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By the late 1960s, Ray Harryhausen was a star in his own right. Harryhausen wasn't an actor, he was a special effects technician, but he was a special brand of genius. He acted by proxy, bringing screen life to lifeless things made of steel and latex.
Harryhausen manipulated these forms with tireless patience and an attention to detail that is truly staggering. Had Harryhausen had a mind to try, he might've been the only human being ever equipped to actually count how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. He put that meticulous precision to work creating impossible images--armies of rampaging skeletons, for example, or giants made of copper.
The extent of Harryhausen's unique talent is hard today to properly reckon--machines now do this work, with a machine's patience and precision. Consider Harryhausen's working conditions: he needed specially-made film, whose sprocket holes were guaranteed not to slip or waver. This would be threaded into a special camera, whose reliability and accuracy was given no allowance for error. The camera would be bolted into special tripods, which would then be weighted down with sandbags and chains, just to make sure.
Because the monsters and beasties he created were to interact with live actors and filmed separately, those live-action images would be projected onto a screen affixed to the miniature set. Harryhausen needed to dress his miniature replica to match the real location--and then light it to correspond. The intensity of the lights was such that they damaged the rubber models--obliging the animator to make rubber replicas to use in place of the real ones, during the laborious process of lighting. Yes, that's right, even miniature dinosaurs and toy skeletons had stand-ins, just like the stars.
Every movement of these miniatures was miniscule, and methodical. The work was so maddeningly intricate, even so much as a telephone call could derail him. On some projects, the level of complexity permitted him to record just 14 frames in an entire day's work. That's barely half a second, in case you were wondering.
To get a sense of the kind of complexity we're talking about, consider a scene from The Valley of Gwangi (1969). Gwangi, the title character, is a dinosaur--an Allosaurus, to be precise (although Harryhausen admits he wasn't precise and freely mixed attributes of an Allosaurus with those of a Tyrannosaurus when designing the critter). And the valley where he lives is not some prehistoric habitat, but early-twentieth-century Mexico. A group of cowboys on horseback are riding in circles around the reptile, lassoing it in an attempt to subdue and capture it.
Wait, what? The cowboys, the horses, the ropes, the valley--these are all real things, photographed in the normal manner. But the dinosaur in the middle of their circuit is a miniature sitting on Harryhausen's desk. It's small enough that any of the cowboys could hold it in his hands--yet it appears to be much larger. It isn't anywhere near where the cowboys are riding, and was photographed at an entirely different time--yet it appears in their midst, as they circle endlessly 'round it. And it can't move on its own--yet appears to be struggling against the ropes, as their lassos encircle its neck. This is as impossible an image as you can get.
The cowboys rode their horses around a jeep, on whose bed a pole had been erected at the intended height of Gwangi's neck. The actors threw their lassos across the pole, and that piece of film was processed and sent to Harryhausen. He then built his model with tiny wires wrapped around its neck, simulating the ropes. And with each frame he filmed, he would line his wires up to match in perfect alignment with the angle and thickness of the previously-photographed ropes.
I'm sorry--I left out a detail when I described that. You see, back then, they didn't have the handy digital imaging devices that film cameras today take for granted. Harryhausen couldn't see through the viewfinder at the same time that he exposed a frame of action--he had to "rackover" the lens to look through it and confirm the alignment of the tiny wires with the pre-photographed ropes, and then return the lens to its proper position to expose that frame. Every single time.
This is how Harryhausen spent his days.
As Harryhausen's fame grew, he earned the title "associate producer," and with it the authority to guide the direction of his own films. He was not the onscreen star, nor the director--but he was the auteur in that "his" films existed explicitly as vehicles for his fantastic vision. Sadly, his growing authorial control more or less coincided with diminished budgets and a decreasing amount of studio enthusiasm for his work. The special effects remained astounding in his films, but their other attributes--storytelling and acting--started to suffer.
The Valley of Gwangi had not begun its life as a Harryhausen film. It had been mooted, in 1942, as a project for Harryhausen's predecessor and mentor Willis O'Brien. The man behind King Kong (1933) had trouble finding financial backing to make it. Eventually, O'Brien's outline formed the basis of a rather uninspiring production called The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956), with effects by animator Edward Nassour.
Harryhausen knew of the original idea--for one thing, he now held a number of O'Brien's unfinished projects in his garage, Gwangi among them. He had also been on-hand when O'Brien and his assistant had started building models for the abortive endeavor.
"They had a model of an Allosaurus and all manner of glass paintings and story-boards laying around," said Harryhausen, "I loved the idea of dinosaurs and cowboys. You could not ask for a better combination."
"I've always had a love for dinosaurs," Harryhausen continued, "I started out with the dinosaur genre and although I've gone on to do other things, I was always on the lookout for the opportunity to do a dinosaur movie again."
In fact, at this stage in his career, Harryhausen was on a full-blown dinosaur kick. He was fresh off mixing dinosaurs with Raquel Welch in a fur bikini for One Million Years B.C. (1966), and after Gwangi had the ambition of sending Sinbad in to fight dinos in King of the Geniis; the disastrous reception of Gwangi put paid to that idea, though. But we're getting ahead of ourselves--in 1966, with The Flintstones one of TV's hottest shows, Harryhausen's ideas of dinosaurs + cowboys had special piquancy.
It was an era in which exploitation filmmakers were looking for ways to mash-up horror movies with Westerns--although few of these were any good (Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (both released in 1966) are much better titles than they are movies). Gwangi offered a chance to blend those two popular styles with better quality.
Harryhausen's semi-regular producer Charles Schneer thought Gwangi had commercial potential, but needed some punching up. He brought in screenwriter William E. Bast and dialogue-doctor Julian More to flesh O'Brien's outline into something he could present to Columbia, the studio that had backed most of Harryhausen's work to date. The executives at Columbia weren't the pushovers Schneer expected them to be, nor did they share Harryhausen's natural fanboyish enthusiasm for the cowboys and dinosaurs idea.
"The bottom line was that we had to look for other financing," remembered Harryhausen, "We got lucky when Ken Hyman, who had helped finance One Million Years B.C., bought Warner Brothers. When Charles [Schneer] took the script and my sketches to Ken, he liked the story and we made a deal."
On Warner Brothers' dime then, Harryhausen and his team went to Almeria, Spain to shoot the live-action sequences, with leading actors James Franciscus, Richard Carlson, and Gila Golan. Officially, the director was James O'Connolly, but Harryhausen's influence was extensive. He'd storyboarded everything in advance, and demanded O'Connolly adhere to the storyboards. Harryhausen also went along to make sure the live-action plates were photographed correctly so that he could later add in the animated elements--and if that meant unofficially directing several sequences, who was O'Connolly to complain?
Well, O'Connolly did complain. Not so much about Harryhausen's interference, but about the whole project. "O'Connolly seemed to have lost interest in the middle of shooting," recalled Schneer, "I don't think he enjoyed making the film and he just didn't have his heart in it when we were about halfway through."
Harryhausen never flagged in his passion, though. It took him two years to complete his part of the work--and during the two years he spent painstakingly tweaking miniature rubber limbs, big things happened around him. Ken Hyman had sold out his interest in Warners and moved on; the new management did not share his appreciation of science fiction spectacle.
The studio barely advertised it at all, and dumped it on the market as a pro forma fulfillment of the contract. Saturday-matinee-style monster flicks like Gwangi seemed old-fashioned next to the racier kinds of films that audiences came to expect in 1969. "A naked dinosaur just was not outrageous enough," quipped a weary Harryhausen.
It wasn't as if the picture was an especially strong work, undeservedly dismissed by the new studio heads. Gwangi's story structure reveals the O'Brien connection--the aging animator was, perhaps unconsciously, mimicking what had worked for him on King Kong. As with Kong, there is a unique creature, living in a secret undiscovered wilderness, discovered by people who kidnap the animal and put it on display; the creature escapes its bonds but is a manifest danger in the middle of a human city, and has to be put down. Unlike Kong, though, Gwangi features fairly unlikable main characters, unrelentingly selfish. All in all, Gwangi strings together a series of setpieces designed more as special effects-showpieces than as moments of meaningful drama.
The Valley of Gwangi was a flop. It was deserted by its marketing team, audiences were put off by the odd title, those who did go were treated to a rehash of King Kong disguised as a Western. Despite such obstacles, with Harryhausen's enduring appeal and the ineffable charm with which he imbues every one of his films, The Valley of Gwangi found a place in the hearts of fans.
Producer: Charles H. Schneer
Director: James O'Connolly
Screenplay: William E. Bast (screenplay); Julian More (additional material); Willis H. O'Brien (earlier film project "Gwangi" (uncredited))
Cinematography: Erwin Hillier
Art Direction: Gil Parrondo
Music: Jerome Moross
Film Editing: Henry Richardson
Cast: James Franciscus (Tuck), Gila Golan (T.J.), Richard Carlson (Champ), Laurence Naismith (Professor Bromley), Freda Jackson (Tia Zorina), Gustavo Rojo (Carlos), Dennis Kilbane (Rowdy), Mario de Barros (Bean), Curtis Arden (Lope).
By David Kalat
Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton, A Century of Stop-Motion Animation.
Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton, The Art of Ray Harryhausen.
Richard Jones and Charles Glenwood, Clash of the Monsters, 1983 documentary.
Jeff Rovin, The Fabulous Fantasy Films.
Marc Shapiro, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Screen.