Ray Harryhausen: An Animation Legend
There have been many animators and special effects individuals that have put their personal stamp on cinema. Willis O’Brien, who created King Kong, started the chain reaction in 1925, which led to the most famous puppet and stop motion animator of all time, Ray Harryhausen.
Whether they were flying metal owls, two-headed dogs or snake headed lady in Clash of the Titans, Harryhausen made many of these creatures his own. But perhaps, his greatest character designs were the seven skeletons fighting three men in The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad.
Now in his 80’s, stop motion animation guru Harryhausen has been retired for nearly 25 years. However, he has resurfaced with a new book, which details his life’s work. Catching up with this living legend was one of the great challenges for this journalist and getting to speak to him was an extreme honor.
TAIL SLATE: First, I have been a long time fan, dating back to my childhood when a friend of mind first introduced me to your work. I always wanted to know, why haven’t you directed?
Ray Harryhausen: Thank you. Well, I didn’t want to water myself down, and besides my actors do exactly what I want them to do with no talk back.
TS: Why has it taken you so long to put a book together?
RH: I did put a book out in the 70’s called “Film Fantasy’s Scrapbook”, which was just a resume of all the films that I made. At that time I did feel, it’s like a magician, if you tell everyone how to pull a rabbit out of a hat nobody is interested in you anymore. But recently things have changed and they tell how things are done before the film comes out, which I think spoils it a bit. When I saw King Kong in 1933 what fascinated me was that I didn’t know how it was done.
TS: So that’s what inspired you?
RH: Absolutely, King Kong. I blame it all on that big Gorilla.
TS: What about the new version of King Kong coming out that Peter Jackson is directing?
RH: Yes, Peter Jackson, he’s doing a remake. I think if anybody were going to remake it he would do the best job. There will always be only one King Kong, that’s the original. I think the 1970’s version that came out was a farce; it had lost all the essence of what King Kong was all about. I think Peter Jackson is in love with Kong as much as I am, and he’ll do the best job at making a new interpretation.
TS: It’s going to be interesting seeing how he does the effects.
RH: Well I am sure he’ll do a magnificent job as he did with The Lord Of The Rings.
TS: Do you think now because of the technology, artist would rather work on computers than the way you worked?
RH: Well I prefer the old technique. Computers are a wonderful tool, but they are only a tool. You don’t have to say that every film should be made with a computer. But no one has done what we did in the 50’s when we made the Sinbad, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and It Came From Beneath The Sea. Those types of films, thank God for video, have been revived.
TS: How do you think your films hold up today?
RH: I think they do hold up because I get fan mail all the time saying they prefer those pictures than the modern pictures.
TS: I remember when you won the Gordon Sawyer award. What was that like for you after all the years of not being recognized by the academy other than your joint Oscar on Mighty Joe Young?
RH: Our films have been submitted over the years. Jason and the Argonauts, the skeleton sequence, was submitted and they completely ignored us. Nobody new much about stop motion, so I am glad that in 1992 I got an award for Lifetime Achievement, but I think some of our films deserved more recognition than they received at the time they were released.
TS: Did you regret retiring when you did?
RH: No I didn’t for several reasons. I felt that the studios wanted to make films that were not my cup of tea. We started out making these monsters on the loose movies and then graduated to Sinbad the legend, and wanted to find a new outlet for stop motion photography. We stepped from the Sinbad legends to Greek Mythology, which had never been put on the screen the way it was written. Italy made a number of films based on Greek Mythology, but they didn’t have the fantasy aspects that we tried to put into Clash of the Titans or Jason and the Argonauts.
TS: What was the hardest character you had to create?
RH: The seven skeletons fighting three live actors was a problem, which I had to overcome. It took four months of animation to try to synchronize that sequence that only last five minutes on the screen. Medusa was one of my favorite characters; I always wanted to animate a Medusa. She had twelve snakes in her hair and each frame of film you had to move the snakes to make them look like they’re writhing. I also had to move her body, her eyes, her nose and her expressions as well as shooting an arrow with a bow. I think that was one of the highlights of Clash of the Titans.
TS: Do you feel that stop motion animation has been taken as far as it could go?
RH: I think there is always development in any field. Stop motion is wonderful for a fantasy film because its not quite real, you know its not real, but yet it looks real. That was the fascination with King Kong. It gave that illusion of a nightmare, a dream world rather than reality. If you make fantasy too real it becomes mundane.