Creature feature

Legendary animator Ray Harryhausen talks about his life and work.

by Amber Wilkinson

Ray Harryhausen with some of his pals

Ray Harryhausen with some of his pals

There was an air of excitement at Cineworld for the Ray Harryhausen In Person at the EIFF. Even Festival director Hannah McGill said she didn’t think she’d ever been so excited about an event. Harryhausen, 88, has only made 16 films, but he left an indelible impression both on the world of fantasy film and the minds of generations of film addicts. Harryhausen’s friend and writing collaborator Tony Dalton conducted the Q&A and the event also featured clips from several of Harryhausen’s films. Their latest book A Century Of Model Animation is out to own this October. Here are the edited highlights.

Tony Dalton: I’ve known Ray for nearly 35 years now, so I know a lot about him. I’m a huge fan - I still am after 35 years - and I think he’s probably one of the greatest animators of all time. He has an incredible career started in 1949 with Mighty Joe Young and ended in 1981 with Clash Of The Titans. Ray, everybody knows the films that you did, but we saw at the beginning there [of a clip sequence celebrating Harryhausen’s films] the word “dinamation”. What is dinamation?

Ray Harryhausen: Dinamation was a word that we coined because everyone would use the word animation in our early days. Some of the reviews would say “animation” and a lot of people thought that it was a cartoon. And we tried to distinguish between cartoon and the conventional animation, so we coined the word “dinamation”, which is a combination of dinosaur and animation. So dinamation stuck for quite a while until the publicity people felt they needed something new for the next picture, so they called it “super dinamation” and then they went on to electrorific dinamation. They felt in the Fifties and Sixties they needed a new name and they finally ended up with dinarama, which has nothing to do with animation. That was beyond our control, that was purely the wheels of commerce.

TD: What was the principle of dinamation?

RH: The principle of dinamation is projecting animated figures in conjunction with human beings. Take for example the skeleton scene in Jason And The Argonauts. We photographed the actors first, then shrunk them down to the size of the miniatures, so that the miniatures looked the same size of the actors. It has a system of matting, where you can inject the miniatures and animated figures into a background that’s photographed, such as a New York street.

TD: You’re splitting the screen, in effect?

RH: We have to split the screen, that means double exposures. You would put a negative mat in to blot out certain areas of the realistic scene and then we use a contrary mat and wind the film back in the camera and then photograph the foreground so that it looks like the creature is right in the picture itself.

TD: All of Ray’s movies started off with Ray. Ray would come up with the conception of the scenes or, indeed, an outline and from there scripts would be written and directors would be chosen.

RH: We made seven big drawings of key situations and then maybe a two or three-page outline which would vary, before we would get professional writers in. It’s not a director’s picture in the sense of the European concept of the word. The director’s job in our films comes in later – to get the best out of the actors. And Charles Schneer, my producer, and myself, as a writer, usually formulated the script. It’s an unorthodox way of doing things but it seemed successful in our case. Our films have lasted and I’m grateful for that. A lot of so-called A pictures that would cost ten times what ours cost have fallen by the wayside. I’m grateful that new generations have found them most interesting and unusual.

TD: Let’s go back, Ray. You always had a fondness for art. What was the catalyst – you were, I think, 13 years old - that started you off?

RH: The catalyst that started me off was King Kong. I used to build and manipulate little dioramas - scenes of prehistoric life. That fascinated me and when I saw King Kong and I saw how you could make them move and that was my introduction. I finally found out how Kong was made – there were many misleading articles about it – over the years, I found out and I got hooked and I haven’t been the same since.

TD: You went to Los Angeles Natural History Museum quite a lot.

RH: That inspired. They had clips from Kong and Creation, which Willis O’Brien [an earlier special effects pioneer] started before Kong came into the picture. And they had little miniatures of The Lost World and various films of that nature. Fortunately my parents were cinemagoers in the early days and they used to take me. At the age of five, I remember seeing The Lost World and that struck me. You had sound effects and music, like in King Kong. Max Steiner wrote an almost Wagnerian score for that film and it was the first score of its kind to actually enhance the film and make it bigger than life. That’s what music in our types of film does. We tried to get the best composers. We had Miklos Rozsa and Bernard Herrmann – he did four of our films – Laurence Rosenthal and many others who were big-name composers with imagination and they give a very comprehensive score, which enlarges the visual image.

TD: The Lost World, which I have to say was 1925, was made by an animator called Willis O’Brien – he was your great mentor?

RH: He was my mentor. He also made King Kong, of course.

TD: I just want to go back to 1933 King Kong. This is the real King Kong as far as you’re concerned.

RH: As far as I’m concerned and I think most of the email, fan mail I get, they say they prefer the original King Kong to all the remakes. Now that CGI has come in, everything seems to be focused on it.

TD: Let’s go back to King Kong. You saw it at 13 years old, what inspired you about it and how did you take it on?

RH: It was more than just the animation. I didn’t know how it functioned. I knew it wasn’t a man in a gorilla suit and I knew that the dinosaurs couldn’t be human beings in a dinosaur suit, so I looked into it.

TD: So how did you find out about the animation?

RH: Various means, it didn’t just happen overnight. And I prefer to work alone. Every inch of animation on all 15 films, except Clash Of The Titans – which was the 16th film – I’ve worked alone and did every inch of animation myself. But I had assistance there, because we lost a whole month due to some technical problem.

TD: Ray in 1952, was asked to make a film for a couple of independent producers about a monster in New York. They didn’t know what they wanted – I think one of the early concepts was a triceratops but you dispensed with that.

RH: Yes, we did. We didn’t want to copy The Lost World, so we created a synthetic concept, which was called a Rhedosaurus [pronounced Red-osaurus].

TD: A lot of people seem to think it’s spelt R-h-e-d and a lot of people thought it stood for Ray Harryhausen, but apparently that’s not true. Two questions began the ‘monster on the rampage cycle’

RH: That was very popular in the Fifties.

TD: There was a lot of them and that was the first one. There’s a sequence there where the monster is pushing the building down.

RH: A piece of masonry had to be animated on wire with the monster at the same time.

TD: It’s a hard task.

RH: That’s why you pull out your hair. Very few animators have hair.

TD: Your first film, really as an experiment of note was Evolution.

RH: Yes, I started a 16mm, very ambitious project. Then when Fantasia came out it covered the same things that I wanted to cover with dimensional animation, so I gave it up because Disney had a raft of people on it and it was so beautifully done I couldn’t possibly compete with it. TD: That led in turn to some fairytales.

RH: I thought I’d be clever with these fairytales and go to different schools and see what they would prefer. And of course I had to modify some of the fairytales because some of them were rather lascivious which would not be appropriate for schools. So I had to modify the story, but I got so many different answers, I thought immediately, I can’t take anybody’s word for it, I’ll do what I like myself. And if I had a following, great, and if I don’t it’s too bad.

TD: Also you learned, by making those films, patience?

RH: Yes, I learned patience. My first professional job was on George Pal’s Puppetoons, back in the Thirties. He came from Hungary. His Puppetoons had an elegance but they were no competition for Tom And Jerry. I worked for two years with George Pal, which taught me patience. After that I worked on Mighty Joe Young. I became Willis O’Brien’s assistant.

TD: O’Brien, by that time, really wasn’t animating, he was more of a designer.

RH: It was his job to get the next set-up ready, so I did practically 9/10ths of the animation. They finally brought in some other animators who did some long shots and some inserts but the bulk of the character of Mighty Joe was developed by myself.

TD: Character, that’s another thing. It’s not enough to animate - you have to instil characterisation.

RH: That’s correct. You have to give it a living presence because we didn’t want it to be an obvious puppet – even though we use the same principle as the puppet type of film. We tried to make them characters within the story, rather than an obvious puppet type of character, such as Ardman does, and they do some wonderful things.

TD: You told me a lovely story about Mighty Joe Young and I think this succinctly sums up characterisation. At the beginning of the film – and I think this was your idea – Joe is thrown a banana and he doesn’t take the skin off, he eats it whole, and by the end of the movie, he peels the skin off and then eats it. And I think that sums up how progressive characterisation has to go into a movie. So You’re working with Willis O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young? RH: That was one of the highlights of my life, to be able to work with him. I did nine-tenths of the animation and nine-tenths were the first take. We never had time to redo it. For example, pushing over the lion cage took three days to do and we couldn’t afford three days again. Most takes you see in films I’ve done, were the first takes, we never had time to go over it and refine it, because you had to start all over from the beginning, you couldn’t just pick it up from the middle like you can with CGI. CGI is a wonderful tool, but I feel it’s only a tool.

TD: Mighty Joe Young won an Oscar for special effects. Then you worked with O’Brien for a little while on several projects which fell by the wayside, like so many do and you went off to make The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

RH: I had no choice, I had to go off and start with low-budget pictures. Willis O’Brien was always waiting for the big picture to come, that would cost quite a bit of money, because he had such a big staff. That was what dinamation was all about, it was trying to cut down on having such a big staff. I always worked alone up until Clash Of The Titans.

TD: Then your life changed. You met a producer and he saw something in you.

RH: Charles Schneer let me do what I wanted to do and I’m grateful. It’s not practical today. In CGI, you have one person to do the tail, one person to do the head, one person to do the basket work, another person to do character facials, a lot of time it’s what we call rotoscoping – photographing a human in a black suit with balls at the joints and animating the figure. That takes a big crew and quite a bit of time as well.

TD: Charles Schneer asked you to do a film about a giant octopus. The City Fathers, I believe had an objection?

RH: The Golden Gate Bridge had just been built and we wanted co-operation from the San Francisco police and they sent a letter back after they had read the script and said they would prefer not to co-operate because they didn’t want people to lose confidence in the structure of the bridge. Then we went on to make Earth Vs The Flying Saucers. I thought that would be an interesting challenge, to see if you could make the saucers appear to have some intelligence inside of them, manipulating them. We only had one scene, I think, when we showed the creature that was inside and it seemed to work out well. And I knocked over Washington Monument long before Mars Attacks! I’m glad to see it was rebuilt.

TD: The sound of the saucers had an interesting background?

RH: Yes, but I prefer not to discuss it (laughs). We had to shoot at the Rodondo Sewage Company, down on Rodondo Beach and Mr Schneer heard this goo going through all the pipes and he said, “Let’s record that!”, so we recorded it and that’s the sound of the saucers. So a lot of citizens took part in the making of that movie.

TD: All the saucers were suspended on wires?

RH: And why don’t we see the wires? I would have failed if we did. In each frame of film I had to paint the wires to match the background and look through the camera for each frame, which took time. If it passed a cloud, you’d have to paint the colour of the wire white so it wouldn’t be noticeable passing the cloud.

I got tired of destroying cities – we destroyed Rome in 20 Million Miles To Earth, we destroyed Washington in Earth Vs The Flying Saucers, and San Francisco, and then Tokyo got in it with Godzilla destroying Tokyo. And I thought we better have a new outlet for that type of animation if it was to continue. So I thought of Sinbad.

TD: I think Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad was a great catalyst. It changed the whole aspect of what dinamation was all about. You find a new direction to take it in apart from creatures on the rampage. So what did you do about getting that made?

RH: I made a three to five-page outline and I made eight big drawings and I took them all over Hollywood and no one seemed interested. The producer said costume pictures were dead, because Howard Hughes had just make Son Of Sinbad and he had a main street fan-dancer as his heroine and Dale Robertson was supposed to be Sinbad and you didn’t believe it for a moment.

TD: You went to see a producer called Edward Small?

RH: Yes, I took my drawings there, I couldn’t get past his secretary. He kept them for about two months or so and they finally got them back. I originally wanted to make it a lavish film, such as The Thief Of Baghdad that Alexander Korda made, but nobody would put that type of money into the picture. So I had to rethink the whole picture, how we could make it on a budget. The final figure for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, we made it for $650,000, which you can’t even by a costume for today.

TD: This was your first huge box office success and it led to various other films. You’re making all these models yourself and your father is making the armatures – the internal skeleton of the model, that holds the model in place as you’re posing it.

Harryhausen then presents a stand-in minoton, used to keep the latex models out of the lights as they deteriorate under the heat.

TD: I always tell Ray off, why do you kill all the great creatures off early on?

RH: You have to, they’re villainous.

TD: After The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver and Mysterious Island, we come to one of your landmarks, if not one of the great landmarks, Jason And The Argonauts. What was the origins?

RH: The origin was we wanted to go to Greek mythology, we thought Sinbad had had enough. I always wanted to put it on the screen. I remember when I was growing up we saw a lot of what we called ‘swords and sandals’ films, and they would talk about these mythical creatures in Greek mythology but you seldom ever saw them on the screen, and if you did, they were usually a Greek wrestler with an eye in the middle of his forehead and he was supposed to be a Cyclops. So we decided to put Greek mythology the way it was written in the books. It’s very fragmented and in order to create a comprehensive story we usually have to borrow from other myths.

TD: When we did the new book, we added up how many frames Ray shot [in the Jason skeleton fight scene], it was something like four to four and a half minutes of animation time – that means it was something in the region of 150,000 moves to get that one sequence. I wouldn’t have the patience

RH: That’s why I lost my hair.

TD: But that sequence took you nearly four and a half months.

RH: We shot the live action in less than a week.

TD then throws the floor open for some questions from the audience.

Q: What’s your favourite sequence from any of your films.

RH: That’s difficult to say, you’ve a favourite sequence from each film. That’s the reason you make the film. The others get jealous if I pick out one.

Q: In King Kong we can see the fur of King Kong moving under the animator’s fingers, but in your films the fur doesn’t ripple, how did you solve the problem.

RH: In Mighty Joe Young we had unborn calf and we had a taxidermist on the film called George Lofgren and he built props and he also invented this skin process for removing the hide without disturbing the hair and then rubberised it. So that was very successful, then it would spring back to its original position. I was very careful I animated from the back as much as possible, so you weren’t too aware. But the movement of the fur in the original King Kong… you know he was quite big, 50 feet high, so the wind was blowing him.

[A sequence from One Million Years BC is shown]

TD: In One Million Years B.C., how did you make the dinosaurs breathe?

RH: We put a bladder inside them, a bag, the type of thing they put on your arm to take your blood pressure and then pump air in it in every frame of film and then let it out. When I’m asked to sign things for One Million Years B.C. I ask people, did you go to see the picture because of my dinosaurs or because of Raquel Welch? It’s a little of each. TD: We progress on and you’re now working for Hammer Films. But the first two creatures in One Million Years BC aren’t animation are they?

RH: No they’re not. That was my mistake. I thought if you used live-action creatures at the beginning then you would believe the animation models, but it did just the opposite. The lizards kept falling asleep under the lights and it became very costly to shoot them at high speed.

TD: One Million Years B.C. is ingrained in the consciousness of so many young men who went to see Raquel Welch and discovered dinosaurs… or it may be the other way round. Then you made The Valley Of Gwangi.

[They talk a little about a specific scene from the film and then a clip of the fight of Kali from The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad is shown]

TD: [In the fight scene] how did you get the actors to get the eye-line right, because they’re spot on.

RH: We tied three stuntmen together with a big belt and they went through the rehearsals. By that time the actor new where to place his sword and then we did one take where he ‘shadow-boxed’ without the stuntmen and that was the piece of film we used to put the animated figure in and synchronise it. So I had to count each frame so that when the sword came down there was another sword to meet it. You would have the stuntmen film as a guide.

TD: Can I ask you to explain how you made swords grow out of Kali’s hands?

RH: Well, I made cardboard swords as a substitute and then cut them with scissors and then shot it backwards. I tried to keep this quiet for a good many years and everybody thought I was being coy. But half the fascination when I first saw King Kong was I didn’t know how it was done. Now everybody reveals everything, how things were done and I thought I’d better get in on it.

TD: Sinbad is one of your favourites?

RH: Yes, we’ve made three Sinbad films… which I think is enough.

TD: The last one is Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger and you came up with the outline for that, I believe?

RH: Yes, it took a different twist in the final film, but I came up with the original concept.

[A clip is then shown from Clash Of The Titans – the Medusa scene]

TD: Can you tell us how Medusa came into being?

RH: Well, I did a lot of research and all the classical concepts of Medusa was just a normal woman with a normal head and pretty face. I thought why not give her a snake’s body, after all, she’s got snakes in her hair and I made her as ugly as possible, show she’d be a menace. Her rattle in her tail gave the sound effect department a good opportunity. We took the bow and arrow from Diana – so she could be a menace from a distance.

TD: Clash Of The Titans is your final film, you tried to get other projects made but decided it was time to retire.

RH: Yes, they kept saying dinamation, conventional animation was old-fashioned and CGI came in and I didn’t want to fight that. So I felt I had spent enough time in a darkened room.

TD: Do you consider that animators are actors? RH: I think we act through the process, yes, it’s sort of like a Frankenstein – you’re trying to create life in something that doesn’t have life.

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