Stop-motion animation has been around since the silent-movie days, but no one has put a personal stamp on the technique like Ray Harryhausen. In 16 movies from 1949's Mighty Joe Young to 1981's Clash Of The Titans, Harryhausen gave life to an entire zoo's worth of fearsome monsters, including the giant octopus which destroys the Golden Gate Bridge in It Came From Beneath The Sea, the carnivorous dinosaurs of One Million Years B.C. and The Valley Of Gwangi, and, from his most memorable film, Jason And The Argonauts, the colossal guardian Talos and the homicidal, sword-wielding skeletons. It's rare for a special-effects artist to be the real driving force behind a movie, but Harryhausen's contributions often dominated the shaping of his films. He achieved this while working mostly alone and under the pressures of low-budget filmmaking—Titans' $16 million budget was more than the total cost of his previous collaborations with producer Charles Schneer, his partner for the bulk of his career. Just before embarking for America, where he'll be touring through early May, Harryhausen talked with The A.V. Club about his life and his new book The Art Of Ray Harryhausen, which looks back at his career from his high-school days building mammoths out of his mother's discarded fur coat to his latest work as a bronze sculptor.
The A.V. Club: How did you first get interested in becoming an animator?
Ray Harryhausen: [Laughs.] Well, that was quite a long way back. It was through King Kong, of course. I saw that at Grauman's Chinese [Theater] in 1933, and I haven't been the same since. My aunt had three tickets to this strange film that was playing on Hollywood Boulevard at Grauman's Chinese. I was still in high school, and we went one afternoon when I was off. It was quite an amazing spectacle. Sid Grauman was a great showman; he used to have a stage show just at the beginning of the feature, and he had a big display out in the foyer of the bust of Kong and pink flamingos strutting around. It was so impressive. They really put on a show in those days.
AVC: What impressed you about Kong?
RH: It's so compact, that's the beauty of it. Everything points to the central theme and the central concept—there isn't a wasted scene or superfluous word of dialogue in the picture. I've seen it so many times, and Ray Bradbury still admires it as well. I know Peter Jackson loved it as much as I did.
AVC: Later, you actually contacted Willis O'Brien, Kong's special-effects creator, and he became your mentor.
RH: When I was still in high school, I called him up at MGM. A friend of mine said "Let's call him up"—her father had worked with him. And he kindly invited me down to MGM to take a look at his preparation for [the unfinished 1938 project] War Eagles.
AVC: How difficult was it for a high-school student to meet a professional in the film industry?
RH: Everybody likes to be isolated when they're working on a film, but I guess not many people were interested in animation. He thought I might have been an exception, I guess. At that time, I hadn't found another kindred soul who admired King Kong the way I did.
AVC: And even in high school, you were experimenting with movie special effects.
RH: I wasn't actually working with stop-motion. I was making models of the La Brea tar pits. I admired those type of things. I'd seen Willis O'Brien's Lost World when I was 4 or 5, I guess, and of course that was a silent film and I was impressed visually, but it makes a big difference when you have a fine score, like Max Steiner created for King Kong.
AVC: Later you worked with O'Brien on your first professional film, Mighty Joe Young.
RH: Yes. I worked for George Pal's Puppetoons before that, but they were stylized puppet films. O'Brien's technique was very different, although they used the same principles of stop-motion.
AVC: How does stop-motion animation work?
RH: It's very similar to the animated cartoon, only instead of a flat drawing that's progressive, you use a three-dimensional model that's jointed. [The 1933] King Kong was about 18 inches high. He had [a skeleton with] every joint that a real gorilla would have made of ball-and-socket steel, and then he was covered with rubber and rabbit fur. Then you photograph it frame-by-frame. Each frame of the film on 35mm is like taking a series of still pictures; when you run them at 24 frames a second, which is sound speed, you get the illusion that it's moving by itself. But, of course, you have to be very careful that you keep the head and arms and everything in synchronization so it gives the illusion of reality.
AVC: It's very detailed and time-consuming work.
RH: It is. It's not everybody's cup of tea. You have to have a certain mentality for it, I think. [Laughs.] I try to give [my creations] a character. Mighty Joe, I gave him a lot of little side things to do, to give him character. Willis O'Brien did that with King Kong, and I admired that so much in his film.
AVC: Even the spaceships in Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, although they don't have many moving parts, move with a certain amount of personality.
RH: We tried to give the illusion that they were guided by intelligence, although we very seldom showed the creatures that were inside.
AVC: So what's the trick to making a flying saucer behave like a living thing?
RH: [Laughs.] I don't know whether there's a trick. Everybody sees things differently—that's the way I see it, another animator might do it a little differently. I can't say that there's any specific trick to it, it's just trying to give the illusion that there's something alive inside that's guiding it.
AVC: Some of your earliest work, like the Fairy Tales—
RH: Yes, those were more experiments. I call them my teething rings, because I learned a great deal from making fairy tales. I made them for schools, for young people. "Mother Goose Stories" was made to associate the written word with a visual image, and it's still used in schools all over the country. I made most of them in my garage.
AVC: And your father helped you as well.
RH: Yes, my father was a machinist, and he made the armatures [steel skeletons forming the structure of a stop-motion model]. My mother made the costumes, and I designed everything and built the little miniature sets and photographed it. And I learned so many different techniques; I went to night school while I was still in high school to study film editing and art direction as well as photography.
AVC: And he continued to help you quite a long way into your film career, making some of the models in some of your professional films as well.
RH: Oh yes, he made the armatures. I made very detailed drawings, and I would send them to him in America. He made the skeletons, Talos, and the harpies for Jason And The Argonauts.
AVC: Besides Kong, what were some of your other early influences?
RH: [Gustave] Doré was one of the main ones. His engravings in his Bible Gallery and for Dante's Inferno and Don Quixote were so visual and cinematic. I always call him the first motion-picture art director, because in the silent days, a lot of art directors in films used to copy him. Cecil B. DeMille used to group his biblical characters very similar to the drawings that Dore made.
AVC: You mentioned earlier that as a young man it was difficult to find people who enjoyed King Kong as much as you did. Not too much later, though, you made lifelong friends of science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury and Famous Monsters Of Filmland fanzine editor Forrest Ackerman.
RH: That was through Kong as well, indirectly.
AVC: How did you meet?
RH: Through the [Los Angeles] Science Fiction Society that was going in those days. I went to a little fleapit to see a reissue of Kong for 10 cents, I think they charged. [Laughs.] And they had these beautiful 11x14 stills of Kong that I hadn't seen since Grauman's Chinese, when they had them in the foyer. I asked if I could borrow them because they were an inspiration to me, and the manager said that they didn't belong to him, that he borrowed them from Forrest Ackerman. So he gave me his number, and I called him up, and Forry gallantly loaned me the stills, and I copied them. Then he invited me to the Science Fiction Society, which held meetings every Thursday in the Brown Room, in Clifton's Cafeteria.
AVC: You worked with Ray Bradbury on one of your first films, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. How do you think your friendship influenced your career?
RH: Well, we were all interested in science fiction, the unusual. [The Society] had a rocket scientist, and Ray was only a struggling writer selling newspapers on the street corner. [Laughs.] He was very enthused, and [although] he was getting a lot of rejection slips, finally he hit the big time. He was very persistent. We had a lot in common; he loved dinosaurs and I loved dinosaurs, and Ray and Forry and I would sometimes go way out to Eagle Rock and Pasadena just to see a replay of Last Days Of Pompeii, which was a [Merian] Cooper picture, and She, and King Kong, and Son Of Kong. That was way back in '38, before the war. We've been friends ever since. I seldom see him today, because I live in England. Whenever I go to America, we always get together for dinner. I explain all this a lot in my DVD called The Early Years Collection. [That also has] all my fairy tales as well as my early experiments that I made before the war.
AVC: You were raised in Los Angeles?
RH: Yes, I was. I spent half of my life there and half here in England.
AVC: As a filmmaker, what were the advantages of being in England, rather than staying closer to Hollywood?
RH: Well, when we were making a film called The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver, we had [to create the effect of] big people and little people [in the same shot]. We couldn't use rear projection, which dominated the film business for special effects in America, and the Rank Laboratory in England had a marvelous system [called a] traveling matte, which is a way of putting two pieces of film together without them being noticeably different. So we wanted to come over essentially to use that particular process of the Rank Laboratory.
AVC: And then you decided to stay?
RH: We had new locations very close by. You can't keep using Malibu Beach and the Grand Canyon for lost islands. Television uses up all the locations in America. So we're only two hours from Jordan and two hours from Spain, and it's much easier. Two hours from Italy—we've shot in all these foreign countries. We cased Greece, but it was so dreary, and they haven't as many restorations as Italy. Italy has a lot of restored ruins that are very impressive. We shot the harpies in Jason And The Argonauts in the temples of Paestum in southern Italy, near Pompeii. There are wonderful Greek temples there that have been there for 5,000 years.
AVC: Although you're best known as an animator, you also had quite a bit of creative control on your films.
RH: Oh yes, I wore many different hats. And I was very modest in those days—it took me 50 years to find out that it doesn't pay in Hollywood to be modest. [Laughs.] I worked on the scripts—I worked very closely with [writer] Curt Siodmak when we devised the story for Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers. I always worked with the writers, right from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms up to Clash Of The Titans. And I brought in a number of films, of course—I conceived the three Sinbad films and 20 Million Miles To Earth. But I contributed much more. I looked for locations as well, and I've always been associated closely with the producer. I do wear many different hats.
AVC: That's an unusual degree of input.
RH: It is, because our films are not what you'd call a director's concept, as they say in Europe. Our films have to be so carefully laid out before the director even comes on the job, because it can cost $1,000 more or $200,000 more if the director says "I want this shot at this angle," and you have to say "No, this is going to cost too much." So I had to figure all this out long before we started production. That's why I discovered the locations, so that they'd fit with the special effects. Charles Schneer and myself and the writer would have what we call sweatbox sessions, where we take the 10 pages that the writer has composed, pick them to pieces, and try to make them as logical as possible. I make sketches of what [creature effects] I feel I can do in the best way and for the least possible expense, and it's the writer's job to incorporate them in a logical way so that we have a story that has a beginning, middle, and an end.
AVC: The ability to work within a budget seems like a crucial part of your success.
RH: Yes, that was very important. Because in those days, science fiction wasn't very popular. And Mighty Joe Young got, for some strange reason, the reputation of costing too much. O'Brien had a big crew—we had 47 people in the miniature department and the animation department. So I tried to cut that down. I've sort of been a one-man show just to keep the cost down. Because a lot of producers were frightened that it would cost too much. I know Obie had [that] problem, because he would prepare so many films and then they'd never reach production.
AVC: Is that why you typically worked alone when you were animating?
RH: Yes, that's the main reason. The other reason is, animation requires a great deal of concentration, and I preferred to work alone because then I'm not deterred by somebody asking me if I want coffee, or the phone ringing or something. But that and keeping the cost down was the main thing. Because our pictures were low-budget; we were considered B-pictures, although we've survived the so-called A-pictures of that period.
AVC: Your early movies like the Fairy Tales are entirely animated, but most of your work is a combination of live action with stop-motion.
RH: I've never felt that animated creatures by themselves could hold an audience for an hour and a half. [Laughs.] But puppet films, as you saw in Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run, are entirely different. They're very stylized films. They've done very well. I'm certainly glad that they're keeping animation alive. Because everybody used to say that animation is dead, because CGI is taking over.
AVC: Do you think stop-motion still has a place in film?
RH: I think it will continue. People haven't made any films quite like we did, but I get fan mail from young people today saying they prefer our old films to some of the new ones. I'm grateful that our films are appreciated. A lot of them were entered for Academy Award consideration, but they were never nominated. Nobody knew much about animation during that time. I was grateful in '92 that they finally gave me an award for my profession in the industry. [In 1992, Harryhausen received a Gordon E. Sawyer Award, an honorary Oscar given for technical achievement. —ed.]
AVC: There wasn't even an award category for best visual effects then.
RH: They didn't have a category, more or less. O'Brien won one for Mighty Joe, but that was the first time they had special effects put in that category. But special effects were ignored for a good many years. They go way back to Noah's Ark in the silent days, and there was an early sound film called Deluge that came out in 1933. It was very impressive—it shows New York sinking under the ocean. But they were never as popular as they are today.
AVC: The early part of your career is dominated by science-fiction films and giant-monster tales like It Came From Beneath The Sea and Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers. Later, you moved into sword-and-sorcery films with the Sinbad series, Jason, and Titans. What prompted the change?
RH: I like mythology. I think legends and mythology is ideal. [In my early career,] animation had been used only for things like King Kong and the destruction of cities, which was very popular in the 1950s. I got tired of destroying cities. I destroyed New York, I destroyed San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, Rome, and Washington. I was looking for a new outlet, and I came across the Sinbad legends. You could believe that Sinbad could fight a skeleton because that's from a period in the past, a magical period. But if you had James Bond fighting a skeleton, it'd be almost comical.
AVC: Do you have a favorite among your films?
RH: Well, Jason is more complete. We always had to compromise because we had to make them on a very tight budget. A lot of people don't appreciate that. They've proven to last longer than the so-called A-pictures, where millions were spent on effects and they play once and that's it.
AVC: What do you think of the new version of King Kong?
RH: It's very good. Peter Jackson did a very wonderful job. The CGI stuff is very good. It's a very long film, and a little different concept than the original. But it's another person's point of view. Everybody sees things differently. But he loved the original and he did a wonderful job compared to the '76 version, which was quite outrageous, I thought. It lost all the fantasy qualities of it. I mean, the girl making smart talk to the gorilla was just so out of place.
AVC: In your book, you mention that you were once offered the chance to remake King Kong for Hammer Films.
RH: Yes they wanted to do it some years ago, after we did One Million Years B.C.
AVC: You said you weren't sorry that it didn't happen.
RH: No, I wasn't. Because I don't think they would have put the money or the imagination into it. When you put a big budget into a film today, it doesn't necessarily mean it will be a better picture, but it does help in creating new images on the screen. [Hammer] pictures were always on a very tight budget. I find it very difficult, the concept of remaking a classic. I latched onto One Million B.C. because I thought animation would be so much better than [the other effects] they used in the film. They used big lizards with fins glued onto their backs and shot them in slow motion, thinking that was supposed to be a dinosaur. So I thought we could do better. But I don't think it would be very possible to top the original King Kong.
AVC: It wasn't until your last movie, Clash Of The Titans, that you had a chance to work with some of the A-list actors of the day, such as Laurence Olivier, who played Zeus. Do you wish you'd had that opportunity earlier?
RH: Not necessarily. We never had so-called stars in our films before, but we had many competent actors who were just as good. But who else could play Zeus besides Laurence Olivier? I know Charlton Heston had played God, but we couldn't afford him. MGM wanted [Olivier] to have a cameo, so I'm grateful for that, because I think he added enormously to the film. They have marvelous actors here [in England]. They've all had a lot of stage experience. They feel much more convincing than in America, where they don't look quite at home in a toga.
AVC: In your book, you say that you have ideas for creatures—some of which you've been carrying around in your head for decades—that never found the right film.
RH: There were several—I was much luckier than Willis O'Brien. I had some pictures collapse or disintegrate before they reached production. But Obie had [that happen to] so many pictures—his War Eagles and Gwangi and several others. He wanted to do one on whales, and he couldn't get that off the ground. I've been much luckier than he was, in that I got to do at least 15, 16 feature films.
AVC: Have you had ideas for films that you'd like today's filmmakers to try to pick up and complete?
RH: Sometimes, yes. I think I've listed them in the back of the book of An Animated Life.
AVC: One that you mention in the book is Force Of The Trojans, which was planned to be your next project after Clash Of The Titans.
RH: That was Greek mythology, yes. I don't know what happened. MGM made quite a profit on Clash Of The Titans, and we thought Force Of The Trojans would go through there. But apparently the public's tastes turned to other types of films.
AVC: Do you think stop-motion animation has qualities that CGI can't duplicate?
RH: There's a strange quality in stop-motion photography, like in King Kong, that adds to the fantasy. If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to the mundane. In Kong, you knew he wasn't real, but he looked like a nightmare, you know? He acted real, and the dinosaurs looked real. But there was something about them that had a magic that you don't quite get yet in CGI.