Ray Harryhausen’s Legacy: Monster Movies, Special Effects, and the Sci-Fi Fanzine

When the cutting edge was a sleight, a trick of time,

We blinked our way through Jason and the Argonauts,

thrilled by the stop-motion universe,

its brazen Talos grinding like a Dock Road crane,

and the Hydra’s teeth sown into studio soil

by Harryhausen, who got between the frames

like a man who comes in bone dry from a downpour

by stopping the world and snapping out a path

through glassy rods right up to his front door.

— The Lapse, Paul Farley

Part association with the everyday, part mythologization of Harryhausen’s technical wizardry for manipulating the fantastical into the perceptual flow of space and time, the British poet Paul Farley captures the intertwining of rapt attention and fan knowledge of the trick that’s been at the heart of decades-long fascination with Harryhausen’s filmmaking – that mix of personal memory and behind-the-scenes knowingness of the coral-like growth rate taken to coax the animated movement of the mythical and the monstrous into the human choreography of live action.

But there’s a whole other world of past attention to Harryhausen’s films that’s left out of Farley’s dedication. And that’s the attention that cultivated the Second Great Age of Harryhausen’s films in the pages of the genre film magazines of the ’70s and ’80s. Regardless of whether memories of The Valley of Gwangi or Clash of the Titans involve a drive-in with a single mono speaker, or a matinee of Jason and the Argonauts at a local one-screen cinema, or a chance-find in the weekend afternoon slot of the programming guide for a terrestrial television channel, the opportunity to re-watch The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, the film that started the Hollywood studio trend of marketing box office films on television; before the widespread video availability of Harryhausen’s films, the growing specialty magazine culture devoted to science fiction, fantasy and horror films was the only way to be an informed fan.

Starlog. Cinefantastique. Famous Monsters of Filmland. Fantastic Films. Cinefex. Those are the names outside of the local universe making up Farley’s invocation of Harryhausen. They offered the new discoverer as well as the long-time follower of Harryhausen information for gleaning updates and progress on his next film, as well as photo-spread opportunities to revisit past and just seen films, giving them a behind-the-scenes afterlife.

Harryhausen on the cover of ‘Imagi-Movies’ magazine in 1995.

From the ’50s marquee to the small screen of ’70s syndicated television, the intergenerational sharing by writers of their first Harryhausen films were done in the pages of genre film magazines, like Marvel Comics’ writer and editor Don McGregor sharing with Harryhausen in a 1981 Starlog interview his Saturday afternoon as a nine-year-old mashing-up Hopalong Cassidy with a clay model of the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth. Or VFX pioneer Phil Tippett, the unanimously agreed upon successor of Harryhausen, recalling how Famous Monsters, which started the same year as the release of The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, led to Tippetts’ friendship with Harryhausen.

If the genre film magazines, as Michele Pierson explores in her groundbreaking book Special Effects: Still in Search of Wonder, offered readers the ability to develop effects connoisseurship as well as readiness for participation in special effects production similar to how fandom prepared Harryhausen, the special effects industry’s only “auteur”, for his career in animation, so did the showcasing of how practical visual effects work and production design could translate into genre film directing opportunities. Gather up the visual effects accolades and laurels Harryhausen had garnered by 1969, and along with his credits as feature film producer and short film director, heap them together at the start of the ’70s.

From there, trace a line right through James Cameron’s first use of stop motion and optical effects for his 1978 12-minute short Xenogenesis to his first visual effects, art production and second unit director work on Roger Corman’s early ’80s sci-fi B-movies, to Cameron’s big studio-backed genre features and sequels of the late ’80s and early ’90s until you get to Titanic. Between Harryhausen and Cameron you can plot the career track jump of a number VFX workers and visual designers involved with the imagineering of industry defining block buster films, those names to “behind-the-scenes” faces seen in what were then TV “making of” specials such as Phil Tippett, as well as Joe Johnston and Douglas Trumbull. Even Ron Cobb’s production designs for Star Wars and Alien were enough for Spielberg to tap him to direct Night Skies, that never-to-happen Columbia Pictures goaded sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for which Rick Baker tweeted the alien designs last year.

Between the time of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and Clash of the Titans genre film magazine interviews with Harryhausen were more a mix of nostalgia and behind-the-scenes accounts of film production and film shoot schedules than insightful reveals of the techniques behind what were becoming perceived as show pieces in old world fantasy storylines. But these decades-old interviews still have their revelations. They contain very telling comments by a genre film icon not only becoming estranged, even depressed by trends in entertainment around him, but whose filmmaking and visual talents, legendary ingenuity for cracking optical effects solutions, and capacity for attracting studio funding were already beginning to be crowded out by the science-fiction driven special effects of Hollywood blockbusters out-competing his films.

In a 1977 interview for The Hammer House of Horror magazine in which Harryhausen is repeatedly prompted on his predilection for contemporary film gore, for both future film projects and film watching tastes, Harryhausen does offer up one surprising concession to, and another not so surprising refusal of, ’70s updates of the Frankenstein adaptation he’d been “teethed on” in the ’30s: Young Frankenstein, yes; Flesh for Frankenstein, no. In another interview, this time for Clash of the Titans, Harryhausen rails against the growing trend of films revelling in cynicism and anti-hero worshipping. No examples are offered, but it’s unmistakeable that his call for filmic heroes is coming out of the everyday ambiance of ’80s nuclear anxieties for another generation of cold war kids under the Star Wars umbrella of their own Clash of the Titans (cue Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes”).

If in 1981 he was critical of cinema elevating the anti-hero, imagine what Harryhausen was thinking when he’d learnt that the same 1992 Academy Award ceremony replaying his acceptance of the Gordon E. Sawyer Award would heap Oscars on Silence of the Lambs again and again, the very film he and his wife Diana refused to sit through to the end. “Murder and cannibalism,” Harryhausen would be reported saying in his obituaries, “how can that be entertainment?”

It’s not a stretch to see how Harryhausen took to heart the unremitting reviews of Clash of the Titans as anachronistic claptrap as an attack on his artistic commitment to hero-focused, mythical storytelling and its entertainment values. What wasn’t seen coming though was who Harryhausen would invoke as a powerful barometer of the mounting cynical, hero-less times he believed the world was mired in:

I always felt that Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was a remarkable prophecy of what is happening today. I see it coming to pass more and more. That book should be republished. The Ellsworth Tooheys of the world, who love to destroy artistic creations, the cynic who suggests that there is no hope, has no faith in the future.

Harryhausen, a Randroid? Outside of online Cliffs Notes for The Fountainhead and the one-note pastiche of the villainous Ellsworth Toohey in The Simpsons’ “Four Great Women and a Manicure”, a cringingly straight play on audience knowingness of Rand’s novel that seems a universe away from the Ayn Rand School for Tots seen in “A Streetcar Named Marge” episode broadcasted the same year as Harryhausen’s academy award, there isn’t much more to knowing why Harryhausen borrowed Rand’s arch-nemesis as architecture critic Toohey. Bane of creative, sky-reaching individualists as well as public purveyor and gatekeeper of what the masses should have decided for them as entertainment worth experiencing, Harryhausen’s Tooheys were dismissive of his later films as innately out of step with the genre, technical, esthetic, character creation and storytelling transformations already underway in special effects cinema. And that wouldn’t be the only time Harryhausen would name check Ayn Rand as defense.

Almost a quarter of century after that Starlog interview Harryhausen would again have cause to conjure her up when asked if he “despair[ed] for the state of modern cinema”, while resolutely pointing back down the time tunnel to Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. as the “most recent fantasy films” that had captured his imagination. Then there’s the irony of Harryhausen’s revulsion at Silence of the Lambs while Rand herself was a real-life murder groupie almost 70 years before. As revealing as Harryhausen’s call out to The Fountainhead is of his reading habits, and as much as it begs knowing when and how he got turned onto Rand, the better question to ask is: Will future Bioshock game franchise installments ever revisit the heroic individualist cosmology embodied by Rand’s titular Greek Titan and include Harryhausen monsters and stop-motion references?

More tellingly though are Harryhausen’s answers to questions over his repeated preference for the mythical past over science fiction and industry pressure to adapt to the increasing technologization of special effects developments ushered in by Star Wars. Regardless of whether the outlet was the film genre fan magazine Fantastic Films, Starlog, or the in-depth special effects dedication provided by Cinefex magazine, coverage of Clash of the Titans included Harryhausen restating his basic, almost metaphysical claim for the mythical past as a celebration of life-affirming heroism and action over hard science fictional futures where “everything is gadgetry and technocrats and technization”.

Even after Harryhausen’s invoking Renaissance sculptor Cellini and German Gothic imagineering of the horror of Medusa as historical precedent for his own dramatic license for giving the Gorgon a serpentine body, practical horror effects-focused Fangoria still had to ask “when will the great Harryhausen adopt computer-controlled camera work?” Where Star Wars was raised directly, such as drawing out more from his comments on provocative fan-made comparisons of the stop motion animation seen in The Empire Strikes Back as “first-year Harryhausen”, Harryhausen himself offers up admiration for what was achieved by through computerized motion control developed by Industrial Light and Magic with a genre-specific proviso:

To me, the ultimate aim in making our films has never been the smoothing out of stop-motion animation. To try to duplicate live-action in every way seems to me like asking a painter to paint a landscape so it will appear like a photograph. Our pictures are more of a surrealistic experience rather than an excursion into technical perfection. I’m certain technical perfection has its place and its advantages, but could you really make a sequence such as the skeleton swordfight in Jason and the Argonauts, or the Medusa sequence in Clash of the Titans, with a computer?”

When did Harryhausen himself begin to realize not if, but when the VFX industry trend of converging digital filmmaking with optical technology would outstrip what he was calling out as, like a repeated talisman warding off its advancement, unsurpassable? One telling moment was Tippett’s demonstration to the Master of the DID (direct input device), which translated stop motion movements applied to a dinosaur armature into a computer. Seeing how the armature drove the movements of the computer model displayed on-screen in real time, Harryhausen uttered “Good God!”

In retrospect, the criticisms of stop motion as anachronistic warrant the rephrasing of an iconic line from the film Harryhausen has been endlessly associated: “It was an elegant animation technique for a more civilized age.” Linking Harryhausen to Star Wars this way is more than a fanboy calling out of Adam Savage’s association of Tippett with the “old school technology. The oldest school technology”, which forgets who begat whom in the genealogical lineage of stop motion animators.

It’s more than casting Harryhausen as the old wizard to Lucas and his then young computer-innovating effects artists as the generational sweeping away of the past that stop motion represented. That would be forgetting, too, of the managerial battle over labor and deliverables Lucas had had with the original effects teams. And yes, as true as the fabled tales are of the 30-something talent tapped to sharecrop in the Star Wars universe and direct what was then slated as Revenge of the Jedi, tales now forever circulating as click-bait listicles, Harryhausen himself was courted by Lucas in 1978 to consider undertaking the stop motion effects for The Empire Strikes Back. Lucas’ project schedule for Empire was dictated by Twentieth Century-Fox’s control of Star Wars sequel rights which would revert to Fox if Lucas didn’t deliver in two years. Principal photography on Clash of the Titans would start in May 1979. There would never be a window of time for collaborating.

Associating Harryhausen with that line with Star Wars says more about where the future of special effects development went. After all, the secret wage theft orchestrated by Apple, Adobe, Google, Intel, Intuit, and Pixar as a conspiracy against hiring each others’ software engineers to drive down wages had its roots in wage-reduction agreements between Lucasfilm and Pixar that Lucas instigated to control the human cost side computer animation. And that gets to the contrast between the artisanal world of Harryhausen as the sole designer, engineer, assembler and creator of material artifacts, manipulated by hand, that co-habited with humans in mythical worlds in which human-worn and human-held costumes and props were themselves simulacra of objects belonging to the past worlds of real artisans and makers.

Harryhausen’s mythological fantasy films do continue to attract fascination outside of fan cultures. For Jon Solomon, Professor of Medieval Studies, author of the classical studies subfield defining book The Ancient World and Film, Harryhausen’s fantastical recreations of classical mythology, from Jason and the Argonauts, to Clash of the Titans with its inclusion of a Teutonic Kraken and changes to the sequencing of events dramatised in ancient sources, such as the existence of Pegasus before the death of Medusa; to the Sinbad films with monster mash-ups using mythical Greek creatures including the Minotaur and the Cyclopean Centaur; all of Harryhausen’s invocations of mythical antiquity deserve attention and study, regardless of their fidelity to ancient sources, as popular continuations of classical antiquity, despite the rise of New Hollywood and the blockbuster in the ’70s.

Even more recent academic explorations of how architecture is consumed through popular culture, referred to as archi.pop, invoke the architecture of the ancient Roman world of an earlier film of Harryhausen, 20 Million Miles to Earth. The spectacle of the space age-born Venusian Ymir battling amongst the ruins of the Colosseum transforms the contained, consumption of the remnants of the inherited past into destructive debris turning monumental heritage into something thwarting the transition of the post-World War II present into the promise of the technological future.

Jason Davis is a researcher and writer exploring alternate histories, forms of storytelling and dead media collection involving late-20th Century Japanese and American science fiction and horror genres. He’s (co)authored contributions to a number of Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series, including books on anime and manga as well as on the Dexter, Planet of the Apes, and Hannibal Lecter franchises, and entries on British and Japanese comics for a forthcoming encyclopedia of world comics.

Call for Music Writers, Reviewers, and Essayists
Call for Music Writers