Survey of Animation – Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen used Stop-Motion to effectively bring multiple monsters and mythical creatures to life. Through this medium, he could create believable characters that would otherwise look silly if done with live-action costumes, and out of place if done in traditional animation. Ray’s major achievement in animation was the development of a technique he dubbed ‘Dynamation’, in which stop motion characters are filmed in front of a rear-projection of live-action performances. This way, he could more easily animate fictional creatures that can interact with real actors. Furthermore, he could include another layer between the stop-motion and the camera to serve as a foreground. 

His first film to utilize this process was ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’, and after it’s success, Ray continued to include ‘Dynamation’ in every last one of his features. His forte was the ‘creature feature’, in which nearly all of his earlier films involved colossal beasts terrorizing cities, while his later films focused more on historical epics that involve mythical creatures, such as ‘Sinbad’, ‘Jason and the Argonauts’, and ‘The Clash of the Titans’.

Ray Harryhausen would animate foam puppets with metal armatures inside. The armature’s rigs are very complex considering the number and quality of joints required to give the character a full range of motion. Foam is preferred over other materials because it is lightweight and inexpensive. Ray’s models were often meticulously sculpted to a level of detail that was unmatched for his time.

More often than not, Harryhausen’s monsters were animated so that they would appear as living, breathing, and most importantly, thinking characters. This is particularly evident in the case of the title character in the 1949 film, ‘Mighty Joe Young.’ In the scene where Joe lifts Jill playing the piano before an amazed crowd, you can see Joe constantly looking around the room. You can see that he is taking in this new situation with what appears to be a bit of fear. And it is not just his giant gorillas that consider things beyond the concept of pure destruction. Even a creature as dim as the Cyclops in the 1958 film, ‘The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad’ shows an effort to understand the strange appearance of a magical ‘barrier.’ That is what makes stop-motion the perfect way to animate these films. Prosthetic masks are too rigid to articulate a refined range of emotions going between fury, fear, sadness and confusion. As well, traditional animation has a tendency to exaggerate these emotions, which is unhelpful when the aim is to achieve believability.

Ray Harryhausen

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