In Review

Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema

The special effects pioneer’s love of art and mythology is explored in this newly reopened show

When lockdown restrictions were relaxed last month, an exhibition devoted to the work of special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen reopened at Edinburgh’s Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. It might seem strange that an art museum should host a show dedicated to a man who spent much of his career making models for monster movies, said Martin Hannan in The National – but its subject “was no ordinary modelmaker”. Harryhausen (1920-2013) can truly be said to have “changed cinema” forever.

Working decades before computer-generated imagery became available, Harryhausen created astonishing and believable worlds on screen, conjuring up fantastical ephemera – from armies of reanimated skeletons to fleets of marauding UFOs. Using plasticine and other materials, he became a master of stop-motion animation, manipulating his models at the painstaking rate of 24 frames per second. He rarely wrote or directed his movies, but it was his creations that truly enlivened those he was involved with from the 1940s to the 1980s: many, including The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963), have come to be regarded as classics on the strength of Harryhausen’s ingenious contributions. The ambitious spectacles he produced had a profound influence on film-makers from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to the Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.

Harryhausen approached his art with a single aim: “to astonish moviegoers”, said James Purdon in Apollo. This obsession stemmed from a 1933 visit to a cinema in his native Los Angeles, where he saw the classic monster picture King Kong for the first time. The film’s then-cutting-edge special effects clearly made a deep impression, and the teenage Harryhausen began trying to replicate them with models in his backyard. His precocious efforts were the genesis of a novel form of animation he called “Dynamation”, which combined “imaginative freedom and precision engineering”. Informed by Harryhausen’s diligent studies of human and animal anatomy, his models gave the impression of “extraordinarily realistic motion” in three-dimensional settings. Cold War America’s demand for spectacular effects in sci-fi and fantasy films meant he was rarely short of work. He created worlds in which “cowboys duel with dinosaurs and extraterrestrial dragons leer menacingly at 1950s rocket-ships”, captivating and terrifying cinemagoers.

Harryhausen’s vision was rooted in art history, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. He admired Gustave Doré and John Martin, “19th century artists of the fantastic” whose nightmarishly apocalyptic visions struck a nerve in the nuclear age. Yet his true passion lay in bringing Greek mythology to life. Harryhausen “brought the stories of antiquity kicking and screaming into the film age”, fabricating a “roaring” Cyclops for Sinbad, a “hissing” Medusa in 1981’s Clash of the Titans, and all manner of mythological monsters for his masterpiece, Jason and the Argonauts. In reimagining these “ancient dream worlds” for contemporary audiences, he followed in the footsteps of “Botticelli, Caravaggio and Picasso” – all of whom he claimed as influences. Harryhausen’s ability to create “a sense of the marvellous” distinguishes him from the directors of adventure epics who followed in his wake. Watch his films now and it’s clear that his work transcended mere special effects. “This is art.”

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh (0131-624 6200). Until 20 February 2022; nationalgalleries.org

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