edited by John Hayes

The First Men in the Moon

In 1962 the highly successful team of animator Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer embarked on the production of a film version of H.G.Wells’ classic science fiction tale The First Men in the Moon.  It would be Ray’s first and only attempt to combine his Dynamation process with anamorphic widescreen.  In his 2003 book, An Animated Life (Aurum Press) Ray describes - in fabulous detail – the meticulous process involved in creating each and every one of his films.  From the chapter concerning this film, we have focussed mainly on the problems he would encounter combining Panavision with Dynamation.

The First (anamorphic) Men in the Moon 

Getting started

Ray Harryhausen had wanted to film the H.G. Wells 1901 novel for a number of years.  He first read the classic science fiction adventure in his teens, and his passion for it had never subsided.  It tells the story of two men, Professor Cavor and his friend Mr.Bedford, who travel to the moon in a metal sphere which has been coated with Cavor’s invention - an anti-gravity paint. 

He would often bring up the subject with his long-time collaborator, producer Charles H. Schneer, with whom he had made a long series of successful science fiction and fantasy films going back to It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), through Earth Vs the Flying Saucers (1956) and 20,000,000 Miles to Earth (1957), to all-time favourites such as 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).  Schneer, however, was not enthusiastic, indicating that the somewhat sparse plot would not sustain a feature film, and that advances in space exploration would render the Wells story unbelievable.

Modernising the story, as in George Pal’s version of another Wells novel, War of the Worlds (1953), only seemed to make it worse, and it was not until they came into contact with Nigel Kneale, creator of the famous trio of fifties and early sixties Quatermass series for BBC Television, that a practical solution became apparent.

With Kneale on board, film rights were then obtained from H. G. Wells’ son, Frank Wells, whom, knowing the reputations of those involved, readily granted permission.  Schneer then approached Columbia Pictures.   At first reluctant – this was 1962 and they considered that sci-fi enthusiasts would laugh at an outer-space movie for lacking authenticity – Schneer prevailed in the end and the studio eventually commissioned a screenplay.

Kneale had hit on the idea of adding a modern-day prologue to the Wells story, in which a group of astronauts land on the moon and discover a Union Jack and a document claiming the Moon for Queen Victoria.  Back on Earth, several officials and reporters rush to a nursing home - to which the author of the document, an elderly gentleman named Bedford - has been traced.  He then relates the story, pretty much as Wells told it, but with addition of a female character, Kate, and Professor Cavor’s ‘cold’, which would eventually wipe out the inhabitants of the Moon.  An idea borrowed, aptly, from Wells’ War of the Worlds.

First draft…and the second…and the third…

The first draft of the screenplay was written between the 4th and 22nd may 1962, and contained most of the elements that appeared in the finished film.  Although it provided a clearer and more practical storyline, some of the sections would have gone beyond a reasonable budget.  Schneer decided to bring in Jan Reade to help smooth out the story and bring it within what would be considered an acceptable cost by Columbia.  The studio also insisted on a female character, as they felt women would find it easier to identify with the story.  As there is no female character in Wells’ original story – as, indeed, the very title of the novel suggests – Kneale and Reade came up with the clever idea of Bedford’s fiancée accidentally joining the expedition, thus avoiding the usual cliché of a ‘professor’s daughter’ character.

This second draft was prepared between the 4th and 12th of December 1962, and while moving closer to what would finally appear on screen, it still contained elements that would be too costly, or time-consuming, or, in one instance, too gruesome.  A scene in which a Selenite – an inhabitant of the Moon – is trapped within the sphere as they return to Earth, his body collapsing under the increasing gravitational effect, was discarded as it was felt it might cause problems with the certificate.

At this point, Columbia informed them that they wanted an American director, so Schneer invited Nathan Juran to come aboard.  He had previously directed 7th Voyage of Sinbad for Schneer and Harryhausen and had an earlier association with Ray from 20,000,000 Miles to Earth (1957).  A talented director, with a flair for the fantastic, coupled with a great sense of humour, made Juran an excellent choice for the subject.  Much of the humour that would find its way into the final script would come from Juran’s suggestions – the chickens flapping around inside the sphere, for just one example.  Juran also ‘understood’ the processes involved in Harryhausen’s work, which made things much easier all round. In Ray’s opinion, Juran’s good humour and ability to handle actors, plus his background as a former art director combined to make FMitM the director’s best film.

The third, and final draft, was delivered in September 1963.  The project entered its pre-production phase with the assembly of the cast.  Edward Judd (The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), The Long Ships [1964]) was chosen to play Bedford, the unsuccessful businessman who sees unlimited riches in Cavor’s invention.  The beautiful American actress, Martha Hyer (Some Came Running (1959), The Carpetbaggers [1964]) was cast as his long-suffering fiancée, Kate.  But the most brilliant piece of casting was that of Lionel Jeffries as the demented Cavor.  This superb character actor almost walks off with the film, and he, like Juran, grasped immediately Ray’s requirements and the constraints within which he was compelled to work.

Designing the film…and then – Panavision!

With the final script completed and the casting decided, Ray then began the enormous task of designing the alien civilization.  It had been decided that the Selenites would be insect-like, so all doorways and apertures would be hexagonal, a shape readily identified with the insect world.  Scientific accuracy was not of paramount importance; rather it should look realistic, be practical, and above all, spectacular.  The restricted budget precluded any of the alien machines, buildings, tunnels and lunar landscapes being built as complete sets, so the only alternative was to construct highly detailed miniatures and incorporate the actors into them by the use of travelling mattes.  All this, plus the countless other design issues, would be headache enough; but a further complication was about to be thrown in Ray’s direction:  Columbia wanted it filmed in Panavision.

The process that Ray uses to create his famous effects – and which is synonymous with his name - is known as Dynamation.  It is a complex and time-consuming process, which involves the use of a translucent rear projection screen and a clear front glass screen.  Between these two screens is placed the latex creature, which is to be animated in perfect synchronisation with the background image, projected, one frame at a time, on to the rear screen.  The glass screen carries the various masks which are used to cover parts of the image for double exposures, that will create the illusion of the animated object seeming to pass behind sections of the background image – say, a building or a hillside.

The Dynamation system had never been used in an aspect ratio wider than 1.85:1, known as ‘flat’, and which normally used only spherical lenses.  Panavision, on the other hand, was an anamorphic system (commonly known as ‘scope, after the original CinemaScope), which was capable of producing a much wider image with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (now increased to 2.40:1), by horizontally squeezing a wider field of view into a standard 4-perf film frame.

Instinctively, Ray knew he was in trouble, and voiced his opposition.  Columbia insisted that the ‘scope ratio was what people expected to see, and Charles Schneer pointed out that Ray had originally opposed the use of colour on their earlier production, 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and that had turned out fine.

Ray had no alternative but to comply with the studio’s requirements, so he set about trying to adapt the Dynamation process to Panavision.  After obtaining an anamorphic lens for his rear-screen projector, he began to make a series of tests.  He soon discovered that his normal filming process would not work in the wider format.  The anamorphic lens created a fall-off of light and definition at the sides of the image - the area not used with his usual process – and there was also some difficulty maintaining the focus, coupled with an additional problem of a hot-spot in the centre of the image, which required constant correction.

With time and cost being critical factors, Ray was forced to abandon the search for a way of adapting conventional Dynamation to widescreen, and was forced to redesign the Dynamation sequences as travelling mattes.  This would mean that the various creatures’ scenes would have to be animated within miniature sets, instead of separately, and the whole thing added to the film later.  

But the problem didn’t end there.  Having being forced to use travelling mattes for the animation sequences, Ray then realised that the yellow background, or sodium vapour process would not be suitable because of the widescreen system either.  The widest lens that could be used on a camera (with the separate anamorphic attachment) at that time was 75mm.   Extreme wide-angle lenses could not be used for the sodium vapour process because of the space for the prism. If he had wanted very small people on the screen to match the miniature sets, he would have had to move the camera so far back, they would have had to erect an extension tunnel outside the sound stage door.

Ray had to resort to the blue-backing system in order to facilitate the use of 25mm and even 18mm lenses.  This worked okay, but he felt that the results were never as good as with the sodium vapour process.  And all this, of course, meant more delays, which resulted in many of the planned dynamation sequences being abandoned.  In fact only three major sequences remain in the completed film: the Selenite scientists, the mooncalf and the Grand Lunar - less than in any other of Ray’s Dynamation films.

In spite of the difficulties, First Men in the Moon was a great success when it was released in 1964 – and it looks splendid in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  But Ray explains in his book:

“When the picture was completed, even Charles conceded that,’ the extra time we took to do it didn’t seem to merit the use of the process’”.

If you can get hold of the recent DVD release, with its widescreen presentation and beautiful colour, you can judge for yourself, but we think it WAS worth it!


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John Hayes/Wide Screen Movies Magazine

Last revised: 7 November, 2009

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