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Science Museum Brings To Life Classic Stop-Motion Creatures

Nov 1, 2017

A cyclops, a sea monster and a three-headed dog guard the office of Scott Henderson, a gallery director at the Science Museum Oklahoma.

The handmade creatures are just three of the models on display at an ongoing exhibit about an artist who changed the film industry.  Ray Harryhausen: Mythical Menagerie features more than 100 stop-motion models, reference sculptures, posters and concept drawings by the lauded animator, who oversaw the special effects for more than a dozen science fiction and adventure films in the 20th century.  

Henderson brought the exhibit to Oklahoma City with the help of the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation.  He’s loved Harryhausen’s films since seeing 1981’s “Clash of the Titans” as a young child, and now shares them with his 10-year-old daughter.

“There was something very real about it.  And it’s because the models are real.  They were actually physical models that were moved,” Henderson said.

Henderson wants kids visiting the Science Museum Oklahoma to learn about the painstaking process of stop-motion animation, which Harryhausen combined with live action footage in an technique called “Dynamation.”

This melding of miniature models and real-life actors, combined with Harryhausen’s fine arts skills and knowledge of anatomy, created fantastical scenes that fascinated Henderson in his youth. He called them a unique combination of art and science. “There is this kind of surreal, nightmarish quality about them,” he said.

An Enduring Legacy

Harryhausen’s films are remembered more for their monsters and aliens than for their actors and directors. “Clash of the Titans” stars Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith--but what everyone really remembers are the mighty Kraken, the monstrous Medusa, the fluffy flying Pegasus and the bumbling golden owl Bubo. Those creatures are all on display at the Science Museum Oklahoma.

Most moviegoers will remember Harryhausen for that movie, or for 1963’s “Jason and the Argonauts,” another loose adaptation of Greek mythology. Hardcore science fiction and fantasy buffs might be familiar with his work on 1966’s “One Million Years B.C.” or 1958’s “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.”

But Harryhausen’s most enduring legacy is among his colleagues and admirers in special effects and animation.  Generations of filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Edgar Wright and Wes Anderson, have raved about his methods and dedication to his art.

Among them is Guillermo Del Toro, director of the upcoming film “The Shape of Water,” owns a lifelike sculpture of Harryhausen interacting with some of his creations.

Artist Mike Hill created a lifelike sculpture of renowned special effects technician Ray Harryhausen for director Guillermo Del Toro.
Credit Photo provided by Mike Hill

 

Sculptor Mike Hill made the piece for Del Toro as a tribute to Harryhausen’s work on “Jason and the Argonauts,” which features a famous five-minute sequence of seven animated skeletons sword-fighting with three live actors.

“You can’t not be inspired by Harryhausen. He’s part of our blueprint as monster makers,” Hill said.

Hill collaborated with Del Toro on “The Shape of Water,” designing a main character in the film, a blue sea creature with fins and a humanoid silhouette. Hill said his creature wasn’t directly inspired by Harryhausen--but viewers can see Harryhausen’s influence in the creature’s broad shoulders, narrow waist and soulful expressions.

For Hill and other monster makers, Harryhausen is not only commendable for his design sense and fluid animation, he’s also legendary for imbuing his creations with a soul.

“You almost know what they’re thinking, what they’re doing, what their life is, without anybody giving us that exposition already. They’re so well designed, they have so much character already. It’s inspiring,”  Hill said.

More Than CGI

Now, visitors to Oklahoma City can see the creations for themselves. Scott Henderson of the Science Museum Oklahoma said some have traveled from as far as New York and Florida.

Longtime fan Matt Hanke drove in from Norman on a recent weekend with his eight-year-old son, Jett. Hanke said discovering Harryhausen’s movies more than 30 years ago sparked a childhood interest in writing and filmmaking that has endured to this day.

“It’s almost like a religious experience for me,” Hanke said.

For him, stop motion animation has an appeal that computer-generated graphics can’t replace.  “It’s physical. Even when you’re watching those films, you know it’s not real, but it looks just like something that could have been touched,” Hanke said.

“When a movie’s done with CGI, you can’t have exhibits like this,” he said.

Ray Harryhausen: Mythical Menagerie is open until Dec. 3 at the Science Museum Oklahoma in Oklahoma City.

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