In 1951, Ray Harryhausen was approached by Jack Dietz for what would eventually become his first solo effort of creating special effects for a theatrical motion picture — The Beast from 20.000 Fathoms. In reality, Harryhausen had already made the majority of the effects sequences whilst working on Mighty Joe Young, with his mentor, Willis O’Brien. The film, produced independently on a tight $200,000 budget, was the first cinematic story to portray a Monster antagonist brought about by an atomic bombing. Sold to Warner Bros., The Beast from 20.000 Fathoms proved to be a successful motion picture and spawned the Monster mayhem of the 50s, along with The Thing from another World.
Harryhausen narrated in An Unfathomable Friendship: “I was approached by Jack Dietz about The Beast from 20.000 Fathoms. It was called, at that time, Monster from the Deep. Mr. Dietz saw some of my tests that I made for Evolution, and he wanted to see if I would be interested in doing the Monster for this picture. So I went over to the studio and met Eugène Lourié, who was the art director at the time, and the director…
…and one day, when we were working on the script together, Jack Dietz came in with The Saturday Evening Post. It showed this beautiful illustration of the Beast attacking the lighthouse. A big sea Monster. A story by Ray Bradbury!”
“When I lived in Venice, California, with my wife, we were walking along the beach one night, and I saw the ruins of the Venice pier. They’d just torn it down and the roller coaster was lying on the sand. And I looked at the roller coaster’s skeleton, and I said to my wife: ‘I wonder what that dinosaur is doing lying here on the beach.’ She was very careful not to answer, and two nights later, I woke in the middle of the night because something had called me awake. I sat up in bed and looked out of the window; there was nothing 10 miles north from Venice, nothing 10 miles south. But way out in Santa Monica bay, I heard the foghorn blowing over and over and over again. I said, ‘yes, that’s it.”
The dinosaur heard the foghorn blowing, thought it was another dinosaur arisen from a billion years of slumber, and swam in for an encounter with this other beast, and discovered it was only a damned lighthouse and a damned foghorn, and tore the whole thing down and died of broken heart on the beach. I got out of bed the next day, and I wrote The Fog Horn, The Beast from 20.000 Fathoms in 3 hours, sent it off to The Saturday Evening Post. They bought it instantly, and it changed my life because it brought me in contact with Ray again.”
Bradbury’s short story was first titled The Fog Horn — but retitled into The Beast from 20.000 Fathoms after the film was published as a tie-in. The latter title was finally given to the film only towards the end of March 1953. “They didn’t tell me they’d seen my story in The Saturday Evening Post,” Bradbury said. “So I went to the studio, and they showed me the screenplay and said: ‘will you go in the next room and read it, and tell us if you’ll help us with this?’ So I went to the next room and I read what they had, and I came back, and intuitively said, “excuse me, but this sort of reminds me of a story of mine that was in The Saturday Evening Post. The producer’s jaw dropped and I realized I’d caught them in the midst of being involved with my story without my [sic] knowing it. I went away from there. I said, ‘I’ll think about it.’ The next day, I got a telegram saying ‘we wanna buy the rights.’ So there was never any trouble.”
The Monster from Bradbury’s story quite differs in the description for the Rhedosaurus. The first description of the former from the short story follows:
“And then, from the surface of the cold sea came a head, a large head, dark-colored, with immense eyes, and then a neck, and then – not a body – but more neck and more! The head rose a full forty feet above the water on a slender and beautiful neck. Only then did the body, like a little island of black coral and shells and crayfish, drip up from the subterranean. There was a flicker of tail. In all, from head to tip of tail, I estimated the monster at ninety or a hundred feet.”
In fact, the design and film were only inspired by the illustration itself. The script for the film — which Harryhausen collaborated in writing — did not describe the Rhedosaurus detailedly. As such, he was allowed to have total freedom over its design. “There was no description in the original script,” he said to Empire, “so I made many different designs for it.” Despite the Beast being effectively a dinosaur, Harryhausen wanted something not instantly recognizable as one. He said: “I didn’t want the body like a typical dinosaur, so I gave it a scaliness and a different contour.” Indeed, the Rhedosaurus borrows more in its design from modern day reptiles, such as crocodiles and iguanas, than it does from actual dinosaurs. Early designs included a rounder profile of the head, and even beaks. Some even displayed a ceratopsian appearance. “I can’t remember what we discarded,” Harryhausen continues. “He had a round head for a time, but he didn’t look fierce enough.”
The artist added in a featurette: “The Beast went through many different changes. The first one had sort of a round head, which I wasn’t happy with. I changed that to more of a head like a Tyrannosaurus rex.” The first model’s head was eventually rebuilt into the final Rhedosaurus’ head — which displays a rather reptilian head with a smooth triangular shape and two snake-like fangs.
With the final design chosen, Harryhausen built a small scale, fully-articulated stop-motion model with an internal metallic armature moulded in steel. The skull of the creature was built in steel, and covered in properly-shaped resin to simulate the bones. For a black-and-white film, the Monster was obviously given a gray color scheme to save budget. Only one stop-motion model was built, due to obvious budgetary constraints. A hand puppet was also built, but Harryhausen was widely dissatisfied with it; it was only used in a two close-up shots in the first ship attack scene and the lighthouse scene.
Since the release of the film, there was a popular urban legend about the name of the Beast. Allegedly, ‘Rhedosaurus’ would be derived from Ray Harryhausen’s initials with a saurian infix after. The artist dismissed these claims, saying that “I don’t know where his name came from. People say it’s based on my initials, but I don’t think it is.”
The director let Harryhausen work entirely alone on the special effects sequences. “We seemed to have [such] a good knowledge about each other’s profession,” Harryhausen said, “that he [Lourie] left me alone. I did what I thought was right and then they would see the rushes and incorporate it into the picture. I found that working by myself, where I have no distraction of anybody, is the best policy to use for concentration. That’s why every film I did, every inch of it, is my animation — except in Clash of the Titans, [where] I had to have help.” He added about the animation process: “When you’re doing animation, you have to project yourself into the creature, to keep him in character. One does try to go through the motions themselves and think of it, in terms of what the physiognomy of the Beast was.”
According to Harryhausen, Dietz was at first uncertain about the technique to use to bring the Monster to the screen. “Apparently, he was unsure of how to visualise the main element of the picture,” Harryhausen said, “the creature, and didn’t know whether it should be a man in a rubber suit or an alligator dressed up. I rang Dietz and he came over to my house the next day to look at my models and drawings, and view sections on Evolution and Mighty Joe Young. After he had seen what I had to offer, I then enthused about the advantages of dimensional animation, telling him that anything and everything he wanted could be done in the process. I held my breath. Thankfully Dietz and the rest of the production team gave their approval for the use of stop-motion.”
Indeed, the Rhedosaurus was ultimately brought to life with a stop-motion technique that Harryhausen would later label — during production of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad — as ‘Dynamation’. Harryhausen, protege of Willis O’Brien, had already seen the latter’s effects for King Kong, which used levels of glass paintings to achieve a tridimensional effect. He was also an assistant to O’Brien during the production of Mighty Joe Young. Due to the low budget of The Beast from 20.000 Fathoms, Harryhausen eventually experimented with his new technique — one of the first actual line matting processes.
Harryhausen’s Dynamation technique followed a relatively simple process, labeled by Harryhausen himself as the ‘sandwich process’; the artist had conceived the technique actually before Mighty Joe Young but did not use it until production of The Beast from 20.000 Fathoms. “I devised the sandwich concept of photographing the actual set,” he said, “and projecting it on a small screen and then putting the Beast inside.” A live action image was first projected on a rear screen, in front of which the Rhedosaurus model and all the other specific stop-motion components (i.e. the Beast grabs a car in its jaws in a scene) were placed. A glass sheet was placed in front of this system. By looking through the camera viewfinder, Harryhausen would then establish where to put the matte line, and draw it on the glass with a wax pencil.
The section below the line would then be painted black. After this, the actual animation took place. The last stage of the process was the creation of a second pass, which re-instated the matted out portions of the live-action footage and effectively incorporated the animation into the shot. Certain shots without foreground live-action elements simply needed a rear-projected background — the Rhedosaurus was in these cases animated in an entire miniature set.
The lighthouse sequence from the short story was incorporated into the film, as the painting featured on The Saturday Evening Post was the main inspiration. The scene was, however, set at night and shown “in silhouette” rather than in broad daylight. “We felt it would be much more menacing,” Harryhausen said. “We felt it would take away some of the flaws that might appear in the low-budget animation picture.”
The climax sequence set in Coney Island and the hero having to shoot the isotope onto the Monster’s wound was Harryhausen’s idea. The live-action scenes were filmed on location at The Pike in Long Beach, California. The Cyclone Racer entrance ramp, ticket booth, loading platform, and general views of said structure were featured. Curiously enough, the Beast trashes what had inspired Ray Bradbury to write his short story in the first place — a roller coaster. Harryhausen commented on the climatic death of the Rhedosaurus, saying that “Eugene Lourie always said that I always make my Monsters die like a tenor in an opera!”
For more images of the Rhedosaurus, visit the Monster Gallery.
For actual screenshots from The Beast from 20.000 Fathoms, visit my Photobucket folder.