Ray Harryhausen’s Mythical Menagerie

When Ray Harryhausen passed away in 2013 at the age of 92, I wrote a tribute to the man, his work, and what it meant to me. Ray Harryhausen was a pioneer in the world of stop-motion animation, and I discovered his work at an early age through books and television shows about special effects. If you grew up watching films with stop-motion dinosaurs, giant gorillas, or mythological beasts, chances are you’re already familiar with Harryhausen’s work. If not, here’s a short YouTube clip containing many of the monsters Ray Harryhausen brought to life.

For my birthday, my mom and her husband took my family to visit Mythical Menagerie, a new exhibit of Harryhausen’s work currently on display at Science Museum Oklahoma.

One of the first exhibits that grabbed my attention was the Hydra, the seven-headed serpent from 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts. You can see the Hydra in action in the video clip above, starting around the 1:40 mark. It’s a wickedly complex model, and perhaps a good way to explain the complexity and detail of Harryhausen’s work. The illusion of motion is created by photographing these models, moving them a fraction of an inch, photographing them again, and repeating the process until the sequence is complete. Because film is (or traditionally was) projected at 24 frames per second, it took 24 individual photographs to complete one second of motion. With a creature like the Hydra, that meant moving each of the seven heads a fraction of an inch between each picture. According to Harryhausen, keeping track of which direction each neck was going and whether each mouth was opening or closing was a nightmare. For every eight hours of work, Harryhausen completed roughly 1/2 second of screen footage.

Accompanying the Hydra and many of the artifacts on display were Harryhausen’s original drawings that he used to pitch scenes and demonstrate his ideas to film directors. I once read that Harryhausen said he learned early in his career not to draw things he wasn’t willing or able to animate.

Ray Harryhausen’s signature was his fighting skeletons, which culminated in the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts. If animating the Hydra seemed like a nightmare, remember that each of these skeletons had multiple points of articulation — arms, legs, heads — each of which had to be moved a fraction of an inch between each photograph. All of them, 24 times a second. This may have been one of those things Harryhausen regretted drawing.

The museum had lots of models and pictures on display from not just Jason and the Argonauts but also The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. It wasn’t until I entered the back of the exhibit that I came face to face with a woman who terrified me as a child.

1981’s Clash of the Titans was a hallmark film in many ways. For fans of stop-motion animation, the film was a goldmine as Harryhausen brought to life not only Medusa, but Pegasus, Bubo the Owl, the evil Calibos, and the mighty Kraken.

Keep in mind that these models were not only animated, but had to be blended to match the live action footage. That meant matching lighting conditions, making sure the creatures’ movements were choreographed to match the actors’, and ensuring that everything scaled properly. The actors on screen were often reacting to things that wouldn’t be completed for several months. There’s a reason they used to call it “movie magic.”

I spent several minutes in the exhibit going over the details of Harryhausen’s models. There were aliens and bees, minotaurs and mini-monsters. Despite the fact that most of them were less than a foot tall, when projected up onto a a movie screen, with a little help from Ray, they became literally larger than life.

While I remember watching one of the Sinbad films at the dollar show as a kid, it was Clash of the Titans that made the biggest impression on me. Never in a million years would I have imagined someday I would be looking at the original models that scared an eight-year-old me and made me wonder about special effects. If you were a kid who wondered whose hand was inside Yoda, how they made Superman fly, or how five guys in tunics could do battle with a bunch of evil skeletons, you owe it to yourself to visit Mythical Menagerie, on display through December at Science Museum Oklahoma.

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4 comments to Ray Harryhausen’s Mythical Menagerie

  • AArdvark

    The man had patience..lots and lots of patience. Stop motion is tedious and long. Imagine doing a whole movie like that. Urg!

  • Gray Defender

    I enjoyed a lot of his work growing up and still go back and watch those films. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jake Nonnemaker

    Great article and I love the photos. I really enjoyed his stop-motion animation while growing up.

  • Very cool article. I’d love to see that museum one day! Clash of the Titans was one of my favorite movies as a kid and I watched it many, many times. I didn’t realize how many movies this guy worked on. I remember Sinbad looking very realistic to me as a kid.. the skeletons were awesome. I’ll bet his skeletons inspired the ones in Dark Souls.

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