Stop-motion guru Ray Harryhausen left a legacy of unforgettable movie moments

By Jeff Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, May 15 2013 5:35 p.m. MDT

After presenting Harryhausen with his first and only Oscar during the 1992 Academy Awards, Tom Hanks remarked, “Some people say ‘Casablanca’ or ‘Citizen Kane’ … I say ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ is the greatest film ever made.”

The 1963 epic fantasy is widely regarded as Harryhausen’s masterwork — even by him. It features some of his most memorable creations, including a seven-headed hydra and Talos, the bronze colossus.

No scene stands out more clearly, though, than Jason’s jaw-dropping battle with seven skeletal warriors.

The entire scene, which is less than five minutes, took more than four months of painstaking work to animate. For segments with all seven skeletons in the shot, Harryhausen could only average about a half-second of footage per day. All told, it's estimated that the scene required nearly 185,000 individual adjustments.

A full 50 years later, though, the quality of craftsmanship is as apparent as ever. The skeletons, which bear shields emblazoned with some of Harryhausen’s earlier creations — the “sextopus” from “It Came from Beneath the Sea,” the Venusian alien Ymir from “20 Million Miles to Earth,” etc. — interact with the human characters so perfectly that it’s easy to forget that this was made long before motion capture or green screens even existed.

Medusa from "Clash of the Titans" (1981)

Harryhausen’s final film came out after effects-heavy hits like “Star Wars” had killed some of the gee-whiz factor of stop-motion animation, but “Clash of the Titans” is still able to impress on its own merits.

Like other late-period Harryhausen films, “Titans” features a panoply of fantastic creatures, including a giant scorpion, a kraken and Perseus’ winged horse Pegasus.

The scene involving Medusa, however, is the one that pushed stop-motion to an entirely new level. Not only did Harryhausen have to individually animate each of the 12 snakes making up Medusa’s hair, but he also chose to do the scene as if lit by flickering candles.

Harryhausen also chose to make his Medusa far more monstrous than any previous depictions, portraying the Gorgon as more snake than woman. The end result is a scene that feels like straight-up horror.

Additional sources: "The Harryhausen Chronicles" (1998)

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.

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