Sunday, 19 June 2016

Ray Harryhausen and the Skeletons, a Halloween timed look back at some very iconic Dynamation from the stop motion king himself.

This entry has been lifted from the 25FPS Staffs Uni Animation Award blog that I posted it on, over Halloween some years ago!

The two things that come to mind when you hear the name Ray Harryhausen are; dinosaurs and skeletons.

Since it is Halloween I thought I would take a look at Ray's long association with the skeleton and how he kept coming back to this iconic creature.

(All art work and images used here are the property of either the Studio responsible for the associated feature or Ray Harryhausen and 'The Ray and Dianna Harryhausen Foundation'.)

Ray Harryhausen at home 2011, with a Jason and the Argonauts Skeleton (called 'Uguchio'),
Mighty Joe Young reproduction armature and the styracosaurus from The Valley of the Gwangi

Jason and the Argonauts battle the children of the Hydra's teeth

We often look to Ray Harryhausen for ideas and style inspiration. Who did Ray look at for his inspiration? One of his major influences was Gustav Dore (1832-83); then one of the worlds leading book illustrators, both in imaginative drawing of his visions of stories such as Dante's 'Inferno' and the 'Ten Commandments', and documentary work showing the contrast of the comfortable rich vs slum poverty in England at that time.

Inferno _ Canto 23, lines 47 - 57 (close up) Gustave Dore
It is easy to see the powerful effect that this work had on a young Ray Harryhausen. Dore crafted cinematic images which were narrative based, calling upon literary classics as a source of timeless fantastic imagery. This is exactly what Ray Harryhausen spent his entire career doing; only Ray's creations live and breath on screen, making a mark on cinema forever.

Inferno - Canto 17
His face the semblance of a just man's wore,
So kind and gracious was its outward cheer;
The rest was serpent all: two shaggy claws
Reach'd to the armpits, and the back and breast,
And either side, were painted o'er with nodes
And orbits.
                                       Dantes 'Inferno'.

Inferno - Canto 9, lines 111 - 131 by Gustave Dore

Inferno - Canto 10, lines 25 - 42 by Gustave Dore

Below is an unused original concept for Jason and the Argonauts; the raising of the dead warriors from the grave, or from Hades. Very obviously inspired by the images form 'Inferno' above.

Drawn at the same time; this is the final design for the start of the skeleton fight that is still world famous today.

The two images below represent a deliberate homage by Ray to the work of Gustav Dore.

'Atala' by Gustav Dore, 1864

The log sequence from 'Mysterious Island', 1960

But Ray Harryhausen did not start creating characters for animated films. He started by making string marionettes, with help from his parents; Martha and Fred. Fred was destined to become the manufacturer of Ray's ball and socket animation armatures, but these early creations were made from papier-mache.

Ray saw Disney short Silly Symphony film; 'The Skeleton Dance' and was fascinated with the way in which the skeletons were able to fly apart. So he made is three string puppets able to do this on stage.

Disney's The Skeleton Dance

Ray's skeletons on stage
This was the first time that Ray Harryhausen brought skeletons to life. Little did he know where this would end up.
The only surviving skeleton string marionette
After seeing the RKO film; Son of Sinbad in 1955, Ray was very disappointed with the poor realization of the monsters. So he went to producer Charles Schneer with an idea for a film called 'The Adventures of Sinbad'. This eventually became 'The 7th Voyage of Sinbad' but the skeleton fight was always in the outline.

Cinema poster for the 7th Voyage of Sinbad

The original release in the UK saw the skeleton fight removed by the censors who considered it too frightening for younger audiences. It was reinstated for a re-release of the film.
The Gustav Door drawing that inspired the spiral staircase used for the skeleton fight.

While the film was still in production it was starting to become apparent that the term animation has making audiences think of cartoons. Not the desired effect, so Producer Charles Schneer came up with the term 'Dynamation-The New Miracle of the Screen'. He got the idea from his car which had a new feature called Dynaflow. The new title gave stop motion the kudos it needed.

The iconic spiral staircase skeleton fight, inspired by the Dore drawing above.
This scene was the first time that Ray had to animate a puppet fighting an actor with realistic physical contact. Ray took fencing lessons till they threw his hip out, then he worked closely with fencing expert Enzo Musumeci-Greco. During shooting an assistant would clap out an eight-beat to control the timing of the sword swings.

Jason skeleton design

This is the first design from an armature, based upon the skeleton design above. This is a very standard armature, quite square parts do not echo the organic nature of a skeleton. Using this armature would have greatly restricted how the bones were built over it.

Th first hard edged armature design

Presumably this is the final armature design for the skeletons. The armature itself is curved like stylized bones. Look at the hip joint and the back bone. The joints them selves are now much smaller, obviously a necessity for this type of puppet.

The final armature with curved 'bones'

The bones were created over the armature simply using cotton wool and pre-vulcanised (air-drying) liquid latex; built up a bit at a time.

 (Anyone wanting to try and make their own animation skeleton follow the link at the bottom of the page for armatures available to buy, designed with Ray's guidance.)

A typical dynamation set-up
The process of combining live action and animation in those days was mostly done 'in-camera'. That means projecting the live footage a frame at a time behind the stop motion puppets which usually stood on a miniature set designed to blend in with the live action landscape. The model set lighting had to match the live action perfectly; both in exposure and colour.

Back in the days before video, assist a stop motion animator would have to wait until the film came back from being processed before they could see the results of their hard work. This made rushes a somewhat more exciting, if a little tense, event.

To help an animator remember how far they had moved part of a puppet (quite difficult if the scene has seven skeletons in it and they are all sword fighting) it was common practice to use surface gauges.

The gauge is an articulated arm with a pointer on the end. You would position it in the set, adjust the arm to make the tip of the pointer touch the characters head if they were walking, or the end of a sword if they were fighting. Then you move the character while being able to see how far it moves away from the pointer. At the end of animating this move it was crucial to remove the surface gauges before taking a frame. On the rare occasion that one gets left in shot, no-one would register it as it would only be on the screen for 1/24th of a second.

Ray very rarely used surface gauges; he felt that a good level of concentration should be enough.

A typical surface gauge
This shot production still from King Kong shows a surface gauge in use.

A surface gauge in use during the shooting of King Kong

The climax of the fight set on the spiral staircase.
Careful choreography was needed to ensure that Sinbad was always positioned behind the skeleton. Otherwise a complicated technique called a traveling matt would be needed to place Sinbad in front of the skeleton.

The storyboard setting the scene before and during the fight.
Fencing expert Enzo Musumeci-Greco takes the part of the skeleton.
The training fights of Enzo Musumeci-Greco and Kerwin Mathews were shot in black and white (cheaper than colour) as guide footage for Ray later. When the colour live scene was shot no sound recording equipment was used so Enzo was still able to clap as a guide. Interestingly this clapping was used by the composer; Bernard Herrmenn to help him time the castanets in the soundtrack.

Kerwin Mathews as Sinbad.

Last day of shoot, Ray is wearing a hat in the middle of the picture.

Click here to listen to Ray talking about animating the skeleton fight

The four minute fight scene composed of over twenty five shots and took more than three months to shoot. Animation for the whole film took eleven months.

The film was a success and most audiences could not imagine how the creatures had been brought to the screen.

 Ray and Charles often discussed using Greek mythology as a vehicle for more Dynamation and in 1960 Columbia gave the green light to Jason and the Argonauts. One of the earliest parts of this story to be noted down was 'a land of the dead with walking skeletons'.

Considered by Ray to be his most 'complete' film, Jason and the Argonauts remained one his favorite films.

Design for the start of the skeleton fight.
In the initial design for the skeleton fight the skeletons shields do not have any images painted onto the shields. This came later, and these designs are now as iconic as the skeletons, reproduced in the fantasy genre ever since.

The estimated bill for the Jason armatures (above) was $3200. Today you would have to add a few zero's. This bill is from Fred Harryhausen; Ray's dad and the creator of many amazing armatures on top of which Ray created his visions of bizarre and exotic creatures.

There were seven skeletons in Jason. One of them was the original skeleton from 7th Voyage; back for a rematch, with a new paint job to match the newer ones.

Each one was made from cotton and latex over a ball and socket armature, with a resin head and stood nine and a half inches high.

This may be the original skeleton from 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

Setting up to shoot the live-action scene for the animation of the skeletons rising out of the ground.

Todd Armstrong (Jason), Andrew Faulds (Phalerous) and Fernando Poggi (Castor) rehearse the fight with stuntmen.
During the rehearsels for the fight scene all the stuntmen had to wear shirts with numbers on to help Ray choreograph who was fighting which skeleton.

Todd Armstrong appearing to leap off of a cliff, followed by the skeletons. A wooden ramp acts as the cliff.

Todd Armstrong (Jason), Andrew Faulds (Phalerous) and Fernando Poggi (Castor) act against skeletons that will be added by Ray later.

The culmination of all this rehearsal is a fight scene acted out with the protagonists missing! The rehearsal was shot in black and white for reference (probably because black and white film was cheaper) and then the actual back-projection footage was shot in colour, minus the stuntmen, but with the actors moving as if they were still there. The trick is in making your sword stop in the air as if it has just impacted heavily against a shield or another sword; not an easy thing to do.

Fedando Poggi fighting a stuntman.
The part of Castor (above) was played by Fernando Poggi, a great swordsman who was responsible for arranging all the amazing sword fights in the film, with the help of cameraman Wilkie Cooper. Enzo, the swordsman on 7th Voyage retired just before shooting of Jason began.

During the filming of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad Poggi reputedly strapped two of his stuntmen together with a very large belt to take the part of six armed Kali during the rehearsals.

Todd Armstrong vs stuntman #4

Jack Gwillim (King Aeetes) prepares to cast the Hydra's teeth

Rehearing the advance of the skeleton hoard.
Once the filming starts in earnest the cast resort to shadow boxing against Ray's skeletons, using the coreography that has been drilled into them in rehearsels.

Andrew Faulds acts out his own death; skeleton to be added later.

The skeletons advance, seen from behind.
A very early rough drawing.

The master production design that sets this scene.

With seven skeletons, two arms and legs each, plus a head; that meant thirty five appendages to animate in wide shots that contained all of the Hydra's children.

Once the animation began it took Ray four and a half months to shoot, often only animating thirteen frames; that's half a second, a day.

Ray Harryhausen always said that he kept the skeletons swords moving in a figure of eight as that was easier to remember.

Ray work hard to give the skeletons character, the way that they responded to being wounded, or reacting to a fall, all added to  the scene.

For the scene where the skeletons rise up out of the ground they each stood on a platform that could be screwed up-wards through a cork floor representing the ground. Ray broke the cork as they burst through so that they seemed to be emerging from the soil. Copper wire and wax were used to animate the cork rolling away like clods of earth.

Below are the story board images for the fight and their corresponding final footage.

This fight sequence is all about putting the actors and models together, interacting seamlessly. One shot called for Todd Armstrong (Jason) to piece a skeletons ribcage with his sword. Todd drops his sword at a given point and the animated skeletons body hides this so that ray was able to have an animated sword remain stuck in the wounded skeleton.

Nothing like this had ever been seen in movies before, it was all very ground breaking.

And that is it for the on-screen appearances of skeletons animated by Ray Harryhausen. We newly got more skeletons, below is a design from a project called 'Skin and Bone' which sadly never got filmed.

Skin and Bone concept.

God bless you Ray Harryhausen, and thanks for all the skeletons!

Happy Halloween everyone!!!

Daryl Marsh,
Senior Lecturer at Staffordshire University,
Halloween, 2013.

All art work and images are the property of either the Studio responsible for the associated feature or Ray Harryhausen and 'The Ray and Dianna Harryhausen Foundation'.

For anyone looking for more info, photographs and artwork to do with Ray Harryhausen seach for the books below; they are all marvelous and contain tons of facts and images that you will never have seen before, guaranteed.

Anyone wanting to try and make their own animation skeleton go here...


These armatures were designed with the man himself; Ray Harryhausen, and are available through

1 comment:

  1. Tremendously enjoyable article, Mr. Marsh! I am a die-hard fan of Ray Harryhausen and, by nature, of practical effects. It's always a refreshing surprise to find well-researched articles about which the writer is obviously passionate.