Maker of Monsters

Ray Harryhausen

If you’ve ever seen UFOs dive-bombing screaming citizens, an octopus the size of a city block slime its way up the Brooklyn Bridge, or stood by while skeletons engaged in sword fights with humans, then you know the work of special effects film wizard, Ray Harryhausen.

Turning 90 on June 29, 2010 (man, that’s a solid run), Ray’s groundbreaking work in Dynamation, a pioneering form of stop-motion and matte photography, he breathed life into everything from Mighty Joe Young (1949) and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1952), to Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) and Clash of the Titans (1981). Ray is to film special effects what Jaques Cousteau was to scuba gear. And he did it all WITHOUT computers. Or a smart phone.

Inspired by Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion work on King Kong (1933), Ray took the animation techniques to the extreme and invented Dynamation, a word that wasn’t even in the dictionary until he thought it up. (All the new words I think up are not suitable for print.) Here’s how Dynamation works (as copied from Ray’s website):

“For many years Ray had had an idea that would allow the live action to be “split’” so enabling a model to be inserted directly into the action and appear to interact with the actors.”

“As far back as 1938/39 he had experimented with mattes for his production Evolution of the World and realized that if an area is matted out then why couldn’t two areas be matted out to create what was known as a split-screen.”


“The process was simple but very effective. He projected a live action image onto a rear screen in front of which was placed the animation table with the model. He would then place a glass sheet in front of both. When the live action plate had been shot Ray would establish where he wanted to make his matte line and so by looking through the camera viewfinder he would re-establish that line and with a wax pencil on the end of a stick, follow that line by drawing it on the glass.”

“When he was satisfied that the line was accurate he would then paint out, with black matt paint, the lower section, below the line. He would then photograph the animation of the model reacting to the live action on the plate. Afterwards Ray would then create a second pass in the camera to reinstate the lower previously matted out section so creating a combined image of the creature seemingly as part of the live action.”


The term Dynamation is legendary itself, taking the name from the word “Dynaflow” off a Buick dashboard while bored and stuck in traffic. (Good thing he wasn’t sitting on a bus, or we’d probably have something like Mass Transit-View or Bus-O-Vision.

And to think he did it all with miniature models, clay and a serious amount of patience. Happy Birthday, Ray – computers suck…you don’t!

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