Following the sad news about the death Ray Harryhausen, one of cinema’s finest animators, we were honoured to be invited to his home in 2005 to interview him about his book ‘An Animated Life’, which had just been released.
Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc: We’ve been watching lots of your films recently and still marvel at the animation, wondering ‘How did he do that?’ Your films still hold up even today. We saw Jason and the Argonauts in the cinema about 8-9 years ago.
Ray Harryhausen: On the big screen?
C&M: And there were some children in the audience who, when the skeletons appeared, leaped on the chairs waving magazines as though they were imaginary swords. They loved it.
Ray Harryhausen: 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.
C&M: You were part of the LA Science Fiction League.
Ray Harryhausen: Yes, very early way back when it started in the 30’s. That’s where I met Ray Bradbury and Forrest Ackerman.
C&M: What sort of activities did you get up to?
Ray Harryhausen: 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.
C&M: You’re a lifelong friend of Ray Bradbury and we believe that The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was based on a short story of his.
Ray Harryhausen: 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.
C&M: That was the closest you came to collaborating together?
Ray Harryhausen: 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. Those were the good old days.
C&M: Did you ever become close to realising this?
Ray Harryhausen: No, we never actually got to work together. Except indirectly on The Beast. But we both had such an intense interest in dinosaurs. 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.
C&M: Your science fiction films also looked to former times – you’ve made films based on the works of Jules Verne and HG Wells.
Ray Harryhausen: The First Man in the Moon. That was the closest. I tried to get a Wells story off the ground right after Mighty Joe Young – War 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.
C&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.
Ray Harryhausen: 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 10,0000 people pulling a big stone up a hill.
C&M: I suppose in your own way you’ve put up buildings yourself, albeit to scale – with all the models you’ve made.
Ray Harryhausen: 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.
C&M: You’ve just finished the Tortoise and the Hare.
Ray Harryhausen: Yes, I finished that after 50 years. 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 in 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. 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.
C&M: It feels as though these days Hollywood has money to throw at projects but not time.
Ray Harryhausen: They’ve got no imagination because they keep remaking things. Of course, they say there are only seven possibilities of drama.
C&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?
Ray Harryhausen: 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&M: There are few technical questions we’d like to ask because a lot of people focus on the animation which is of course astonishingly good, but there are other elements to film than simply the 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.
Ray Harryhausen: The creaking? (laughs)
C&M: 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.
Ray Harryhausen: It helps brings things to life.
C&M: And were you involved with the creation of the sound?
Ray Harryhausen: In the studio system you have the sound effects department. They make up two or three sounds then we pick out the one we feel fits. 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.
C&M: Which is your favourite creature?
Ray Harryhausen: 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.
C&M: That leads on to the next question – which was the most challenging creature?
Ray Harryhausen: Seven skeletons (Jason and the Argonauts) took four months to do that five minute 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.
C&M: Which film was your personal favourite?
Ray Harryhausen: I think Jason’s the most complete. Sometimes we had to compromise terribly because of the weather. 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 can sit and wait for a cloud to be just in the right place for that particular shot. We had to shoot – rain or dry. Most of our films were all very low budget. I wanted to put impressive visuals on the screen so it didn’t look like it was made by Republic pictures or something.
C&M: They still do inspire people.
Ray Harryhausen: I’m so grateful that they do. When I go to these conventions a whole family of three 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. I think so many films today leave a negative impression. I don’t like to go to a film and come out hating my fellow man. Every film seems to have you only solving your differences with 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&M: It still has a sense of wonder.
Ray Harryhausen: We tried to keep that. The more spectacular images you see put on the screen with CGI – even for a 30 second commercial you see the most amazing images – these used to be unique. Now the amazing image is mundane.
C&M: There’s less soul in a computer generated image. You were manipulating the creatures by hand.
Ray Harryhausen: 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&M: When you look at your films, there’s a sense of personality that you get in all the creatures and you engage with what is happening on the screen. Because you’re believing in the story and characters and you believe in the creature you’re seeing. In films nowadays you may see something that looks photographically realistic at any moment, but it’s spectacle rather than something fantastical or wondrous to look at.
Ray Harryhausen: 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 four pictures for us. Miklós Rózsa who did Golden Voyage. Jerome Moross did Gwanji. 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 when the budget couldn’t afford it we used to use canned music. In as much as the films are visual. Some of the pictures today don’t have a continuity.
C&M: 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…
Ray Harryhausen: Pseudo-intellectual, yes. They try to make it look good as intellectual.
C&M: …Or they have a prime concept which suddenly gets greenlit and they throw lots of money at it, but they haven’t completed a script. So they start to make a film and do the effects, but all they’ve decided upon is the basic premise and the effects and they write a script while they’re making the film.
Ray Harryhausen: 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.
C&M: Your storyboards are very detailed – works of art in themselves.
Ray Harryhausen: It’s very important. My drawings influenced art directors and influenced everybody down the line. 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&M: These days you often don’t have cinematic art, you have movies. Studios are now 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 everything feels increasingly corporate.
Ray Harryhausen: That shows. People don’t emphasise that today. Something happens with stop motion that I’ve always felt 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 a dream. You lose that if you try to make things too real, for a fantasy. Then the spectacular becomes mundane.
C&M: Of all your unrealised projects is there another film you would have loved to have made, a story that never was?
Ray Harryhausen: I wanted to make Dante’s Inferno at one point. 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 my book there’s a long listing of films never realised.
C&M: Sinbad on Mars sounded brilliant!
Ray Harryhausen: (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, 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.
C&M: Thank you so much. Good luck with the book.
Ray Harryhausen: 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?
This interview was originally published in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.