The greatest creatures from a galaxy far, far away owe their origins to the godfather of special effects…the great Ray Harryhausen
The Rancor — Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (Photo: Disney/Lucasfilm)
“Oh no, the Rancor!” C-3PO: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
The creatures of the galaxy far, far away are some of the most recognisable in cinematic history. Ranging from the incredible Wampa from the frozen ice-covered planet Hoth, to the monstrous Rancor of Jabba’s Palace, the creatures inhabiting the Star Wars universe are some of the most imaginative and diverse creatures ever to grace the silver screen. But, what could inspire the visionary director George Lucas, to create these incredible marvels of the Star Wars universe?
From the inception of the franchise in 1977, both the director and the talented innovators at Industrial Light & Magic have gone above and beyond the call of duty to manufacture some of the most iconic creatures ever seen, and yet we owe their inspiration to the greatest special effects master of all time…the great Ray Harryhausen.
The great Ray Harryhausen
Taking inspiration from Willis O’Brien’s masterwork animating the original King Kong in 1933, a young and impressionable Harryhausen returned from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in the centre of Hollywood with a burning desire to unravel the secret to animating magnificent monsters like Kong, and soon established a rudimentary animation studio in his garage. With the support of his parents, he soon crafted some memorable creatures that he animated using the incredible frame by frame filming technique that, once combined depicted them coming to life in fantastical fashion.
The Ymir: 20 Million Miles to Earth (Photo: Sony Pictures)
Unfortunately, the war stopped his project in its tracks. However, once recruited to the ranks of the army, he found himself filming a series of animated shorts designed to entertain and educate the troops. Not even the war could stifle the imagination of the great man. It was here that he discovered a horde of discarded film that he procured for future use, and once the war finally ended, he utilised it to film a series of Mother Goose animated fairy tales for children.
It Came From Beneath The Sea (Photo: Sony Pictures)
Hollywood was next on his list of conquests, and with iconic movies like Mighty Joe Young (with Willis o’ Brien), Earth vs The Flying Saucers, IT Came from Beneath the Sea, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and 20 Million Miles to Earth amongst his credits, he swiftly established himself as an influential figure in the field of contemporary special effects. With creatures like the giant octopus, a fleet of Martian flying saucers, the humanoid Ymir and the dinosaurian Rhedosaurus, Harryhausen demonstrated the knack of conceptualising the most colourful monsters ever envisioned. He fulfilled a dream when he created the humanoid insects inhabiting the moon in H.G Wells’ First Men in the Moon before he was introduced and partnered with visionary producer Charles H. Schneer.
The Rhedosaurus: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (Photo: Warner Bros.)
In 1958, with Schneer’s support, Harryhausen inspired a generation of followers when he brought to life an iconic creature from the pages of Greek mythology. With the release of the 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Harryhausen delivered what would go on to be regarded as the quintessential incarnation of the monstrous Cyclops. The one-eyed monster boasted a pair of goat like legs, a humanoid body that was covered in reptilian skin and pair of three fingered hands that afforded it an iconic look that has never been surpassed in our modern culture.
The Cyclops: 7th Voyage of Sinbad (Photo: Columbia Pictures)
Within moments of the movies opening sequence, the Cyclops erupted across the island of Colossa’s beaches to confront Sinbad and his crew of hungry sailors who had inadvertently stumbled across the island. Emerging from the shadows of a cave, the creature stalked the vessel’s crew desperate to regain possession of a magic lamp that had been stolen from his cave of salvaged treasures.
The imagery alone was enough to imprint on a generation of fans which, like Harryhausen himself with King Kong, were inspired to learn everything they could about stop-go animation and the motion picture special effects industry. These youngsters, would go on to pioneer some of the greatest special effects in movie history and would reinvent the industry, just as Harryhausen had done decades before. These icons of cinema were: Phil Tippett, John Dykstra, Dennis Muren and Rick Baker.
As a visual effects artist, Phil Tippett would go on to help craft such screen icons as ED-209 from Robocop, the creatures of the original Star Wars trilogy and the dinosaurs inhabiting Jurassic Park. He was also instrumental on such projects as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Starship Troopers and the Twilight Saga and he attributes his success to Harryhausen’s 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
“I was mesmerised by the 7th Voyage of Sinbad. It was a pivotal moment in my life and I wanted to know how the magic was created”
Dykstra went on to become a pioneer in the field of special effects. Being one of the original founders of Industrial Light and Magic, he was responsible for the remarkable effects that brought George Lucas’ lightsabers to life and made both the X-Wing and TIE fighters fly above the Death Star.
“Harryhausen tried things that had never been done before…and that inspired me”
Muren would go on to be recognised for his work by the Academy, and was rewarded with a total of nine Oscars for his incredible handiwork. Muren began work at Industrial Light & Magic in 1976, and worked closely alongside George Lucas to create the iconic imagery of the Star Wars universe. He would be an influential figure on movies like Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the Jurassic Park series and War of the Worlds. His incredible work would facilitate the arrival of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), which brought creatures to life like never before. The first of which can be seen in the Lucasfilm cult classic Willow, before it blazed a trail and changed Hollywood forever with the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.
“My favourite scene is when the Cyclops comes out on the beach. It knocked me out. It was stunning. I went out straight afterwards and made a Cyclops out of clay. I just wanted to do it myself”
Baker would evolve into the most revered creature effect specialist and creature make-up designer in Hollywood. His work on movies like King Kong (1976), An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, Hellboy, Planet of the Apes (2001) and Star Wars ensured his legacy. He even starred as the giant ape King Kong in 1976, before returning for a cameo appearance as an airplane pilot in Peter Jackson’s 2005 reimagining.
“The Cyclops was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Everything about the 7th Voyage of Sinbad just clicked for me”
Not only did Harryhausen’s work inspire many of the best special effects technicians the world has ever seen, but it also inspired many of its most iconic directors. John Landis, Tim Burton, James Cameron, Joe Dante, Peter Jackson, J.J Abrams and Steven Spielberg have cited Harryhausen’s work as an instrumental factor in their career choice, but only the great George Lucas has paid homage to the master in every one of his movies, desperate to emulate and pay tribute to his work…
“None of the fantasy films had the awe of the Ray Harryhausen movies. His monsters are synthetic characters and are affecting real people”
Lucas’ love of the Harryhausen movies, proved to be an instrumental factor in the filming of the Star Wars saga. In fact, every single entry into the franchise to date boasts a sequence that contains an elaborate, synthetic creature to threaten its stars. Lucas’ love of monsters manifested in the form of some of the most iconic space creatures in cinematic history, which exploded into our collective culture during Star Wars: A New Hope in the following forms:
The Star Wars Original Trilogy:
Dewbacks are thick-skinned reptile’s native to the desert planet of Tatooine, where they were used as beasts of burden, capable of navigating the harsh environment of the Dune Sea. During A New Hope, these magnificent creatures were ridden by Imperial Sand-troopers.
Banthas are hairy mammals that grazed in the deserts of the planet Tatooine. They were social herd animals, and were used prominently by Tusken Raiders for transport purposes
Rontos are four-legged saurian herbivores native to the desert world of Tatooine. They were the favoured pack animals and mounts of the indigenous Jawas and were added to the special edition version of A New Hope in 1997.
The Dianoga was a non-sentient cephalopod. The carnivorous creatures inhabited the flooded garbage compactors of the Death Star and tried to make a meal out of the series’ protagonist Luke Skywalker.
Make no mistake, A New Hope is a true creature feature. It is set in a galaxy far, far away but nevertheless, its origins are tethered to the Harryhausen classics. Lucas caught lightning in a bottle with his mind-blowing space bonanza that took the best of the Flash Gordon serials and combined them with the fantasy of the Harryhausen classics to produce an entity like no other. One that would redefine the way we watched movies forever. And, in each of the resulting sequels, Lucas continued this trend of creature emulation.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, build upon the foundations of its predecessor and afforded us a whole new set of creatures, that would stalk and attack our beloved heroes of the saga. From the opening moments on the ice planet Hoth, Luke Skywalker is seen riding a Tauntaun. The native creatures were adept at navigating the tundra of the ice plains and the Rebel Alliance capitalised on their easy to be domesticated demeanor.
Just as impressive, was the ferocious Wampa, a snow cave dwelling carnivorous predator that chanced to predate on Skywalker’s steed. The creature clashed with Skywalker’s lightsaber and lost arm in the process, but it left a lasting impression on movie lovers across the globe. Lucas also introduced us to a giant Space Worm and the infamous bat-like Mynocks, parasitic creatures that liked to chew on starship power cables, but they paled in comparison to the creatures of Return of the Jedi.
The Creatures of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Together, Lucas and his incredible team at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) fulfilled a dream with the creation of the Rancor, the Star Wars saga’s ultimate tribute to the Harryhausen Cyclops. The enormous reptile, living within the depths of Jabba the Hutt’s palace was a fully articulated stop-go animation monster conceptualised with a contemporary take on Harryhausen’s techniques. The synthetic monster exploded onto the screen to face the apprehended Luke Skywalker, who had been hurled into its dungeon domain to be executed
The Rancor battle Luke Skywalker
Unfortunately for the Rancor, it had never faced a foe as capable as a Jedi Knight before and soon, the creature had been defeated, falling prey to a steel door that slammed down and sliced through its reptilian skin. For Skywalker, a date with the Great Pit of Carkoon would follow, where the monstrous Sarlaac Pit was waiting. The semi-sentient, plant-like, omnivorous creature reached out with its tentacles desperate to feed its enormous mouth, but Luke Skywalker had other ideas.
The Sarlaac: Star Wars Return of the Jedi (Special Edition)
The Prequel Trilogy:
As was the case with the creatures of Ray Harryhausen, Lucas and his inspired team at ILM, created memorable characters with their creatures, not disposable monsters and they stood the test of time for over a decade. It was a style that Lucas would continue to utilise during the Prequel saga. The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith would all benefit from an all new collection of elaborate and imaginative creatures, all of whom were as colourful as they were monstrous. The Phantom Menace gave us the Opee Sea Killer, also known as a Gooberfish, the Colo Claw Fish, the lizard like Sando Aqua Monster and the herbivorous land grazers known as Shaak. Not to mention the camel of the Tatooine plains, the Eopie.
The Colo Claw Fish: Star Wars The Phantom Menace (Photo: Disney/Lucasfilm)
Attack of the Clones, went one step further than its predecessor and gave us a roman coliseum styled execution sequence set on the planet Geonosis. The insect like inhabitants had captured Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala and had sentenced them to death within the confines of their brutal arena. And, just as Ray Harryhausen had done decades before with the Ymir in 20 Million Miles to Earth, Lucas filled his coliseum with incredible creatures.
The Geonosian executors released three monstrous creatures from their cages, all of whom emerged from the shadows tasked with eliminating their would-be victims.
The Reek was a large, muscular quadruped native to the planet Ylesia. Predominantly herbivorous, the captured and starved Reek became carnivorous and was viewed as the perfect predator to dispatch prisoners in the coliseum. However, the ferocious creature was no match for the skilled bounty hunter Jango Fett, whom dispatched it with a single blaster shot to the forehead.
Nexus were predatory felines native to the planet Cholganna. It was an agile predator with four red eyes and sharp quills. It boasted a remarkable infrared vision but could not defend against the raw power of the Reek.
The Acklay was a non-sentient mix of crustacean and reptile with amphibious traits that allowed it to inhabit the water and land of its homeworld of Vendaxa. The gigantic creature was protected by a hard, shell-like carapace of bony nodules. It walked on six hardened, skin-covered claws, and had grappling hands. But, it proved to be no match for Obi-Wan Kenobi’s skill with a lightsaber.
Revenge of the Sith would employ a whole new species of creature, but with limited screen time we barely got to know the nature of the varactyl Boga, aside from Obi-Wan Kenobi riding atop its back and charging into battle against the sinister General Grievous.
Obi-Wan Kenobi rides the Boga into battle on Utapau
Sequel Trilogy & Anthology Series:
With the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, and the seventh instalment of the franchise announced for the winter of 2015, many fans feared the worst and expected a drastic change in format for The Force Awakens. However, their concerns were unfounded and the visionaries at ILM, under the guidance of director J.J Abrams would provide us with an all new monster, strangely reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen’s giant octopus from It Came from Beneath the Sea.
Rathtars were large, carnivorous cephalopods that slithered on land. They were highly dangerous creatures known for hunting in packs, and were the antagonists in an incident known as the Trillia Massacre. They shared common ancestry with the sarlacc, blixus and vixus and would haunt Han Solo and Chewbacca during their quest to reclaim the Millennium Falcon.
The first Star Wars Anthology film in the series, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story continued the trend and featured a mind reading creature that harvested information from the mind of Bodhi Rook. Bor Gullet was a large, octopus-like creature, an elaborate entity but like so many other movies in the saga, he was afforded very little screen time.
Bor Gullet: Rogue One A Star Wars Story (Photo: Disney/Lucasfilm)
The inspirational work of Ray Harryhausen has had a profound impact on the Star Wars universe. With the maestros at Industrial Light & Magic at an impressionable young age, their collective minds were blown by the emergence of the Cyclops in the 7th Voyage of Sinbad. George Lucas found himself so captivated by the creatures he had created, that he felt the need to include a creature of his own, tailor made for the setting of the Star Wars universe. It is the essence of fantasy. Harryhausen once said, that the inclusion of his creatures afforded his movies the feeling akin to that of being in a dream world…not quite reality and not quite imaginary.
The Cyclops versus the Dragon (7th Voyage of Sinbad)
It was an ambiance that George Lucas was keen to channel into the Star Wars universe, and he did in fantastical fashion with many of his creatures paying the ultimate tribute to the master. Harryhausen would continue to reinvent the techniques of special effects with classic movies like Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, but it was the 7th Voyage of Sinbad that was the inspiration for the greats of modern cinema. Without the work of Ray Harryhausen, the grandeur and imagination of the Star Wars universe would not exist.
It is to the great Ray Harryhausen, we owe our thanks.
The next director to tackle the creatures of the Star Wars universe, is Rian Johnson. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is only a few short months away, and the gauntlet has been thrown down for him to make his mark on history. We have already seen an abundance of new creatures manifesting in his vision of the Star Wars universe, including the adorable Porg, but the surprising Harryhausen inspired behemoths is where the fun truly awaits.
Until then, why not immerse yourself in the work of the master. His incredible triumphs include:
Mighty Joe Young, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Earth Vs the Flying Saucers, 20 Million Miles to Earth, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts, First Men in the Moon, One Million Years B.C, The Valley of Gwangi, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and the classic Clash of the Titans.
The Creatures of Ray Harryhausen: The Kraken, Medusa (Clash of the Titans), Talos (Jason and the Argonauts), The Sabretooth & Trog (Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger)
The Hydra (Jason and the Argonauts)
These movies are quintessential holiday afternoon entertainment, guaranteed to blow your mind and spark your imagination just as the giants of Hollywood before us. And of course, the clock is still ticking down to December 15th and the arrival of Star Wars: The Last Jedi
I’ll see you on the beaches of Colossa….but beware the Cyclops!
May The Creatures Be With You…