Remembering movie mythmaking ‘Titan’
Ray Harryhausen’s daughter travels from Scotland to make a special appearance at Science Museum Oklahoma.
When she was a girl, everyday life for Vanessa Harryhausen meant being surrounded by fighting skeletons, fearsome snake women and the occasional cyclops or Kraken.
“I thought it was the norm until I went to boarding school, and I had some friends over for the weekend. And they went, ‘This is definitely not normal. This is amazing.’ But it was just what I grew up with. I didn’t really know until later on and appreciate (it) until later on. He was just my dad doing this stuff,” recalled the daughter of the late filmmaking trailblazer Ray Harryhausen.
“He always had time for me. I was never a nuisance or anything, and I used to sit on the couch in his sitting room and watch him either sketching ... or just watching him doing some sculptures.” Vanessa Harryhausen will travel from her home in Scotland to Oklahoma City next week to share more of her memories of growing up with the legendary stop-motion animation pioneer. She will attend a special screening of the 1981 film “Clash of the Titans” and participate in her first post-screening questionand-answer session Oct. 20 at Science Museum Oklahoma. Science Museum Oklahoma is the exclusive venue for “Ray Harryhausen — Mythical Menagerie,” a comprehensive exhibition of nearly 150 original models, prototypes, bronzes, sketches and storyboards from five famed fantasy films by the groundbreaking filmmaker. On view through Dec. 3, it is the first U.S. exhibition of Harryhausen's work since his death in 2013 at age 92.
“Normally, I’m quite a private person, so I don’t really do this a lot,” Vanessa Harryhausen said. “This is sort of new. The last time I said anything I think was at the BAFTAs (the British version of the Oscars) just saying congratulations to dad on stage. So, I’ll just speak from the heart.”
The Oct. 20 screening at Science Museum Oklahoma also will feature a lecture about the history and legacy of “Clash of the Titans” by Connor Heaney, collections manager for the Scotland-based Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation. “Through lots of transatlantic communication,” Heaney and Science Museum Oklahoma smART Space Director Scott Henderson worked for more than a year to develop “Ray Harryhausen — Mythical Menagerie,” which USA Today named one of its “11 must-see fall exhibits at U.S. museums.”
“You’re gonna be able to see all different aspects of Ray’s work.
… I think there are over 20 storyboards on display that really show you how detailed Ray had to be in every aspect of his work. He had to plan out every sequence, scene by scene, in much the way a director would normally have to because he had to ensure that the actors were in the right position to make sure that his animation would fit into the scene proportionally,” Heaney said. “I’m looking forward to seeing all of Scott’s hard work in person because we’ve had a fantastic response so far.”
Henderson was researching an idea for a showcase of science fiction movie posters and art when he came across the Harryhausen Foundation website. He decided to reach out to explore the possibility of putting together an exhibit. “He was the grandfather of all special effects and stop-motion animation in cinema,” Henderson said. “I remember these movies as a child and how special they were to me.”
Since the special effects innovator’s collection includes more than 50,000 objects gathered during his long career, one of the challenges was deciding just what to include in the “Mythical Menagerie.”
Henderson opted to focus the Oklahoma exhibit on five Harryhausen films rooted in classical mythology, but even with that narrow focus, Heaney said choosing from among the hundreds of artworks and artifacts was a herculean task.
The exhibition includes familiar cinematic artifacts like the cyclops armature from “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958); the skeleton warriors and hydra from “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963); the gryphon and the centaur from “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” (1973); the giant walrus from “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” (1977); and the Kraken, Medusa, Bubo the Owl, Pegasus and the monstrous Calibos from “Clash of the Titans.”
“What you’ll see on display at the ‘Mythical Menagerie’ exhibition are
some items which have probably never been seen widely before. As well as the Medusa model, we have the prototype bust, which shows you the kind of the process of creation that went into some of Ray’s most famous creatures,” Heaney said. “There’s a big distance between where we are in the U.K. and Oklahoma, and it just kind of shows you the global reach of Ray’s work and influence.”
The Oklahoma exhibit is one of the early entries in the Harryhausen Foundation's #Harryhausen100, a multiyear worldwide series of exhibits, film screenings and events leading up to the 100th anniversary Harryhausen's birth on June 20, 2020.
“We want the next three or four years to really act as a countdown around the world for everyone to celebrate Ray’s legacy,” said Heaney, who will participate in the Oct. 20 post-“Clash of the Titans” Q&A with Vanessa Harryhausen. “We’re saving Vanessa for the very special occasions. Because this is the first exhibition of Ray’s work in the United
States for so many years, we thought we would mark it with an extra-special guest appearance. For the big occasions, we’re gonna have Vanessa (share) some of her memories.”
“Clash of the Titans” marked a number of milestones for Ray Harryhausen: It was his final film, and since he had a habit of recycling his models, it’s the one from which there are the most surviving artifacts. It also had the biggest budget and most prominent cast of his movies, Heaney said.
Although it’s not her favorite of her father’s films — she prefers “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” and “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” — Vanessa Harryhausen said she has fond memories of visiting the “Clash” set on Malta during a holiday with her mother. “I was sort of a stand in for height for Judi Bowker (who played Andromeda) when she was getting chained up on the rock to the Kraken,” she said. “That was one of the things my dad got me to do.”
The adventures she had with her father’s career range from the most basic human experiences — she met actress Caroline
Munro and began a lifelong friendship with one of her daughters on “The Golden Voyage” set — to pure movie magic.
“It was extraordinary actually to see the final print — you have a private showing of that — and to think, ‘Oh my God, those are the models that I saw on the table and daddy was touching up and doing various poses for — and this is it in fluidity on screen.’ It was just extraordinary, and it really is magical how it all came together,” she said.
She said it’s a credit to her father that people still love his work. Throughout her life, she’s heard from several filmmakers who’ve cited him as an influence, and she’s enjoyed the way many have paid homage to his legacy, from the skeleton swordfights in “The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” to the sushi restaurant named Harryhausens in “Monsters, Inc.”
“I hope to inspire young animators and let someone know that there is a chance out there to put some things together and do some either stopmotion or whatever kind of animation suits their style. I think his sketches as a whole, too, are very inspiring,”
“I’m always excited to see Dad’s stuff and always amazed how his fans are so gracious and sensitive about Daddy’s work. It’s just wonderful and it’s very humbling. … Daddy was always very humbled by the fans. He always said, you know, if it wasn’t for them he wouldn’t be where he was, and he was ever so grateful for their enthusiasm and interest in all his creatures.”
ACROSS THE TOP: Bubo the owl from the movie “Clash of the Titans” is featured in the exhibit “Ray Harryhausen — Mythical Menagerie” at the smART Space galleries in Science Museum Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. Ray Harryhausen stands with his Kraken model...