The Ray Harryhausen Dinosaur Films
Created | Updated Apr 17, 2018
Ray Harryhausen (1920-2014) is widely regarded as the world's greatest stop-motion animator. Between 1952 and 1981, Harryhausen created his own films in which mankind encountered creatures never before brought to life. These included mythical beings, titans, gods, aliens and normal creatures strangely mutated to many times their natural size. Yet above all, it is perhaps for Harryhausen's dinosaurs that he is best remembered, reflecting his lifelong passion.
Ray Harryhausen's love of dinosaurs dates from 1925, when he first saw Willis O'Brien's film The Lost World in the cinema at the age of five, which he described with the words,
I was about five years old when I had my first taste of dinosaurs. My parents took me to see the movie of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1925) in which an intrepid group of explorers, led by the fearless Professor Challenger, discover a dinosaur-infested plateau in the South American jungle. I had never dreamt that such huge and terrifying creatures might exist and they captured my imagination immediately, setting me on the path to a career in animation.
The Lost World inspired him to make papier mâché puppets of dinosaurs. These puppets, and the sets in which they performed, became increasingly sophisticated, allowing him to develop model making skills that would prove key in later life. After seeing King Kong at the age of 14 in 1933 he made more marionettes of the main creatures: King Kong1 as well as a brontosaurus, pterodactyl, triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex. These puppets remarkably still exist; photographs of them were published in Ray Harryhausen's Fantasy Scrapbook.
Another key inspiration was the work of Charles R Knight, an artist who between 1890 and 1950 specialised in paintings of dinosaurs, both for books and for museums throughout America, including the LA County Museum, later renamed the Museum of Natural History, close to where Harryhausen lived. He was the first artist to reconstruct prehistoric animals in a realistic fashion, collaborating closely with palaeontologists. The museum also had displays of prehistoric mammals from the La Brear tar pits, brought to life in the corresponding paintings by Knight. The tar-soaked skeletal remains of saber-toothed cats and mammoths would, like fossilised dinosaurs, stay a profound part of Harryhausen's imagination throughout his life.
Cave Bear's Evolution
Following an exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum on special effects, including a section on how Willis O'Brien had made The Lost World and King Kong, in 1935, Harryhausen made his first stop-motion experiment by animating a cave bear. His mother, Martha Harryhausen, allowed him to cut up an old fur coat to make the bear, which had a wooden frame and ball and socket joints made from beads. He filmed this with a borrowed camera on black and white film and began to save up for a camera of his own.
Harryhausen developed his drawing and modelling skills by attending art school, and later made plaster models of dinosaurs in order to learn how to visualise each model before making an armatured version. His first model stegosaurus was inspired by Charles R Knight's painting in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and it won a model-making competition at the Los Angeles Museum. Soon after, he purchased a 16mm Kodak Cine II Special camera able to be used for stop-frame photography. With this his experiments continued, using such animals as a woolly mammoth, brontosaurus, monoclonius2 and dimetrodon. In 1938 Harryhausen met three of the most important people to influence his life. The first was influential science-fiction promoter Forrest J Ackerman, who led to Harryhausen meeting the second person, close lifelong friend Ray Bradbury, at the Los Angeles Science Fiction League. The third was Willis 'Obie' O'Brien, the animator behind The Lost World and King Kong. O'Brien was keen to nurture Harryhausen's enthusiasm, and provided constructive criticism.
Eventually I showed Obie my prized stegosaurus... he turned it around in his hands and eventually said, 'The legs look like wrinkled sausages. You've got to put more character into it and study anatomy to learn where the muscles connect to the bones.' To an 18-year-old lad this comment was both damning and soul-destroying, especially as it came from my hero, but it was one of the best pieces of advice I ever received.
It was in 1938 that Harryhausen began work on his ambitious home project, entitled Evolution of the World, later simply Evolution. The idea was to show the beginning of life on Earth, concentrate on how dinosaurs had evolved and died out, and end with early mammals. Between 1938 and 1940, Harryhausen filmed about 20 minutes of colour footage, especially of a brontosaurus and allosaurus, with a saber-toothed cat, stegosaurus, triceratops and woolly mammoth models also constructed. The project gave him experience in perfecting the flow of bringing movement to his models, making them more lifelike.
Off and on, over two years, I laboured at this enormous story until one day I went to the cinema... to see Walt Disney's Fantasia. In it was a section devoted to Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' in which Disney had interpreted the music to accompany images of the evolution and demise of the dinosaurs.
... It had taken Disney years to realise with a staff of over 300 people, and there I was attempting to visualise the dawn of our world all on my own. Well, that was it. I didn't shoot another frame and it taught me a salutary lesson – not to think too big.
Although Evolution was never completed, it did show various producers what he was capable of doing. Later on when Irwin Allen hired him to animate dinosaurs for The Animal World (1956), Allen had been so impressed with Evolution that he had Harryhausen's 16mm footage enlarged to 35mm to see whether it could be used in the film. However, because Harryhausen had filmed at 16 frames per second rather than 24fps, in the end the decision was made not to incorporate it.
Footage made for Evolution as well as his earlier experiments with the cave bear, woolly mammoth and other dinosaurs can be seen on the Ray Harryhausen The Early Years Collection DVD.
With Willis O'Brien
After the Second World War, Harryhausen worked with Willis O'Brien animating on Mighty Joe Young (1949). When filming had finished, he spent six months assisting Obie on his long-cherished attempt to make a film involving the discovery of a valley of dinosaurs in Mexico. Obie had first proposed this idea in 1941 and it had undergone many title changes since, including Gwangi and Valley of the Mist. Sadly Obie was unable to find a studio willing to finance it.
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1952)
In early 1952, independent film producers Hal Chester and Jack Dietz wanted to make a film about a terrifying monster menacing Manhattan. They did not know what this monster would be, nor how to make the special effects; all they knew was it had to be made cheaply. After a mutual friend informed Harryhausen that producer Jack Dietz was looking for someone to design a convincing creature for a film, Harryhausen got in contact, impressed him with his footage from Evolution and Mighty Joe Young, and was offered the job.
Inspired, Harryhausen naturally decided that the creature should be a dinosaur. As a brontosaurus had featured in The Lost World and a Tyrannosaurus rex had appeared in King Kong, he created a new, fictional type of dinosaur, named the Rhedosaurus. He produced all the animation himself, working alone day after day, completing the animation within five months.
While the film was being developed, the Saturday Evening Post published a short story written by Harryhausen's close friend Ray Bradbury. Dietz was inspired by the story and, wishing to incorporate story elements into the film, paid Bradbury $2,000 for the film rights and purchased the name The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms from the Saturday Evening Post.
Animal World (1956)
In 1956, Willis O'Brien was approached by Irwin Allen to contribute to a feature film documentary entitled The Animal World. The idea was to show all the animals on Earth, with a 15-minute prologue showing dinosaurs and then moving on to present day footage. O'Brien asked Harryhausen to be the animator, with himself supervising, which Harryhausen was delighted to do.
Allen was keen to make the film cheaply and so had the models made by the Warner Brothers workshop rather than by Obie or Harryhausen. The dinosaur models were made quickly, which left them less detailed, and in fact the allosaurus, ceratosaurus and tyrannosaurus were all the same model slightly tweaked. In order to make the sequence dramatic, Irwin insisted on having the brontosaurus swallow a caveman, even though they did not live at the same time and in any case a brontosaurus was a herbivore. The animation was done quickly, within eight weeks, and in his autobiography An Animated Life, Harryhausen described it with the words, 'as far as input was concerned, one of the most unrewarding experiences of my life.'
Mysterious Island (1961)
Just before making The Animal World, Harryhausen first worked with Charles Schneer, head of independent production company Morningside Productions, on It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955). This began a creative partnership that continued throughout Harryhausen's career. After collaborating with Schneer on five films, Columbia approached them with a job offer. They had a script for Jules Verne's Mysterious Island, and as Schneer and Harryhausen had successfully adapted The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1959) on a limited budget, they felt they would be the perfect team to make it.
Schneer and Harryhausen both felt that Verne's original story was not visually dramatic, and decided to introduce creatures to provide excitement. Early ideas involved the island being populated by dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures, although this was replaced with the idea of Captain Nemo creating giant animals in order to increase food production. Although the idea of the island being home to extinct beasts was abandoned, a prehistoric bird, the phororhacos, still made it into the finished film.
One Million Years BC (1966)
In the early 1960s, Hammer Films purchased the rights to remake One Million BC (1940) and asked Harryhausen to design and animate the dinosaurs. Harryhausen created an archelon, allosaurus, brontosaurus, ceratosaurus, triceratops, pteranodons and pterodactyls after conducting research on these dinosaurs at various museums. Harryhausen had originally hoped that a woolly mammoth would appear in the film, but instead of that they used an unconvincing iguana photographed at high speed and rear projected to look big. A spider similarly appears in the film, much to Harryhausen's regret. Other animals that Harryhausen hoped to include, but didn't make it into the film, were a stegosaurus, arsinoitherium and a phororhacos. One mammal that most definitely did appear in the film was Raquel Welch, whose career was tremendously boosted by its unprecedented success, although she has seemed somewhat embarrassed by it since.
One Million Years BC was a tremendous success, so much so that Harryhausen was asked to work on a sequel3; however, by then he was busy with his next film project, The Valley of Gwangi. Hammer did look into making a remake of King Kong, wanting Harryhausen to animate, but this idea was abandoned when there were complexities involved in securing the rights.
The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
As One Million Years BC had proved incredibly popular, Harryhausen's long-term partner producer Charles Schneer was interested in making something similar. Harryhausen turned to the work Willis O'Brien had done for Gwangi 20 years earlier, planning to create a tribute to his mentor. The film would be set in a valley of dinosaurs ruled over by a carnivorous dinosaur named 'Gwangi', from a South American word meaning 'Lizard'. O'Brien's original 'Gwangi' had been an allosaurus, but one had featured in One Million Years BC and as Harryhausen did not want to repeat himself, he made 'Gwangi' a Tyrannosaurus rex with some allosaurus features, which he later occasionally nicknamed a 'Tyrannosaurus al'. Harryhausen said,
I based Gwangi on, and I think Obie did too on the original Gwangi, Charles R Knight's concept of a Tyrannosaurus. We called it an 'Allosaurus' occasionally. They were both meat-eaters, they were both tyrants, except one was a little larger than the other.
Other prehistoric animals included an eohippus, pterodactyl, ornithomimus and strycosaurus.
Unfortunately the film was considered to be too expensive for Columbia Pictures, the company that Schneer and Harryhausen normally worked for. In 1967, Jack Warner's controlling interest in Warner Brothers was bought by Elliot Hyman's Seven Arts Productions to form Warner Bros-Seven Arts. As Elliot Hyman's son Kenneth Hyman had worked with Harryhausen on One Million Years BC, Warner Bros-Seven Arts agreed to finance the film. Filming took place in Spain.
Animation took a year in 1967-8. The key roping sequence, the breath-taking scene in which a number of cowboys mounted on horseback surround and lasso Gwangi, took over five months to complete. By the time it had been completed, the Kinney Corporation bought out Seven Arts Productions to gain control of Warner Brothers. As The Valley of Gwangi had been made under the old regime, the new owners were keen to sweep it under the carpet, releasing it without publicity. The film's title The Valley Where Time Stood Still was changed, apparently because they felt that this was too long, with the film renamed to The Valley of Gwangi. Although this was closer to O'Brien's original title, Harryhausen felt that American audiences were put off seeing the film as it had a foreign-sounding name.
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)
Following on from The Valley of Gwangi's box office disappointment, Harryhausen and Schneer returned to making Sinbad films. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad was a success so they began work on a sequel. One long-standing proposal had been for Sinbad to visit a lost land of dinosaurs. Although this never materialised, some prehistoric elements made it into the finished film. Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger features a prehistoric caveman named Trog as well as the climactic fight with a saber-toothed cat. The design of Trog the Troglodyte is entirely fictional and not inspired by any known caveman remains.
The introduction of Trog was greatly simplified from Harryhausen's original proposal. Harryhausen wanted to introduce Trog in an exciting attention-grabbing sequence and proposed that Trog could fight a prehistoric animal, suggesting an arsinotherium (a prehistoric rhinoceros). Instead it was decided that it would be cheaper to introduce Trog in a scene in which the main female characters Dione and Princess Farrah go skinny-dipping and sunbathe nude for a bit. Another abandoned prehistoric idea included Sinbad encountering a frozen mammoth in the Arctic. This was replaced in the finished film with a giant walrus.
When Harryhausen designed his dinosaur's appearance, he ensured that he closely followed the palaeontological evidence that was available at the time. It was his attention to detail that helped bring his dinosaurs to life in a way that no other animator had achieved. He described his process by saying,
[I would study] an example of some prehistoric restorations and then we start actually from the skeleton, the basic skeleton, to plan the armature for the rubber models. And then we go to the museum and actually see the skeletons and try to develop the animals in a way that they're well known from the museum point-of-view.
Despite his research, Harryhausen reserved the right to use cinematic licence when designing his creatures. The flying reptiles, the pteranodons and pterodactyl, were given bat-like wings to make them appear more dramatic and believable. There was also some criticism levelled at films like One Million Years BC for not being accurate, as mankind did not live at the same time as dinosaurs. He later said that the film's purpose was purely entertainment,
We don't make those films for palaeontologists. If you just have a bunch of dinosaurs running around barking at each other, there's no drama. You have to include humans!
Harryhausen's interpretation of dinosaurs is one that to this day influences how many people believe that dinosaurs actually moved. His dinosaurs are dynamic, never standing still but always with moving, swishing tails, always waiting to lunge or snap, which he described with the words, 'If you have a dinosaur, I like to keep it active by having the tail swooshing all the time.' Unlike dinosaurs seen more recently in films since Jurassic Park, Harryhausen's dinosaurs' tails can be seen close to (though never dragging on) the ground. He expressed a view that the trend since Jurassic Park and Walking With Dinosaurs in having dinosaurs' tails raised high off the ground makes the dinosaurs appear constipated.
Prehistoric Animals Animated:
Animals in italics are fictional.
One Million Years BC
|Large carnivorous dinosaur|
|Archelon||One Million Years BC||Prehistoric turtle. In reality it was no-where near as large as the film portrays.|
One Million Years BC
|Large sauropod herbivorous dinosaur, now known as 'Apatosaurus'.|
One Million Years BC
|Horned large carnivorous dinosaur|
|Eohippus||The Valley of Gwangi||Meaning 'Dawn Horse', one of the earliest types of horse. Sometimes called Hyracotherium.|
|Nautiloid Cephalopod||Mysterious Island||Fictional giant squid-like sea creature|
|Ornithomimus||The Valley of Gwangi||Small bipedal dinosaur|
|Phororhacos||Mysterious Island||Large carnivorous bird, now known as a phorusrhacos.|
|Pterodactyl||One Million Years BC|
The Valley of Gwangi
|Crested flying reptile|
One Million Years BC
|Rhedosaurus||The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms||Fictional carnivorous dinosaur|
|Saber-toothed cat||Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger||Large feline, scientifically called Smilodon|
|Stegosaurus||Animal World||Armour-plated herbivorous dinosaur|
|Styracosaurus||The Valley of Gwangi||Horned herbivorous dinosaur|
One Million Years BC
|Horned herbivorous dinosaur|
|Troglodyte||Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger||Fictional giant horned apeman|
|Tyrannosaurus rex||Animal World|
The Valley of Gwangi
|Large carnivorous dinosaur|
|Walrus Gigantica||Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger||Fictional large walrus|
Harryhausen spent his life developing film ideas involving dinosaurs. In the late 1930s he had an idea involving Atlantis, in which the legendary city would have been destroyed by both dinosaurs and erupting volcanoes. In the early 1950s he had a story idea named Ugula. In this, a scientist finds a lost canyon full of spiders, dinosaurs and 13 foot tall 'missing link' cavemen. This was quite possibly the earliest inspiration for the character of Trog from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.
In 1971 Harryhausen considered a story in which Sinbad would discover a valley of dinosaurs, which later influenced Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.
Harryhausen ensured that many of his films without dinosaurs instead had reptilian creatures. These include the Ymir in 20 Million Miles to Earth, a crocodile in The Three Worlds of Gulliver and the amphibious Kraken in Clash of the Titans.
The success of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms led to a host of copying monster-rampage B Movies, about creatures created or released by radiation or grown to enormous size. Japan created their own version of the film, Godzilla (1955). Planet of Dinosaurs (1978), a low-budget stop-motion dinosaur film, included a small Rhedosaurus as a tribute to Ray Harryhausen.
Steven Spielberg and creature supervisor Phil Tippet have both said that the action of the Tyrannosaurus rex swallowing the lawyer on the toilet in Jurassic Park (1993) was based on the Rhedosaurus eating the policeman in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. The sequence in the same film in which the Tyrannosaurus suddenly attacks the gallimimus was inspired by the Tyrannosaurus from The Valley of Gwangi suddenly eating the ornithomimus. Just as The Valley of Gwangi involved a dinosaur being lassoed, The Lost World: Jurassic Park featured dinosaurs being similarly roped and captured. The disappointing Godzilla (1998) remake, in which Godzilla attacks New York, contained numerous scenes almost identical to The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.
According to Greg Broadmore, the creature designer on King Kong (2005),
Ray Harryhausen's work had a huge influence on us during the design of 'King Kong'. There were a lot of different ways we could possibly go with the design of the creatures and the dinosaurs and Peter4 especially said he didn't want them to be real dinosaurs, he wanted them to be movie dinosaurs. So we were trying to evoke that era of dinosaurs from movie history... The V-rexes in 'King Kong'... had this heavy-set tail that was hanging down, they had three fingers and they're basically inspired by things like Gwangi from Ray Harryhausen.
In the 21st Century the influence is still visible in films such as Cloverfield (2008), Avatar (2009) and Godzilla (2014). But perhaps his greatest legacy was encouraging the imaginations of children worldwide, near as well as far. His daughter Vanessa has confessed that growing up, 'Of course, instead of dolls, I had dinosaurs.'