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RAY HARRYHAUSEN: The Twentieth Century Leonardo da Vinci by David Rosler

Updated: Nov 15, 2018

To readers of Films In Review, the name of the late Ray Harryhausen is likely at best to conjure images of stop motion fantasy creatures and dinosaurs created by “the world's greatest special effects man”. He was much more than that. To everyone, I submit this article and will attempt to make the case spelled out in the title.

Ray's astounding accurate and lifelike self-portrait. This is how he wanted to be remembered; as a man using old equipment and traditional techniques to create artistic miracles. Not relying on technology, but artistry.

Self portrait of da Vinci, accuracy unknown.

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci is widely considered one of the most diversely talented individuals ever to have lived. Artist, inventor and technician, he influenced future generations on a massive scale as a visual creative and original thinker. Among artists known in the twentieth century, the same can only be said of Raymond Frederick Harryhausen.

Make no mistake, this is not a fan-boy venture into the land of extravagant hero worship. Nor is it, hopefully, an over-complicated excursion into pretentious motion picture academia, where the words “genius” and “visionary” are thrown around with reckless abandon. As I offer this hopefully-substantiated opinion that Ray Harryhausen was the twentieth century Leonardo da Vinci, I'm not just being kind to his memory. Nor am I trying to be entertaining. I've been around and know a bit. I mean it. Very, very seriously.

It's already clear that I'm going to generally submit to an overwhelming tendency to call him “Ray”. I don't mean to be affectedly casual here. I knew him, and we joked and kidded a lot of the time we were together, so be the late master's occasional pal with me and call him “Ray”. Da Vinci's time of Renaissance humanism recognized virtually no mutually exclusive differences between sciences and the arts, and artists often thought in terms of science and and scientists delved into the arts, heedless of any abstract concept now assumed to separate them. Both Ray and da Vinci were Renaissance men of the highest caliber of their respective times, both became positively revered by their contemporaries and, most importantly, both changed much of how the world saw their forms of art by leading the way with uniquely original creations, significantly changing the larger world around them.

First, it's necessary to determine whether or not Ray Harryhausen, known generally as a “filmmaker and animator”, was a true artist in the conventional meaning of the word. When I was a student, I had a great art instructor with whom I had a fond relationship and he would often ask with mock intensity, sounding like a drill sergeant, “Rosler! What is art?” After decades I still cannot answer the question. Nor is Webster's dictionary even clear, providing merely cross-pollination of the definition which lead to impossible-to-fathom hybrids. All we can do, then, is to resort to something I loath: rely on the experts. Ray Harryhausen had his work featured in such places as the Museum Of Modern Art and many other esteemed museums, so we're in extremely safe territory when we call the late Ray Harryhausen an artist.

A fantasy drawing by da Vinci. The author contends that stripped of the atmospheric manifestations of age, the drawing and Ray's drawings are comparable. Indeed, the dragon's neck here is too slender to support the head, discrepancies in proportion Harryhausen was careful to avoid.

Ray's drawings were meant to convey images he wanted to realize photographically in his motion pictures. Again, the purists frown. They are only illustrations, say they, those drawings are not “art”. But they do not reckon with the fact that Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel - an illustration - and did not carry out every brush stroke himself. Da Vinci's The Last Supper, plainly not a story idea invented by da Vinci, - an illustration - was also a commission, by the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan. These two examples and countless others, by the standard set forth by the thoughtless artistic academia itself, reduces two of the greatest masters down to mere “illustrators” in every sense of the word, and therefore, not genuine “artists” by their own definitions.


Ray's classical lighting is heavily on display in this pre-production artwork for Jason and the Argonauts. © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, photography by Andy Johnson

Ray's sculpted figures, molded and cast in foam rubber, with steel armatures inside which allowed them to be minutely re-positioned one frame at a time, were always well-realized, often excellent and occasionally breathtaking. That's just about the same ratio as Shakespeare. Slowly, in describing the figures, we start moving into da Vinci territory, for what Ray and da Vinci share from the get-go is a merging of the traditional disciplines of “art' with a technician's mind and a genius capacity for invention.

Ray's giant "Talos" bronze stature, from Jason And The Argonauts, performs an agonizing demise which is entirely effective. From his mind and through his fingertips into his gruelingly meticulous stop-motion animation figures, Ray Harryhausen was also nothing less than a positively brilliant theatrical actor, something that da Vinci never attained. In the words of distinguished British actor Tom Baker, “I regard Ray Harryhausen as a great poet of a certain medium”.

And last but not least, was Ray's astounding imagination. So clear and intense were his creations that when he first tackled fantasy, the effects were things utterly remarkable and yet so firm in their certainty that they seem to have always been with us. They were credible, despite being fantastic. They were contemporary and yet steeped in a clear reality that was classical without being imitative.

Some people may now be thinking that I am attempting to elevate Ray by pulling down Michelangelo and Shakespeare. That is exactly what I'm doing. It's called “leveling the field” and it's only fair to bring the greats down from the Aesthetic Mount Olympus created by an academic elite whose own standards, if taken honestly, reduce the greatest writers and artists whom they, themselves, admire, down to mere illustrators and literary hacks. It's time Ray Harryhausen truly got his due from the larger artistic community. His genuinely vast accomplishments have stood the test of time and are infinitely greater than any of those of his so-called critics.

Additionally, while we're shattering the Holy Grails of the artistic academic establishment, the great masters' paintings - illustrations - were indeed the motion pictures of their day – without the motion - and attempting a feeling in the audience akin to today's immersive 3D technology. Look at a very large. old mural or painting and you will likely notice a strange shift in the perspective; toward the bottom of the painting, you are looking downward, toward the top, you seem to be looking up. That's because the great paintings, before photography and printing, were meant to be seen at their original size and from a certain vantage point. When you looked up at the painting – or look up at one today - you really are looking “up” in terms of the perspective of the painting. You were supposed to get some sense of actually being there. Kind of like their version of a 3D movie – meant for a general audience, like Shakespeare, not the artist and his elitist appreciators. Illustrators out to entertain an audience with an effect.

In only 3 of Ray's special effects outings was he brought in merely to be a hired hand to create effects. In the balance of his films - 18 of them - Ray's movies started with his drawings. Then he and his producer kicked ideas around and finally brought in any one of a number of well-regarded screenwriters to tie the drawings together and Ray still had veto power over almost any aspect; even Da Vinci had to obey the demands of his patrons!. Then came time to start pre-production; more drawings from Ray on how things must look, from environments to costumes, props, masks and the rest. it it was visual and ray had an opinion on it, everyone obeyed Ray.

“Directors” on Ray's movies were sometimes surprised to find that they were brought in to walk the actors through the scenes which were, generally, just a procedure to establish audience anticipation for the next Harryhausen sequence, usually an action scene, always directed by Ray himself. Generally, highly experienced directors and sometimes cameramen wound up doing little more than sitting on their hands during the shooting of each film's highlights, wondering just why they had been hired in the first place, and occasionally irate about the circumstances.

So Ray was not just a “special effects man”. He was the guiding genius behind all his motion pictures, crafting and designing each aspect as it developed, every step of the way. Not only did Ray then do all the “magic' which consisted of essentially all the classic visual art disciplines – sculpture, casting, metal working, woodworking, painting, lighting and theatrical performance as well as the modern specialty of cinematography and other technical aspects - masterfully executed by essentially one man in his films – but he did them better than collective crews at all the other studios. He was a genius. Da Vinci was also known for many highly fanciful invention designs. Unfortunately, most were not successful.

A da Vinci design supposedly to allow a man to walk on water.

The difference between da Vinci and Ray is that more often than not, Ray's inventions actually worked. Ray put his technical genius to productive use. Ray took ordinary mainstays of the industry and applied them in ways both audacious and effective.

Apparently the only known photograph of Ray in his studio showing the studio. The big canvas is a rear projection screen.. The frame with the black area painted out on glass is part of his personally developed special efects mainstay which he and his producer called "Dynamation".

Behind-the-scenes of full size rear projection being utilized for Ray's first solo special effects effort "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms"

Ray at work animating in front of the rear projection screen. The stadium backdrop is projected. The figures are foam rubber which he cast from his clay sculptures, with steel ball and socket armature skeletons, moved one frame at a time better than anyone ever had and probably ever will. '© The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation

Photographs also show Ray involved in every step of the process; meeting studio executives in conferences; scouting locations; co-authoring the scripts; designing scenes, costumes and sets on paper; directing the actors; behind the camera; in the editing room; overseeing the music scoring(!)..... there was nothing in which his hand was not a part, and it shows. Indeed, the easiest way to see what Ray did in his movies is to guess what he did not do.

In some of his motion pictures, such as THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, made on a very modest budget, the visual style of the camera work and direction between Ray's work and that of the others while Ray was nevertheless right there on location, is positively jarring; his contributions as a director are excellent; sure and in-command. The rest, sometimes sloppy, occasionally downright bad.

Not only did no other filmmaker in the history of live action motion picture features do all that, they plainly couldn't, and certainly not up to his standard. Welles did not and more importantly, couldn't. Nor did or could Hitchcock. Or anyone else. Don't think they could have if they had only but put their minds to it. There may be the sense that the author is comparing apples to oranges now, but the fact remains. No one else in motion pictures ever had Ray's positively astonishing range of artistic and technical capability. Incidentally, as an aside, if you want to compare Ray in real terms to those Hollywood greats, here's a suggestion: watch the Medusa scene from CLASH OF THE TITANS with the color turned off, in black and white. It's a different and much more powerful experience which is very close in visual sophistication to the greatest photographic moments from Hollywood's heyday in the 1940's.

Additionally, you won't hear the very biggest players in Hollywood say that the single biggest influence on them was Welles or Hitchcock or Reed or Lubitsch or Hawks or Cocteau or Truffaut. As sophisticated as those directors' works often were and are, it was Harryhausen's work which made Hollywood's biggest players sit forward in their seats during their formative years and say, “I want to do that!”

How do we compare Ray and Leonardo, head-to-head? Well, the similarities are striking.

At the most basic level, both artists drew. In very different styles, and while most of Ray's drawings get eclipsed by Da Vinci, of course, there are moments in Ray's drawings which evidence competitive greatness, and Ray competes significantly when lighting is an important element of the drawing.

Da Vinci is known as one of the greatest painters of the world, and painting is not something in which Ray took much of an interest, so there is little to compare them, and Da Vinci is difficult for anyone to get near when it came to a brush.

Both are reputed to be great sculptors, but Da Vinci's sole remaining piece of sculpture is an equestrian figure dated at approximately 1509 and even the authenticity of that piece is in question. Ray's bronzes, however, are both existent and positively stunning. When dealing with classical themes, such as The Slaying Of Medusa, one is easily inclined to mistake a Harryhausen bronze as a work of a Roman master. The composition lines of Ray's sculptures are so masterful one must wonder why this degree of superlative excellence is not more often apparent in his animation figures, because as terrific as his animation figures are, Ray's bronzes are positively magnificent. If Da Vinci deals Ray a death blow with a brush, Ray does the same to Da Vinci in bronze. It's a battle royal between the two. No one else is in the game, because no one else had their overall range of artistic and technical abilities.

Ray Harryhausen bronze, “The Slaying Of Medusa”. This approximate two-foot piece graced the entrance hall of Ray's London home. It had also been initially used to help sell the idea of Clash of the Titans to MGM. © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, photography by Andy Johnson.

Ray Harryhausen paid homage to the film that first inspired him, the 1933 King Kong, with this bronze of one of the classic scenes in the film. Photo by the author in the Harryhausen home.

In anatomical design and expression, both men found themselves drawn to exploring extremes in their mediums. Da Vinci's famous caricatures, with exaggerated features and expressions, and Harryhausen's creatures, which sometimes tend to be just what da Vinci was attempting to manifest; a larger and more true realization of a certain characteristic which defines certain people or animals. In Ray's creations, predatory rage, scheming, towering authority (sometimes literal) and even mystical beauty are plainly on display, as is true of da Vinci's caricatures. I can tell you first-hand that this aspect of the discussion of his work is not just the author reading more into Ray's work than was intended – we discussed it, albeit without ever mentioning da Vinci, himself. While Ray's characters were “illustrations” in the service of the scripts he helped devise, these were personifications of character which were entirely intentional nevertheless, as an artistic exploration identical in personal motivation to that of da Vinci: for art's sake.

Da Vinci's caractures are much like Harryhausen's creatures – delving into the grotesque in search of truth

Both men drew studies of human and animal poses. But in Ray's case, his figure expressions also occurred in the course of any given shot of a performing character or creature. As Ray himself explained, he would go into a shot with a general idea of what to do, but without 'rehearsals” being possible in stop motion animation, he improvised each shot performance as he went along. If you want to see a catalog of hundreds of Harryhausen pose studies, watch his animated sequences one frame at a time. While many poses are “in-betweens”, every pose in every frame is intentional. The dance of the statue of Kali contains a good dozen stand-alone character pose studies in that scene alone and they are often stunning. The siren as it raises the harpoon and listens to the far-off beckoning voice of its master. Talos, knees bent, choking in his death. Calibos falling to his knees from his fatal wound. The Greek mythological Gorgon Medusa, presented by Ray as a huntress, rearing up, archery bow taut in hand, ready to strike. The blinded Cyclops groping the air. The list is endless and many of these poses, while original, have a very classical feel to them. No question: an unparalleled artist of his time at work.

Ray's endless pantomimes are superb examples of figure study poses. Here, the enchanted statue of the Hindu mythological character Kali mesmerizes the audience with a Hindu dance in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

In the admittedly overall lesser-effort SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER, an animated baboon, in the story being a transformed prince, is shown his reflection in a mirror and is moved to shed a tear. All I can say about this moment is that an idea which should have elicited gales of unintentional laughter was met with dead silence by the adult audience save for one woman's voice who quietly said, “Oh my God.” Effects are different today, and time and taste change perception, of course. But that was no accident. When in GOLDEN VOYAGE the centaur rolls over and dies a smoothly realistic and pathetic death, similar murmurs were heard from the theater audience audience at the time. They were astounded not by budget, workmanship or technology, but by the sheer personal artistry of one man. Only when the creature seems alive - and elicits sympathy! - can its anguish or death hold dramatic significance to the audience, an idea Shakespeare - and da Vinci - would have well-approved..

In CLASH OF THE TITANS, the dramatic finale of the film is seen when boyish Greek hero Perseus slays Medusa in her shadowy lair. An extended suspense sequence was created around basically a three-foot-long rubber model which stood around a foot and a half tall. It's tiny, meticulously-crafted face filled a forty foot screen, eyes darting maliciously in the near darkness as it hunted down the heroes. Again, by any theoretical measure, another sure-fire recipe for what should have been a dramatic disaster; a concept which should have had the audience rolling in the isles: “frightened by a puppet”. Instead, so powerful was the scene that you could hear a pin drop as audiences of adults, all over the world, sat transfixed by the suspense. How many live action movies with great actors in the roles achieve such moments of pure engagement, no matter how hard they try? While Medusa's shadowy gaze have lost their edge over time, her presence still generally enthralls..... a rubber model, with a tiny face, manipulated one frame at a time in the hands of a cinematic genius. Incredible.

Ray's Medusa, still looking amazingly lifelike in this screen grab, but a head less than three inches tall!

Da Vinci's Medusa seems to be having perspective trouble with her mouth along with her other personal problems.

Young fans then set out to duplicate their hero's efforts, failing even as middle-aged professionals working on the biggest blockbusters ever made, because they were duped by the fact that was the ultimate proof of Ray's genius: they thought they could imitate him because in the effortlessly enthralling moments of his work, he made it look easy.

Da Vinci the serious artist also explored fantasy, lest anyone think it's only “kid stuff”.

The list of Ray's personal innovations within the sphere of his work is almost endless and shows his facility for invention to be impressive to say the very least, driven by a trait shared by all the greats: a dogged, relentless determination to do the best work possible no matter the odds or restrictions, not for money, but for artistic integrity. And only those few privy to his actual working methods ever came close in a single capacity to the many capacities he juggled so seemingly effortlessly.

In terms of their effect on the world, Da Vinci's contribution to culture is well-known, In a very real sense, however, Ray changed his time much more significantly.

Working in a mass media which did not exist in Leonardo's time and often laboring for years-on-end alone, Ray's imagination, realized by his brilliant artistic aplomb and technical ingenuity, influenced, more than any other single individual, so far, at least a few generations of filmmakers.

Producer/directors such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and James Cameron cite as their primary influences the work of Ray Harryhausen, and that is only the tip of the iceberg which included thousands more who, as children, saw Ray's work and understood that it was the handiwork of one man.

Ray made fantasy a safe creative venue for adults. No single media practitioner or artist of the twentieth century comes close to having his impact. While Disney merchandise is everywhere, Uncle Walt did not send thousands of young minds into an absolute frenzy with his motion pictures. Indeed, artists at Disney and Pixar and others sneak the occasional homage to Ray into moments on-screen – it was never the other way around; Ray was too busy being a total original. Where would today's movie world be if not for the influence of 40 years of Star Wars and the wealth of imagination which has poured endlessly through and from the motion picture camera, changing everything? Because there is not one grain of exaggeration to say that it all started with Ray. Lucas, Cameron and the rest will tell you so. They have said it.

The Renaissance only lasted for sixty years. Ray's entirely singular influence is plainly poised to last much longer than that. Indeed, we remain ensconced, albeit in disguise and masquerading in other forms, in the Harryhausen Renaissance, begun by the ultimate Renaissance Man-style artistic practitioner of the twentieth century.

Ray honored by a statue of him, made by others from a digital scan, for display in the esteemed Media Museum in London. On the far right is Peter Jackson, director of Lord of the Rings. On Ray's right, with glasses, director John Landis, and makeup legend Rick Baker on the left.

Even as men, da Vinci and Ray Harryhausen share some striking personal traits. While da Vinci's personal life is a mystery - he had no known female lovers and homosexuality has been more than hinted at, and Ray was a married man, lovingly devoted to the same woman all his life - there are still significant similarities in their souls. Da Vinci was noted for his extraordinary kindness, going so far, it is recorded, to purchase caged birds for the single purpose of setting them free. Similarly, “kindly” is a word used often to describe Ray and I can personally attest to that, too. Deep love and respect for animals was a subject we both shared, and he would get easily agitated at hearing of less than stellar acts toward animals. It wasn't just a show. He meant it very deeply. Vasari, who knew Leonardo da Vinci well, described da Vinci as having a “Regal spirit”. Anyone who knew Ray would say that the description “Regal Spirit” fit him like a glove.

Strange it is to ruminate on the personal similarities of character between two men so revered by the absolute pinnacle of their contemporaries and those who came after, for their groundbreaking artistic excellence and invention, the massive influence they both had as artists on their very different cultures, hundreds of years apart, in different lands and in different languages. You can enlarge their legacies in any way you desire provided that you do so in a way which would make them both smile. If nothing else, as an artist and as a person, be kind and let the bird go free; for the bird and for yourself.

Ray Harryhausen

Donations to maintain Ray Harryhausen's legacy and his vast collections of work can be made to the Foundation Ray and his wife Diana created, The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation. Please take a moment to visit the website and make a donation.

David Rosler is a producer, director, special effects filmmaker and writer. His range includes theatrical features, TV shows, advertising, stereoscopic 3D production and visuals for the astronomical sciences. His newest project and motion picture studio can be found at For move genre movie reviews and articles at Films In Review, see the list of most recent posts at


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