To readers of this site, Ray Harryhausen needs no introduction. Not only have we been weaned on his incredible fantasy films like Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, but many of today’s best loved genre filmmakers were inspired to make movies because of Harryhausen’s work. I had the good fortune to be able to sit down with Mr. Harryhausen and ask him a few questions while he was in town for the 2005 Fantasia Film Festvial to receive a lifetime achievement award.
Evil Andy: You’re here in Montreal to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Fantasia Film Festival. I can’t imagine that it’ll compare to your Oscar, but how do you feel about receiving this award from a festival that respects fantasy films?
Ray Harryhausen: Oh splendid, I’m delighted. I think our pictures are more respected today than when they were first released. Many times, films such as Gwangi were just dumped on the market, which is unfortunate, because most people that see the picture and admire it. It has a great fandom.
EA: Why do you think it is that your films are more appreciated today than they were in their day?
RH: Because back then nobody knew much about stop motion and trick photography. Over the years it’s been tooted up in magazines like Cinefex and others. People are more aware now of that type of thing. Too aware I think because it spoils it, I always feel, if you concentrate on just the special effects rather than the story.
EA: Which is why your films were live action combined with stop motion, and not strictly puppet films?
RH: Yes, our films were a distinctly different type of film not the obvious puppet film, which is usually stylized. I like to separate the two because we followed in the steps of Willis ‘O Brien who made dinosaurs stars in the Lost World in 1925. Do you remember who starred in the picture?
RH: No, but you do remember the dinosaurs! He glamorized the dinosaurs to a degree that no longer exists. That’s part of the fantasy element of these types of films.
EA: The interesting thing for so many people about you is that your work spans so many disciplines over your career. From producing, to storyboarding, to writing, not too mention the puppets and animation that you’re most well known for. Of all those disciplines, of all those things you did, which one gave you the most satisfaction?
RH: In the early days I was very modest. I’ve shed that modesty I’m afraid, because I found after fifty years, that modesty in Hollywood is a dirty word. I always worked with the script right from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Even as far back as Mighty Joe Young I worked with Obie on his interpretation of the script, I was his assistant. That was the highlight of my life to be able to work with my mentor. King Kong was the film that set me in the frame of mind to worship stop motion animation.
EA: The mentorship thing was something I wanted to ask you about. There’s a long history of mentorship in special effects, like Dick Smith and Rick Baker, yourself and Willis ‘O Brien…Why do you think these famous mentorships have produced the best artists and the most phenomenal work?
RH: Well I think that because everyone that’s partaken in that has a love for the subject, it’s not just a means of making a living. Rick Baker was a fanatic about makeup, Denis Muren was a fanatic about special effects. They were all wonderful fans in the early days when they saw our films. I’m grateful that our films have introduced these people who have spread the word, and created the concept of being aware of special effects. However, they shouldn’t dominate the scene.
EA: I’ve always thought of you and Dick Smith as the elder statesmen of your respective fields, people that pioneered makeup effects and stop-motion. Have you ever met Dick, and what’s your relationship been with the other special effects disciplines?
RH: No, I’ve never met him unfortunately. I know of him and respect everything he’s done. There’s also the gentleman from Universal, who made up Frankenstein, and departed from this world a short time ago. In those days we didn’t have any books to refer to. The young people today have so many books on special effects, so many articles on stop motion. They even sell armatures today. You couldn’t get them made in my day; I had to make them myself. I couldn’t find another kindred soul when I started out, outside of Ray Bradbury and Forry Ackerman, who had intense interests. I think it demands a certain fanaticism, otherwise it just becomes a means of making money.
EA: Even though all your films were directed by someone else, collectively, over the years, all the films you’ve touched have become known as “Ray Harryhausen” films. In the history of cinema, I’m not sure I can think of another case where a “technician” (not my term) has been so closely linked to the identity of a film. Why do you think you were able to achieve this distinction, and why do you think others have not?
RH: I don’t analyze these things the way people on the outside do. You can analyze things out of existence. I’ve never stopped to think about it, I just enjoyed doing it. I’m grateful that we have the following we do today. When Charles and I started out making these pictures, we made them on very tight budgets, which is uncommon today. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms only cost 200,000 dollars, you can hardly buy a costume for that today. It’s a different world than I’m used to. I sometimes feel I came from another planet.
EA: There’s an innocent quality to your films. Is that something you tried to instill, or is it a bi-product of the era in which they were made?
RH: A lot of it is the bi-product of the era. King Kong has an innocence and a naïve quality that is hard to capture with a sophisticated audience. People today have seen everything, you’re bombarded with visual images, so the visual image is no longer startling. CGI can create anything; in a 30 second commercial, you see the most amazing things, so when you see it in a feature, it’s no longer as startling as it used to be.
EA: I saw a lecture by Salman Rushdie and Terry Gilliam (on the Lost in LaMancha DVD), where Rushdie states, memorably I thought, “computer graphics look real, but feel fake, whereas stop motion looks fake but feels real.” What do you make of his statement?
RH: I get a lot of fan mail from people, even today, who are jaded over CGI, and they prefer stop motion. I remember when I first saw King Kong at Grauman’s Chinese in 1933, the startling effect was that I didn’t know how it was done. I didn’t even know about stop motion for six months afterwards. It hypnotized me in such a way that I had to find out how it was made, and I finally found out. The quality of Kong, unlike The Lost World, is the wonderful score by Max Steiner. It was the first time music had been adopted to the visual image on the screen, in an almost operatic way. He gave each character leitmotifs and identifications you could follow throughout the whole film. His music was very Wagnerian in a sense. There was no music in the first half hour, and then all of the sudden when they reach the island, and the fantasy element, it really sticks in your mind. I think stop-motion contributes that nightmare quality. You know it’s not real, and yet it looks real. Kong, in spite of his jerkiness, and the hair moving all the time, you can rationalize it as the wind blowing through his hair, because he’s so big. Stop motion adds to the concept of theatre, where, if you try to make things too real, you bring it down to the mundane.
EA: Do you think there’s a place today for the type of stop motion film you made, mixed with live action? Not puppet films?
RH: I’ve always felt that CGI is a tool, nothing more. It’s a wonderful tool, it can save time, but it has to be operated by a group of people. One person does the head, on person does the tail, another person does the character. It’s a combination, rather than the point of view of one individual.
EA: Why is that single vision so important?
RH: Well it focuses on somebody’s point of view who’s interested in fantasy, I think that shows through. I’ve had a lot of fan mail saying they can feel the importance of a single mind, rather than a group of industrial manufacturing. Which it has to be to produce so much footage.
EA: Are you involved in the Kong remake, have you seen any footage, what did you think?
RH: Well, I never wanted to interfere. Jackson has a wonderful track record, he’ll do his version. There will always be only one original King Kong. He’ll do a much more faithful version of his interpretation than the 1972 release where they left all the fantasy out. Peter loves Kong as much as I do, so I look forward to his version. I’ve seen some sketches of it, and they looked very impressive.
EA: Have there been any recent fantasy films that have captured your imagination?
RH: I have to go back, I’m afraid to Raiders of the Lost Ark and ET. In Greek mythology, you can’t have an explosion every five minutes. This seems to be what they think the young people demand, because their attention span is so short that you have to have an exciting car chase or gun fight every five minutes. The type of story we were telling takes a little while to develop. Story telling, I’ve always thought, has a beginning, middle and an end. You’re telling a story, that’s the whole point of making the film. Some people can communicate, and some cannot. We have that little class of so-called pseudo-intellectuals that are so obscure that they don’t project their ideas on film so that other people can understand them. You have to guess about what it’s about. I think in the early days the fact that there was censorship meant directors had to dream up other ways of suggesting, rather than showing somebody’s guts being torn out and running all over the floor, which they seem to enjoy doing today.
EA: Do you despair for the state of modern cinema?
RH: I think it’s gone overboard in graphic quality. The golden age of Hollywood has a lot to be desired, despite all the criticism it’s had in recent years. I think Ayn Rand touched the spot in The Fountainhead when she says “mediocrity is worshipped rather than greatness.”
EA: RH: You don’t agree I see.
EA: No I do, I just got tingles actually…reality TV sure is worshipping mediocrity…
EA: Who was the last painter or sculptor that you admired?
RH: I’d have to go back many years, perhaps as far as Michaelangelo.
EA: A lot of your drawings have been compared to Gustave Dore…
RH: They have been, because Dore was my sort of my mentor along with Willis ‘O Brien. Obie had a lot of Gustave Dore in King Kong. I always call Dore the first art director of motion pictures. Cecile B. Demile used to group his biblical stories based upon Dore’s wonderful bible drawings. I think Dore had that cinematic quality that can be transferred to motion pictures. O’ Brien’s technique was to have a dark foreground, a paler middle ground, and a paler background, so you had depth in the film. That was portrayed quite extensively in King Kong.
EA: You’ve said before that your favorite film was Jason and the Argonauts. Is this still the case?
RH: Well, it’s the most complete. We were at a disadvantage in having to make our pictures on really tight budgets. The budget has to be considered as primary. After Mighty Joe Young nobody was knocking on Willis ‘O Brien’s door, because he made big expensive films. I admired him for that, but you need to come down to brass tacks. Producers are afraid to spend money. You have to have a conglomerate to finance a picture today, because it runs in the hundreds of millions. So, unfortunately, I got trapped in the low budge films. They used to call them B-pictures because of the low budget. It gives one a little more strength of imagination to put something on the screen for so little money. It takes sacrifices, and I had my share.
EA: There’s a whole wealth of artists and filmmaker’s I admire who seem to have gotten where they did, based not only on their talent, but on hard work and determination. What was the role of your work ethic in your success?
RH: Well, I think it borders on fanaticism. Maybe I have a Zeus complex, because my actors do exactly as I want. I don’t have any temperamental leading lady or leading man who wants to be directing the picture. I admire Betty Davis, but what I’ve read, she dominated directors. Our pictures were never considered a director’s picture, in the European sense of the word. The directors in our films were brought in to get the best out of the actors. Charles Schneer, the writer, and myself formulated the basic stories. All the Sinbad films started as a twenty-page outline and some drawings, because they’re visual. We worked a little different way, even as far back as the fairy tales. Have you seen the fairy tales?
EA: Ya, I saw them for the first time this week. They blew me away.
RH: They were originally designed to be made, as simple as possible, for visual education in schools. I remember going to the different schools and asking the principals what they’d like to see. I got so many different answers, I just said to heck with it, I’m going to do what I like. Young people need to not ask too many people their opinion. Do it, and if you have a following great, if not, you have to turn to something else. It’s simple really.
EA: How have you managed to maintain all your foam latex puppets all these years? Foam doesn’t last all that long today, and when you were using it, the process was even less refined…
RH: I know, it rots. It’s a fine material, but it rots. Well, we’re fine material, but we rot too, in time. The latex was very unstable, and most of my characters in the early days had to be cannibalized, because you never had time to rebuild a new figure. I’ve restored some in bronze over the years. I have a one and a half times life size bronze that was based off one of my maquettes, of David Livingston being attacked by a lion. Unless a comet hits the earth, I think bronze will last longer than we will.
EA: What was the process for painting your models?
RH: There was very little back then. It was mostly trial and error. I got rubber tire paint and mixed color in it. Sometimes I would use rubber cement. I tried many things to avoid the paint cracking. I had to wear cutters gloves so that the oil of my fingers wouldn’t make the paint shiny. I got the reputation of animating in a top hat, tails, and white gloves!
EA: How did you hair the models? I heard something about using bugs and some kind of paste, to remove the hide?
RH: I didn’t make the models on Mighty Joe Young. We had a young man, George, who was a taxidermist by trade. He found a process to take the hides off the hair, without losing the pattern of the hair, and substituting rubber, so it would stretch, and when you handled it, wouldn’t move as much as Kong. King Kong was covered with rabbit fur, and every time the animator touched it, 24 frames per second, the hair would shift. This gave it that quivering quality, which you could rationalize, by saying it’s wind blowing.
EA: No bugs involved?
RH: Yes, maggots would eat the hide. The hides didn’t last that long afterwards, but they served their purpose for Mighty Joe Young. We used unborn calf for Mighty Joe, so that the hair was in miniature size, and matched the model.
EA: My two favourite sequences from all of your films are the Gwangi roping sequence, and the Medusa sequence. I’ve always wondered how you animated the flame flicker on her face?
RH: I had a color wheel. If you don’t use that, then she would have looked pasted on. The color wheel had different colored gelatins. Each frame of film, I would move the wheel, creating the flicker on her face. The skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts were another problem. That took almost four months to put together. Originally, in Mighty Joe Young, the roping sequence came out of Gwangi, which Willis ‘O Brien was preparing. Instead of roping a dinosaur, we roped a gorilla. We put the roping sequence back when we made Gwangi, and we were accused of taking the roping sequence out of Mighty Joe Young!
EA: On the Early Years DVD (review) there’s a sequence in Baron Munchausen where you use rods and levers to animate a face. You abandoned this technique, but do you think it might have more possibilities now?
RH: It was too time consuming for one person. It worked quite well for lip sync, and things of that nature. But it had possibilities. They’re using a similar process on Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. My wife and I visited the studio where they’re making it. They’ve got wonderful little creatures, and they use little levers to push the face up, and make all different expressions. I think they’re trying to use the same process on our new Poe series that we’re going to make in the future. That was one of the subjects that never reached production. I think they’re using a very flexible face for that sequence.
EA: Last question. Are you still drawing, or sculpting, or…
RH: You mean, am I on a busman’s holiday (laughs>? Well I like to have a goal in mind. I haven’t drawn for years. Most of the drawings I did 20 years ago. I do sculpt a bit still. We are releasing a portfolio of my early drawings though. It’s being released through an art gallery in Santa Monica. (note: you can find more information at Every Picture.com)
EA: It was a distinct pleasure to meet you. Thank you for all your work!
RH: You’re welcome. I’m grateful for all the technology that is allowing our movies to be brought to the forefront again. So many films these days are reinventions of the wheel. Remakes, remakes, remakes. It gets a little discouraging, so I’m glad people still enjoy our movies!
A great big thank you to Tamu Townsend and all the fine folks at Frames Per Second magazine and Fantasia, for bringing Ray to town and presenting him with yet another well deserved lifetime achievement award. Tamu assures us she’s a big fan of Dread Central, so Tamu, if you’re reading this, you rock! And of course, thanks must go out to the amazing Ray Harryhausen, not only for being such a kind and gracious interviewee, but also for being so tirelessly appreciative of his fans. Harryhausen’s work continues to be an inspiration to movie lovers and movie makers alike; a reminder of the bygone days of cinema when a single man breathed life into his creations, and astounded generations. Thanks Ray (you rock too!).