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The Art of Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen, Tony Dalton, Peter Jackson (Foreword)

Publisher: Aurum Press Ltd – Hardcover 240 pages (November 25, 2005) £25

In 2003 Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life was released; a sweeping coffee-table book offering a fascinating look at the career of one of the most influential special effects artists and animators, the creative force behind such fantastic films as Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Earth vs The Flying Saucers. Profusely illustrated and with detailed text Harryhausen revealed many of the secrets behind his revolutionary animation work. As such it seemed to be the definitive word on its subject and a ‘must have’ for any serious fans of fantasy cinema. It came as some surprise to find another coffee-table sized work has now been released, but this one is less of a sequel and more of a companion piece. The Art of Ray Harryhausen takes a different approach to its forebear, looking at the art behind the films from the perspective of Harryhausen’s own artistic endeavours and those of the artists who influenced him. Less concerned with the animation process the focus rests on the soul of the creation, the concept drawings and paintings that pre-visualised Harryhausen’s fantastical worlds.

The narrative follows Harryhausen’s artistic development as well as his close friendship with Willis O’Brien (Obie), creator of The Lost World and King Kong, and the man who would have the most influence on the young animator’s career. These days the chances of you being able to phone up your hero and not only get to meet them, but be offered the chance to work with them falls into the realms of fantasy – but not then! The book shows us many images of O’Brien’s production sketches that were used in a number of his films. Also of interest are Harryhausen’s own drawings for some of these films, brilliantly realised but, sadly, ones he never dared show O’Brien himself.

In many respects the narrative is secondary, and it is the illustrations that are really the focus of this book. We are given many an opportunity to enjoy work of the artists that most influenced Harryhausen. These include Gustav Doré, the 19th Century artist who illustrated over 200 books, including Dante’s Divine Comedy, with incredibly detailed imagery. Charles R Knight, famous for his depictions of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, also features – effectively the man who put flesh and skin onto fossilised bones to bring them to vivid life. His influence on Harryhausen’s work cannot be underestimated – from the Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Mysterious Island to, of course, One Million Years BC. Then there is the artwork of Harryhausen himself – from rough concept sketches to storyboards and photographs of his most famous creations, many depicted as full page illustrations showing minute attention to detail. Also featured are some of Harryhausen’s work in sculpture and bronzes.

This is another heavy tome but, like many art books, necessarily so. Although perhaps not as insightful as An Animated Life, its different and enlightening perspective makes it an essential purchase for fans of Harryhausen’s remarkable work.