Jason and The Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963)

Jason and The Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963)

Photo: Martin McNeil, taken from “The Telegraph,” 2010

Ray Harryhausen, the associate producer of Jason and The Argonauts and the technical magician who created its special effects, just turned 92 years old earlier this year in June. From the 1950s through the 1980s, Harryhausen created some of the most beloved fantasy movies with lovely special effects and established his fame as one of the greatest stop-motion animators. He is said to be the successor of Willis O’Brien, whose works include King Kong(1933) and The Lost World (1925.) “Dynamation” is how Harryhausen called his innovative technique of combining split-screen and stop-motion. There is no doubt that Dynamation is the dynamite in the film Jason and The Argonauts.

“In one comic interlude,” said Thomson, “Jason and his pals battle some rickety sword-swinging skeletons. How were they paid, Mr. Schneer – union scale?”

Jason and The Argonauts is one of the very first major films that featured Harryhausen’s movie magic, and is also the most memorable one. It is noted that in his review published in The New York Times in 1963, film critic Howard Thompson did not give the film much acclaim for its plot design, as usual, nor refrain himself from making fun of the stunning last scenes in which Jason fought with the skeleton army. However, this is probably Thompson’s way of encouraging his readers to pay extra attention to the skeletons. What exactly did Harryhausen do to make the skeletons “alive”? What exactly is stop-motion and Dynamation?

Miniatures and rear-projection were a sure thing for Jason and the Argonauts. What is special is the usage of stop-motion. Stop-motion is an animation technique that makes an object appear to move on its own. Using stop-motion, an object will first be moved in small increments and then photographed after each displacement. An illusion of a continuous movement of the object will thus be created when the series of photograph frames is displayed quickly as a sequence. Stop-motion could be traced back to the end of 1890s, but it was rarely used due to its time-consuming process. It would also be almost impossible for a crew of actors to interact with several objects at the same time if using the traditional stop motion technique. Harryhausen thought of the possibility of combing matte and stop-motion so that real actors and objects could be filmed separately and later combined to increase the efficiency of the process. Nevertheless, the matte would have to be very accurate for the split-screen to look realistic. The solution that Harryhausen came up with was surprisingly simple (see diagram below). First, film the real actions and project the footage on a translucent screen, then place a glass matte and the camera in front of the screen, and the to-be-animated object set in between the screen and the glass matte. When all is set, simply look through the camera and outline the area that needs to be covered on the matte. In this way, controlling the exact size and location of the matte is made possible. The biggest challenge though, would be on the acting skills of the actors: They would have to fight the air instead of fighting a skeleton army. Using what Thomson said in his review, “How were they paid, Mr. Schneer?”

Even with Dynamation, it took Harryhausen four and a half months to produce the four-minute skeleton fight. This is probably the reason why even though some of Harryhausen’s films had a decent box office, he did not get rich from them. Of course, Jason and The Argonauts is not only about the skeleton fight: there are also interesting visuals such as tiny warriors running away from gigantic moving god statue, Talos, and a Sea-God with fish tail trying to help Jason’s boat to escape. It is said that the original models of six and half skeletons (the half one had missing legs), the Hydra, Talos and its large body parts, and one of the Harpies can still be found either in Harryhausen’s house or in exhibitions around the world.

  • Harryhausen introduces the characters in Clash on the Titans (1981.) Similar techniques still applied two decades after the production of Jason and The Argonauts.

  • An interview with Harryhausen after he won the Lifetime Achievement Award from Bradford Animation Festival in 2010. Meet the original skeleton model from the film!
  • A Ray Harryhausen interview by Horatia Harrod. A peek on his inspirations and life.
  • More about Dynamation on Harryhausen’s official website.