Early Animation Shorts by Ray Harryhausen

Animator and special effects genius Ray Harryhausen is seen working on his 1951 fairy tale short, THE STORY OF HANSEL AND GRETEL.

Special effects wizardry has always been a key component in creating fantasy and futuristic worlds in the cinema and one of the greatest creators in the genre was Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013). Hardcore fans know that he worked uncredited on the 1949 fantasy adventure Mighty Joe Young before establishing himself as a stop motion animation artist in such sci-fi classics as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). Still, the best was yet to come in the second half of the 20th century when he created fantastical worlds of the imagination in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981) to name just a few. Before all of this, however, Harryhausen learned his craft and trade by experimenting with the short film format. 

A scene from the 1942 animation short TULIPS SHALL GROW directed by George Pal and featuring uncredited work by chief animator Ray Harryhausen.

In the early 1940s, Harryhausen was working for producer/director George Pal on his famous Puppetoons shorts and contributed to 13 of them including Tulips Shall Grow (1942), which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Subject. After Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese in December 1941, Harryhausen realized he would soon be drafted once war was declared (he was twenty-two at the time), so he quickly prepared to make himself useful in the service. In his autobiography, Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, co-written with Tony Dalton, he recalled, “I attended six months of evening classes on combat photography sponsored by Eastman Kodak at Columbia Studios. I was unaware at the time that combat photographers were as expendable as clay pigeons but the courses did teach me a great deal about using different 35mm camera, rapid loading and many other techniques vital in the field. What little spare time I had I used to make a 16mm 5-minute colour demonstration training film called How to Bridge a Gorge [1942] I made it to illustrate how model animation could be used for troop training, and it was exactly what the title said it was, based on military photographs and articles from Life and National Geographic magazines.”

A scene from the 1942 animated short HOW TO BRIDGE A GORGE aka How to Build a Gorge, produced for the Army Signal Corps.

How to Bridge a Gorge would soon prove to be important in Harryhausen’s development as a filmmaker. After enlisting in the army in 1942 and being assigned to the Army Signal Corps, he learned that a division of the S.C.P.C. was producing animated shorts. He obtained references from his former employers, filmmakers George Pal and Willis O’Brien, in an effort to get transferred to this unit but received no reply. “Fortunately, I had shown How to Build a Gorge to one of my teachers,” Harryhausen said, “who in turn contacted Colonel Frank Capra and Major Sam Birkin, then starting up the Special Service Division that would be making orientation films for the U.S. Government, with the director Anatole Litvak.” After Capra, Birkin and Litvak saw his animated short, they approved Harryhausen’s transfer to the Special Service Division (the headquarters were located at the old Fox Studios at Western Avenue and Sunset Blvd.

A detail from the 1942 animated short HOW TO BRIDGE A GORGE aka How to Build a Gorge featuring the work of Ray Harryhausen.

Harryhausen would go on to work with Frank Capra on his Why We Fight series, composing transitional effects (traveling mattes, composite pictures, etc.) between the linking archival footage segments in the films. His involvement in these Capra wartime films, such as Negro Soldier, led to collaborations with such well regarded Hollywood professionals as composer Dimitri Tiomkin and editor William Hornbeck, a hero of Harryhausen’s who had worked on some of his favorite movies, Things to Come (1936), Jungle Book (1942), and The Thief of Bagdad (1940). How to Bridge a Gorge and his experiences in the Special Service Division would soon lead to his next project, another war time short entitled Guadalcanal (1943).

Guadalcanal was made at a time when Harryhausen was striving to improve and diversify his animation techniques. To accomplish this, he began to pay regular visits to the cartoon division of the Army Pictorial Service where the “Private Snafu” series was being developed under the supervision of none other than Dr. Seuss – Major Ted Geisel. Guadalcanal is a more ambitious and technically accomplished film than How to Bridge a Gorge and shows the rapid development of Harryhausen’s technique over a short period of time.

A scene from the 1943 animated short GUADALCANAL created by stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen.

In Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, Harryhausen describes the conditions under which Guadalcanal was made: “Whilst I was working in the Special Service Division I was able to live with my parents, and went home after a day at the studios to work in my hobby house on another project called Guadalcanal (1943). It was a 10-minute colour short about the battle for Guadalcanal in the Pacific using model ships and planes. I hoped to demonstrate the usefulness of model animation in illustrating events and techniques for wartime use, much as I had tried to do with my earlier How to Bridge a Gorge. However, unlike the previous effort, this was a much more sophisticated project that used wipes, sound effects and music ‘borrowed’ from Max Steiner and Miklos Rozsa. For the sea I used a huge sheet of frosted ripple glass lit from below with a blue light, and for the waves on the glass I animated ‘waves’ of sand. The final touch was to show a Japanese ship sinking, and to simulate the distressed water I used salt, animated like the sand into ripples of white ‘sea’.”

An example of the set of the 1943 animated short GUADALCANAL featuring the work of Ray Harryhausen.

After leaving the army in 1945, Ray Harryhausen was looking for new ideas and approaches to animation after his experiences during the war working for the Special Service Division. Using the remainder of his army pay, he set up shop in his own Los Angeles garage studio with lighting equipment and his Cine II camera with its single frame and backwinding functions. Utilizing almost a thousand feet of outdated Kodachrome 16mm color film stock he had retrieved from the Navy years earlier, he decided to experiment with stop-motion model animation and for a subject he picked something simple yet universally appealing. The result was what came to be known as the Mother Goose Stories (1946) consisting of four fables: “Little Miss Muffet,” “Old Mother Hubbard,” “The Queen of Hearts,” and “Humpty Dumpty.” (The collected shorts were also released under the title The Storybook Review).

Stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen and his cast of characters from the MOTHER GOOSE STORIES (1946).

In his autobiography, Harryhausen later described his process for the Mother Goose Stories: “Using models approximately 8 inches in height, I developed a special technique for filming the stories which I ambitiously called Trimentional Multiplane Animation. I had wanted to avoid the George Pal method of constructing fifty heads for every expression and vowel, so I simply did away with dialogue and lip-synchronization and opted for title cards instead. Yet I still needed expressions on the models so I made one head showing a neutral expression and then a short series of heads with extreme expressions all carved from the original neutral expression. Using quick eight-frame, in-camera dissolves from one head to the other, which nobody had done until now, I succeeded in attaining a flexibility that enabled me to instill some essence of character into the models. In all, it took me about four or five months to complete all four stories, taking eight weeks to produce 400 feet of colour 16mm film, with a soundtrack that used synchronized music cues.”

Humpty Dumpty is one of the animated characters who appears in Ray Harryhausen’s MOTHER GOOSE STORIES (1946).

Mother Goose Stories was truly a family affair for Harryhausen. His father assisted in the construction of the models and sets while Ray’s mother designed the costumes and draperies for the set pieces. Harryhausen even toyed with the idea of creating “professional” names for his crew and eventually settled on credits that listed his father as Fred Blasauf (the last name was taken from his mother’s maiden name) and his mother as Martha Reske (her real maiden name). In the end, Mother Goose Stories was a true labor of love and the fun of creating it encouraged Harryhausen to tackle a more ambitious version of it for his Fairy Tales series.

A scene from the 1949 animated short THE STORY OF LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD featuring the stop-motion magic of Ray Harryhausen.

The Story of Little Red Riding Hood (1950) was the first of Harryhausen’s fairy tales and it gave him the opportunity to experiment further with character detail and movement. For example, he used wooden ramps in addition to the sets and props he created and hand-painted and covered the wolf in fur he had purchased from a local taxidermist. Harryhausen was always revising and perfecting the way he made his models but one production aspect remained the same. “All the head were built of plaster,” he revealed in The Art of Ray Harryhausen, co-authored with Tony Dalton. “I sculpted them in clay or wax and then made a mould from which I made the finished heads. To obtain the full range of expressions I usually had to make between five and twelve heads…the heads had to be basically the same, otherwise the face would change too much when I dissolved from one to the other.”

A scene from the 1951 animated short THE STORY OF RAPUNZEL, directed and designed by Ray Harryhausen.

Subsequent efforts like The Story of Rapunzel (1951) and The Story of Hansel and Gretel (1951) featured elaborate sets, detail and three-dimensional perspectives such as the tower where Rapunzel was imprisoned or the forest where Hansel and Gretel got lost.

The marvelous stop-motion animation featured in THE STORY OF HANSEL AND GRETEL (1951) is by Ray Harryhausen.

For The Story of King Midas (1953), Harryhausen changed the setting from a Greek myth to a medieval fable and experimented with a matte smoke effect in introducing the mysterious stranger in the story. It was a process he would return to when designed some scenes for 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts.

A scene from THE STORY OF KING MIDAS (1953) animated by Ray Harryhausen.

Harryhausen’s final fairy tale, The Story of the Tortoise and the Hare, based on an Aesop fable, was abandoned after he had filmed about three minutes of it. By this time, his feature film work was consuming most of his time and he moved on from the short film format despite several pending projects. Oddly enough, The Story of the Tortoise and the Hare was finally completed in 2002 when two animation associates of Harryhausen – Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh – helped the originator complete his vision.

A scene from the animated short THE STORY OF THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE which Ray Harryhausen started in 1952 and finally completed in 2002 with the help of two fellow animators.

For many years, Harryhausen’s animated fairy tales were shown to children in schools and was their first introduction to his unique talents. Many still consider his versions of Hansel and Gretel and Rapunzel the most memorable and evocative animated presentations of these childhood favorites. Harryhausen’s work for the Special Service Division – How to Bridge a Gorge and Guadalcanal – were more difficult to see but eventually aired on Turner Classic Movies and were included in DVD collections.

A scene from the 1951 animated fairy tale THE STORY OF RAPUNZEL, directed by Ray Harryhausen.

All of the above work and more was compiled in the DVD Collector’s Edition of Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection from Sparkhill in 2005. This 2-disc set also includes Harryhausen’s commercial demo for Lucky Strike cigarettes, various tests and experiments for such unrealized projects as Adventures of Baron Munchausen and War of the Worlds and various featurettes like The Making of The Tortoise and the Hare.

*This is a revised and extended version of some articles compiled from their original appearance on the Turner Classic Movies website.

Animator Ray Harryhausen had to create a number of plaster heads for his characters in MOTHER GOOSE STORIES (1946) in order to convey a range of expressions like this examply from Humpty Dumpty.

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