Marauding monsters and mythical odysseys, Ray Harryhausen’s animations are telling visions of their time

Ray Harryhausen’s most ambitious dynamations launched alongside Sputnik, Gagarin, and Apollo 11. And, if the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art's retrospective Titan of Cinema is to be believed, they were moonshots all of their own. Here stands a creative whose first title – reluctantly abandoned – took on the Evolution of the World. Not even an early-career rejection from Disney could sway Ray off course.

Merging stop-motion and live-action, now-infamous scenes from Mighty Joe Young (1948) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) defined an epoch in animation. A pioneer with a passion for the prehistoric, starry-eyed contemporaries liken Harryhausen to “Armstrong, the first man on the moon with this stuff.”

Skeleton Model for ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ (c. 1962)
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jelena Sofronijevic

And Titan of Cinema echoes his ambition. Beyond models and film reels, its rooms heave with annotated storyboards, scriptbooks, and biro-scrawled location shots, peeking a uniquely personal perspective on the maker’s process. Even cartoons’ most ardent critics cannot help but crack a smile at his cabinet of cut-and-paste heads, an amusing line-up of popped eyes, curled sneers, and corrupted grimaces.

From puppetry and part-replacement, Harryhausen pushed new practices in animation. Blueprints for his Pegasus model reveal its scaled-down skeleton of armatures - and its maker’s creative approach, meticulous to the bone. Weeks spent sketching in London Zoo forewent just forty seconds of baboon chess in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). No detail too minute, he rather reveled in coiling and uncoiling the individual serpents of Medusa’s crown.

Pegasus armature sketch for ‘Clash of the Titans’, (c. 1978)
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jelena Sofronijevic
Pegasus comparison sketch with Perseus and Calibos for ‘Clash of the Titans’, (c. 1978)
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jelena Sofronijevic

Infamously insured for one million dollars, a bronze cast of his hands nestles between foreign-language posters and comics - a subtle nod to his single-handed successes and reach. But for his gargantuan impact, the warm tales of these objects reveal a maker surprisingly down to earth. Rudimentary marionettes, constructed with his dad out of their garage, possess a particular prehistoric charm. One image shows the Harryhausens humorously cowering under the “sausage legs” of their stegosaurus - constructive criticism from Ray’s childhood hero, King Kong’s Willis O’Brien.

Marionettes of King Kong and Skeleton (c. 1935-1936)
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jelena Sofronijevic

Then on, Harryhausen sought naturalism in the most supernatural of beings. Taking note from Doré and Knight at evening school, his creations were depicted with anatomical precision. In the melancholy twitch of an eye, or the swish-flick of a spiked tail, he gives voiceless, inanimate objects a humanity – a being, and a relatability – never before seen on screen.

Now credited for his individual success, influence and intimacy intertwine throughout his practice. A chance convention of the LA Science Fiction and Fantasy Society united two teenage Rays - Harryhausen, and the future author Ray Bradbury. Their life-long friendship spawned The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), and its more infamous successor, Godzilla (1954). Bradbury later remarked that there were “never two Rays, only one with a single dream – dinosaurs.”

Beyond boyish indulgences, these dino-mations are telling biographies of their time. With its mutated octopus on the rampage, It Came From Beneath The Sea (1954) reflects post-war paranoias around nuclear poisoning.

You cannot help but fall a little in love with Harryhausen, perhaps because he’s a bit of a geek. Glistening reviews from his fellow actors, producers, and directors add polish to his golden fleece. It seems almost no one has a bad word to say about Ray.

But the exhibition falters against the darker side of contemporary cinema - the racism which underpins his animalised and underevolved characters, or orientalist tropes embedded within mythical tales. These representations are prescriptively labelled as “outdated stereotypes”, that viewers universally find “problematic today”. Closing down discussion, this clunky narrative leaves little to our discretion or questioning. It also isolates Harryhausen, singularly burdening him with the responsibilities of his culture and industry.

More subtlety is afforded to the discussion around women, near exclusively cast as either victim or villain. These rehashed cultural stereotypes permeate the artistic process, with Harryhausen repurposing Sinbad’s Snake Woman for Medusa in Clash of the Titans (1981).

Omitting these occasional anachronisms, Titan of Cinema remains remarkably forward-looking. Stills from his never-realised War of the Worlds project are a particularly ominous highlight. These preliminary charcoal “sketches” would make a captivating comic, if not singular fatalistic landscapes. And new life is breathed into his unearthed sketches, rendered into charming animations by Glasgow’s Playdead studios.

Dead Martians and Tripods. Key drawing for ‘The War of the Worlds’ (unfinished project) (c. 1949)
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jelena Sofronijevic

Working with Dinosaurs (1999) shows Harryhausen in time-lapse, animating one skeleton. Each fragment is precisely nudged to form the fluid chain of frames. Eying his completed spook from top to toe, he concludes by tickling him under the chin. As Harryhausen gives his beasts a human touch, Titan of Cinema reveals the person – and passion – behind his enchanting cinematic practice.

Clash would be Harryhausen’s final feature, as demand for computer-generated images outpaced his patience. But at this moment where time has all but stopped still, this triumphant celebration of the considered artist has never been more welcome.

One room in the exhibition
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jelena Sofronijevic

Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh to 20 February 2022, with a virtual exhibition soon to open online.

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Jelena Sofronijevic

Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron) is an audio producer and freelance journalist, who makes content at the intersections of intercultural political history and the arts. They are the producer of EMPIRE LINES, a podcast which uncovers the unexpected flows of Empires through artworks. Published by the Political Studies Association, their undergraduate dissertation uses contemporary political satires to uniquely unpack Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia. They also presented an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought (September 2020) on modern Yugoslav diasporic identity, later selected for BBC Radio 4’s Pick of the Week and featured on BBC Radio Shropshire. Their other projects include The Arts Show, INDIAscussion, and Liberating Sustainability.