With the new version of Clash of the Titans hitting theaters on Friday, I found it fitting to take a look back at the career of stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen, since 1981’s Clash was the last film to feature his special effects. (He and producer Charles H. Schneer retired when they couldn’t get studio funding for a sequel.) Here are ten of my favorite Harryhausen moments.
Gratuitous Monument Destruction, from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). Did I say “gratuitous”? I meant “glorious.” There’s nothing like seeing the destruction of actual monuments, which is exactly what happens in this film’s climactic battle. The Washington Monument and the Capitol Building both get taken out, and Harryhausen delivers pretty much exactly what the title of the movie promises.
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Colosseum Confrontation, from 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). Again with the glorious monument mayhem, the Ymir (a badass creature from Venus) hurls stones from the Roman Colosseum onto the soldiers trying to take him out.
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The Giant Octopus Attacks San Francisco, from It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955). Guess which famous landmark doesn’t make it to the end? Here’s a hint:
Roller-coaster Finale, from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953). When the prehistoric creature is shown taking bites out of the abandoned roller-coaster, I think back to when I was a kid and I tried to animate a Pink Panther toy using a Super-8 movie camera. I spent about an hour getting maybe two seconds of footage. The first second looked okay, but after a while I lost my patience with it, so the remaining second looked terrible. To think that each individual piece of the smashed coaster had to be animated — in addition to the dinosaur — just blows my mind. Also of particular note are the tracking shots of the monster early in the film when it begins its rampage down the streets of New York City, especially how the creature is shown moving from shadow into light.
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The Cyclops, from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). It’s interesting to note the personalities Harryhausen gave to all of his creations, in particular how the cyclops in this sequence reacts to being attacked with a spear.
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Triceratops and T-Rex Fight, from One Million Years B.C. (1966). One of the classic confrontations between dinosaur species is brought to life in this elaborate sequence.
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The Skeleton Fight, from Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Harryhausen tops his previous skeleton fight from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, in which our hero (Kerwin Mathews) has a sword fight with a single animated skeleton. In Jason the stakes are upped, with seven skeletons fighting three of Jason’s crew, propelled along by Bernard Herrmann’s energetic “Scherzo Macabre” cue. This impressive sequence took four months to complete.
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The Giant Crab, from Mysterious Island (1961). A fun sequence in which a group of Union soldiers stranded on a strange island encounter a giant crab. The antics are again scored by Bernard Herrmann, who ended up composing the music for four of Harryhausen’s movies between 1958 and 1963 (about the same time frame as when he wrote the scores for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho).
The Allosaur Roundup, from The Valley of Gwangi (1969). In this sequence cowboys attempt to capture a dinosaur by lassoing it (now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write …). In addition to animating the dinosaur, each lasso around the beast also needed to be animated to match the live-action footage. The following video is a featurette on the Gwangi DVD in which this scene is discussed; the “Obie” Harryhausen refers to is Willis O’Brien, the genius behind the stop-motion effects in the 1933 version of King Kong.
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The Medusa Sequence, from Clash of the Titans (1981). It’s a beautiful display of stop-motion, with amazing attention to detail — each individual snake on Medusa’s head seems to be alive. The CGI in the Clash remake might make her more “realistic” by smoothing out her movements, but what remains to be seen is whether or not she’ll match the sheer creepiness factor of Harryhausen’s creation. In my mind those jagged, exaggerated movements are what make his Medusa so darned unsettling.
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