptures and restorations of his favorite classic films, both from his hands and those of others. He remains enthusiastic, tireless and a champion. He has written three large, coffee-table size books heavy enough to put behind the wheel of a car in lieu of an emergency brake, and watching long lines of people of all ages, from teenagers to men in their sixties, make the rite of personal passage for an autograph at a book signing is a wonder to behold. As each person makes their acquaintance, you hear the same words repeated endlessly with little variation: “I love your films”, “You changed my life”, “I became a professional (fill in the blank) because of your films”, “I’ve introduced my kids to your films and they love them as much as I do”. It is almost unbelievable. (Naturally, I, too, have said those same words, of course, so take that sense of disbelief with a grain of salt, please) It is truly wondrous, heartwarming, and utterly astonishing.

What makes this a pleasure to write is that Ray himself is so personally pleasant and unassuming, as anyone who has met him can tell you. In a cynical world, it gives one hope and comfort that a man so revered is so personally appreciative and yet unaffected by the adoration. When my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting he and his lovely and charming wife Diana in their London home a couple years back, as I learned in times past, you could rest assured that you’d never spend an afternoon with a more relaxed and easygoing gentleman, not at all miserly with a smile and a laugh, with not an ounce of ego or pretension, even as he pointed out the occasional offerings from highly-placed followers, such as a stunning four-foot long bronze sculpture of a Tyrannosaurs on the run personally created for Ray by Phil Tippett, one of Hollywood’s biggest Oscar-winning FX players, yet another “child of Harryhausen”.
The famous writer and Ray’s childhood/lifelong friend, another “Ray”, author Ray Bradbury, once said, “Ray and I agreed to grow old, but vowed to never grow up.” Meaning, of course, to never give up a love for things that a child, too, might love. Ray’s enthusiasm is contagious not only in his presence, but much more importantly, that enthusiasm has proved to be contagious through his very work on the screen. And in and through those amazing moments and images and places, millions of people have followed suit and also consciously decided that they, too, shall never grow up, either.

And that, perhaps, is his greatest legacy.

A Happy Milestone Birthday to Ray Harryhausen, and many more to come.


FIR ADDENDUM TO THIS ARTICLE (08/08/2010): In the Forward to the book, “Ray Harryhausen, A Life In Pictures”, George Lucas has confirmed David Rosler’s bold theory – published here before the book. Lucas writes, “Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars, “ and for the same reason David theorized: without Ray Harryhausen’s influence, the “grassroots” special effects enthusiasts would not have been available for Lucas to hire to set the foundation for his eventual motion picture empire.

It may indeed have taken a seasoned professional with David’s intimate knowledge of the arts involved in fantasy filmmaking and access to certain top-level participants to make that bold, on-target analysis where others failed. Therefore, a special FIR thanks to continuing Guest Contributor, Producer/Director/Animator David Rosler for providing the oldest film journal in the United States with another in its continuing 91-year legacy of breaking, inside-the-industry firsts.

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18 Responses »

  1. It is important I think at this moment to mention the fact that Ray also took care of both O’Brian and his wife Darlene for the rest of their lives…..when I first met Ray it was in Darlene’s house which was charming. She made little Kong figures out of popcorn of all things and had them diplayed proudly on the mantle. You captured his fame nicely and at 90 to say he is a legend and an icon pretty much goes without saying….

  2. Thank you for the kind words, David.

    I just want to add, on this, “at 90 to say he is a legend and an icon pretty much goes without saying….”

    Very true, for those of us in the know, and there are many. But this article is meant more for the many who may not be fully aware of his status, accomplishment and particularly what a tremendous person he is (even TMC’s historian/host Robert Osborne once initially indirectly suggested that Ray Harryhausen was basically a special effects hired hand adding his “clay monsters” to other peoples’ films, a description heavily revised in subsequent cablecasts, and one can only imagine the tenor of the e-mails that provided TMC with it’s more precise education). As your wonderful story illustrates (and after Obie’s death Ray let Obie’s widow live in one of his homes instead of her small apartment for the rest of her life), this is a fine time to celebrate the man as well as his many accomplishments.

    By the way, David, we’ve never spoken so let me take this opportunity to offer my congratulations on a very impressive body of written work here at FIR. I always enjoy your articles.

  3. Dear Mr. Rosler,

    Your article about Ray Harryhausen is quite wonderful. I was particularly happy to see you paying special tributes to both Hal E. Chester and Charles H. Schneer, both of whom are often, and sadly, overlooked in discussions of Ray’s extraordinary career. Special mention should also be made of at least two of the major accomplishments of Ray’s longtime friend, producer and agent Arnold Kunert. Mr. Kunert was responsible for the successful campaigns to get Ray both his Lifetime Achievement Oscar in March of 1992 and his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, across the street from Graumann’s Chinese Theater, where a young Ray Harryhausen saw the film that changed his life forever, 1933’s “King Kong.” Mr. Kunert is not mentioned in any of Ray’s three books, but Ray has stated in numerous interviews over the years that Mr. Kunert’s efforts were greatly appreciated.

  4. Wonderful tribute, David. It really is amazing to think of Ray Harryhausen’s influence on popular culture — not just movies, but fantasy art, kids’ toys, computer games, etc. Younger people don’t quite realize what a cultural desert the 1960s were for kids who wanted to see fantasy on the screen. It was a completely different world from the modern era, when we are supersaturated with that kind of entertainment. Back then, outside of Ray’s work, there was very little besides feeble efforts like Dinosaurus or the occasional Disney film.

    There’s another reason for Ray’s impacy in addition to the sheer quality of his work — namely, his iconic status as a lone genius, toiling away year after year without much recognition or reward, doggedly persevering despite tremendous obstacles. Anyone who has ever labored in obscurity or felt unappreciated (and isn’t that all of us?) can identify with Ray. Unfortunately, few if any of us can hope to match his accomplishments.

    Happy birthday, Ray!

  5. Typo: “impacy” should read “impact.” Anyway, you get the idea.

  6. What a wonderful, fascinating story. I knew who Ray Harryhausen was, but I never knew the half of it. If you think about it, he really DID change everything, didn’t he? Has anyone ever just come right out and said it like this, before? I guess we have Hal Chester to thank for helping to make it all possible. And I love the tiny peeks inside Mr. Harryhausen’s home at his amazing bronze creations. I love his movies but his statues really are great works of art!

    Thank you for this great article, Mr. Rosler!

    Happy 90th birthday Mr. Harryhausen!

  7. That was such an AMAZING night, I haven’t stopped smiling since. So inspiring. Funny funny people too

  8. Wow David – That was a wonderful article. So many interesting details… I found the information about Hal Chester particularly enlightening. Congratulations on a superb article.

  9. If this is the standard of articles about Stop-Motion-Animation I can expect from Films-In-Review, I’m putting it on my favourites list right this second, so I can check back for more in future!

    Thanks for this David, and Films-in-review!

  10. Happy Birthday Ray !!

  11. happy birthday ray what a wonderful person you are anybody will want you as a father.;)))))

  12. Happy Birthday, Ray! And a big Thank You to David Rosler for this inspiring tribute! The same principles of creativity that Ray applied in stop motion – the meticulous attention to detail, the subtle expression of emotion by creatures of all sorts – still apply for modern efforts, whether created by a large team like Industrial Light and Magic, or a single entrepreneur. He is an inspiration to anyone trying on his or her own to succeed in a creative field, be it writing, art, animation, music, or the culmination of all these… movie making! In an era where those who are growing up with “videos”, let us never forget Ray’s contribution to “movies”!

  13. Thats an awesome article david..congrats …all information was really very enlightening for me …and helped me knowing ray through and through..thanks david… a very happy birthday to RAY

  14. The Mr. RH story I love to pass along:

    While being interviewed about ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., Mr. Harryhausen always referred to Raquel Welch as ‘Miss Welch’.

    A true gentleman. When have we EVER heard Raquel Welch referred to so respectfully.

  15. Wonderful memories! Thankyou for writing this for all to enjoy!

  16. Happy Birthday to National Treasure.

  17. A great article David. Very pleasing to see Hal E. Chester’s name mentioned here, with his pivotal role in this aspect of film-making being fully recognised. He would be so proud. From conversations with him I know that “Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” was a movie very close to his heart and one he enjoyed working on very much with Ray Harryhausen.

    Deborah Chester, London

  18. Enjoyed reading article on Ray Harryhausen and in particular on Hal Chester. I’m writing a book on Cy Endfield, who worked with Harryhausen (on Mysterious Island) and Chester (on the Joe Palooka series at Monogram, and the excellent Underworld Story and Night of the Demon). I was interested to read Deborah Chester’s comment. Dear Ms Chester: I was sorry to hear if Mr Chester’s passing. if you have any information or records re his work with Cy Endfield I would very much like to hear from you. B.P.Neve@bath.ac.uk 01225 463188 Thanks.

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