Today's X, Y, and Z generations weaned on desktops, laptops, cell phones, PDAs, Mp3s, DVDs, MTV, 500 channel satellite TV, etc. etc. .... may not recognize the name of Ray Harryhausen as a household word, however, the motion picture industry which includes, directors, producers, actors, entertainment news media, etc., and in particular, those in the current special visual effects field, in which many are now working in today's dominate use of CGI techniques (computer special effects & animation), are well aware of him. Ray Harryhausen in the United States, can perhaps be credited or greatly contributed to the commercial use of the Stop Motion Animation technique in combination with his innovative use of good ol' classic special effects processes, and made it marketable as an entertainment package, presenting never before seen, fantasy surreal-photoreal visual images to movie theater audiences across the USA and worldwide. Many of the current artists & technicians today doing computer CGI special effects and animation have had some inspirational influence from the Master & Godfather, Ray Harryhausen. Sometimes I have said, "Before CGI became cool.....Ray was already Doing It ! "
The very beginning use of the Stop Motion Animation process is still in dispute and it possibly goes back to, as early as 1905. Stop Motion had some of its in genesis, overseas in Europe, where it was concurrently being explored. In the USA, another visual effects pioneer, Willis O'Brien, also experimented with Stop Motion around 1915 period doing various projects and 18 years later in 1933, O'Brien's major efforts and contribution was realized in a groundbreaking special effects epic, King Kong. That year, a young boy at the age of 13, named Raymond Harryhausen, saw the premier of King Kong at the Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, California. This one movie so strongly affected and mesmerized Ray and served as the pivotal motivation that directed the course of his future.
How many times have the press and media glamorized celebrities or public figures of all sorts as though their success and fame happened easily or quickly? Ray Harryhausen in the beginning had ups and downs and difficult times trying to market his unique brand of moving visual imagery creation. In Hollywood's early days .... studio's seemed just as close-minded or very myopic and could not see the potential of Ray's artistic & technical genius. Fortunately, as an only child, young Ray was strongly encouraged by his loving parents to pursue his dreams and both his dad & mom were also gifted in craft & technical skills and helped Ray in producing his early stop motion works. In Ray's day, there was virtually no information about Stop Motion .... he struggled by himself and eventually through his perceptive mind and detective work, he eventually figured out the details of the Stop Motion photography process. How easy it is for all you now, with today's overload of information, mass media, and internet saturation.
Ray was a trail blazer ..... sweat, dedication and perseverance in learning and refining his unique chosen path. Keep in mind that Ray was not the actual “Director” of his later, major feature films and he primarily served as the behind the scenes creative hands-on artist/technician and many times credited as producer. Nevertheless, the movie audiences identified these movies as Ray Harryhausen Films. In the newly released DVD set, Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection, you will get to see Ray’s very early work and experiments and see the progression in his creative skills and talents before he became well known with his later major film work.
A few weeks ago, I had the honor and pleasure in doing a phone interview with Ray Harryhausen. A Stop Motion colleague of mine, Tom Brierton also participated:
TB: Hi Ray! I have just seen The Early Years DVD and I was really impressed. I was wondering how long was the DVD in production and was The Tortoise and the Hare the impetus to undertake this project?
RH: As you may already know, one of the fairy tales included on the DVD was The Tortoise and the Hare. I started that in the 1950’s and then had to abandon that tale due to a feature project (It Came from Beneath the Sea), but some 50 years later in 2000 we undertook to complete T&H. It was a couple of fans, Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh who contacted me and said that they were very much interested in finishing it. I lost the original script so rewrote it and did some continuity designs and myself, Mark and Seamus modified it, as needed.
LIO: Hi Ray, this is Lionel ! I was wondering, in The Early Years DVD, there is a featurette about the making-of The Tortoise and the Hare. It was mentioned that you actually animated some new scenes? Nothing was mentioned about which shots you did, but could you possibly reveal to us for the first time which scenes you animated in T&H?
RH: It was a little hard to get back into it because the last time I did any extensive animation was almost 25 years ago in The Clash of the Titans. Yes, I did animate a few scenes in T&H.
LIO: Looking at T&H, all the animation looked seamless so I could not detect which shots you might have animated, however in the making-of featurette, I could have gotten some clues which shots you did!
RH: Well, don’t tell anyone, but what you saw on the DVD might have been deceptive! Now everyone is going to start analyzing and dissecting it!
LIO: Okay, I won't tell anyone!
TB: I was always impressed by the posing of your puppet characters in your feature movie work and including your early years works and shorts .... a dynamic quality. My question is ....Some animators prefer to walk around the stage and act out the movements and then other animators can see it in their mind’s eye. What is your process in preparing for the animation?
RH: It is a little mixture of both. In the early days when I started work on Mighty Joe Young, I use to have a canvas mat on the floor and I would take a stop watch and go through the gestures I had in mind, not to copy the movements but to get a rough idea, like how long it would take your hand to go from point A to point B. After you start getting experience though, you do not to need to use a stop watch as often and you begin to get an intuitive sense of the timing, movements and gestures.
LIO: In your Fairy Tales, I thought the animation of the little girls and the female characters were imbued with very childlike and feminine qualities. Did you act out the gestures and movements for these characters?
RH: Well, much of it I had in my mind’s eye from observation, however, I had a bit of experience by then and did not rely too much by timing it with a stop watch. You know, you observe little children, men and women .... how they pose while talking and listening to each other. You remember those things.
TB: You devoted so much work in your Fairy Tale shorts. If you had not gone into feature movie work, do you think you would have continued with the shorts?
RH: I don’t know. My mother thought, I might have gone into work as a commercial artist or something. I had to learn to draw to put my ideas on paper but I do prefer to sculpt, as I have an affinity for three dimensional things. I am just not sure what other work I possibly would have gone into. Perhaps it was just that “fickle finger of fate”. I did explore the possibility of going into television commercial work and on the DVD you will see a commercial test & examples. I did a test of dancing cigarette packs and individual dancing cigarettes. Did you see that?
LIO: Yes I did! Something of your's that I have never seen before. That was a great piece of detailed animation and creativity.
TB: I wanted to ask you about that cigarette commercial. It has some outstanding animation. I was wondering what kind of rigging did you use?
RH: I just used wires on a rig that allowed the incremental adjustment of each wires and the rig was suspended above the animation stage. Wires were attached to each of the cigarette packs and also each cigarette as they popped out of the packs. A lot of movements to keep track of and one has to keep everything in synchronization with the music. It was just a test to show ad agencies. You will also, see on the DVD, a few Lakewood commercials which was a real estate business and Kenny Key was a puppet character talking to the camera about new homes for sale.
LIO: Those Kenny Key commercials were interesting. I never read anywhere before that you did those in your early years.
RH: There were other Lakewood commercials in that series that were similar and the one’s on the DVD were just some examples. Like I said before, “the fickle finger of fate’ maybe determined another direction for me to go into which was not TV commercial work.
LIO: Well Ray, we are ever so glad that you did not go into TV commercials because today there might not have been a Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Tim Burton and so on. When they were young, all were inspired by your now classic feature film work.
RH:. Peter Jackson has said at times, that if he had not seen our films including the original King Kong, he might not have made The Lord of the Rings !
LIO: In your Little Red Riding Hood Tale, I never saw it in its entirety and only previously seen brief clips of it in some documentaries about you. I thought it looked spectacular in how bright & crisp the colors were. It looked so good and one would think Riding Hood was made recently!
RH: It was shot using Kodachrome film. All the fairy tales were originally shot with this film stock but Little Red Riding Hood was in much better condition than the other fairy tales. The film archive department at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences made master negative preservation prints and did other restorative processes of all my early works and that is what you will see on the DVD.
LIO: In your early years, your mother and father helped you greatly in your chosen direction?
RH: My father help me until he passed away. It was The First Men in the Moon (1964) which was the last film that he assisted me with the armatures for the selenite alien ants and the giant moon calf caterpillar..
LIO: Do you recall the first time you handled an armature or used one in a puppet?
RH: I started using armatures from almost the beginning. The very early rough tests of the cave bear puppet had a wooden armature and I got round beads from the five and dime store. The beads were held together between pieces of wood strips. Of course, that crude armature would ratchet and the movements would be jerky. Thereafter, my father began helping me and the armatures were more refined due to his machining skills and the use of much better materials and methods.
TB: Did your father have a machine shop?
RH: We had the usual equipment, lathe, drill press and other metal working tools. He also worked as a machinist by trade.
LIO: In your early tests and fairy tales you used more movement of the camera by animating it but you did not do much camera moving or tracking shots in your feature film work?
RH: For my own early work, tests and fairy tales, I just had more time and could afford to put in the extra labor to calibrate complicated camera moves. I the feature film work we did, we had very tight budgets and deadline schedules, so we had to use economical measures.
LIO: In King Midas fairy tale, I thought a great shot was the King Midas & the Sprial Stairs scene in which the camera is followiing & moving with King Midas as he descends down the stairs into his cellar. Also, in Little Red Riding Hood, I was impressed with the scenes of the wolf running through the forest towards grandma’s house and we see the camera tracking and moving with the wolf through the woods. Very dynamic.
RH: Well, good ....you liked it! The stair scene in King Midas might be reminiscent of 7th Voyage of Sinbad. I think, I could have had a yen for spiral stairs! Again, all that camera movement takes extra time and work, and something we could not do with our feature films.
RH: Do you do animation yourself?
LIO: I have done animation but got side-tracked and mostly have been involved with the technical aspects of puppet construction. Right now, I have a regular job to pay the bills and rent. From your book, I read it was not so easy in your early days?
RH: It was difficult at times. Work in animation was not frequent. Also, I had no books or easily accessible information and I just had to figure things out and recreate how I thought it should be.
LIO: Today we have animation frame grabbers to assist with the stop motion and we can instantly see the results. Have you used these tools?
RH: Yes I did but I found it confusing. I don’t want to know where I have been but want to know where I am going! I am use to the old ways and I would wait until the next day for the rushes to see how my animation looked. That was part of the excitement in the waiting and anticipation to see if what I envisioned the animation in my mind and then compare it to the final results, the following day.
LIO: Ray, do you use a computer at all?
RH: I do have one for letter writing and storage but I don’t want to be hooked up to the internet as it can take up much of one’s time!
LIO: To me, much of your fairy tales seems to have a European quality. I know that you did work for George Pal. I was wondering in your early days, were you aware of the practice of stop motion in Europe?
RH: That was my first professional job , working for George Pal. In the beginning, I was not really aware of European stop motion. It was only when I was 13 years old, when I first saw King Kong, which was my first exposure to stop motion of just seeing it, but I did not know how it was done. After about 6 months of just watching King Kong, again and again, then a few years later, I finally talked to people who worked on Kong and I found out about the glories of stop motion, but no specific step by step details and I still had to invent it because there was not information available to the public. There were no books about it. I had to do a lot of calculating and experimenting on my own.
TB: I tell you Ray, if it had not been for Forrey Ackerman’s Famous Monsters magazine, which initially exposed me to your work, I might not have become aware of stop motion until much later.
RH: Compared to all the magazines and books today about special effects, in my time, not many magazines were interested about it.
LIO: Ray, you did some tests with rear 16mm rear projection?
RH: I was experimenting with split screen in 16mm. For a stop motion test, I did for my War of the Worlds concept of the alien emerging from the spaceship, I wanted to do a traveling matte composite of people in front of the alien but it was going to be too complicated and I couldn’t do it.
LIO: In your Baron Munchausen test, you did a rear projection in 16mm. Did you use a special projector?
RH: It was just a little tinny 16mm projector I picked up somewhere and only did some minor modification and made it so it could go a frame at a time.
TB: Ray, so are you planning on coming out of retirement?
RH: Not if I can help it! I retired from making films almost 25 years ago. I do many other things. Sometimes I get involve with feature films. I have gotten several as an advisor working on scripts and such, but I won’t go into the details at this time.
TB: So you do not think you would get back in doing short films?
RH: No, I don’t think I could. I don’t want to get hooked again with doing actual animation. It can take too much of your life! I don’t know if anyone has ever counted the many hundred thousands & thousands of frames I animated!
LIO: I don’t think you will never lose your animation skills!
RH: It would all come back, like learning to ride a bicycle. You never forget. You know .... everything you see in all our films, is usually the first take. We never had the time and money to do retakes. I would say 90 to 95% were first takes, in every film I worked on.
TB: I remember when I was young seeing Jason and the Argonauts. Shortly thereafter, I bought a model skeleton in a store and used it to do stop motion tests of my skeleton coming out of the ground. Just shows you how all of us are impacted and influenced by your work!
RH: The snowball rolls on. Willis O’Brien was inspired by certain people, and I was motivated by Cooper’s and O’Brien’s work .... then many at Industrial Light & Magic, Peter Jackson and others were inspired by my work. Peter Jackson may now inspire others. So the snowball gets bigger and bigger.
LIO: Ray, what do you think about CGI?
RH: Well it’s a dream to think that just because CGI came in, that everything else should be discarded. It’s disappointing how that is suggested by some. There should be room for every technique depending on the type of story. CGI is a good creative tool but should not completely replace other methods.
LIO: I very much agree with you on that Ray! Fortunately, there now seems to be some brief comeback of stop motion animation. Are you aware of Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride?
RH: Oh yes. I did visit the studio in England where they are shooting The Corpse Bride. They are doing some amazing work and the puppets are remarkable! There is also Aardman Studio and I am friends with Nick Park and Peter Lord. They say, how our films have inspired them. I am grateful that our films have had such a positive influence.
TB: I teach stop motion at a college in Chicago. Often times the class gets so filled up and we have to add extra sessions. The students just love stop motion because it’s so hands-on. I show them examples of your work and stop motion examples from others and they just eat it up! I recently showed students your new Early Years DVD and they were impressed.
RH: Hopefully, they will all get the Early Collections DVDs because it shows how you can develop on your own and that you really do not need a big crew to do Stop Motion. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, though, but perhaps there are enough people that admire the technique .... the creative things that go into it and they will appreciate it and inspire another generation.
LIO: Ray, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. You can be sure that I will always be out there, everywhere and on the internet, promoting and advocating for Stop Motion to help keep it in the public eye.
TB: Same goes here ..... thanks Ray and a pleasure to talk with you.
RH: Your welcome and thank you .....and be sure to spread the word about our new Early Years DVD!
Interview with Ray Harryhausen conducted by:
Lionel Ivan Orozco - Stop Motion Works
Tom Brierton - Tom Brierton Stop Motion
Ray Harryhausen, mild manner in his personality, a gentleman and low-key but I am sure, he was very much, a focused technical & creative wizard when applying his art, craft, and skills. Ray’s last film was Clash of the Titans (1981). He put his entire energies into these movie projects and each one can last a number of years. I know, many would have wanted Ray to continue, but he was smart and saw the trend of motion pictures and the eventual saturation of the movie mainstream market with an even more corporate mentality where every film’s creative decision or direction is dictated by committee and audience demographic charts. It has always been like this, but much more magnified, fierce, and intense .... a market that seems to be producing formulaic & homogenized products for the masses. Also, hundreds of movie crew staff seem the norm in today’s film. Look at the end credits of current movies. Ray had a minimal staff and very small budgets for his projects but made up for it with pure resourcefulness, good storyline, and much creativity and produced a miracle on the screen! One can sense the artistic hands-on sweat equity he put into his films. Ray has been polite and commented about current computer animation and hi-tech special effects in which he does appreciate it as "another tool" to present visual imagery but he also has emphatically said many times, that one should not discard other visual styles or aesthetics in presenting good stories. In the end, the general movie going audiences does not really care what techniques are used but judge the films on their overall entertainment value. His heart and soul will always remain with Stop Motion! Thanks Ray! You very much deserve all the respect & recognition. In 1992 Ray received the Gordon E. Sawyer Academy Award, and in 2003 he was presented with a Star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame.
DVD Review: You will get a deep appreciation and history of Ray’s beginning work which eventually later in his career, his techniques and artistry evolved to a high degree of finesse & polish and became his trademark brand of classic special effects which has inspired and influenced so many of today’s top people in the motion picture business .....Peter Jackson, Tim Burton, NIck Park, James Cameron, Steven Speilberg, George Lucas, Joe Dante, John Landis, and also a plethora of technicians, artists, craftspeople, modelmakers, prosthetic FX makeup people, CGI people, all working in the special visual effects field. Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection covers the years 1936-54 (2 Dvd set, total 223 minutes). Prior to this Dvd release, in the past I have only seen brief clips of Ray's early work and some I have never seen, but now you will finally be able to view them all in their full glory and restored for posterity by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science's Film Archive Dept.. The Early Years Collection DVDs will greatly compliment Ray’s book, Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life. Here are the detailed contents of the DVDs which speaks for itself:
Disc One (with introductions & commentary by Ray):
1 - Stories and Tales
Mother Goose Stories: Little Miss Muffet, Old Mother Hubbard, The Queen of Hearts, Humpty Dumpty.
Fairy Tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel & Gretel, Rapunzel, King Midas, The Tortoise & The Hare.
2 - Early Films
How to Bridge a Gorge, Guadalcanal, Lucky Strike Commercial Demo, Lakewood Homes spots.
3 - Tests & Experiments
Cave Bear & Dinosaurs, Color, Split Screen and Rear Projection, Evolution, Adventures of Baron Munchausen, War of the Worlds, The Elementals.
4 - Special Features
The Making of The Tortoise & The Hare, Audio Commentary for Tortoise & The Hare, Alternate Ending for How to Bridge a Gorge.
1 - Featurettes
The Hollywood Walk of Fame, The Livingstone Statue, The Clifton's Cafeteria Reunion, In The Credits, An Evening With Ray Harryhausen, The Bronzes, The Ted Newsom Interview, The Academy Archive Restoration, Filmmuseum Berlin.
2 - Tributes
Birthday Tributes, An Appreciation, David Allen Tribute
3 - Galleries
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