From Pandora to Pygmalion, the act of the inanimate being made animate was a recurrent motif in Greek mythology. It should come as no surprise, then, that the myths and legends of the ancient Greeks had such a hold on cinema’s greatest stop-motion animator, Ray Harryhausen. His two most famous features, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981), are both set in the Greek heroic age and, for the classicist, are full of allusions to the ancient texts and archaeology, all packaged in the bombast stylings of the mid-century Hollywood blockbuster. Visit this exhibition, in Modern Two of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and you’ll come face to face with Medusa (watch out!), Talos, Harpies, the Hydra and the skeletal Spartoi, one of whom adorns the display’s eye-catching poster.
But this exhibition is not solely for a classicist or a film buff. Anyone with an interest in craft and dedication will marvel at this all-encompassing presentation of Harryhausen’s career and life. His passion was stirred as a thirteen-year-old by the awesome sight of King Kong (1933), which greets visitors in the first room. The exhibition follows this with Harryhausen’s earliest foray into stop-motion animation, a crude but charming monster battle more than a little indebted to Kong’s Serpent Island. A small room at the back behind double-doors, however, provides a glimpse of the greatness to come: stuffed to the brim with storyboards, character designs and accolades (including his Academy Award), the transition from the schoolboy’s tentative steps to the glories and honours he has achieved is striking. It also prepares the visitor for the rest of the exhibition on the first floor, which focuses on his Hollywood productions.
Of these, the classical films are the most prominent, but the display does a good job of justifying the artistic merit of even his lesser-known productions. Few might claim classic status for the 1956 Earth vs The Flying Saucers or Hammer Film Productions’ adventure-packed One Million Years B.C. (1966), but Harryhausen’s characters are always a marvel and the sheer time and effort devoted to their design and animation (frame by laborious frame) is stunning. A particularly interesting section of the upper-level display is a reconstruction showcasing how Harryhausen’s models were designed to appear to be interacting with the actors and setting. With three different screens, each lit by a different projector, one can see how the different parts of the process related to each other, giving real insight into the mechanics of a process that at its best appears seamless.
As one approaches the end of the exhibition, biography and technical analysis give way to a celebration of the pure fun of Harryhausen’s creations, with a cast of all your favourite monsters from his films as well as an interactive exhibition at the very end, where you can battle with the Hydra. It’s a great way to end an exhibition that succeeds in showing not only the commitment and energy that Harryhausen devoted to his work, but the lifelong passion and love that fuelled it. Perhaps Hephaestus and Aphrodite were suitable partners after all!
Written by Richard Kendall