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5 Ways Ray Harryhausen Influenced Science Fiction

Today  marks what would have been the 97th birthday of Ray Harryhausen (born 29 June 1920) – without a doubt one of the most legendary special effects artists of the 20th Century, and a major influence on how the science fiction genre is viewed today. The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation are responsible for taking care of vast collection of models and artwork created by Ray throughout his career – many of which are on display in our Into the Unknown exhibition.

We spoke to Connor Heaney, Collections Manager for The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, and asked him to share five ways Ray’s work influenced the genre, filmmaking, and his contemporaries.

1) Genre-defining friendships

As a teenager in the 1930s, Ray was to forge a series of life-long friendships that would significantly shape the course of his career. Soon after his first viewing of King Kong in 1933, he met iconic science fiction author Ray Bradbury, and legendary magazine publisher Forrest J Ackerman. These three teenage friends would go on to shape the world of science fiction and genre entertainment throughout the rest of the century.

Just as important was Ray’s meeting with hero and mentor, Willis O’Brien. The creator of King Kong was to be contacted by the enthusiastic young animator throughout his formative years, and would eventually hire Ray as his apprentice. Mighty Joe Young saw the two animate together, on a film which would eventually receive an Academy Award for its special effects. Today, several notable Willis O’Brien pieces reside within the Harryhausen collection, including the ‘Creation’ key drawings on display at Into the Unknown.

2) War of the Worlds

Throughout the 1940s, Ray worked extensively upon what he hoped would be his first solo film project- an adaption of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. He created a series of detailed key drawings, models and even test footage for his retelling of the classic tale of alien invasion.

The Martian head on display at Into the Unknown is one of the ‘lost treasures’ from the Foundation’s collection for this unrealised project. The piece was presumed missing for many years, before being rediscovered in an antique shop by Forrest J Ackerman, and returned to Ray!

3) Earth vs the Flying Saucers

In the 1950s, Ray would create a series of highly successful black and white films which pushed the boundaries of how stop-motion animation could be utilized. Of these, the 1956 film Earth vs the Flying Saucers was to prove a milestone in the science fiction genre, with his iconic flying spacecraft providing the definitive vision of Cold War era invasion films.

4) Bringing classics to life

One often overlooked aspect of the Ray Harryhausen collection is his vast library of books and magazines, used as inspiration for his onscreen visions. Throughout the 1960s, Ray would revisit classic novels which had inspired him as a youngster and revisit their potential for onscreen adventure. Of these, classic Science Fiction tales such as First Men in the Moon and Mysterious Island were adapted into cinematic spectacles.

The creature models from these films on display at Into the Unknown have been meticulously restored to their original state by Foundation conservator Alan Friswell – the only person to work directly with Ray on the repair of his creations.

5) ‘Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars’ – George Lucas

Upon his Ray’s passing, George Lucas released a statement highlighting just how important he had been in creating visions which would inspire a generation of filmmakers to explore the extent of their imaginations. Directors such as Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Tim Burton, Peter Jackson and John Landis have recalled how their younger selves were enthralled by the sight of Ray’s special effects, inspiring them to go forward and create new worlds of their own.

Today, Ray’s legacy lives through the vast collection held by the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation. As part of their #Harryhausen100 celebrations to mark the countdown Ray’s centenary in 2020, models have been carefully restored and stabilised for display, so that this legendary filmmaker’s work may be appreciated within the wider context of the science fiction genre for generations to come.


Find out more about The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation on their website where you can dig deeper into the fascinating archive and filmography, and learn more about the #Harryhausen100 celebrations taking place around the world.

Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction takes place from 3 June–1 September.

Illustrations: Courtesy of Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation archive collection.

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