Home » OldThings » BSFA » An Interview with Ray Harryhausen

An Interview with Ray Harryhausen

Some people judge a film by who directed it. Others look out for who stars in it. Even though special effects and the promise of spectacle saturate the summer blockbuster schedule it is rare for people to choose to see a film on the basis of the person who created the effects. Partly this is a product of the huge production teams required to realise the impressive, but often faceless “money shots” that are required to sate the appetite of short attention span thrill-seekers – ILM, Hue and Cry etc are all corporate faces of the multi-million effects business. But one man has always managed to draw audiences on the basis of his effects work – Ray Harryhausen, creature creator extraordinaire and producer of some of the most memorable and loved scenes in fantasy cinema. He is the man who put the “special” into special effects. His name was a guarantee of a quality film, even when the restricted budgets did not range as far as A-list actors. Who can forget the giant crab in Mysterious Island, the Selenites of First Men in the Moon, the Cyclops in Seventh Voyage of Sinbad or the plethora of creatures and gods in Jason and the Argonauts? At last the whole story of Harryhausen’s wonderful creations is told in Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life. We were delighted to have the opportunity to talk with Mr Harryhausen over coffee and cookies, surrounded by bronze statues of his most famous scenes – a tribute to Willis O’Brien in the shape of a King Kong sculpture in full wrestling mode and, looking somewhat artificial amongst all this wonder, a special Oscar™ for his contribution to cinema. We discussed his films, his influences, dinosaurs, science fiction fandom in the 1930’s and the state of special effects today. Along the way there was even time to debunk the auteur theory of film criticism.

Mitch & Colin: Congratulations on your book.

Ray Harryhausen: Well thank you, we launched it at the NFT. It was a big success. More people bought it than we even imagined.

C: One of the things we had wanted to ask was about how some of your extraordinary creations came to be and how you achieved your special effects, but then we realised we didn’t have to.

RH: It’s all in the book!

C: We’ve been watching some of your films recently and still wonder “How did he do that?” They still hold up even today. We saw Jason and the Argonauts in the cinema about 8-9 years ago.

RH: On the big screen?

C: And there were some children in the audience who at the time the skeletons appeared, they were on the chairs waving magazines as though they were imaginary swords. They loved it.

RH: I hope we haven’t created some delinquents! Many of the modern pictures will. There’s got to be a generation of delinquents with some of the modern picture. Some people promote a picture by telling you it’s obnoxious.

M: We’re here on behalf of the BSFA. One thing we thought was very interesting when we read the book was that you were part of the LA Science Fiction League.

RH: Yes, very early way back when it started in the 30’s. That’s where I met Ray Bradbury and Forrest Ackerman.

M: What sort of activities did you get up to?

RH: We had meetings every Thursday night at the Clifton’s cafeteria down in Los Angeles, the Little Brown Room I think it was called. We had people who were interested in Egyptology; we had people who were experimenting with rockets. We had a variety – it was a little group who got together to talk about space platforms and going to the moon and Mars. When we came out people – shall we say normal people – thought we were a little peculiar.

M&C: I think that still happens now!

M: You’re a lifelong friend of Ray Bradbury and I believe that The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was based on a short story of his.

RH: Well it was a short story, it wasn’t big enough for the whole picture. The lighthouse sequence was the main thing taken from this.

M: That was the closest you ever came to collaborating together?

RH: Yes, we used to talk on the telephone, for hours when it only cost 5 cents. He used to say “I wanted to write the greatest dinosaur story” and I’d say “Good, well I’ll animate it” We’d talk about plots and things, but those were the good old days.

M: Did you ever become close to realising this?

RH: No, we never actually got to work together. Except indirectly on the Beast. But we both had such an intense interest in dinosaurs.

M: Was it dinosaurs that attracted you to the fantasy/science fiction genre?

RH: I never cared much for the future frankly, because it ends blowing each other out of the universe. It doesn’t look very attractive to me. I like to look to the past – legends and concepts like that. I got tired of destroying cities. I destroyed New York and Rome and I destroyed San Francisco. It got repetitious, so I latched on to the legends, like Sinbad, which I thought would open a whole new avenue, and it did. The next step was Greek mythology.

M: Your science fiction films also looked to former times – you’ve made films based on the works of Jules Verne and HG Wells.

RH: The First Man in the Moon. That was the closest. I tried to get a Wells story off the ground right after Mighty Joe YoungWar of the Worlds – but unfortunately no one was interested. I did eight big drawings and kicked them around Hollywood for years. Jesse Lasky Senior, who founded Paramount, he was interested and had them for 6 months, but nothing came of it. George Pal did a modern version of it. I wanted to keep it in the Victorian period, as Wells wrote it. We wanted to do that with the First Men in the Moon – we didn’t want to modernise it. But Nigel Kneale came up with the idea of a prologue where a present day rocket discovers that someone landed on the moon in the Victorian age.

M: It was a great idea. What’s also fascinating is the machine that went to the moon – the way it landed on the surface was very similar to the way the Mars Pathfinder Mission landed. They basically had a great big inflatable ball that bounced across the surface until it came to a stop.

RH: Well I tried to stick to Wells’s description of this contraption. It sounds so practical to have something that would alleviate gravity but I don’t think anybody knows it. I think the ancients must have known it. All this discussion about how they built the pyramids – moving giant blocks from one place to another. they must have known something about how to alleviate gravity. I don’t see 10,000 people pulling a big stone up a hill.

C: I suppose in your own way you’ve put up buildings yourself, albeit to scale – with all the models you’ve made.

RH: Well I built the house for Hansel and Gretel, from my early fairy tales. I build it out of real cookies and real candy. I didn’t want to have to cast it. I went to the market to get cookies and candy and glued them on the basic structure of the house. I stored them in the garage after the film and pretty soon they were all eaten away by mice.

RH: I hope to put a DVD out of my Fairy Tales.

C: We’ve been wanting to ask you about those. They look fabulous.

RH: I want to put them all out. They’ve been on the market for years, but mostly to schools. But the black market was taking over too which destroyed them.

C: In some respects a nice DVD edition negates the need for a black market.

RH: They were all dupes of dupes. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.

M: You’ve just finished the Tortoise and the Hare.

RH: Yes, I finished that after 50 years.

M: The tortoise finally crossed the finishing line.

RH: That was the last. I was doing a series of six, and I started and had shot four minutes of animation and then my features came along and I never went back to them. Two young men wrote to me and told me they’d like to finish the picture and I saw some of their work and decided to loan them the puppets and they finished it their spare time in their garage, just as I started out. I don’t think you can tell where one left off. They studied my technique. I rewrote the script and directed it by telephone but they did all the work and they did a marvellous job. We’re having another premiere in Bradford.

C: Do you think that makes it the longest film production in the history of film-making?

RH: For a 10 minute film, 50 years in the making. Of course it was in limbo for a good few years.

The film business was a lot of fun and I’m glad I got in on it even though it was the last of the Golden age of Hollywood. I’m grateful. It was a different business than it is today. I’m amazed when I look at the credits at the end of modern films – 80 people doing the special effects.

M: It feels as though these days Hollywood has money to throw at projects, but not time.

RH: They’ve got no imagination because they keep remaking things. But then of course they say there are only seven possibilities of drama.

M: How involved were you within the whole filmmaking process? You used to work alone when you were doing the animation, but would have had a lot of involvement with the scripting and shooting.

RH: People think I’m just a special effects man who was handed a script and told to put this on the screen. I was always involved with the writing right from the beginning. The director doesn’t know what I can do and our pictures were always on such tight budgets. I don’t like to use the word cheap. We tried to make them look more expensive than they actually were. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the whole picture only cost $200,000, you can hardly buy a costume today for that.

C: The catering budget for a week is more than that.

M: A lot of people focus on the animation, which is of course astonishingly good, but there are other elements to film than simply visual. Sound is an area that tends to get neglected, yet the sounds of your creatures are so distinctive – I can hear Talos even now.

RH: The creaking? (laughs)

C: And the Medusa’s rattle and the sound of the flying saucers in Earth vs the Flying Saucers. The sound is such an important element.

RH: It helps brings things to life.

M: And were you involved with the creation of the sound?

RH: In the studio system you have the sound effects department. They make up 2 or 3 sounds then we picked out the one we felt fitted. But most of them are so experienced they know pretty well when they see something on the screen it needs a certain type of sound so they go in that direction. Earth vs the Flying Saucers we shot in a sewage plant, so the sound effect you hear of the saucers is actually the goo of sewage going through the pipes. We don’t like to tell that, but in this age of vulgarity I don’t mind disclosing it.

M: Which is your favourite creature?

RH: I can’t have one because the others get jealous. I like the more complicated ones like the seven headed Hydra and the skeletons, Medusa. They were a big challenge. I guess those are the ones I most enjoyed animating.

M: That leads on to the next question – which was the most challenging creature.

RH: Seven skeletons (Jason and the Argonauts) took 4 months to do that 5 minutes sequence. Or rather put it together because it had a lot of cuts. You had to match the source and count every frame so the sound effects department could put in the crash of the swords.

M: Which film was your personal favourite?

RH: I think Jason’s the most complete but every other one has certain elements in it. Sometimes we had to compromise terribly because of weather, because you can’t get the people you want at that time. There are many compromises when you are making a low budget film. You have to. It’s not just like you read about where some directors who can sit and wait for a cloud to be just in the right place for that particular shot. We had to shoot in rain or dry. Most of our films were all very low budget. I wanted to put on the screen impressive visuals so it didn’t look like it was made by Republic pictures or something.

M: They still do inspire people.

RH: I’m so grateful that they do. When I go to these conventions a whole family of 3 generations will come up and say “my father saw your films and taught me to see them and I’m teaching my son,” he’ll probably teach his son. So I’m glad that Charles Schneer and I have left a positive impression. So many films today I think leave a negative impression. I don’t like to go to a film and come out hating my fellow man. But seeing some of these dreadful things. Every film seems to have you can only solve your differences by your fists or a gun. That’s terribly dangerous particularly with television brought right into your house. And people ignore this and that’s the whole reason why I think our society’s falling apart. Young people grow up without wanting a continuity of story. King Kong has the most perfect development of story. They took you by the hand from the mundane world of the Depression and brought you to a world of fantasy that was outrageous. Really, for its time.

C: It still has a sense of wonder.

RH: We tried to keep that. The more spectacular images you see put on the screen with CGI they even for a 30 second commercial you see the most amazing images. They used to be unique. Now the amazing image is mundane.

M: There’s less soul in a computer generated image, because so many people are involved. You were manipulating the creatures by hand.

RH: Yes we tried to put ourselves in. When you’re animating say, Mighty Joe, you have to sit on the floor and go through the motions with a stopwatch. You try to put yourself in the place of the creature.

C: When you look at your films, there’s still a sense of personality that you get in all the creatures and you engage with what is happening on the screen. Because you believe in the story and characters and you believe in the creature you’re seeing. In films nowadays you see something that looks photographically real at any moment, but it just seems to be a cinema of attractions where there’s spectacle rather than something fantastical or wondrous to look at.

RH: Well we tried to put a simple story in all our films and many times the critics criticised us – our stories were too simplistic but you can’t put a complicated story in a fantasy. It’s mainly visual. That’s why music was so important and we had some of the best composers to do our scores. Bernard Herrmann fit our pictures beautifully He did 4 pictures for us. Miklós Rózsa who did Golden Voyage [of Sinbad]. Jerome Moross did [The Valley of] Gwangi. Laurence Rosenthal did Clash of the Titans. All musicians who have wonderful imaginations, and fit the image, the audio image to the visuals. And that is a lost art today. You see so many films where the music just goes merrily on and has no relationship to what you’re looking at on the screen. We tried to get the best imaginative musicians. Sometimes the budget couldn’t afford it we used to use canned music a lot. In as much as the films are visuals, they really start from my drawings because today the plots… do you understand some of the pictures today.. they don’t have a continuity.

C: There are two problems these days. If the studios think that a film is too basic they throw lots of extraneous plot in to try and make it look as though it’s clever…

RH: Pseudo-intellectual, yes. They try to make it look good as intellectual.

C: …Or they have a prime concept which suddenly gets greenlit and they throw lots of money at it, but they haven’t actually got a completed script. So they start to make a film and do the effects, because all they’ve decided upon is the basic premise and the effects and they write a script while they’re making the film.

RH: And that’s very costly. We go out of our way to make our final script as close to what you see on the screen as possible.

M: Your storyboards are very detailed – works of art in themselves.

RH: It’s very important. My drawings influenced art directors and influenced everybody down the line that’s why many times. Our pictures are not what you’d call directed pictures in the European sense of the word. The director’s main job on our films was to get the best out of the actors and that’s not always that easy. In fact one critic said “Mr Harryhausen should have animated the actors.” It was very flattering to me but as for the actors… This was on some of our earlier films. We always tried to have very competent actors, Clash of the Titans was the only one where we had stars. Today the word star means nothing, every Tom, Dick and Harry off the street is suddenly called a star, just because he screams in a microphone. The word has no meaning nowadays. The word art has no meaning. When they give somebody £25000 to cut a cow in half, God made the cow, all they did was freeze it and cut it in half. And they call it conceptual art. It’s ridiculous.

C: Your work is very much cinematic art. Nowadays you don’t have cinematic art, you have movies. Part of it’s down to the studios themselves being businesses. Hollywood was always there to make money, but the people at the top cared about what they were making in the Golden Age. Now it’s all corporate.

RH: That shows. People don’t emphasise that today. Something happens that I’ve always felt with stop motion that gives that fantasy dream quality to a film. With a subject like Sinbad or King Kong, even though the gorilla was kind of jerky compared with standards today it doesn’t matter, because it has that quality of dream. You lose that if you try to make things too real, for a fantasy. Then the spectacular becomes mundane.

M: Just one more question. Of all your unrealised projects is there another film you would have loved to have made, a story that never was.

RH: I wanted to make Dante’s Inferno at one point.

C: Now that would have been something.

RH: In the early days it would have involved censorship because you can’t go to hell with your clothes on. But I liked Gustave Dore’s drawings – I was very influenced by them, so I wanted to make Dante’s Inferno. When I got deeper into it I thought how can people sit through an hour and a half of tormented souls, writhing in torment. But today they sit through three hours of it. So I’ve never felt that going to pay £10 or whatever you have to pay today, to sit through somebody in the process of dying is very attractive. After all I think the film was made for fantasy. In the book there’s a long listing of films never realised.

M: Sinbad on Mars sounded brilliant!

C: You sold me on that one!

RH: (laughs) Everybody smiles whenever that gets mentioned. We had a unique way of getting him up there that would have been dramatic, but when he got up there we had two versions of the script and it turned out to be Ming the Merciless you know. Of course, destroying the world or wanting to rule the world and the writers couldn’t seem to get away from that. We never made the film.

M&C: Such a shame. Mr Harryhausen, thank you so much for your time. Good luck with the book.

RH: Thank you. I don’t know if it’ll ever get on the bestseller list as there’s no scandal in it – who’s interested in naked dinosaurs?