Eyes of Wonder: My Favorite Harryhausen Effects

The hard part about getting older is losing people you worshipped as a kid. So it was fortunate that I had been working on a post for Flight To Wonder just before learning of Ray Harryhausen’s death today at the age of 92.


“In proportion, our atmosphere is no thicker than the varnish on a globe. Deceptively fragile.” – Cmdr. Chris Hadfield/ISS

Check out some of Cmdr. Hadfield’s Twitter feed and YouTube videos, if you haven’t already. This guy is having a ball up there, in addition to commanding the Space Station, and people are responding, enjoying the wonder. Science and space haven’t been this fun since, well Star Trek and the Sixties? For a while, anyway.

This is why it was good I had been working on that before hearing the news about Ray Harryhausen. I am assured that the wonder does continue.

Victorian eyes

At the L.A. County Museum I vividly remember a beautiful Knight mural on one of the walls depicting the way the tar pits would have looked in ancient times. This, plus a picture book about Knight’s work my mother gave me, were my first encounters with a man who was to prove an enormous help when the time came for me to make three-dimensional models of these extinct beings.”

— Ray Harryhausen

He’s talking about Charles R. Knight, a late 19th century/early 20th century American natural history artist. His works (these, for example) are detailed, balanced and beautiful, and above all else, natural: they just feel right.

Knight’s first gig was at the American Museum of Natural History, and things just took off from there. His images in museum dioramas and magazines were wildly popular. Indeed, in a time before television, the public learned of dinosaurs and the prehistoric world mostly through the eyes of Charles R. Knight. In 1925, the artist did the mural in Los Angeles that so impressed young Ray Harryhausen, who was working at that time as an apprentice to stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien.

TV and the movies

O’Brien had some bad breaks, but Harryhausen picked up the torch and carried it high throughout the middle of the 20th century.

Just like Knight, Harryhausen’s work became wildly popular. You can probably list at least 3 of his special-effects movies right off the top of your head.

In some ways, I like his work better than today’s CGI effects because you can see the handwork, not in spite of it. They were made by another human being, and are flawed and beautiful, just like people. They are like kin, and yet magical.

Time for the favorites: I was impressed, as a child, by an obvious and fairly hokey film effect in Jason and the Argonauts that nonetheless spectacularly suspended my disbelief for the rest of the movie.

“Come with me, so that you will believe!”


Of course a child would love watching someone grow like that.  Most of my other favorite Harryhausen effects are in this movie, including Talos waking up:


and a somewhat underdressed Dr. Who tormented by harpies:


That’s a poor quality video, but if you’ve seen the movie you know how impressive this harpy scene is – perhaps it’s a greater achievement even than the skeleton army, though much of this action can be framed by the columns, whereas the skeleton sequence is out in the open and all over the place, which must have been even more difficult.

I also like the fluid moves and complex action sequences of the Ymir in 20 Million Miles From Earth, but really, with Harryhausen creatures, you just can’t pick one.


The 21st century

Charles Knight probably had his own inspirations, and he unwittingly passed along his eyes of wonder to Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen, who in turn filled the 20th century with their own wonderful visions that were imbued (flawed, some would say today) with unmistakable though very subtle signs of the human beings that created them.

Well, all is not lost – representatives of mankind are overhead tonight, looking out in wonder not outward to the stars but towards home, our Earth. A new set of eyes, but one that Ray Harryhausen probably understood and enjoyed.

Humanity’s kinship with wonder carries on.

Rest in peace, Mr. Harryhausen, and thank you!

Categories: movies, Random thoughts

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