Modesty is a Dirty Word in Hollywood
An Interview with Ray Harryhausen
Interview by Dan Lybarger, 28 November 2003

For a fellow who made his name by working in isolation, stop-motion animation expert Ray Harryhausen knows how to work a crowd. Some of the cinema's most talented artists have difficulty describing their craft or meeting the people who love their work.

The eighty-three-year-old Harryhausen, however, loves to mingle with his fans and even sits through screenings of the films with them, whispering amusing behind-the-scenes stories to anyone lucky enough to be nearby.

Participants at last fall's Halfway to Hollywood Film Festival in Kansas City not only got to meet him and screen his films, but the faithful who hung around with him even got to meet his "coworkers." He shows us the skeleton swordsman who battled the heroes in his films The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). While it looked formidably life size on the big screen, it's only eight inches tall in person. The tiny figure has all the joints of a full size mass of bones. A more life-size alien from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers stands behind him as he signs autographs for a long line of admirers.

Ever since he saw King Kong as a boy, the Los Angeles native has been following in the footsteps of Willis O'Brien, who made the puppet gorilla and dinosaurs come to life in that film. After teaming up with his idol on Mighty Joe Young (1949), Harryhausen made a splash with a resurrected dinosaur in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). The animator then teamed up with producer for Charles H. Schneer for a series of Cold War chillers like It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).

After that the two began to take Harryhausen's creatures into newer, fantastic settings. They used material as diverse as Greek mythology (Clash of the Titans from 1981) and Jules Verne (The Mysterious Island from 1961).

Clash of the Titans may have been his last feature with his stunning artificial creatures, but his recent years have been far from idle. Alert members of the audience during Elf will hear his voice coming from the mouth of an animated polar bear cub. He's also completed a project that he had started decades before. The twelve-minute short, The Story of the Tortoise and the Hare, has been completed with the help of Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh and has become popular on the film festival circuit and gained the master animator a whole new generation of fans.

While Harryhausen's recent work has kept him in the spotlight, his classic films have inspired some of today's top filmmakers, even if they don't use his unique methods. In Monsters, Inc., Mike (Billy Crystal) eats at a sushi bar called "Harryhausen's," and Robert Rodriguez gave the computer-generated creatures in Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams a more stylized movement so they would carry themselves like the creatures in Harryhausen's films.

Ever the gentleman, he took the time to shake hands with his fans even during the middle of the interview. Maybe part of the reason that happy geeks like me still flock to meet him at events like these is because he treats them as seriously he does his craft.

Dan Lybarger: I got an e-mail from Mark Caballero. I found out about the Tortoise and the Hare project that you'd been working on. That started about fifty years ago, didn't it?

Ray Harryhausen: The first part, yeah, was. I started it fifty years ago and then abandoned it, and then Mark and Seamus [Walsh] wrote me and said they'd like to finish it. They saw Richard Schickel's program [The Harryhausen Chronicles], and there was an excerpt of some of the footage that I'd shoot. So, they finished it, and everybody seems to like it.

DL: Yeah, you won an Annie [the top award in animation] for it 

RH: We won an Annie award and several other types of awards.

DL: I loved the joke where you said that if you had seen the Dino De Laurentiis King Kong you'd have [become] a plumber.

RH: That's a little exaggerated.

DL: What was it about [the original] King Kong?

RH: There were many things about King Kong. I think it's the definitive, greatest fantasy film that's ever been put on the screen. It was way ahead of its time, and it first they put a written score for a fantasy film by Max Steiner. That made it all the more impressive. Willis O'Brien, of course, had done The Lost World before that, and King Kong was his great triumph and for Merian Cooper, who produced it.

DL: Whereas some parents would say, "Oh, I wish you could get obsessed with accounting or something."

RH: I could have been obsessed with Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson and become a Godfather today. I got obsessed with King Kong because it was a wonderful fantasy. It took you by the hand from the mundane world into the most outrageous fantasy that's ever been put on the screen.

DL: Your father not only bought you a camera but later in your career your father built the armatures for the creatures. Your mom even dressed them.

RH: Yes, they were very cooperative. They didn't see an end in sight, nor did I. But I just felt it was a compulsion. I had to do it. Maybe the fickle finger of fate was at work.

DL: As a high school kid, and through Mr. O'Brien's niece, you were able to meet him. Was it intimidating to show him these little things you had done?

RH: I was a little nervous about it, but I had just won a prize at the museum for a stegosaurus setting that I had made in miniature. I put the animal in the suitcase and took it down to M-G-M when he invited me to see War Eagle's [an uncompleted O'Brien] preparation. I showed it to him, and he was very courteous about it. He didn't tell me, 'It stinks." [laughs]

DL: A friend of mine who does computer graphics told me some of the same things that Willis O'Brien told you, that you have to study anatomy.

RH: He said the legs of my stegosaurus looked like sausages, which they did. So he said, 'You'd better study anatomy." So I went back to school and studied anatomy. Now all my figures look like Arnold Schwarzenegger [laughs].

DL: You also worked with George Pal. Did you work on the Puppetoons?

RH: I worked on the first twelve Puppetoons. George, when he first came over from Paramount, I was the only other animator he had hired for quite a while, and then he finally hired some more. He and I used to work at nights until twelve sometimes trying to get a sequence into the laboratory before it closed. And then he finally got some more animators involved.

DL: The Puppetoons had fairy tale stories because they were public domain, is that correct?

RH: The fairy tales came after the War [World War II]. They were drafting people at the time, so I figured I should sign up for something where I knew what I was doing. So I took a course in photography that Columbia Pictures and Eastman Kodak were sponsoring to be a combat cameraman. I didn't realize they were shot like clay pigeons, so I studied to be a combat cameraman. Thank God, I didn't end up that way. I did make a little 16 mm film that lasts about five minutes about building a bridge, how you could use animation to instruct soldiers. My teacher at Kodak saw it, and he showed it to Frank Capra, and I got transferred to the Special Service Division.

Frank Capra was just starting this Why We Fight series, and various other films, Nuts and Bolts, Army Navy Screen Magazine, that type of thing and [Private] Snafu cartoons. Also at our post was Ted Geisel, Dr. Seuss. I made some Snafu characters for him.

DL: When did you first start working for O'Brien to do Joe Young?

RH: That was after the War in 1945. Obie started preparing it. I kept calling him up and showing him my recent footage, and not many people were interested in animation at that time. Finally, when he got the go-ahead to start the preparation, I became his assistant until it was time to do the animation, which was much later. There was about a year of preparation on that picture.

DL: One of the things that keeps popping up as I've been studying you is stuff was not something like, "Oh, I can just whip this out."

RH: Oh, no, no. We had a whole year of preparation. Obie made hundreds of drawings, and I mounted them for him and labeled them. And he made continuity drawings. We made so much preparation people don't realize.

DL: Now when you were working with Mr. Schneer, you were producing about thirteen frames [of animation footage] a day? [Standard film speed is twenty-four frames per second.]

RH: That was just a rarity for the skeleton sequence [from Jason and the Argonauts] where you had split timing and synchronization to worry about. And I only averaged thirteen frames a day for while. Sometimes you can shoot twenty-five feet a day. Sometimes, it depends on the character and how complicated the scene is.

DL: The Cyclops scene in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad must have been a real challenge because it's striking how well you were able to let us know he's been blinded. How did you model those movements because you can instantly tell?

RH: I just felt that setup was the way it should be. Because everything you see in that picture is the first take. I never had time or money to do a retake. We made the picture for $650,000, the whole picture.

DL: Even then that was microscopic.

RH: Even then, but today you can't even buy a costume for that.

DL: One of things that really struck me was how well Kerwin Mathews [who played Sinbad] handled the battle scenes. He must have been a hell of an actor because he has to recoil from blows he hasn't received.

RH: That's an actor's job. They have to use their imagination, and he was very proficient 

DL: He seemed to have a consistent view for how big this thing was.

RH: We rehearsed the whole thing with somebody like Enzo Musumeci [Greco], who was a swordsman who taught Kerwin how to do the sword sequences. And I would work with Enzo, and we'd lay out the scene, and he would portray the skeleton all during rehearsal. After a while, after they had rehearsed about seven or eight times, we shot a piece of film of Kerwin "shadowboxing" so to speak. That's the piece of film I would use to put the skeleton.

DL: You were in the remake of Mighty Joe Young.

RH: As an actor, a much simpler way to live [laughs].

DL: Were you happy with the way they treated it?

RH: Well, it was a different concept. Everybody has a different point of view. The first Joe Young was more or less a send up of the King Kong type of film. Max O'Hara [played by Robert Armstrong] was Merian Cooper, and he was the pivot point of the whole picture, but these people felt they wanted to make [the theme] animal conservation so they changed the whole concept. I thought it was a well-made film, but I didn't think it was suitable for the subject. Mighty Joe Young was basically a theatrical concept rather than a serious thing like animal conservation.

DL: You have an edge over the people who do the computer stuff. They always say that they have to think "what kind of surface is this?" or "how is it worn?" Much of that's already there [in your films].

RH: But I had to learn how sculpt because I couldn’t find anybody. I couldn't afford to hire anybody. So I had to learn how to sculpt. I had to learn how to make the molds. I learned so many different things in order to achieve what I did. I was a one-man show. I never had assistance until Clash of the Titans. We got behind because of a technical problem.

DL: You had a hand in selecting locations.

RH: I always went out and found the locations because they involved special effects enormously, so I'd go out and find the locations before anybody else came.

DL: I thought it was cool that you were adamant about getting a location in Spain versus a backlot.

RH: We wanted something completely different. It was another reason we fled to Europe to get fresh locations. You can't keep using Malibu Beach as a lost island.

DL: In the later [films], you shared a producer credit with Mr. Schneer, but you had done much more than just the effects [in the others as well].

RH: I did nothing more than when I started out with Mighty Joe Young, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. I did the same thing until Clash of the Titans. In those days, I was very modest, and I didn't learn for good many years that "modesty" is a dirty word in Hollywood.  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.