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There are probably few childhoods of the late 20th century that often did not shudder at the terror of the beast of Ray Harryhausen. On Saturday afternoon TV, the Sinbad films, Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans and all the others were uncommon and fabled fare, enthusiastically awaited (sometimes from behind the couch) and utterly frightening in their horror of stop-motion, whether the hero (because he was always a hero) was battling the green-hued Medusa or the bronze-armored Talos. Or actually trying not to get eaten by a cleverly animated character from the imagination of Harryhausen.
Now, in their Covid-delayed blockbuster, those horrors come to Scotland’s National Gallery of Modern Art, but the models are – luckily – much, much smaller than in the films they were depicted in. The idol of many modern film directors, from John Landis to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Ray Harryhausen, was a film fanatic whose obsession with animation was first sparked by the 1933 film King Kong, with its eponymous “monster” – an enormous gorilla – appearing here at the windows of the gallery.
It was the film, animated by Willis O’Brien, that inspired Harryhausen, then 13, to experiment in his parents’ garage with model-making and stop-motion.
It is also seen by Harryhausen’s diaries, the numerous trips to the cinema, with a note against a view of King Kong that he had seen it a very dizzying 37 times. In this film, much of which has to do with monsters run amok, the germs of Harryhausen’s early work are to be found – be mindful that the odd film with dinosaurs or supernatural creatures devouring humans who try to scare them away might be too much for young or impressionable children – and “monsters,” such as, sometimes abused. For example, Mighty Joe Young (1949), which was made by the same team as King Kong in 1933, with Harryhausen working under the supervision of O’Brien on the animation.
And there are works from that well-used garage, including a paper-mâché skeleton, a precursor to the famous armed skeletons that Jason faces in the film Jason and the Argonauts, and a King Kong marionette made in the mid-1930s from the old fur coat of his grandmother on a paper-mâché frame. Harryhausen, encouraged by his parents, learned his modeling and animation skills, especially in a film called The Cave Bear, which he worked on when he was about 15, and whose now headless model bear is seen here. It was a trial and error process, says his daughter, finding out how the effects were produced in King Kong, working on sets in the garage with his father, filming each other running away from “monsters” and integrating those elements into the animations.
His career may have been characterized by this adolescent fascination with marauding monsters, but Harryhausen was not just a man of monsters. He also worked on his own famous Fairy Tales animated series in the 1950s after art classes and night school, following early success with Mighty Joe Young, which ran for years in elementary schools throughout America and is still worth checking out today.
There are several heads for King Midas, a different head for a different mood, the film itself illustrating the naturalistic behavior that signify the character that Harryhausen often worked towards and in the service of which he himself had acting lessons in his late teens.
Harryhausen’s hand-drawn storyboards are in the exhibit, each revealingly detailed and capturing the plot to inspire the directors of the films he worked on. Wonderful, too, a little painting of his toolbox with a number of miniature eyes, screws and small pieces of the armature, paints and brushes.
From Pegasus with his moth-eaten (indeed, cinematically damaged) wings to the Kraken from Clash of the Titans (1981) and various beasts, mythological, borrowed and invented from the different Sinbad films of the late 1970s. For those who are here for the monsters – and there were definitely more than a few (socially disturbed) when I visited – they will not be disappointed.
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