Did anything terrify more than Ray Harryhausen’s armed skeletons juddering across the screen intent on slaughtering Jason and The Argonauts (1963)? Harryhausen (29 June 1920 – 7 May 2013) was 14 when he saw ‘The Eighth Wonder of The World’ King Kong at the cinema. He emerged “stunned and haunted” by Willis ‘Orbie’ O’Brien’s illusion of life. A generation who sat goggle-eyed as those remorseless marching skeletons moved on the big screen underwent the same experience. The likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas (“Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars”) and Peter Jackson all cite Harryhausen’s films as key primers for their work.
Learning that Kong’s dinosaurs existed through three-dimensional stop-motion animation – articulated models filmed one frame at a time (for 35mm film stock that’s 16 frames a second for silence movies and 24 frames a second for talkies) to record tiny, progressive adjustments that when run at normal speed create the impression of movement – Harryhausen became the painstaking art form’s leading expert.
Ray Harryhausen created realistic models of all his ghoulish and monstrous creations. And he drew them, too, sketching out his visions before sculpting them into the world’s greatest moving action figures.
Realising the need to draw in better proportions, Harryhausen enrolled at the Manual Art School, where he sketched nude models. His teacher told him: “If you can draw the human figure in any position, you can draw anything.” He continued his studies at the Arts Centre in Los Angeles and The Arts Students League in New York.
Inspired by Obie, Charles Knight, who described the muscle structure in his pictures of dinosaurs, Michelangelo, illustrations in Tarzan books and numerous trips to watch animals in zoos, Harryhausen’s figures were lifelike and all the more horrendous. For It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), Harryhausen created a ginormous octopus to crawl from beneath the waves and destroy San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge. A quest for realism (Harryhausen had visited an aquarium in Long Beach to see the octopi) was stymied by budget constrains which saw the octopus’s tentacles reduced to six; but such was the power of Harryhausen’s living nightmares that the adults of sound mind who ran the bridge refused the artist permission to photograph the thing lest its destruction undermine public confidence. What this decision did to confidence in the city’s burghers is unreported but it did Harryhausen’s reputation no harm.
“They were usually drawings measuring eighteen by twelve inches. The first step in creating a key drawing was to roughly sketch out various ideas for a creature and a scene in which it would feature, slowly trying to establish what might work… The next stage was to sketch out an idea of the composition onto tracing paper. This might feature the creature on its own or sometimes with a background. I would transfer the outlines from the tracing paper onto a three-ply Strathmore card. I then produced the finished drawing employing a technique I had learned from Obie. Using a piece of cotton wool I would cover the entire area with powdered charcoal and then pick out the highlights with an eraser. When I had the highlights I would fill in the dark areas with a dark Wolf pencil.” – Harryhausen, The Art of Ray Harryhausen by Peter Jackson, Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton