Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sexed-up prehistory and stop motion pterosaurs: the Pteranodon of Ray Harryhausen and Willis O'Brien

It’s one of those days where someone forgot to switch the weather on. The sky is overcast in drab greys and whites, it’s not particularly hot or cold and there’s no sign that anyone’s going to be rained on anytime soon. Combine this with the general stillness of a Saturday morning and my place of residence being a pretty quiet street in the middle of Portsmouth and, really, there is nothing that interesting going on around me at all. It contrasts massively with the lush, spectacular world presented in James Cameron’s Avatar, the 3D SFXathon that I finally saw this week. If, like me, you’d not found time to see it yet, I do recommend that you make the push to catch it on a big screen before it disappears from cinemas: while the story is pretty clichéd and predictable (in a nutshell, the greedy corporation and marines from Cameron’s Aliens take on tribes of Ameridian-like, nature loving, strangely attractive 3 m tall blue catfolk), the technology generating the characters and environments is jaw-droppingly amazing. Moreso than any movie I’ve seen, you really feel like you’re in the film, a trick helped with the subtle use of 3D that, instead of a cheap gimmick, adds depth to the imagery to bring the normal 2D perception of a cinema screen more in line with our own ‘real world’ perception. I was a little disappointed with some of the creature designs: it was too easy to see that dogs, horses, rhinos and big cats had simply been redressed and the Na’vi were just a little too humanoid in form for my taste. While I appreciate that they were probably designed this way so that audiences can empathise with them, I’m still waiting for the day when someone designs their anthropomorphic aliens as globular mudusoids with no eyes and 6 tongues, complete with subtitled alien dialogue. You know, something really odd and, well, alien. After all, if Pixar can make us feel empathy for a virtually-mute Tonka truck with periscope eyes (WALL-E), couldn’t audiences fall for aliens that aren’t essentially people with pasties stuck to their foreheads, red skin or cat-like tails?

This trip to see the effects-laden Avatar coincides with me reading about another batch of famous stop-motion special effects in The Art of Ray Harryhausen (Harryhausen and Dalton 2005; cover image above). Almost everyone must know of Harryhausen’s work in some capacity or another: before computer graphics or gee-whizz motorised puppets, the monsters and beasties of cinema were created with stop-motion animation, the technique where armatured puppets are filmed a single frame at a time and, when ran as a film, appear to be moving. Harryhausen, though not the pioneer of this technique, is widely recognised as it’s master: classic stop-motion scenes of mythical beasts (such as the Sinbad movies, Clash of the Titans), aliens (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), fairy tale characters and prehistoric animals (Valley of Gwangi, One Million Years B.C.) were all brought to life through his hands and feature some of the most famous scenes in special effects history. He learnt his craft through Willis O’Brien, the stop-motion pioneer who breathed life into the silent 1925 version of The Lost World and 1933 King Kong (among other things). The two worked together on various projects but Harryhausen went on to develop more cost-effective, efficient methods of stop-motion craft and covered a broader range of subjects: arguably, it’s these attributes that crown Harryhausen as the Godfather of Stop Motion.

The Art of Ray Harryhausen chronicles the creative process and artwork behind Harryhausen’s creations and demonstrates that he was an excellent artist along with a special effects guru. Like O’Brien (who’s working methods Harryhausen appears to have attempted to imitate, at least in his early career), he would produce sketches and key drawings of scenes from films in production to communicate and develop his ideas. Both O’Brien and Harryhausen were keen dinosaur buffs and both tried to get them into their films as much as possible. As such, they produced quite a bit of their own palaeoart, distinguished from most other art of this kind in featuring lost civilisations and people alongside their extinct animals. Much of this can be seen in The Art of Ray Harryhausen and, perhaps rather obviously, showcasing a few of the more pterosaur-based images is why we're here.

It’s interesting to note that O'Brien and Harryhausen took somewhat different approaches to filmmaking. O’Brien stayed much closer to his source material, so much so that his creations for The Lost World have been described as the most accurate dinosaurs committed to film considering scientific knowledge of the time. Harryhausen, by contrast, saw fit to ‘improve’ on several aspects of prehistoric animals. He often combined theropod bodyplans with those of Tyrannosaurus, most famously in Valley of Gwangi where he made his Allosaurus/Tyrannosaurus - ‘Allo-rex’ - the star of the show. In this respect, Harryhausen takes a more modern approach to putting prehistoric animals in film, taking heavy inspiration from the fossil record but embellishing it to make things cooler. Pterosaurs may show this ideological dichotomy more than any other beasties: Pteranodon, the largest and most spectacular pterosaur known during the professional careers of Harryhausen and O'Brien, featured in several works by both artists: The Lost World, King Kong, One Million Years BC and Valley of Gwangi. Happily for us, their key drawings of scenes featuring these critters have been retained and you can see O’Brien’s c.1930 view of a Pteranodon carrying off an ill-fated woman at the top of this post. The pterosaur and ideas of this scene, drawn for the never-realised project Creation, was recycled for another O'Brien project, King Kong (below). Kong buffs will note the famous chasm-spanning tree in the background of O'Brien's image, another device originally intended for Creation (featuring an angry Arsinotherium) but adapted for King Kong.

Aside from the oversize nature of the Kong pterosaur, O’Brien’s efforts aren't too bad. By and large, it looks like a fleshed, animated version of the Pteranodon we know and love from Eaton’s (1910) Pteranodon monograph: close inspection reveals it’s lacking one major toe, but we can excuse O’Brien that. Harryhausen’s pterosaurs, however, differ markedly from not only those of O’Brien but also the fossil record: check out his 1965 production drawing depicting a Pteranodon for One Million Years BC:

Harryhausen stayed close to this design when producing his puppet, although he did drop the merganser-like serrated bill (or possibly teeth - it's hard to see exactly) for the final model. The One Million Years BC puppet, then, ended up looking like this:

In both instances, Pteranodon bears bat-like wings and, counting the fingers in the key drawing, we discover that it actually has 6 fingers, 2 more than it should have. What’s more, look closely at the sketch and model and we find that the pterosaur’s feet have become almost convergent with the zygodactyl condition of owls: two powerfully muscled forward-pointing toes and a third, powerfully developed hallux. The pterosaur of Valley of Gwangi shows the same trait, apparently redlecting the need for the animals in these films to fly away with characters in their grasp. As Darren Naish noted on the main site, all pterosaurs have slender feet without large talons, meaning Harryhausen's versions are really at odds with what we know of pterosaur anatomy. Curiously, O'Brien's King Kong Pteranodon also had to airlift a person but was not given raptorial feet: instead, the foot simply wraps around Fay Wray to craddle her while in flight, but, that said, this creature was also meant to be much bigger than the Harryhausen pterosaurs.

Compositing his creations together with bits and pieces from other animals is very much in keeping with Harryhausen's design process: his critters do have a somewhat chimeric look about them where bits of differnt animals are combined together into new forms (compare the fishy gills of Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth with those of Clash of the Titan's Kraken, for instance). In this respect, a pterosaur with bat wings and owl-ish feet is not a particularly unusual creation to emerge from the Harryhausen mill. All the same, because Harryhausen was modifying the appearance of a real animal, he was been asked to justify himself. I’ll let him tell the story:

Apropos One Million Years BC, I was once told by a five-year old that I knew nothing about pteranodons or pterodactyls because they don’t really have bat wings! Well, I know they don’t. They should have had huge pieces of skin stretched from the top of their legs out beyond their claws. But what I had to think about was how these creatures of the air would work cinematically when I was animating them. If I had made my creatures with just skin for wings they would have looked improbable, even if they had been more accurate, so I used a certain amount of cinematic license and gave them what I saw as more dramatic wings. In fact, I tried to make them look like umbrellas rather than bats. In effect, we tried to find a compromise between strict scientific accuracy and the need to achieve certain cinematic effects, and I believe we did the right thing. It gave them a fantasy element and after all we weren’t making pictures for palaeontologists, although today filmmakers make all their creatures so real – too real for my tastes.
Harryhausen and Dalton 2005, p. 75.

I do find this attitude a little surprising: for some reason, I’d always assumed the likes of Harryhausen would only compromise on issues like this because of necessity. You know, like the models being unable to flap the wings properly without additional structural support or something. The eight-year old in me that grew up watching these films can forgive gaffs like one-to-many fingers or an incorrectly shaped head, but changing stuff around simply because it looks cooler seems a bit, well, sacrilege. Whatever: they're only movies and, really, expecting scientific accuracy from a film that was primarily sold by on the skimpiness of its heroine's bikini may be a bit much. Still, it'd be interesting to know if O'Brien, a man appeared to go to greater lengths to restore his animals more accurately, would've agreed with this. In some respects, you have to wonder if whether Harryhausen's attitude to his prehistoric critters reflects the type of films he was making: whereas O'Brien was making dinoflicks of (arguably) more respectability, Harryhausen's were, frankly, a little more pulpy. As such, O’Brien was able to emphasise the ‘animal’ side of his prehistoric creations, dedicating several scenes of The Lost World to animals idly chewing plant matter, nurturing young, being scared of gunfire and flames and that sort of stuff. Harryhausen’s beasts, though, needed to be far more immediate and Hollywoodised, being ushered on stage when needed to wreak havoc, chase people or fight each other, then disappear again to make room for the next one. Sexing up their appearances makes a little bit more sense in this regard, making sure they make more of an impression for their short, titillating moments on screen. This is not to belittle the achievements of either man, though: O'Brien could certainly make stop-motion exciting and dramatic and, although not given much chance with his dinosaurs or pterosaurs, Harryhausen animated many tragic and empathic characters in his career: I'm sure that, if given freedom to, he could've made very convincing dinosaurs and pterosaurs that looked and behaved in a much more realistic manner*.

*Unfortunately, I've not seen Animal Kingdom, an O'Brien/Harryhausen combined effort that features 'natural' scenes of prehistoric animals. This may be exactly what I'm looking for here, though Harryhausen himself remains unhappy with the piece.

Thankfully for pterosaur experts everywhere, the manner in which some movie prehistoric critters are reproduced by subsequent artists (how many Jurassic Park-inspired Tyrannosaurus have you seen, for instance?) hasn't quite caught on with Harryhausen's pterosaurs: there's no sign we're going to be overrun with pictures of talon-footed, six-fingered Pteranodon anytime soon. It is interesting to note, though, that Harryhausen's enhanced pterosaurs may have influenced at least some: this monstrosity bears a worrying resemlance to the beast that tried to feed Raquel Welch to it's leathery winged offspring.

And that will have to do, I think. This post was meant to be an excuse to show off some little seen artwork but has gone on far longer than intended. In a pleasant surprise, someone has finally fired up the weather cannon and, happily, it's all sunny and nice. That means it's time to stop staring at this screen and take a walk: toodleoo.


  • Eaton, G. F. 1910. Osteology of Pteranodon. Memoirs of the Connecticuit Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2, 1-38.
  • Harryhausen, R. and Dalton, T. 2005. The Art of Ray Harryhausen. Aurum Press Ltd., London, 230 pp.


  1. As an avid fan of both Harryhausen and O'Brien, I greatly enjoyed this post. I, too have always felt that while both artists possessed an immeasurable degree of talent, O'Brien was much better at creating three-dimensional characters with whom the audience can relate and sympathize: just compare the respective characters of "Son of Kong" to the original "Mighty Joe Young" and this becomes obvious. Despite the fact that the latter required significantly more time to complete, little Kong is simply far more compelling (for that matter, consider the monsters of 'The Beast From 20,000 Phantoms' and 'The Giant Behemoth').

    That being said, as you've alluded, by the time Harryhausen's films came along, the novelty of stop-motion had long since wore off, which forced him to resort to 'gimmicks' at a far larger extent than that which had been employed by his mentor. The newness of the technique allotted O'Brien the chance to inject his animated offspring with, at the risk of sounding corny, heart. But the nature of science fiction and fantasy has changed dramatically since O'Brien's day: audiences began to think of these cinematic monsters solely as but a cheap source of temporary fright. Harryhausen understood this and thus, he felt pressured to modify his beasts even at the risk of sacrificing the scientific accuracy of their portrayal.

    Ah, but I've ranted for long enough!

  2. That was an enjoyable read. I admire the work of both Harryhausen and O'Brien. However I feel with Kong O'Bie created a stop motion character that hasn't been topped.

    I've never felt emotionally drawn in by, or cared for a Harryhausen character. But with Kong it is different.

    Who hasn't felt sympathy for Kong atop the Empire State Building as he touches his bleeding chest with that bewildered look?

    That O'Bie gets us to care for Kong in spite of the fact that he has just mauled a man, dropped a woman to her death and pummeled the Third Ave. L into submission I think is a testament to his prowess as an animator.