11 Fascinating Facts About Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen in  action.
Ray Harryhausen in action. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

A lot of films become synonymous with their directors. Psycho is an Alfred Hitchcock movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a Stanley Kubrick movie, and so on. But what about Jason and the Argonauts? Or The Valley of Gwangi? Or The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad? Even longtime fans might be hard pressed to name any of the people who directed those fantasy-adventure classics. As far as your average movie fan is concerned, they’re all Ray Harryhausen movies

Perhaps the best stop-motion animator of all time, Harryhausen—born on June 29, 1920 in Los Angeles—made a name for himself in an industry whose visual effects artists are too often overlooked. Growing up, future auteurs like Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Guillermo del Toro, and Stephen Spielberg were inspired by his wonderful monsters. Here are 11 things everyone should know about the man Kermit the Frog called “one of the world’s great manipulators.” 

1. Seeing King Kong at 13 changed Ray Harryhausen’s life forever. 

Billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” King Kong (1933) revolutionized cinema. Stop-motion wizardry was the key to its success; animator Willis O’Brien filled the movie with epic monsters: a giant ape, a lanky lizard, and some very angry dinosaurs.

Watching those beasts come to life for the first time was an experience Harryhausen never forgot. “I saw it at Grauman’s Chinese theater [in Los Angeles] and I haven’t been the same [since],” he told IGN in 2012. “It was so well done and so very compact that it stayed in my mind for years. It infected me with stop-motion photography.”

A self-described “diorama kid,” Harryhausen loved creating little scenes with model dinosaurs at school. The idea that a person could make those figurines move around on camera fascinated him, and he quickly set about learning the basics of stop-motion.   

2. Harryhausen got to work with Willis O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young

On the set of Mighty Joe Young
On the set of 'Mighty Joe Young.' / Sunset Boulevard/GettyImages

One of Harryhausen’s high school classmates happened to know O’Brien through her father, who’d worked with him at RKO, the studio behind King Kong. Encouraged by his fellow student, Harryhausen got in touch with O’Brien. The veteran artist became his mentor, giving him advice and constructive criticism. Later, he took Harryhausen on as an assistant for a brand-new RKO gorilla movie called Mighty Joe Young (1949). Harryhausen was responsible for more than 80 percent of the film’s stop-motion creature effects. 

3. Acting lessons helped inform Harryhausen’s animation style.   

In 1939, Harryhausen enrolled at Los Angeles City College, where he studied art and anatomy. His course load included an acting class; he eventually decided performing in front of a live audience just wasn’t his thing. “But I’m grateful for that period when I wanted to study acting, because our animated characters intrinsically act with the live actors, rather than just being there for shock value,” he recalled in an interview with The Moment magazine. In his 2004 autobiography, Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, he wrote that when he worked on Mighty Joe Young, he used to eat celery and carrots in bulk to get himself into character as Joe: “I thought it would allow me to animate better if I felt like a gorilla.”  

4. Novelist Ray Bradbury was a lifelong friend. 

Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury. / Francesco Da Vinci/GettyImages

Widely credited with inspiring the Godzilla series, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was the first Hollywood movie where Harryhausen had complete control over its special effects. The plot was lifted from “The Foghorn,” a short story written by sci-fi author Ray Bradbury. The two Rays met in their late teens; they joined the same science fiction club at Los Angeles City College and bonded over a shared love of King Kong, dinosaurs, and fantasy stories. They remained close friends for over 70 years. At a 1992 dinner organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Bradbury personally handed a special Gordon E. Sawyer Award for Technical Achievement to his old pal. “Good lord, what a friend to have! Someone just as crazy as I was about primeval monsters and how to get them into theaters,” Bradbury quipped at the event.   

5. Harryhausen’s giant octopus in It Came From Beneath the Sea is really a “sixtopus.” 

It Came From Beneath the Sea was the first of 11 Ray Harryhausen movies produced by Charles H. Schneer. Another “giant monster attacks city” romp, it’s about a giant octopus who lays waste to San Francisco. Except it’s not really an octopus: Looking to save some time and cash, Harryhausen designed his stop-motion model to have six tentacles instead of eight

6. The movie 20 Million Miles to Earth exists because Harryhausen wanted to do some traveling.   

“I wanted a trip to Europe, I got itchy feet,” the animator said in The Harryhausen Chronicles, a 1998 documentary. If he could successfully pitch a new movie that was set overseas, he figured the studio would pay his travel expenses. Initially, he tried to get The Elementals—a movie featuring bat-like creatures living in the Eiffel Tower—made, but no one was interested. Harryhausen did eventually get his trip, though: He joined forces with a writer friend named Charlotte Knight to revise an old story idea he’d had about an alien that attacks Chicago. For their new version of the tale, Knight and Harryhausen replaced Chi-Town with Rome. Schneer loved the premise, and 1958’s 20 Million Miles to Earth was born. The movie takes place in Italy, where Harryhausen got to spend two weeks working on location. 

7. It took Harryhausen more than four months to animate the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts

Tom Hanks (yes, that Tom Hanks) has called Jason and the Argonauts “the greatest movie ever made.” The film’s climax—an iconic skeleton fight—was one of the most ambitious scenes in visual effects history, and arguably Harryhausen’s finest hour.

Having stolen the magical golden fleece, Jason and two of his sailors are on the run from the vengeful King Aeëtes. Before they can escape, Aeëtes summons a horde of reanimated skeletons, all brandishing weapons. What follows is a death battle between three flesh-and-blood actors and seven miniature corpses. The sequence was painstakingly choreographed; Harryhausen had to synchronize his stop-motion characters with live-action swordplay footage that had been shot on location. Harryhausen spent four and a half months working on the roughly four-minute-long scene. He animated an average of just 13 to 15 frames per day, telling Paul Wells in Animation: Genre and Authorship that it was, “very little footage for a film of this nature. Of course, the accountants got irritated because time is money, and 15 frames is less than a foot of film.”

8. Some of Harryhausen’s models (or at least parts of them) were used in multiple films.    

Jason and the Argonauts actually marked Harryhausen’s second crack at a skeleton duel. In 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, there’s a similar scene where the hero crosses swords with a living skeleton, which Harryhausen nicknamed “Goose Shield.” That skeleton model also appears in the finale of Jason. The animator also tore apart the Triceratops he’d created for One Million Years, B.C. so he could build a new dino model—the Styracosaurus that pops up in The Valley of Gwangiaround its metal skeleton

9. He considered making a movie called Sinbad Goes to Mars

Between 1958 and 1977, Schneer and Harryhausen produced three unrelated films about Sinbad the sailor. The duo flirted with making even more Sinbad flicks, including one with the working title Sinbad Goes to Mars. “The very mention of this project almost never fails to bring a polite smile to the face of anyone I mention it to. I really can’t imagine why!” Harryhausen wrote in An Animated Life. If they’d actually filmed it, the movie would have starred a man-eating plant and a supernatural Egyptian pyramid. Another unrealized Harryhausen project was a retelling of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds.  It fell through, but at least he got to animate some test footage.

10. He fully animated Medusa’s hairdo in 1981’s Clash of the Titans.

Never one to take the easy way out, Harryhausen fitted the Medusa model he put together for the film with 12 movable snake heads; you can see the reptiles squirming around as she hunts down Perseus (played by Harry Hamlin). After Mighty Joe Young, Harryhausen typically worked alone, but for Clash—Harryhausen’s last movie—animators Jim Danforth and Steve Archer were hired to assist him.  

11. You can find Harryhausen tributes in Monsters, Inc., Corpse Bride, and other movies. 

When Mike Wazowski takes his girlfriend out for a romantic dinner in Monsters, Inc., he chooses the hottest restaurant in town: a sushi restaurant called Harryhausen’s. Corpse Bride also tips its hat to the man; the name Harryhausen is engraved on a tiny piano that was used in this 2005 stop-motion musical. Even non-animated movies have gotten in on the fun: John Landis, a noted Harryhausen superfan, gave him a cameo role in the action-comedy, Spies Like Us. Harryhausen also made a guest appearance in the 1998 Mighty Joe Young remake.