Being born in the 1990s – the era of Jurassic Park, Titanic and The Nightmare Before Christmas – growing up, I was not aware of Ray Harryhausen’s iconic work that had preceded and paved the way for these much-loved masterpieces of special effects. Visiting the Scottish National Galleries’ Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema exhibition and being introduced to this legend of cinema who inspired the likes of Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Tim Burton, was thus an enlightening and thrilling experience.
Ray Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles in 1920. At the age of thirteen, he went to see King Kong (1933) and was so entranced by Willis O’Brien’s special effects that he decided to watch the film a further 29 times. Fuelled by his fascination, and encouraged by his parents, young Harryhausen constructed marionettes inspired by O’Brien’s fantastic creatures which have remarkably been preserved and are on display in the exhibition.
Harryhausen nurtured a deep fascination with film; discovering the world of stop-animation and making his first major career breakthrough in 1947 when asked to work on Mighty Joe Young (1949) alongside his childhood hero O’Brien.
Drawings by the nineteenth-century French artist Gustave Doré (1832-83) were a source of inspiration to both O’Brien and Harryhausen. The representation of light and attention to detail in Doré’s depictions of fantastical scenes is easily observable in Harryhausen’s concept drawings. Indeed, these drawings – produced to convey his vision for key scenes – are striking and showcase Harryhausen as a highly-skilled draughtsman.
Harryhausen’s artistic abilities are further showcased through his models, which are no doubt the stars of the exhibition. Highlights include the original skeleton models from Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and the Medusa from Clash of the Titans (1981).
The exhibition explains Harryhausen’s creative processes, including “Dynamation”: a form of stop-motion model animation, credited to him. It is incredible to imagine the painstaking work that must have gone into transforming these toy-sized models into terrifying creatures using the stop-animation process, filming shot by shot to create one fluid motion sequence that correlates with the work of the actors.
The exhibition, which is in collaboration with the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, represents the largest and widest-ranging exhibition of Harryhausen’s work. Also featured are interactive displays and posters, memorabilia and music from the films which add to its spectacle and excitement. The exhibition is a triumphant tribute to this trailblazing icon of film history, who would have been entering his centenary year and continues to inspire to this day.
The exhibition is accompanied by the release of Ray Harryhausen’s daughter Vanessa Harryhausen’s book ‘Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema’.
With grateful thanks to Amy Miles for this review.