Bright Lights Film Journal

Happy Birthday, Ray Harryhausen (June 29, 1920 – May 7, 2013): An Interview with the Titan of Stop-Motion Animation

This interview with Ray Harryhausen first appeared in Bright Lights in November 2007. We reprint it here as a birthday tribute to the seminal animator.

* * *

“I wrecked Washington, and I wrecked New York, and San Francisco. That got rather tiresome after a while.

Ray Harryhausen created his first monster in 1933. It was a cave bear. He worked on it in his parents’ garage, and brought it to life in the garden. After that, he tried dinosaurs. At first, he had trouble with the legs, but persevered – if he has one word of advice for anyone making monsters, it’s “persistence” – and by the early 1950s he had perfected his technique and branched into mutated sea creatures and angry aliens. Then, a belligerent band of beasts at his command, he set about trashing the planet.

Laying cities to waste was a much more arduous business then, too, long before the advent of computer generated imagery. Harryhausen, of course, is the master nonpareil of stop-motion animation, that endangered filmmaking technique by which models are brought to life through being photographed frame by frame, moved millimetre by painstaking millimetre between exposures. Today, he’s probably most associated with the movies he made after that initial demolition derby that lasted from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) to 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957): those forays into myth, fantasy, and adventure exemplified by such beloved films as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

He made his last feature, Clash of the Titans, in 1981, but recently has been a tangible presence in cinema; the Lord of the Rings movies resembled nothing so much as a muscular, Germanic updating of fantastical Harryhausen sagas of old. Across the past three decades, in fact, with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson all admitting debts, Harryhausen has unexpectedly come to rival Hitchcock (with whom he shared a favourite composer, Bernard Herrmann), as the filmmaker exerting the most influence on succeeding generations.

He lives in London, having moved to the UK in the late 1950s because it was cheaper to make his kind of movie there. Now 87 (he was 82 when this interview took place), he retains an active interest in the evolution of the special-effects field. Most recently, he launched the Ray Harryhausen Presents series, to oversee and spotlight the work of a new generation of animators. The first product of the enterprise, Marc Lougee’s creepy take on The Pit and the Pendulum, was released in the summer of 2007. (For more on that and Harryhausen’s raft of other projects, visit his official site.)

If pressed, he will admit he sees his influence around, but he remains a very modest guru, perhaps because he sees a cycle repeating. He himself learned at the feet of a master, pinpointing the moment his life changed to the afternoon in Los Angeles in 1933 when he entered Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to be transfixed by a new movie called King Kong, and resolved to learn the secrets of the film’s genius animator, Willis O’Brien, the man who became his mentor. He was 13.

Working alone in his darkroom, Harryhausen always retained the wide-eyed thrill of the kid alone in his garage after school. Yet, simultaneously, he pursued working practises shared only with artists operating along cinema’s most experimental fringes – avant-garde animators like Len Lye and Norman McLaren. Labouring between the very frames of a film, Ray Harryhausen spent his career working down among the DNA of cinema. Close, perhaps, to its soul.

DAMIEN LOVE: I’d assume you still take an active interest in following the developments of the animation industry.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Oh yes. It’s changed considerably.

Have there been any recent films that you’ve thought especially good?

Well, yes. The Lord of the Rings is fascinating, and the Harry Potter films. It’s a different situation than I’m used to, but I try to follow them.

The Lord of the Rings seems almost like a classic Ray Harryhausen project. Didn’t you once plan a version of The Hobbit?

Well, we were asked to do The Hobbit one time, and The Lord of the Rings, but somehow it didn’t work out. That was some years ago.

When you see a film like The Lord of the Rings, do you see a lot of yourself in it?

Yes, I suppose one can, yes.

Do you ever think, “Oh, I would’ve done that differently”?

Sometimes. But they had some very spectacular things, and very impressionable things. I enjoyed it very much.

If you were starting out today, do you think you would be in your garage working on a computer?

Ah-ha. That I don’t know. That’s all speculation. When I started out, the amazing image on the screen was quite rare. Today, spectacular and amazing imagery is so profuse that it’s commonplace. The astounding is no longer astounding, because you’re inundated on television and on the movie screen with the most amazing visuals. So, the spectacular really doesn’t have the same connotations as some years ago.

Can you talk a little about how you started? I gather it was seeing King Kong (1933) really.

Yes, I saw King Kong when I was thirteen, and I didn’t know how it was done at the time, but I knew it wasn’t a man in a gorilla suit. I finally found out about stop-motion and I started experimenting in my garage and it gradually grew from a hobby into a profession.

When you were growing up as a kid in Los Angeles in the 1920s, were you aware of the Hollywood community as part of the town?

No. I had no connection whatsoever with Hollywood. I lived in Los Angeles, but not necessarily near Hollywood. It was something you’d see on the screen, but it was very far-fetched from working in your garage on experiments.

What was the first creature you built yourself as a teenager?

One of them was a cave bear. Then I did a model of a stegosaurus, which won a prize at a Los Angeles museum on an amateur basis. So, yeah, I made a cave bear and a little miniature set, and then my first shots with 16mm were out in the garden. I built the set outside because I didn’t have any lights and, of course, the shadows all change as you shoot one frame at a time. That takes quite a bit of time to do it. But it was an exciting experiment to see that bear moving on its own.

You’ve long had a fascination with dinosaurs.

Yes, dinosaurs, most young fellows, I think, and girls sometimes, enjoy dinosaurs. They’re fantasy creatures – which actually existed! That’s the fascination, I suppose, they’re so fantastic in their appearance that to think that they lived millions of years ago . . . Charles Knight’s drawings always fascinated me, he was the painter for the American museum of Natural History, and I based a lot of my dinosaurs on his work. Now you have many books. Charles Knight (right) was about the only one painting prehistoric life at that time. There were others, but not as impressive as Knight’s. His work is still outstanding, I think.

How did you first get to meet Kong animator Willis O’Brien?

Well, I called him up. A friend of mine in high school said, “Just call him up.” I saw her reading a book in our study class period, and it had illustrations of King Kong in it, and it turned out it was King Kong‘s script actually. My eyes almost fell out. So we talked about it, I introduced myself, and she said, “Well, call him up, he’s working at MGM on War Eagles.” So I called him up after I got back from high school, and told him of my interest, and he invited me out to the studio. And I brought some of my dinosaurs to show him in a suitcase. His office was filled with wonderful drawings of War Eagles, which, unfortunately was never produced.

Didn’t he tell you that you should work on your legs?

Yes! Well, anatomy. He said, “Your dinosaur legs look like sausages, you gotta put muscles on ’em.” So I studied anatomy, and I took life drawing and many other courses all through the period and I kept in touch with O’Brien, and when he started Mighty Joe Young (1949), after the war, I became his assistant.

I’ve read that because of production problems that were taking up O’Brien’s time, you animated around 85 percent of that movie.

Yes. Some people even tell me 90 percent, they’ve seen the schedules. But Obie’s time was taken up getting the next set-up ready, mostly. He did a little bit of animation, but not very much. He had to plan everything ahead, based on his design, and that took most of his time.

I guess that film was really the big leap for you?

Well, yes. It was the biggest event in my life to be able to work with the people who had made King Kong. Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack and Willis O’Brien, that was the biggest thrill I think in my life, to be able to work on a film with them.

By that time were you firmly fixed that this was what you wanted to do?

Yes. The next picture was always questionable, whether you were gonna get the next picture, you know, and what’s the subject. You were never quite sure. But Mighty Joe Young helped me have something to show people. My first solo effort was withThe Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953).

That’s very modest of you to say you had something to show; Willis O’Brien won the Oscar for that picture. You had an Oscar-winning picture for your showreel!

Yes, but nobody was beating down our doors, you know. We were planning another picture that Obie designed, but nobody was, you know, beating on the door even though it won an Academy Award.

Wasn’t John Ford involved in Mighty Joe Young?

Well, no, he had nothing to do with the picture, but John Ford and Merian Cooper were partners in Argosy Films, and that was why his name was on it, as “a presenter.” He had actually nothing to do with the film.

It always struck me as rather outside of Ford’s area.

No, not John Ford’s cup of tea. He prefers realism rather to fantasy, I think.

I’d like to take you back a little to just before Mighty Joe Young. America had entered the war and you signed up . . .

Yeah, I signed up to be a combat cameraman. Ha ha. I didn’t realise they were shot like clay pigeons! I was very naive in those days. But I’d made a little film, three minutes long. I went to a class to learn all about the cameras at Columbia Studios, and I made this little three-minute film showing how you could use animation as a tool, illustrating how to build a bridge across a gorge. And I showed it to my head teacher, and he showed it to Frank Capra. So I got into the special service division through that little film.

Did you meet Capra?

Yes, he was our commanding officer

How was he to serve under?

Oh, wonderful, it was great. And I also worked with Ted Geisel, Dr Seuss. He was a Captain at that time, and became a Major later, and he was head of the cartoon department, where they made Snafu cartoons. It was a delight to work with him. I also became an assistant cameraman and did many different jobs when I was with the special service division.

Was all that work carried out in the States?

It was all carried out in the States. We used to travel to various states, we photographed the Swiss slaughterhouse, how they packed meat for the armed forces. Oh we photographed all different avenues of nuts and bolts, and how they make this and that, all for Army-Navy Screen Magazine. I also had several of my sculptures on the cover of Yank magazine. Little figures, like in Esquire, you know. Little three-dimensional figures. I did the Christmas cover of Santa Claus and Snafu coming down on a parachute and several others.

For many filmmakers of your generation, the war shaped their outlook. Do you think the war had any impact on the route you chose, the kinds of film you wanted to make? Or maybe the kinds of film you didn’t want to make?

Oh, I don’t know whether the war influenced them like that, no. I was always interested in fantasy. I know my mother bought me, when I was very young, a set of books called The Wonder Books, and they used to show space travel and all sorts of unusual fantasy subjects, Greek Mythology, Arabic Mythology, and I guess that that stimulated me in my early days. But I like to work with three-dimensional objects rather than flat drawings.

Yeah, I’ve seen a few of your drawings and you could have easily pursued a career in that.

Well, I had to learn to draw to put my ideas on paper so other people could see them, so I forced myself into drawing, though I prefer to work in three dimensions.

You’ve had the benefit of a long friendship with Ray Bradbury, and you both work in very different areas of what could be loosely termed the fantastic. What do you think are your fundamental differences, and what is the thing you have in common that made and kept you friends?

Well, we both love fantasy. I met Ray through the Science Fiction League that used to hold meetings every Thursday at Clifton’s Cafeteria, and we had rocket men and the Egyptologists and various other people who were interested in fantasy, and that’s where I first met Forry Ackerman and Ray Bradbury. He was the young budding writer selling papers on the street corner. He kept getting rejection slips, but finally he hit the big time, and look where is now! So, he had a lot of stick-to-it-iveness, which is important in any career, I think. But his fantasy of course is a little different to mine. I go more for the fairy tales and sort of the graphic type of fairy tale, rather than the symbolic.

You mentioned your mother’s influence. I gather when you were making the Mother Goose fairy stories series (1946) you had both your parents working with you on those.

Yes, after the Army, I had some old film that the Navy threw out because it was outdated. It was about, oh, six months outdated, and I had a thousand feet of it I had literally retrieved from the junk pile! I had it in my garage and I couldn’t figure out what to do with it, so I thought, well, I’ll make fairy tales for the schools. So I started the series of Mother Goose stories. They’re still going in the schools today. My father helped me in his spare time, making the armatures and building some of the sets, and my mother dressed the puppets, so it was a nice family affair, and I finally had a hobby house built behind my garage so I could expand a little more.

Your mother had stimulated your mind with books, and your father was a machinist, I think I’m correct in saying. So you kind of synthesised both?

Yes, you could say that, the technical along with the artistic, yes.

The films you’re probably most famous for are those you made with producer Charles H. Schneer. One thing that struck me across your career is that you’ve retained from King Kong and Mighty Joe Young a great deal of sympathy for your creatures. Even something like 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) the creature in that is a real innocent, it only ever defends itself. It’s not an evil thing, it’s an innocent abroad. Have you always been conscious of having that kind of sympathy for your creations?

Oh yes. I always felt, when I saw Kong, I felt very sorry for him being shot down off the Empire State Building. So I tried to give a pathos – particularly when a beast is dying! So that he’s not all bad. I remember Eugene Lourié, who directed The Beast [from 20,000 Fathoms], he said, “Ray makes his beast die like a tenor in an opera.”

You had a habit of just destroying cities and landmarks in that period. You wrecked Washington . . .

Oh yes, I wrecked Washington, and I wrecked New York, and San Francisco. That got rather tiresome after a while. But that was the fashion in the fifties. If you had a destructive script, well, that was the in thing, so we went through that series, Charles Schneer and I. But then I felt we could branch off into something new, and I showed him some drawings I had made of Sinbad fighting the skeleton, and he got very excited, and so we made The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958).

The skeletons, in Seventh Voyage and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) are probably your most famous creations – but they’re probably the most unsympathetic, too.

Well, in the actual story of Jason, of course, the rotting corpses come out of the ground, but we were afraid that if we did that we would get an X at that time. Today, you would get blessed for having rotting corpses come out of the ground! You know, they just . . . times have changed. But we didn’t want to get an X in those days.

Am I right in thinking that at one point the British Board of Film Classification removed the skeleton from Sinbad?

In Seventh Voyage, yes, they removed the whole sequence! When it first came out. We were shocked when we came over – because, you know, everybody’s got a skeleton inside of them! And they took the whole skeleton sequence out. But now of course it’s been put back in recent years.

Did you protest that removal?

Oh, yes, Charles got very upset. We protested . . . but that was the way censorship was in the fifties. Now you can put almost any obscene thing on the screen and nobody will stop it.

Those skeletons are some of the things you’re most associated with – do you have a particular affinity for them?

No, that just started out, originally, that was the first drawing I made for The Seventh Voyage, Sinbad fighting the skeleton. And I realised, I had always wanted to animate a skeleton because most of the ones you saw on the screen were really terribly badly done, unless they were drawings or something. But I felt that if you had James Bond fighting a skeleton it would be comical, so I wanted to get a legendary character like Sinbad, who personifies adventure. You’d believe that he could fight a skeleton – but not James Bond.

A question I’m sure you’ve been asked it many times, but do you have a favourite out of your creations?

Oh, I can’t. The others would get jealous. I like the complicated ones, Medusa’s one of my favourites, and of course the Hydra and the skeletons. But each character, you know, you feel that you want to make the best you can of it.

The amount of control you had over the animation process, you were basically a one-man show weren’t you?

Yes I was. I did all the animation myself, except on the last film [Clash of the Titans, 1981], I had to have help because we got behind due to technical problems. But every other picture I did every inch of animation myself. And built the models as well. I wore many hats. But I’m not just handed a script; I work with the writer on the scripts, and I’m associate producer, sometimes producer, and direct some of the sequences that involve my work. But Mr Schneer was the actual owner of the company and he was the producer.

With that in mind, why did you never decide to go the whole hog and direct an entire picture?

Well, I didn’t feel . . . you see, all my characters, the ones I created and animated, they would do exactly what I wanted. Actors, particularly today, they want to dictate how the picture’s done, and that’s a different situation. But I felt that, I were to direct the full thing, either the special effects would suffer or the direction would suffer if I tried to do too much, so I avoided that deliberately. I’d like to have directed – I think I could have done better than some of the directors we had. The director’s main responsibility on our film was to get the best out of the actors. It wasn’t what you’d call a director’s picture in the European sense of the word.

So you were sometimes frustrated by what a director was doing?

Sometimes, yes, but you had to take the bitter with the sweet.

Out of all the directors you worked with, was there one who stood out for you?

Well, a lot of times the directors resented my having so much say about what was to be on the screen, and sometimes you’d have clashes of personality. But on the whole I found that working with directors who had been technicians before was preferable for me – like Don Chaffey, who used to be an art director, so he understood the problems, and Gerry Juran, who also used to be an art director, so he understood, so we got along quite well. But some directors felt that I was treading on their toes, and we sometimes had clashes, but that was rare.

Was there a film that was particularly fraught, with a director wanting to go off in a different direction?

Well, one or two, yes. But I won’t go into them! It was just a clash of personalities, and a different point of view, which sometimes creates a bit of a problem. But mostly we got along quite well.

How about the actors? I guess what the actors had to do in your films, particularly forty, fifty years ago, demanded quite a lot of them?

Yes. Well, I would make drawings, very detailed drawings of each set-up, so they knew pretty well, it was published in the script, so they knew what they were going to look at. Even though it was a pole on the set – a stick, you know, representing the dinosaur or whatever – they would see my drawings and know how to react properly, and the director would encourage that.

It still seems incredible the amount of interaction you got in something like Kerwin Matthews’ swordfight with the skeleton in Seventh Voyage, particularly when there were no monitors or anything to go by.

Yes, well, we shot the live action first, and then I animate to whatever happens on the screen, and I time it, I have to split-time it so the swords meet at the proper time. When we got to Jason and the Argonauts, there were seven of the skeletons, and it took quite a while to position them in each frame of film. The time it took to reposition seven skeletons really was quite extensive. But on the whole, animation goes quite quickly.

Really? I think a lot of people’s perception would be that it takes a long, long painstaking time and you must have great amounts of patience.

Well, it takes patience, and sometimes you only get less than a foot a day on some scenes, but on the whole you maybe get 25, 30 feet a day. But it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. You have to have a special yen for it. And apparently I have that yen.

You had quite a long association with Bernard Herrmann.

Yes, that was a pleasure. Music’s so important in our films. I learned that from Max Steiner’s great score for Kong. A good score from a very imaginative and talented musician is so important, and we had the benefit of Bernie Herrmann and Miklos Rozsa, all supreme musicians, and Lawrence Rosenthal, all of these people were top rate, and they had a great imagination and they contributed an enormous amount to our films.

Herrmann had a reputation for being a little cranky. How did you approach him?

Well, Mr Schneer knew him, and he approached him when we made Seventh Voyage, and we had heard his reputation, that if he didn’t like a film he would tell you right to your face. But he seemed to sit through the rushes and a lot of scenes were missing, the dinosaurs were not there, the monsters were really just that pole, but I showed him the drawings and finally, he agreed to it, that he felt he could contribute to it, and he certainly did. He did four of our films, and his style of music fitted our films very much.

A lot of people consider Jason and the Argonauts to be perhaps your masterpiece – would you agree?

Yes, I think there are good things in other films, you always set out to make an outstanding picture, some of them are not considered that way by other people, but I think Jason is one of our best, a picture I’m most happy with all the way through. There are a lot of scenes I’d love to have done over, but, you know, once it’s in the can you have to forget those concepts. Because most everything that you see in our pictures was a first take. We seldom had time to do a scene over. Occasionally we’d have retakes due to technical reasons or something, but I would say that eight-tenths of everything you see on the screen is a first take. Today, with a computer you can go over and over and over, and refine it and refine it, but we didn’t have the money or the time to do that.

You made a decision to specialise in the mixture of live action and animation rather than a fully animated feature. Why was that?

Oh I prefer that, yeah. I think that the completely animated film, it gets a little tedious sometimes, that’s why I think the combination of live action and the animated figure works out. King Kong is still a masterpiece of entertainment. And I hope ours will last as long. But nobody else has made films quite like we made. And I don’t know whether they will in the future! Willis O’Brien started the single-figure animation of a jointed figure way back in 1915, and I tried to carry on when he stopped.

Am I right in thinking that you studied acting for a while?

Oh, yes, I studied acting and I’m grateful for that. One time I thought I wanted to be an actor, but I got butterflies on opening night! I prefer to be behind the camera. But I’m glad I took a course at Los Angeles City College in drama and acting.

Did you use that when you were positioning the creatures and their reactions?

Oh yes, you learn to react.

Would it be fair to say, then, that those creatures we see on screen are a kind of surrogate of you acting?

Yes . . . Yes it could be. I act through my figures rather than appear in front of the camera.

You’ve had such a profound influence on a whole group of filmmakers.

Yes, some of them say that. I’m grateful if I was a positive influence, because no one else was making fantasy films the way we made them. People like Peter Jackson and Spielberg and Lucas and Phil Tippett, all of those people say that if we hadn’t made those films they don’t know where they’d be. So our films have influenced, and I’m always grateful for that. I get a lot of fan mail from young people who say that our films made their childhood, because there was nothing else like it on the screen, of a fantasy nature, except cartoons, and we’re glad we made more than just an hour or so of entertainment.

Final question. What advice would you give to a young kid out there who’s maybe just seen Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (below) on television for the first time and is sitting in his room staring at his box of plasticine thinking, “I wanna do that”? What advice would you give about what makes a good monster?

Oh gosh, that’s hard to tell. Tastes have changed today. Persistence, if you’ve got an idea. I think everyone is born in the time they’re supposed to be. And today there’s a whole different concept. So it’s hard to advise young people. Everybody’s got to know about the computer today, that’s definitely important. But I don’t think it’s the be-all and the by-all. There’s room for every technique. We tried to make our monsters as believable as possible, and I think we accomplished that. But tastes have changed today, and you can get very eccentric. There’s a different point of view today, because we’ve been inundated with this type of entertainment over the years. It’s no longer fresh. When we started out in the 1950s, even back when Obie did King Kong, monsters were amazing things to see . . . monsters are relatively common today.