This is my 2003 interview with animation legend at the 2003 Wonderfest. My daughter accompanied me on the trip. This occurred the year before her ATV accident. She is pictured below with Mr. Harryhausen.
I have a wish list of filmmakers and actors I’d love to be able to talk with: Christopher Lee, Clint Eastwood, Brian De Palma, and Gregory Peck. Before this past weekend, the number-two name on that list would have been master of stop-motion animation Ray Harryhausen. Thanks to Lee Staton and the great folks who put on “Wonderfest 2003,” I was able to get some face-to-face time with Mr. Harryhausen. The six-hour drive through a raging thunderstorm was a small price to pay to meet one the greatest artists in the history of film.
For those of you who only know dinosaurs and mythical beasts through the wonder of CGI, Ray Harryhausen is the greatest stop-motion animator who ever lived. Purists may say that Harryhausen mentor Willis O’Brien (King Kong) was greater, but I disagree. While “King Kong” is the greatest film of the genre, Harryhausen’s talents and innovations far surpassed those of Mr. O’Brien.
Ray Harryhausen is now 82. While he is spry for a man his age, the hectic schedule at “Wonderfest 2003” limited the one-on-one time I had with him. I waited several hours for Mr. Harryhausen’s autograph session to end so that I could speak with him. Gino Sassani, a DVD critic for UpComingDiscs.com was also waiting. Though I was first in line for an interview, I didn't know how much or little time we would get with Mr. Harryhausen, so I suggested Gino and I combine our time. Ray sat down with us for a short period between the autograph session and his next speaking engagement. What follows is that interview. Following our interview with Ray are excerpts from his Q&A with the audience at “Wonderfest 2003” used with Mr. Harryhausen’s permission.
Gino Sassani: 20 Million Miles to Earth. The name of the beast was Ymir, of course it never appears in the film. Is that something that appeared in the script or that someone decided?
Ray Harryhausen: I originally devised the Ymir. It started as Norse mythology. I started the story, and Charlotte and I collaborated on it. In those days I was very modest, and I didn’t realize that modesty in Hollywood was a dirty word. I didn’t take credit for it, but the original story was based on my 20-page outline. Charlotte and I collaborated on it. So I gave her full credit.
GS: What was the name of the outline.
RH: The outline? It first took place in Chicago. When I originated the story. Then, I wanted a trip to Italy, so I changed the location when I submitted it to Columbia. I had always wanted to go to Europe and I didn’t have the money. So, I changed the location to Sicily because I wanted to go to Rome. So, it happened. I sold the story to Charles. Charlotte and I got most of the money and I got the job of doing the special effects.
GS: What about the design of the Ymir?
RH: The design of the Ymir went through many different stages, first he was a cyclops, then he was a two-horned, with two eyes. Oh, he was very stout originally. Then I decided that he would be better off thin. So I made him more humanoid.
Rusty White: I think it one of the more personal monsters you have created. The audience feels sympathy for him
RH: It’s hard to derive sympathy for an animal, so I tried to make it semi-human.
RW: It’s like in “King Kong,” you feel bad. There are some monsters, “Aliens” for example, where you want them to be killed, but with Ymir, you shed a tear.
RH: Yeah. That’s what we wanted. To get some sympathy for him. When he was so gross in his original design, you just couldn’t get that type of sympathy out of him.
GS: Did you also design the interiors of the space ship, or did you only deal with the stop motion?
RH: No, I designed the whole this, and I did all of the stop motion myself. See, I’m not just handed a script and told to put the special effects onto the screen. I work with the writer as well. We had a writer come in and a make about five or six, maybe eight big drawing, projection drawings of the highlights and the writer writes those in. Of course they become…everyone thinks the writer thought those up. That has happened on every picture. On “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad,” I originated that story. Of course the writer gets all the credit. He ties it all together. That was a big mistake in my early career, to not have more of an ego to say, “I did it!” But as I said, I was modest in those days.
RW: If the writers showed up a convention like this, they wouldn’t draw these types of crowds. These are your movies.
RH: I’m not demeaning their contribution, because their job was to tie that all together. Many times they would devise a new situation. But these stories were developed through Charles Schneer (Harryhausen’s longtime producer). I would bring him a 20-page outline. He would hire a professional writer. He would submit 10 pages and the three of us would tear it apart. Most of the stories are based on my drawings, because only I know what I can do. It’s not what you would call a director’s picture in the European sense of the word. I’m involved in everything. I even have to go out and help sell the picture. But I didn’t pay much attention in my early days to the business side of it. I should have. I could have been a millionaire by now! (laughs)
GS: It Came From Beneath the Sea.
RH: That started with Charles Schneer. He first contacted me. He wanted to have a giant octopus after he saw “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.” So he said, he’d like to go over some of the areas of America to tear down. Stop-motion in that period, unfortunately was only noted for monster pictures, you know, invading the city. After “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms,” Tokyo got in on it and had “Godzilla” destroying Tokyo, which is the same as “The Beast.” So, I was trying to devise a new way to develop stop-motion, so I latched onto the Sinbad stories, because that was the personification of adventure. That led later to Greek mythology.
I remember growing up with Maria Montez pictures where they talked about the Roc, the talked about the Cyclops, and you never saw it on the screen. It was mainly a girly show, or a cops-and-robbers in baggy pants.
GS: You had some budget concerns on this film. That’s why the octopus was missing a couple of tentacles.
RH: It was a sextapus. If we had cut the budget any more it would have been a tripod!
RW: I hear you spent a lot of time in a bread truck doing some surreptitious filmmaking.
RH: The city fathers had to give permission to film there. We sent the script to San Francisco and the city fathers said they didn’t want to have public confidence in the Golden Gate bridge destroyed by having the bridge pulled down by an octopus. So they didn’t give us permission to operate, so had to get our shots the best way we could. Through devious means.
RW: You’re the grandfather of the indie film movement, with the guerilla filmmaking style.
RH: Yeah! (laughs)
GS: So you shot from a bread truck?
RH: Yeah. We got some projection plates made by going back and forth over the bridge with the cameras shooting out of the back of a bakery truck. But we couldn’t have a big crew there, we had to do it by other means. I won’t go into detail. The city fathers might sue!
GS: Sounds like you made them famous instead.
RH: I think I did.
RW: I was curious, you met Willis O’Brien in high school. As far as the armatures (the skeleton for the animation models) are concerned, learning how to build them for the models, did you learn from him or Marcel Delgado (O’Brian’s model maker)?
RH: No, I just did it by experiment. My first armatures were wooden with ball-and-socket joints. I got beads from a store and made ball sockets. But they would ratchet. The first cave bear I did had a wooden armature. It would ratchet, and you couldn’t move it and it wouldn’t stay in one place. It would shutter and go a little further than I wanted. So I never got very smooth animation out of it. But later on, I got better. I used to go to ‘The Pep Boys’ and get the rear view mirror sockets and use those for the armatures.
RW: Manny, Moe and Jack in the movies!
RH: Manny, Moe and Jack! Back in the early days.
EI: Speaking of Marcel Delgado. You obviously saw “King Kong” when it was first released. Growing up, I always heard stories about the famous ‘spider scene.’ Did you ever see that scene? Do you know if the scene was actually filmed or if there were just still photos.
RH: No. I didn’t see it. Ray Bradbury is the only one I know who claims he saw it in Arizona at a preview. He said he is sure he saw it. I haven’t heard of it surfacing. I think the negative must have been destroyed.
GS: There are some stills of the spider.
RH: Oh yes. It was actually shot, but Merian Cooper thought it slowed the process down and it was a little too gruesome.
GS: It really explains a lot in the film, because when they fall down, it almost takes away some of that drama.
RH: Yeah, that’s what he felt, so he cut it out after the first preview. So Ray may have seen the first preview.
At this point, Mr. Harryhausen had to leave to make an appearance at the Award Ceremony for the “Wonderfest 2003” modeling competition.
Below are excerpts from the moderator and audience Q&A with Ray Harryhausen on day one of “Wonderfest 2003.” I was in the audience, but did not contribute any of the questions.
On his inspiration to become an animator:
RH: I saw “King Kong” in 1933 before most of you were born. I haven’t been the same since. That shows you how important film can effect a person. I often pride myself in not latching on to Edward G. Robinson in “Little Caesar” or might be a Godfather today! I think films at that time were very potent and really affected people’s lives. Today you are so inundated with films that they are no longer a unique experience as they were back in the 30s, 40s and 50s.
On the presentation of vintage films:
The presentation was awesome. Sid Grauman was a great showman, he owned Grauman’s Chinese Theater. My aunt happened to work for his mother as a nurse when she was an invalid. He gave my aunt three tickets to see this strange film called “King Kong,” and I haven’t been the same since. That’s what happened to me. I always attributed it to a gorilla. I didn’t know how it was done at first. There were no books on stop-motion. It was all kept quite secret. A lot of misleading articles finally came out. About a year or two afterwards I discovered the glories of stop-motion animation.
On meeting Willis O’Brien:
When I was still in high school, I can’t remember the date. We had a study period in high school and I saw this girl across the way with a big book, a script of “King Kong” all highly illustrated, and I almost fell off my chair. So I went over to see her and talk about it. She said her father worked with O’Brien and that he was making a film, preparing a film called “War Eagles” at MGM. She said “Call him up and he’ll talk to you.” So I called him up and he kindly invited me down to MGM to see their preparations for “War Eagles.” There were not many people in those days who were interested in stop-motion, or even knew about it. So I guess he thought I was rather unique, and he invited me down there. So, I brought some of my models to show him. I was awestruck by the preparation for “War Eagles.” It’s a pity it wasn’t made at that time. Then the War came along and Merian Cooper went into “Flying Tigers” and the whole picture collapsed.
On “War Eagle” models:
They were mostly paintings and illustrations. He had three offices with about a half a dozen artists painting pictures and sketching drawings in various stages. I often wondered what happened to all those wonderful drawings. I guess MGM finally chucked them into the furnace. I remember Miklos Rozsa told me that all his wonderful scores that he did for MGM, the orchestrations were all chucked into the furnace. They should have been given to a college archive. Such is life. Hollywood has never had the respect for its past as they seem to have now.
On his WWII service and how animation saved his life:
I signed up. I was very naïve in those days. Still am I suppose. I felt I should sign up for something I could do, so I signed up to be a combat camera man, not realizing they were shot like clay pigeons. I went through a school class at Columbia Studios and Eastman Kodak to learn all about 35mm, the hand camera and all that sort of thing, which was great experience. Then in my spare time, I made this film. Something told me, I think it was the fickle-finger-of –fate tapping on my shoulder and said, “make this film about bridge building.” So I started to do a lot of research and I bought some tanks and guns from the five-and-dime store and made this little three-minute film about how to bridge a gorge as a possible training film. My head professor showed it to Frank Capra and he got me transferred from the Signal Corp to the Special Services.
We made the “Why We Fight” and “Snafu” cartoons, “Nuts and Bolts” propaganda films all for the troops during the war.
I was still in the military when I made “Guadalcanal.” It was such an important episode in the history of the war that I thought I’d like to make a tribute to it. I did that. It took me many months, of course, in my spare time. I did it all in my garage. I shot it in 16mm.
I worked on the “Snafu” series. He was a little character “Situation Normal All Fouled Up.” Of course they used stronger words in the Army! He was a little character. Dr. Seuss was the commanding office in charge of the cartoon department. We laid out a few covers of “Yank” magazine of “Snafu.” Then he had a crew who laid it all out and they sent it to “Disney” or “Warner Brothers” or whoever actually made the animated version.
On his Fairy Tale animation:
The Navy had an office next to ours on Sunset Blvd. They threw out a 1,000 feet of outdated Kodachrome. I think it was only four or five months out of date. 1,000 feet I saw on the junk pile, so I retrieved it. It was in my garage for another six months. So finally I though “How can I use this up?” So I decided to make the Fairy Tales. I started with Mother Goose stories.
The films did very well. I showed George Pal some of my puppets when he started doing “Puppetoons” and I became one of his first employees. I spent two years with George Pal and I enjoyed it very much. I wasn’t too happy with his ‘replacement figures’ because so much of it was pre-animated. He would have a cartoonist come in and draw them out. They were heavily stylized. They had to be cubistic because they were cut out of wood. And the heads were turned on a lathe. They had lips that would form vowels. They had fifty heads used so they could speak: “a” “e” “i” “o” “u.” Four or five heads would go into each word. That got so complicated. So when I made my fairy tales, I just made extreme expressions and used an 8-frame dissolve in the camera from one head to the other. It gave them a personality that they wouldn’t have had they had a set, rigor mortis expression. Pal’s films were all very grand in their way, although they couldn’t compete with “Tom and Jerry.”
On the O’Brien/Harryhausen dinosaur scene in the lost film Animal World:
It was all tabletop miniatures. It was very simple, so we could use two cameras. So we got twice as much footage. (Producer) Irwin Allen was very cost conscious. I didn’t build the models. The armatures were designed by Willis O’Brien, but they built in the prop department. They looked a little rubbery; they never had the proper skin texture. It was just a six-week stint for O’Bie and I. We didn’t object too much because it was made on a shoestring.
There were some mechanical dinosaurs also. Irwin Allen liked to direct himself. He liked to have the animal open its mouth or blink their eyes while shooting at high speed. But he never interfered with my animation.
On animating in Cinemascope:
It was very difficult. If we'd had a lot of money to experiment with, we probably could have solved the problem. I tried rear project, miniature project which was the basis for stop-motion animation with a Cinemascope lens, but we got a pulsation and a hotspot in the middle. If we'd had the money to experiment, we could have solved it, but it wasn't worth the trouble. So I redesigned the whole thing for a traveling matte.
On the proposed upcoming remake of King Kong:
I understand that Peter Jackson wants to remake "King Kong." If anyone is the right person to remake it, Peter Jackson is the man. If I had seen the Dino De Laurentis version when I was a child, I'd probably be a plumber today!