Sad news that Ray Harryhausen, visual effects master and creator of fabled animated horses Pegasus and Eohippus has passed away aged 92. These horses were in creaky old films admittedly – Clash of the Titans (1981) and the even older and creakier Valley of Gwangi (1969) (in the fortunately very genre of cowboys vs dinosaurs – but the prehistoric horse Eohippus stole the show). They were however magical (especially but not only in wine-fuelled all-nighter showings somewhere like the old Electric cinema, in London’s Notting Hill, sometime, let’s say, Back in the Day. Heyho)
Much of this blog is based on Chapter 8 of Lights! Camera! Gallop! The Story of the Horse in Film.
Ray Harryhausen worked extensively with stop-motion animation. He was called, with justification, ‘the world’s greatest stop-motion animator’. During a thirty-year career, he did much of the writing, directing, lighting, modelling and animating in his films single-handedly, creating some of the most remarkable moments in stop-motion animation. Much of his work focused on mythical beings or incredible monsters, and two of his greatest creations were horses: Pegasus and Eohippus.
Harryhausen used an advanced form of stop-motion animation (think Chicken Run or Wallace and Gromit to know what stop-motion looks like) which he himself had developed, because he wanted to integrate his model creatures into real settings rather than having to keep on building tiny and elaborate sets (his films were never given anything near a huge budget). When the whole film was later developed and projected on-screen, the horse or monster would appear to be its full intended size yet moving about inside real-life settings and interacting with human actors.
Anyhow, Harryhausen used stop-motion to bring the legendary flying horse Pegasus to the screen in his 1981 film Clash of the Titans, starring Laurence Olivier. Based on Greek mythology, this is a film about how the gods manipulate the lives of mortals, focusing on the courage of one mortal, Perseus, in the face of such manipulation. It has quite a complex plot in which, essentially, one goddess supports Calibos, a deformed outcast cursed by Zeus for hunting to death his winged horses, while other immortals help the film’s hero, Perseus.
In the film, Perseus finds Pegasus, the one remaining flying horse, when the latter comes by night to drink at the Wells of the Moon. In a magical sequence, we first see Pegasus flying through the night sky to land on the ground bathed in moonlight. Perseus lassoes Pegasus, who resists vigorously, but Perseus leaps on to his back; his riding skills have been hinted at earlier in the film, in a scene where he appears as a young boy cantering along a beach on a horse – with neither reins nor saddle. Pegasus at first reacts to Perseus riding him by bucking and rearing in the sky, like some wild rodeo horse. Eventually, though, he is tamed by Perseus giving him water to drink. Perseus flies off on Pegasus into the night – a beautiful scene, shot in silhouette.
Later in the film, the evil Calibos captures Pegasus at the Wells of the Moon by throwing a large net over him. That scene ends horribly, as Calibos’s henchmen beat at Pegasus through the net with huge clubs. The audience is left to presume that he dies an agonising death. But at the film’s climax, just as a giant sea monster is about to grab the heroine and sacrifice her, Pegasus flies in to help Perseus save her. Then, job done, Pegasus poses on a rock in the sea, rears up as if to say farewell, then flies off, up into the sky.
Throughout the film, Harryhausen uses three main types of shot in the scenes with Pegasus. Close shots tend to focus on his huge white feathered wings and flowing white mane. Close-ups of his head are clearly those of a real white horse. More distant shots showing the whole of Pegasus, especially when he is flying, use a stop-motion model of the horse. Throughout the film, Pegasus flies and canters gracefully with only a hint of jerkiness. In the context of such a powerful and mythical storyline, that slight element of unreality in Pegasus’s gait caused by the stop-motion animation process actually helped to enhance the horse’s magical status, giving him a kind of dreamlike quality.
Harryhausen’s other important stop-motion horse is the Eohippus in The Valley of Gwangi. The first quarter of this film is remarkable for the presence of the Eohippus, a creature that did actually exist but over fifty million years ago and which is said to be the earliest ancestor of the horse. To judge from the fossil remains, it must have looked like a miniature horse, though it was only about the size of a small dog. It had toes rather than hooves: three toes on the front legs and four on its back legs.
In the film, the Eohippus is kidnapped from the Forbidden Valley, a haven blocked off from civilisation and one where dinosaurs have not died out. The kidnappers’ aim is to sell it to Buffalo Bill’s Circus Show for entertainment. Their plan is to have a normal sized horse carrying a tea-tray-sized platform on its back, with Eohippus trotting about on the platform. This, they reckon, will earn them a fortune in ticket sales. Before this plan can be carried out, though, superstitious local villagers decide to return the Eohippus to the Forbidden Valley, lest it bring them bad luck. The cowboys follow the villagers and find the valley. The rest of the film focuses on their disastrous encounters with the dinosaurs (also brought to life through stop animation).
When we first see the Eohippus in the film, it is in a tiny horse pen on a table top, complete with miniature stable. Harryhausen used cardboard cut-outs of the Eohippus in rehearsals with the actors, so that they would know which way to look, thus making it seem as if they could really see the creature. He filmed these scenes without the Eohippus (with its cardboard cut-out out of shot). He then filmed a stop-motion model of the Eohippus separately and merged the two films together afterwards. The Eohippus is so fascinating – a creature previously seen only as a sketch in an encyclopaedia, if at all, is brought to life on the screen – that it seems far more plausible than the rather plastic-looking dinosaurs that appear later in the movie. The Eohippus model used has short, tan-coloured hair and a sloping back, and moves rather like a small antelope, nervously stopping and starting – as any creature might do if it suddenly found itself on a table top. So the slight jerkiness caused by the stop-motion technique goes unnoticed. The visual impact is further reinforced by sound effects: the Eohippus has a high-pitched and convincing neigh.
Ray Harryhausen – great film-maker, sad loss.