Ray Harryhausen | Fantasy Land

“It became very fashionable there in the 1950s; we destroyed New York, the Capitol in Washington, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Eventually I wanted to get away from the ‘monster on the loose’ picture.”

 

 

Few men can claim to have delighted more imaginations than Ray Harryhausen. A master of stop-motion animation, the distinctive style of his fantastic monsters and creatures is immediately recognizable from Mighty Joe Young through the voyages of Sinbad to Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans. And, in contrast to today’s CGI with its teams of animators and supercomputers, his work truly was his.

“It took me 50 years to learn that ‘modesty’ was a dirty word in Hollywood,” Harryhausen jokes. “I did every inch of the animation for 15 of my 16 films, plus worked with the writers, actors, and went out and sold the film concept to studios. I wore a lot of different hats.” Sometimes the visual effects for a picture would take ten months to complete. Indeed, the famous skeleton sword-fight scene in Jason and the Argonauts took Harryhausen three months to complete—three months’ work for three fantastic minutes on the screen.

His career follows the rise of the action/creature movie from Saturday afternoon serial to big-budget blockbuster. After having been enthralled with 1933’s King Kong and doing some shorts work on his own, Harryhausen began his career in Hollywood as a visual effects technician on Mighty Joe Young, working under Kong’s creator, stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien. Similar creature projects would follow.

“It became very fashionable there in the 1950s; we destroyed New York, the Capitol in Washington, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Eventually I wanted to get away from the ‘monster on the loose’ picture.” Harryhausen wrote a treatment for The Voyages of Sinbad, the mythical tales of the ancient Persian adventurer. It went nowhere. “Nobody was interested. Costume and fantasy pictures were dead. Howard Hughes had just made Son of Sinbad and it bombed.” Even as he worked on sci-fi (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and 20 Million Miles to Earth) and semi-documentary work (The Animal World), he tried to find support and funding to get into the deep and rich stories of mythology.

He got his chance with 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and it would provide an instructive template for how his best films were crafted. “These were not ‘director’ pictures in the European, auteur form. Because of the relatively small budgets and short shooting schedules, the producer, writer, and visual effects team would deliberately lay the film out. It couldn’t just be let go at the director’s discretion.”

Harryhausen described the intended effect for his films as similar to the feeling he first got from King Kong. “It inspired a dreamlike quality. But it wasn’t just the effects; it was the structure of the script, the pacing, and the spacing of the action sequences. And the score is so important. Max Steiner’s score [for King Kong] brought opera to the cinema.” For his own films, Harryhausen would create the same dreamlike quality, and frequently employ the great Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver) to drive the action with a brilliant score.

However, it was not all bold vision and art. “We had to get most of it on the first take. Stop-motion is a very tedious, exacting business and so we couldn’t afford many retakes. Ninety percent of our shots were the first take. There were a lot of rehearsals to get the moves, to shadowbox in the shot so we could put in the animation later. It was a meticulous process to get the quick, heavily rehearsed cuts and close-ups.” As with current complaints about acting against a green screen, many of Harryhausen’s actors were not happy. “I gave them very elaborate continuity sketches right in the script, so the actors always knew what was happening, and what we were going to be adding in post-production. But there was only so much I could do. I mean, sometimes you end up making love to a teapot when the leading lady goes home early and the director needs passionate reaction shots from the leading man. Ultimately, they just needed to have a big imagination; it’s part of the job.”

Clash of the Titans in 1981 proved to be his final film, and the only one on which production delays necessitated having other animators work on shots. “I never liked to delegate, and since it took me eight to ten months to finish a film, it just became impractical to meet current production schedules, so that was it.” Among the projects Harryhausen never got to make was a Victorian-era War of the Worlds, true to H.G. Wells’ original novel. “Because of Orson Welles’ radio play, any film version now has to be set in New York or Los Angeles, or somewhere in America. It is a pity any chance to make the original was lost.”

Over the intervening 25 years, there has been interest in his work and art, especially as visual effects and the blockbuster have moved from the B-picture to the mainstay of the studio schedule. He was given an honorary Oscar by the Academy in 1992. While he appreciates the attention, he lives in fear of the remake. “I don’t see the point of remaking classic films. They’re called classics for a reason. I don’t think I’d be very happy if someone decided to ‘improve upon’ one of my films.”

Of course, there have also been incredible changes in the visual effects field, CGI being the sea change. While contemporary CGI and cutting-edge visual effects have rendered some fantastic moments in the cinema, one does wonder if something wasn’t lost in the transition from the solitary artisan meticulously crafting scene after scene to complex computer logarithms doing the animator’s work for him. “CGI is a marvelous system, but fantasy is a special thing. I don’t think it’s analyzable; there is just something about it. If you make things too real, you reduce the fantastic to the mundane.”

| Harryhausen is on tour to promote his recently released book, The Art of Ray Harryhausen. He will be at Webster University as part of the Film Series on April 2 at 7 p.m. in the Moore Auditorium. Visit www.webster.edu/filmseries for more information.

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