Ray Harryhausen at The National Galleries of Scotland: A multi-platform experience with Playdead and Smartify

For the largest and most-wide ranging exhibition of Ray Harryhausen, the father of special effects, National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) worked with Playdead and Smartify to deliver an interactive exhibition that visitors could explore on-site and at home.


Ray Harryhausen is an icon of cinema effects who inspired the modern greats including George Lucas and Del Toro. For this exhibition it was important that the exhibition visuals were not just inspired by or complementary to original artworks; they had to be wholly authentic and respectful as well as part of the narrative of the exhibition.


The brief:

Opening in October 2020 until September 2021, National Galleries of Scotland wanted visitors on-site to experience the full world of Ray Harryhausen’s characters and artworks while also giving a taster to audiences at-home who could not make it to the physical exhibition.

The objective of the online experience was to:

  • Provide a more engaging experience for audiences using the wealth of information available to us from the Harryhausen Foundation.
  • Explore what interactive experiences could be offered to audiences at home.

In particular we were focusing on two main audiences: Ray Harryhausen super fans and local families with children primary school age and older. 

Success was measured in engagement online and audience feedback.


Our approach:

Authentic animations

When the visitor walks through the exhibition they are brought to the ‘Blockbuster Room’. This features original models from the classic 1963 film ‘Jason and the Argonauts’. Working closely with the NGS and with The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, Playdead were allowed to 3D scan Ray’s original models. The team carefully researched and referenced the original stop motion sequences; and were then able to animate new, bespoke looping sequences of each of the characters and give them the stop-frame look they once had. These animations were then projected into the gallery alongside the original Harryhausen models: the Skeletons, the Hydra, the Harpy and Talos. 

As well as this, Playdead brought Ray’s hand drawn concept art to life and created a story where they fight between canvases that were then projected in-between his models and artwork. 

Throughout the exhibition, backdrops (such as the 1933 version of King Kong climbing the New York Empire State Building and the mythical ancient Greece scene) were exploded and projected through Holo-Gauze to ensure visitors could come face-to-face with their favourite movie scenes.


Hybrid experiences – hosting materials online

National Galleries of Scotland were keen to include as much archive material as possible. To do this the team worked with Smartify, a mobile app used by hundreds of museums to provide information about collection items. Visitors could simply hold up their smartphone camera to scan and identify an item, then access additional video, audio and archive images to save into a personal gallery. This approach ensured that the physical exhibition did not overwhelm visitors with text or hundreds of archive materials and audiences could engage with research materials afterwards.

Working with Smartify, NGS also produced an audio guide to the exhibition narrated by film director John Landis. This was available both on-site and only via the Smartify native app, web app and as a media player embedded into the NGS website.


Augmented Reality

Working in collaboration, Smartify and Playdead produced an animation of the famous Skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts to bring to life in audiences’ own home through Augmented Reality. Using the same approach as the physical in-gallery animations, Playdead animated the skeleton based on the original sequences from the film to ensure the character movements were as authentic as possible. Even the detail on the textures were from the actual physical models used within the film. This was then transferred into an AR animation that could be hosted within the Smartify platform. The short teaser animation showed the skeleton coming up through the ground, before slashing at the screen and revealing the details of the exhibition.


The Results:

The project was successful in meeting its objectives. In spite of lockdown and audiences being unable to visit the physical exhibition, since launch in October 2020 – 1st March 2021 the Harryhausen tour and AR experience has been engaged with over 54,000 times. Positive feedback across social media showed that the experience had reached Harryhausen super fans with comments including “What a great way to honour his work and engage visitors! This is absolutely brilliant! #augmentedreality” and “Now I finally understand what phones were invented for”.

The physical exhibition will remain open until September 2021 alongside the online experience.


Why is the project great?:

This project represents a genuine collaboration between three partners using flexible technologies to repurpose content for on-site and at home. Whether through the animated characters, archive materials or audio guides, we were able to ensure an at-home experience could provide a fully immersive experience as well as acting as a taster for the full physical exhibition.

The care taken over the animated Ray Harryhausen characters ensured an authentic reproduction of the original animations and their character movement into a digital environment, allowing audiences to get up close with one of the Skeleton warriors from Jason and the Argonauts.