Ray Harryhausen | Titan of Cinema

Last week I popped up to Edinburgh to see the Ray Harryhausen exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. This was an exceptionally good decision of mine. It was magnificent; a gorgeous exploration of his work, and a visual delight of storyboards and models. Lots of lovely pictures were taken, and I thought I’d share a few of my favs.

Just in case you don’t know how Harryhausen is, the quickest of summaries: as the title of the exhibition suggests, he was a Titan of special effects in film, and this is the largest exhibition of his work to date. He revolutionised special effects in the mid 20th century; created a form of stop-motion animation known as Dynamation; and inspired future filmmakers with his creative genius (including George Lucas and Peter Jackson, who’ve spoken extensively about his influence on their Star Wars and Lords of the Rings films).

The word iconic is so horribly overused, but Harryhausen genuinely had so many iconic creations, creatures burned vividly into the minds of generations of kids. The epic skeleton fight, Talos awakening, Medusa, Buba, the one true Kraken…so much brought uniquely to life by his skill and artistry.

This is not where the exhibition is, this is Modern 1, the exhibition is in Modern 2, a short walk away. But going to the wrong building was a very fitting conclusion to my slight getting lost on the way to the gallery. (Despite living in Edinburgh for some years, my ability to find my way about remains questionable.) Still, cheering! Sort of. I mean, an art gallery wouldn’t lie, would it?

King Kong! Not going to lie, I wanted to go to the exhibition to bask in the wonder and nostalgia of beloved monsters of my childhood, and ones that I still adore today (and have a wee bit better understanding of the skill and artistry involved in their creation.) But it was fascinating to learn so much about Harryhausen’s early life: 1933’s King Kong and its massive influence on his work; his earliest attempts at stop-motion animation (dinosaurs!); his military service during World War II.

A lone cowboy versus an allosaurus! I love this is the sort of place Harryhausen’s imagination just casually went. (He painted this at 19, in 1944, and the image stuck with him as there’s something very similar in 1969’s The Valley of Gwangi.)

Clapper boards are cool. Clapper boards from Clash of the Titan are the coolest clapper boards. Probably. They’re certainly the best clapper boards I’ve been within poking distance of. (I did not poke it, it was in a glass cabinet.)

I was not scared by this display. (I was.) It was part of the earlier rooms that were filled with stuff I didn’t have a clue about. So it was awfully cool to learn more about Harryhausen’s early work. These little guys were from early animation shorts of various fairy tales/fables.

The development of Pegasus from Clash of the Titans! Harryhausen’s storyboards are stunning, and the exhibition has an incredible amount of his drawings on display, all filled with the same energy and imagination as his final creations.

There were some beautifully evocative storyboards from an unrealised project that I was very sad to read was an unrealised project. They were full of proper old skool flying saucers and tentacled aliens. Wonderful stuff!

Look at this guy! Look at him! Isn’t he beautiful? One of the most thrilling moments was getting to see the Jason and the Argonauts skeletons up close. I’d never noticed before, but all their shields are painted differently (my fav was a gorgon). And the texture/colouring of the bones is incredible. It’s so brilliant and bizarre that these diminutive, humble models were brought to life so epically, with such ferocity, in one of Harryhausen’s most iconic scenes.

The last Harryhausen film I’d seen before going to the exhibition was One Million Years B. C., for an episode of Hammer House of Podcast. So it was a delight to see both storyboard art, and the actual model of the giant archelon.

I suspect I may have got the first two pics here in the wrong chronological order. But it was so cool to see how the 2D character design translated into a 3D model. And it’s Medusa! One of the most magical stop-motion characters; the snakes, people! The snakes! This was also one of those scenes in Clash of the Titans that both terrified me as a kid, and made me terribly annoyed: Medusa should have won, darn it.

Release the Kraken! I feel I may be repeating myself a bit with all the “look at it, isn’t it gorgeous?” stuff. But it’s *true*. Look at those teeth! The skin texture! The detail on the…face fins (I’m assuming that’s not the correct way to describe them, but I’ll assume you know what I mean.) And he’s a big un. I practically skipped across the room to admire his magnificence.

The dramatic lighting on these guys is there for a reason, and forgive me, but I’ve forgotten what it was. Some part of the animation process. But it was really cool! And there was a Talos! Look at all that lovely verdigris detail! How was he so small?? Of all Harryhausen’s creations, I think Talos was the one the scared me most deeply. I’m not entirely sure why. Possibly the statue coming to life unsettlingness of it? Maybe that still, immobile face as he’s trying to take down THE THIEVES WHO STOLE HIS STUFF. Or that lovely little horror vibe when he first awakens and turns his head towards THE THIEVES. Or that sense of UNDEFEATABLE about him cause he’s so bloody huge and also made of metal. Or his “sod you THIEVES, you’re not getting away, I’m BLOCKING THE SEA and smashing your tiny little boat.” (As I’ve got older, my sympathies for the various monsters/creations has increased vastly; Talos was only doing his job…he’s still bloody scary though.)

So, you start on the ground floor of the gallery, and after two rooms you head upstairs, and there are two doors opposite one another, and if you take the left one you enter a room where you immediately come face-to-face with Bubo! And then you do a little gasp and make haste towards him and crouch down and say “who’s a good owl then?”

I did not do the last thing. There were other people in the room. But Bubo! Ah, the joy of seeing this wee dude.

So, yes, it was a marvellous trip, well worth a modest 80 mile journey, and thoroughly recced, most especially to anyone who relishes those delicious childhood memories of seeing Harryhausen’s monsters come to life. The exhibition is on until February 22nd 2022, and you can book tickets here.

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