Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen (1920 – 2013)

Ray HarryhausenRay Harryhausen died on the 7 May aged 92, having inspired the imaginations
of generations of fantasy fans with his life’s work. The American-born
filmmaker lived in England for much of his life, and made his reputation
with a series of greatly beloved fantasy films featuring his exquisite
stop-motion animation. The deadly sword-wielding skeletons of Jason and The
Argonauts (1963), the six-armed Kali statue conjured into murderous life by
a pre-Doctor Who Tom Baker in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) and the
gigantic octopus (six-armed to save time and money) which rose from the
waves to demolish San Francisco in It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955)
would not only enchant the young minds that witnessed them but inspire a
whole generation of filmmakers, with the likes of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton
and Peter Jackson all acknowledging their debt.

Back in 2001 I was honoured to visit his London home to interview him for
The Big Issue. I seized the opportunity as he was due to come up to
Manchester for the Festival of Fantastic Films and give a talk on the film
which inspired him to work in cinema – the classic 1933 King Kong with its
landmark Willis O’Brien animation. Upon arrival I was ushered into the
living room (with a Oscar statuette on the mantelpiece), his wife Diana
provided us with cups of tea and I was left to talk with the great man. The
interview is reprinted here:

“King Kong is the film that started me on my career,” Harryhausen recalls
fondly. “I went to see it in 1933 at Grauman’s Chinese Theater and I’ve
never been the same since. It was awesome to see it on the big screen –
they had a live prologue with trapeze artists and people in jungle dress –
then when the picture came on you had Max Steiner’s magnificent score. It
just boggled the mind.”

In his London home Harryhausen, now retired and in his 80s, lives
surrounded by reminders of his career – his 1992 Lifetime Achievement Oscar
(presented by Tom Hanks, who claims Jason and the Argonauts as the greatest
film of all time), his own superb bronze sculptures of movie monsters,
photos of himself with Prince Charles and Kong star Fay Wray.

Genially settled into his armchair he recollects his working methods.

“I did all the animation myself,” he tells me in his leisurely drawl. “I’d
direct the actors in the live action sequences, work on the script, design
the models and scout the locations.”

The amount of time spent on the animation would vary. A scene showing the
giant gorilla in Mighty Joe Young (1949) required three days’ work, while
the skeleton battle at the climax of Jason and the Argonauts took a
staggering four and a half months.

“We had seven skeletons fighting three men, and each appendage had to be
synchronised so that when the sword comes down there’s a skeleton there to
meet it,” he chuckles. “So you had to analyse every frame of film, which is
time consuming. Of course, the accountants used to get quite upset.”

His last film was 1981’s Clash of the Titans, starring Laurence Olivier as
Zeus (“Who else could play the king of the gods?”) with Harryhausen signing
off memorably with his evil, slithering Medusa.

Today, with only award-winning Aardman studios maintaining the stop-motion
tradition, the future would seem to belong to computer animators.
Harryhausen is pragmatic enough to recognise the value of computer
generated images, particularly as he remembers some of the painstaking work
he used to do.

“In Earth vs The Flying Saucers (1956) you could see the wires holding up
the spaceships, so I had to paint them out on each individual frame of
film. So CGI would have been an asset there…” he recalls with amused

“We tried to introduce our animated characters in a logical way” he
explains. “Like Astaire and Rogers introduced their dancing, they didn’t
just break into dance all of a sudden – whereas so many film today rely on
just the shock of special effects. We never considered our films ‘special
effects’ films, we only used effects to create on screen something you
couldn’t create in the normal course of photography. But now with CGI, they
jump on the bandwagon with special effects for the sake of it, and you have
to have an explosion every five minutes or else you lose the attention of
young people”.

Mention of the recent made-for-TV Jason and The Argonauts remake provokes a
sad shake of the head. And as for the 1976 King Kong remake – “Did you see
it?” he asks me, his brow furrowed in mystification. “I have nothing to
say, as Oliver Hardy would say.”

Postscript (2013):

After the interview concluded, Harryhausen casually asked me “Would you
like to see my museum?” When I got home that night and transcribed the tape
recording of the interview, this was the point where I could a stunned
silence and then my meek, awed voice, sounding like a ten-year old, saying
“…Yes please!”

So we went upstairs to a room filled with icons of my childhood – a Jason
skeleton, Medusa, a whole cast of six-inch high characters from big-screen
classics that sank me into a dazed fanboy reverie.

When I eventually found my voice, Harryhausen seemed genuinely horrified
when I told him that the bronze giant Talos was responsible for possibly
the single most terrifying moment of my childhood. “Oh, we never meant to
scare people!” he explained.

Of course, the reports of the death of stop-motion were exaggerated. As
well as the continuing success of Aardman studios, there would be the
occasional successful labour of love like Fantastic Mr Fox or Coraline, and
you’d like to think that he would have approved of Peter Jackson’s epic
Kong remake.

CGI may have gotten more sophisticated in the intervening years, but when,
for example, Clash of the Titans got glossily remade in 2010, much comment
was made on its overall soullessness. Ray Harryhausen animated his
creations not only with movement but with heart. His work animated our
imaginations and will live on there.

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