After a long wait, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two) reopened its doors in late October with the ultimate blockbuster exhibition. Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema celebrates the late great animator and filmmaker’s centenary year with the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of his work to date.
For those unfamiliar with his work, Harryhausen (1920-2013) was an American artist, designer, writer and producer. He invented a stop-motion animation technique that became known as “dynamation”, which he used to great effect in his films, including Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years, the Sinbad trilogy and Clash of the Titans.
His pioneering work shaped modern cinema and inspired a succession of fellow filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Tim Burton and Peter Jackson.
The exhibition, which spans two floors, begins by taking a look at Harryhausen’s formative artistic and cinematic influences. We learn about his life-changing trip to the cinema to see King Kong in 1933, as an animated version of the eponymous monster watches our every move through a genteel Edinburgh sash and case window.
Each room of the exhibition is lined with Harryhausen’s drawings and storyboards. This extensive collection showcases his immense talent as an artist and reveals something of the time and detailed thought processes he invested in his projects. They also reflect the humanity of Harryhausen’s creations, be they human or otherworldly – a key characteristic of his work. As one of the contributors to the exhibition says, his animated figures are not just manipulated puppets, they act.
The theme of humanity runs through the exhibition – not only that of his characters but of his own passion and journey to follow his dream. The gallery’s Gabrielle Keiller Library houses a collection of personal artefacts, including Harryhausen’s model-making kit and some early prototypes.
Here, we learn about the support he received from his parents as the young Harryhausen took his first steps in filmmaking. His father helped him build a studio in the garage and his mother made tiny costumes for his models, some of which are on display.
I felt moved by this subtle juxtaposition of ambitious but humble beginnings and decorated greatness
As we explore the early years of Harryhausen’s career in this space, the Oscar he was awarded in 1992 quietly observes the scene from the mantelpiece. I felt moved by this subtle juxtaposition of ambitious but humble beginnings and decorated greatness. The library provides the perfect setting in terms of atmosphere and intimacy, but the low light levels required by the book collection make it difficult to read some of the labels.
The upstairs rooms of the exhibition present a spectacular celebration of Harryhausen’s key feature films from his first, Mighty Joe Young (1949), to his last, Clash of the Titans (1981).
The rooms showcase Harryhausen’s fantastic creations, which are brought to life through dramatic lighting and set design, projection, animation and the opportunity to come face to face with the models he created and manipulated to make cinematic history. Soundtracks from his films provide an ambient backdrop to these stunning displays.
The variety of media used – both in terms of interpretive media and the objects themselves – keeps visitors alert and engaged. The exhibition is nicely paced, with a manageable amount of content that is well layered and not afraid to confront uncomfortable topics. Time-bound representations of race and gender in Harryhausen’s characters that are offensive or unacceptable today are acknowledged and addressed.
Film and special effects are used particularly well in the exhibition. Harryhausen’s pioneering three-screen dynamation technique is explained through drawings and a physical recreation of the process, during which the animation is sandwiched between live-action footage. This not only reveals the science behind the magic, but also the hard graft that went into each meticulously crafted scene.
The exhibition’s films include a whimsical piece created by Harryhausen in 1999 – his first in 20 years – in which he demonstrates his stop-motion technique and interacts with one of his iconic skeleton soldiers. Another explores Harryhausen’s life, personality and passions through interviews with people who knew him, worked with him and were inspired by him. This is an effective overview that could also have worked well as a contextual piece at the start of the exhibition.
Another simple but effective contextual piece is a timeline that runs between two of the exhibition rooms. This covers key dates in Harryhausen’s life and career, but also includes more recent developments in special effects technology, including the release of the CGI showstopper Jurassic Park in 1993 and Toy Story, the first completely computer-generated feature film, in 1995.
This simple graphic is complemented by another in the final room of the exhibition, which looks at other filmmakers who have made notable contributions to the art, many of whom were inspired by Harryhausen. Names include Burton, Guillermo del Torro and Aardman Animation.
This effectively brings the story up to date and provides an important context for Harryhausen’s work, especially for generations who have been brought up with sophisticated CGI special effects. Works by contemporary filmmakers, Eleanor Stewart and Ainslie Henderson, that are inspired by Harryhausen’s work are also showcased here.
Visitors are encouraged via top tips to try their hand at animation at home, as the young Harryhausen did. This advice is followed by the ultimate showstopper – an interactive with green screen technology that allows visitors to star in their own Harryhausen film.
I took advantage of the limitations on visitor numbers to enjoy this. It wasn’t easy to capture an image of myself while visiting alone, so if appearing in one of Harryhausen’s films is on your bucket list I’d recommend taking a companion (within current Covid guidelines, of course).
This enjoyable and effective interactive is a suitably dramatic conclusion to a well-scripted, beautifully designed, momentous yet personal tribute to a true legend, who dedicated his life to putting magic into the movies.