Mining Greek Myths for Movies: From Harryhausen to Wrath of the Titans

Tales of ancient Greece go hand-in-hand with movie special effects

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Opening Friday, Wrath of the Titans is the latest in the somewhat puzzling genre of movies fashioned from Greek mythology. A sequel to the surprise box-office hit Clash of the Titans, Wrath of the Titans boasts upgraded computer graphics and 3D technology while hewing to its predecessor’s formula: modern versions of stories thousands of years old.

Most recent films set in ancient times—like 300, Troy, Alexander, and Gladiator—are largely excuses to show gigantic battles on screen. The two Titans movies fall into a sort of fantasy subgenre popularized in large part by stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. In fact, the 2010 Clash of the Titans was a remake of a 1981 MGM film for which Harryhausen oversaw the special effects.

Stop motion is one of the first special effect processes perfected in cinema, one I’m sure came about by accident. You achieve it by filming a scene, stopping the camera, and then changing something within the scene before starting to film again. For Edison films like The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (August, 1895) and The Great Train Robbery (1903), dummies would be substituted for actors when it came time to portray their deaths. In scores of films, Georges Méliès made characters appear and disappear with the same effect, often using a cloud of smoke to disguise the switches.

Edison rivals J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith took the process a step further by making it seem as if inanimate objects could move in The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1897). They did this by shooting a single frame at a time, shifting objects before the camera a little after each frame. Pieces of furniture, letters of the alphabet, in fact almost anything that could be filmed could be moved as well. A film like The Thieving Hand (Vitagraph, 1908) shows how quickly stop-motion techniques advanced.

In stop-motion animation, filmmakers build models which they move frame by frame. These tend to be miniatures because they’re easier to control, but the process is still incredibly time consuming, requiring obsessive attention to details like lighting and surfacing. Films like The Ant and the Grasshopper (1911) and The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) by Ladislas Starevich (also known as Wladyslaw Starewicz) show just what could be accomplished with insects, matchboxes, and tiny costumes.

Willis O’Brien, a cowboy, guide, boxer, sculptor, and cartoonist, began working in stop-motion animation in 1915. His fascination with dinosaurs led to several films in which he developed ways to combine animation with live action, and to make models more lifelike with latex, armatures, bladders, and gel for “saliva.” Based on the Arthur Conan Doyle novel, The Lost World (1925) featured some fifty dinosaurs, stunning audiences worldwide.

O’Brien set to work on Creation for RKO, but it was cancelled by studio head David O. Selznick after some 20 minutes had been completed. Merian C. Cooper, who would later replace Selznick as head at the studio, brought O’Brien onto a new project about a giant ape terrorizing New York City. King Kong (1933) would become one of the touchstones in cinema, due in no small part to O’Brien’s meticulous animation.

At times O’Brien was moving his models as little as an eighth of an inch per frame. A mistake meant starting over from the beginning of the shot. Fur on the Kong models was impossible to control completely. (Watching the film you can see the ape’s fur change shape from frame to frame.) But to viewers then and today, Kong became a living, breathing figure of terror, perhaps the greatest single achievement in stop-motion technology.

O’Brien worked on both Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949). For the latter, he hired Ray Harryhausen, an animator whose life had been changed by seeing King Kong. “You know it is not real, but it looks real. It’s like a nightmare of something in a dream,” he said later.

Born in 1925, Harryhausen modeled his own creatures from old clothes and clay before working on George Pal’s stop-motion Puppetoons at Paramount. Enlisting at the start of World War II, he worked in the Signal Corps making movies like How to Bridge a Gorge (1942). After the war, with O’Brien as friend and mentor, Harryhausen made shorts adapted from Mother Goose stories.

Animating The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) led to work on It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), where Harryhausen met producer and partner-to-be Charles Schneer. The animator had been working for years on a project “based purely on Greek mythology” called The Lost City. With Schneer’s help, Harryhausen ended up with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

Schneer sold the idea to Columbia for a budget of $650,000, little of which went to the cast (contract player Kermit Mathews, future Mrs. Bing Crosby Kathryn Grant) or for location shoots. Filming in Spain was cheaper and offered stark beach, mountain and desert scenery with landmarks like the Alhambra Palace to back up Harryhausen’s animation.

Yes, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is ostensibly derived from The Arabian Nights, but Harryhausen would return to similar monsters and situations for the rest of his career. Sinbad’s swordfight with a skeleton shows up in an expanded form in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), for example. With their elemental, larger-than-life narratives and outsized monsters, Greek myths were perfect for Harryhausen’s methods.

Harryhausen learned from O’Brien how important it is to develop personalities for his characters—like a Cyclops who pulls over a bench so he can watch his dinner cooking in Sinbad, or the skeletons’ feral grins in Jason. Harryhausen’s figures, with their awkward lurches and puzzled gestures, have a charming, lifelike quality that is often seems to be missing from today’s CGI.

Stop-motion animation continues today in work by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline), Jan Švankmajer (Alice, Faust), the Brothers Quay (The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes), and Nick Park (who won an Oscar for Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit). Upcoming stop-motion features include The Pirates! Band of Misfits from Park’s Aardman Animation and Frankenweenie, directed by Tim Burton.

If you think that filmmakers don’t reach back to the past, you can spot very funny Thieving Hand references in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and the upcoming The Cabin in the Woods.

Read Reel Culture posts every Wednesday and Friday. Follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy

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