Personal stories and an inside look into 5 of Ray Harryhausen’s iconic movie monsters

Five is just the beginning. He’s made so many pieces of movie history, you wouldn’t know where to start. But the exhibition “Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema” at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh would be a good first stop.



Have you ever seen Jason and the Argonauts – the 1963 film by special effects and stop-motion animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen? No? Well, you should. 😊


I know I watched it as a kid, but I was recently able to do it again (and again) through an old-movie channel on TV. That and Clash of the Titans, another Ray Harryhausen classic, which came out in 1981.


Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) animating a skeleton model from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 1958 © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419)
Ray with the Kraken from Clash of the Titans

I find these films so fascinating and satisfying, first because they’re great and familiar stories, and second because of the vibe and feel – if that makes any sense?


And of course, the best thing about them are the creatures – Talos and the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts, and Medusa and the Kraken in Clash of the Titans, just to name a few. They’re just so cool and memorable, and they certainly make an impression. Ray inspired filmmakers like Peter Jackson, Tim Burton, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, you know. 😊


A master

Ray created armatures, models (and armatured models), artworks, miniatures, moulds, and so much more. In fact, The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation believes there are over 50,000 items in Ray’s collection. You can trace Ray’s career back to the 1950s, after all, when Mighty Joe Young was released.


Sadly, Ray passed away in 2013, but his memory and influence live on. The foundation has organised a series of exhibitions and different events to celebrate Ray’s 100th birthday in 2020, #Harryhausen100. If you’re lucky and you’re in Scotland (I’m not 😭), you can check out the exhibition “Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema” at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two) in Edinburgh until 20 February 2022.


I thought it’d be amazing if I could feature them and get their thoughts about Ray and his work. I’d love to know more. I reached out to them, and yay! 👏


We have Vanessa Harryhausen, John Walsh and Connor Heaney here. Vanessa is Ray’s daughter and a trustee of the foundation; she also wrote the book Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema.


John is a BAFTA-nominated filmmaker, the founder of film production company Walsh Bros Ltd, author of Harryhausen: The Lost Movies, and a trustee as well.


Connor is the foundation’s collections manager, the one in charge of cataloguing, preserving and promoting Ray’s work and legacy.


Vanessa Harryhausen, John Walsh and Connor Heaney of The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation
Meet Vanessa, John and Connor

They reveal their favourites below – the experiences, the emotions, and the pieces that resonated with them the most (because there are understandably a lot). Visit a Ray Harryhausen exhibition and you’re bound to have your own favourites too. So when will you? 🙂


What do you personally see and how do you feel when you look at the exhibition?

Connor: “The ‘Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema’ exhibition is testament to an incredible life of creativity, persistence and inspiration.


“Ray was a legendary 20th century filmmaker, responsible for the special effects in such classic movies as Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans, One Million Years B.C. and more. As well as being responsible for the iconic stop-motion animation in all of his films, Ray would also create concept art, design and build his creatures, and then have the film’s live action structured around his creations. As such, the finished picture was truly a result of Ray’s fantastical visions.


“Thankfully, Ray would never throw anything away throughout his long career, and kept hundreds of stop-motion models alongside thousands of artworks, tools, model-making equipment and more.


“At The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, we have the privilege of caring for Ray’s physical collection, and are responsible for promoting Ray’s ongoing legacy. June 2020 marked Ray’s 100th birthday, and so for a number of years we had planned to celebrate his life and work on this landmark centenary date.”


Which elements played a role in mounting the exhibition? And which of them stand out to you?

Connor: “In the years prior to 2020, we had planned for a major exhibition to celebrate Ray’s incredible legacy. Having spoken to a number of institutions worldwide, I was invited to meet with Simon Groom, director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.


“After an initial conversation about Ray’s films, animation and creative works, Simon recognised Ray’s status as a true modern artist, and we agreed to collaborate on a major exhibition in Edinburgh. From that point onwards, our plans grew and grew, until it became clear that the entirety of the seven-room Modern Two building would be required to tell the story of Ray’s life and work.”


Connor relays some of the challenges they had to face, as well as some of the decisions they had to make:


#1 Figuring out the best way to present Ray’s collection

Because it was extensive – like very – which can be a good but tricky thing.


“The exhibition spans Ray’s life, and showcases objects from his earliest days as a young filmmaker in the 1930s, through to projects he was working upon less than a decade ago before his sad passing in 2013.


“There are several hundred models, artworks, photographs, tools and personal artefacts on display – however, with a collection spanning a century and consisting of some 50,000 items, one of the biggest challenges is to narrow down an object list which is representative of all of his work, as well as telling the story of his creative life.


“We worked hard with the team at the gallery to create a display which showed how those first creative sparks were developed across the decades, and how Ray’s imagination was brought to life through his innovative and ingenious techniques.”


#2 Preserving Ray’s models so we can enjoy them for a long time

“Another challenge was the condition of many of Ray’s original stop-motion models. These were cared for by Ray throughout his life, and displayed proudly in his home. However, these models were primarily constructed from latex, which is an organic material that deteriorates over time. Ray recognised this issue in his lifetime, and hired special effects artist Alan Friswell to repair some of his most damaged models.


“Alongside this, the two spent many hours discussing the best approach to this conservation – what materials should be used, how far to intervene with damaged models, and how the finished piece should look. It was Ray’s hope that his models could look as close to their original screen-used image as possible, and that future generations could continue to enjoy and learn from his creations.


“Thankfully, Alan still works closely with the foundation, and was able to assess, and where appropriate repair, every model on display at the ‘Titan of Cinema’ exhibition. Many of Ray’s most iconic creatures, including Talos, Kali, Gwangi and the Kraken, would simply have been too damaged or fragile to exhibit had Alan not intervened.”


Model of Kali by Ray Harryhausen (1920- 2013) from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, c.1973 Collection: The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419) © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation Photography: Sam Drake (National Galleries of Scotland)
High five. Model of Kali from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, c.1973. Collection: The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419). © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation. Photography: Sam Drake (National Galleries of Scotland)

What are your favourite pieces from the exhibition?

This is my favourite part. 😊 If you’re new to Ray’s work, you can start here, and watch out for them at their exhibitions. But I’m pretty sure a lot of fans will flock to these items too.


#1 Skeleton from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

Connor: “For many people, the name Ray Harryhausen instantly conjures up imagery of his legendary stop-motion skeleton models. These can be seen in two of his films, most famously as the seven ‘Children of the Hydra’s Teeth’ in the legendary climax of Jason and the Argonauts. A single skeleton warrior was also seen in 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad; this model was actually reused in Jason, although in the years that followed, Ray would claim that he could not identify which was the older skeleton.


“During assessment of the models, Alan realised that one particular model stood out as the original 1958 model. Thankfully, both the sword and shield from this piece are still contained within our archive, so this iconic piece has been reunited with its original accessories, more than 60 years on!


“This model also represents the oldest ‘complete’ piece from any of Ray’s films – the skeleton models have actually aged very well. Being constructed from cotton wool dipped in liquid latex and then wrapped around a very thin armature, the construction of these pieces ensured minimal deterioration, meaning that they can continue to terrify for generations to come. All of Ray’s surviving skeleton models are on display as part of the ‘Titan of Cinema’ exhibition.”


Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) animating a skeleton model from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 1958 © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419)
Ray animating a skeleton model from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 1958. © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419)

Original Skeleton model. armatured skeleton, with Medusa shield, from Jason and the Argonauts, c.1962 and Original Skeleton model; octopus shield by Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013), armature by Fred Harryhausen, c.1962 Collection: The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419) © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation Photography: Sam Drake (National Galleries of Scotland)
These skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts will also give you an idea. Original skeleton model, armatured skeleton with Medusa shield, from Jason and the Argonauts, c.1962. Original skeleton model, octopus shield by Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013); armature by Fred Harryhausen, c.1962. Collection: The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419). © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation. Photography: Sam Drake (National Galleries of Scotland)

#2 Talos from Jason and the Argonauts

Connor: “Talos is another of Ray’s most iconic pieces, voted the second greatest movie monster of all time by Empire Magazine (just behind 1933’s King Kong, appropriately enough). This model has deteriorated particularly badly over the years, and there was a question on whether or not the piece could be displayed for Ray’s centenary exhibit. Alan Friswell performed yet another miraculous restoration job which stabilised the model, and which will allow visitors to see this legendary statue up close for years to come.”


Model Talos from Jason and the Argonauts, c.1962 Collection: The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419) © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation Photography: Sam Drake (National Galleries of Scotland)
Loved all his scenes. Model of Talos from Jason and the Argonauts, c.1962. Collection: The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419). © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation. Photography: Sam Drake (National Galleries of Scotland)

#3 Early Kong model

This may not have been included in Ray’s movies, but it’s still definitely worth a mention. 👍


Vanessa: “In 2008, dad asked me to travel to his property in Los Angeles so that I could look through materials that had been held in a storage unit there for decades. He couldn’t remember exactly what had been kept there.


“Upon opening his garage, I was greeted with a treasure trove of material from his early career! Everything from his first models in the 1930s through to pieces from Jason and the Argonauts could be found within the dozens of boxes there. I called upon two of dad’s friends in LA to help assist me work through this material – animators Jim Danforth and Randy Cook were an invaluable help in identifying these lost treasures.


“Amongst this horde of invaluable objects were some of dad’s earliest creations – a series of marionettes built in his early teens, shortly after he first saw King Kong in 1933. These include Skeleton, Robot, Dragon and, of course, Kong himself. When these arrived back in the UK, dad was horrified at how basic these early models had looked. However, I told him that I felt it was important to share these as an example of how he started out. Nobody is born with the skills that he developed over the years – it takes hard work and persistence. These rudimentary marionettes are a reminder of his very first attempts to create from his own imagination.”


The Kong marionette
The Kong marionette: Ready to climb any mountain or building

#4 Gwangi from The Valley of Gwangi

Vanessa: “I have a direct personal connection to Gwangi the Allosaurus, star of the 1969 cowboys vs dinosaurs classic The Valley of Gwangi. I was present during the live action filming of this picture, as was my mother Diana. Although I was very small, I recall meeting leading lady Gila Golan and being on location in Spain.


“Once dad had finished animating, I remember seeing this model in our home alongside Pinky the Elephant, who met an unfortunate demise in the film! I was lucky enough to play with the models, leading to an amusing incident in Harrods store in London. Mum had taken me shopping, and I had the Gwangi model around in my toy buggy. Two little old ladies stopped me and asked if they could see my dolly.


“When I pulled back the blanket, they were greeted with a snarling dinosaur! The ladies were horrified and scolded my mother, complaining that I wouldn’t grow up to be a normal child with toys like that.


“I didn’t have dolls, I had dinosaurs!”


Copy resin model Allosaurus from One Million Years B.C. c. 1965 Collection: The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419) © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation Photography: Sam Drake (National Galleries of Scotland)
Rawr. Copy resin model of the Allosaurus from One Million Years B.C. c. 1965. Collection: The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419). © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation. Photography: Sam Drake (National Galleries of Scotland)

#5 The Kraken from Clash of the Titans

John: “The Kraken is a majestic titan, and in the exhibition, we get to see the full-sized restored torso version used for the dramatic climax of Ray’s last film, Clash of the Titans. I have always loved this design and how it mirrors the film that started it all for Ray: King Kong in 1933. He came full circle with this final film, and the strength and beauty of this beast is as good a symbol of the creative intellect that was Ray Harryhausen.”


Model of the Kraken from Clash of the Titans, c.1980 by Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) Collection: The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419) © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation Photography: Sam Drake (National Galleries of Scotland)
Do you think you can defeat him? Probably not. Model of the Kraken from Clash of the Titans, c.1980. Collection: The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419). © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation. Photography: Sam Drake (National Galleries of Scotland)

What are some of the things that continuously amaze and surprise you about Ray Harryhausen’s work and legacy?

Vanessa: “Dad was always so humbled and surprised to hear what an impact his films had on a new generation of artists. He was of course delighted to hear how he’d influenced so many filmmakers and fans, and I know he would have been pleased to see the exhibition in Edinburgh. It’s amazing to think that his final film, Clash of the Titans, was released over 40 years ago, yet his legacy is still being celebrated to this day.”


What is it you wish people knew about him, his life and his work?

Vanessa: “In the book I wrote for dad’s centenary (also titled Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema), I tried to get his personality across to anybody who didn’t have the pleasure of meeting him. His humble nature, his dry sense of humour and his self-reliant nature were all very important parts of his personality.


“I hope that my book and the exhibition show what a talented artist and craftsman he was. As well as his incredible animation, he could also create these incredible drawings and sculpt bronzes, and build things around the home when needed.


“Most importantly was my father’s hope that his work could continue to inspire and educate future generations of artists and animators. I hope that his story of persistence and imagination can continue to bring hope to young filmmakers starting out.”


What lessons have you learnt, and what tips can you share, about inspiration and creativity from Ray Harryhausen?

John: “As both a technical innovator and a force of great creative ambition, Ray Harryhausen is a testament to anyone who has dreamt big and seen it through. Today his work is admired by millions and continues to influence those filmmakers looking to the past to create the onscreen successes of the future.


“When I was writing my book, Harryhausen: The Lost Movies, I was continually astonished by his ability to bring fresh and innovative perspectives to ancient stories of mythology and futuristic visions of worlds to come.”


Who knows?

Like John, Vanessa and Connor, you might find yourself endlessly inspired by Ray – so much so that you could go on to create some fantastical creatures of your own (and make movie history too). From the three’s recollections and perceptions of Ray, he would probably love that – and would want to see more of us doing it, and improving on it. 🙂


And if you still can’t get enough, Connor says there’s more. “Look out for the inaugural Harryhausen Awards, which launch in 2022,” he tells us. You can send your entries starting 01 January 2022, to be exact. Categories include Best Feature Film Animation, Best Short Film Animation, Best Student Film Animation, Best Commercial Film Animation, Best Online Film Animation, Best Television Animation, and the Harryhausen Hall of Fame Award.


More of a moviegoer, spectator and admirer? You can just watch and re-watch Ray’s works then. Aside from Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans and the other films mentioned above, there’s still The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs the Flying Saucers (1956), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), and Mysterious Island (1961), for starters. 😉 You’ll love the stories and appreciate the context of what’s featured in the exhibition by the time you visit. I would. 🙂


Find The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


Medusa model from Clash of the Titans, c.1979 Collection: The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419) © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation Photography: Sam Drake (National Galleries of Scotland)
I don't know whether to stop and stare or run away. Model of Medusa from Clash of the Titans, c.1979. Collection: The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419). © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation. Photography: Sam Drake (National Galleries of Scotland)

Photos courtesy of The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation and National Galleries of Scotland