Willis O' Brien

Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema

28/04/21

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Picture this.

I am twelve years old and I am somewhere in darkest Lincolnshire, sitting in the front row of a cinema, gazing open-mouthed up at the big screen. It’s 1963 and the film I’m watching is Jason and the Argonauts, which I have been lured to after watching a very enticing trailer on television. As I sit there, entranced, Jason and his armoured pals are doing violent battle with a bunch of creepy-looking skeletons, brandishing swords and shields.

And the thought that’s uppermost in my mind is, How have they done this?

Thus far, my experience of movie monsters is mostly actors lurching about in shonky rubber suits… or some latex tentacles held up with lengths of (clearly visible) fishing line. But this is different. This is stop-frame animation. And yes, of course I’ve seen King Kong on the telly, and it’s been kind of explained to me how it all works, but that’s an old black and white effort while this is in technicolour and… it’s something entirely new in my experience, something so thrilling that it sets my burgeoning imagination on fire. This, it turns out, is the work of Ray Harryhausen. He is going to be an influence on my own writing in years to come, but I don’t know that yet.

Over the years, I watch all of his films – and somehow they always belong to him, rather than to whoever happens to be the director. I catch up with his earlier efforts on TV, or on video when that becomes a thing, and I watch each successive new release on the big screen, right up to Ray’s swan song, Clash of the Titans, in 2010. It’s very rare for a special effects man to have his name on the movie poster, but for Ray Harryhausen, they always made an exception. I think it’s fair to say that I am a major fan of his work.

So you can imagine how excited I am when I learn about a forthcoming exhibition. I have it marked in my calendar a full year ahead of time. And then… well, you know what happens next. Covid. Lockdown. End of.

So, here I am, much later than anticipated and finally… FINALLY, it’s deemed safe for me to visit The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. As I step through the doorway, I’m thinking: this had better be good.

It is good. In fact, it’s VERY good, a comprehensive exhibition that follows Ray’s story chronologically from room to room, covering his early days as assistant to King Kong animator Willis O’Brien, his ‘Puppetoon‘ series for George Pal, his friendship with Ray Bradbury (coincidentally, my writing hero), and then into the glory days of his partnership with producer Charles Schneer – Jason and the Argonauts, the Sinbad films, One Million Years BC...

And I am in a sort of heaven, transported back to my childhood days as I move from exhibit to exhibit in a state of something suspiciously akin to wide-eyed wonder. Oh look! There’s the actual Mighty Joe Young! And there’s the Kraken! And those pesky skeletons, looking exactly as they did back in 1963, swords raised, ready for action.

But there’s much more than just miniature figurines. There’s a really useful set up that shows exactly how the stop-motion system works, arranged in transparent layers that pop up one by one. There’s a sequence showing just how patient and exacting Ray’s working process must have been as he manipulates a figure through a series of poses. There are rarely seen early attempts at animation, put together in his garage, and there are the meticulously rendered storyboards that would put most contemporary efforts to shame, all of them showing the influence of Ray’s main inspiration, Gustave DorĂ©. And right at the end, there’s a green screen set up where you can stand on a cross and be transported into an exotic location, where you will be menaced by some of those iconic monsters from Ray’s fertile imagination.

When you’ve waited a long time for something to happen, the result can often feel anti-climactic. Not so here. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art have this gem on show until the end of August, so you’ve plenty of time to book your places. Everything fells very safe, with masks and social distancing scrupulously observed. Go along and marvel at one man’s incredible accomplishments.

5 Stars

Philip Caveney