It’s been years since Ray Harryhausen demolished a city, but he’ll always have his memories. “I destroyed Rome, Washington, New York, San Francisco, Long Beach…” His creations have risen from 20,000 fathoms, descended from outer space, and hungered for Raquel Welch in her youth, one million years BC. For more than half a century Harryhausen’s special effects have astonished audiences and inspired slavish devotion from generations of movie nerds, myself included.
Given the chance to hang out with the genius who gave us dinosaurs, dragons and sword-fighting skeletons in the days before computers made them commonplace, I made my way to Harryhausen’s fancy West London headquarters – his base of operations for more than 40 years – with two distinct options in mind. The first was to drop to my knees and praise him as a god. The other was to tie him up and make off with all his stuff, because he really does have the most amazing collection.
Display cases bulging with models from his films. Walls crowded with incredible original art. Sculptures, screenplays and even an Oscar, a special achievement nod from the Academy in 1992. For a collector and fantasy film obsessive, Harryhausen’s studio is as close to Heaven as we can get on Earth. Torn between sucking up and robbing him blind, I knew that at the very least I had to touch as many of his possessions as possible, including, with luck, his precious Academy Award.
Here’s the science bit. Concentrate. Working alone with models he designed and built himself, Ray Harryhausen breathed life into his creations via stop motion animation, a process familiar to Wallace and Gromit fans. Basically it involves photographing a model, moving it a tiny bit, shooting it again, and so on, hundreds of thousands of times. When the film is played back the creature appears to be moving, a neat effect which though dated now, made a lot of great movies possible. Jason and the Argonauts (1963), the Sinbad adventures and Clash of the Titans (1981), to name a few.
“I remember one commentator years ago saying it was pity I didn’t animate the actors as well,” says Harryhausen with a grin.
Fortified with tea and cookies and sitting not ten feet from Ray’s Oscar, I quizzed him about his beginnings in sunny L.A. “I was always interested in the unusual,” he begins. “People thought I was a little peculiar myself.”
Ray’s destiny became clear back in 1933 when, at the ripe old age of 13, he first saw King Kong. “I wandered innocently into Grauman’s Chinese Theatre one afternoon with my mother,” he remembers, “and I haven’t been the same since. I fell in love with the movie, with the fantasy, with the fact that someone dared put a 50-foot gorilla with a girl in his hand on the screen. Nobody had ever done that sort of thing before. It was so outrageous and so convincing that it titillated my imagination.
“Kong haunted me. I kept going back to see it again and again. I desperately wanted to know how they’d brought the creatures to life, but unlike today there were no books on the subject, no DVD extras or magazines full of movie secrets. And that’s the way it should be. If you know too much about a film it destroys the fantasy. Today’s audiences are jaded by inside information. Back in 1933, I had no idea how Kong was made and I had no way to find out, so I had to be imaginative and devise my own methods. I started experimenting with a camera and animation models, then I started making my own dinosaurs, and gradually it turned from a hobby into a profession.”
By the early Fifties, Harryhausen was working on his first solo project. Based on a short story by school chum and fantasy author Ray Bradbury, Harryhausen’s job was to make The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) come to life. “Beast was one of the big blockbusters of the Fifties because it revived the monster-on-the-loose theme. It also started a cycle of movies about the atomic bomb.”
Capitalising on the public’s fear of the unknown, the beast tore up New York like a nuke with teeth. “We cashed in on the fact that the atomic bomb was an unknown element. Nobody knew what radiation would do, what kind of horrors it might bring about. It was in all the newspapers that the scientists were worried about blowing up the world, and the beast symbolised our fears. Then the Japanese got in on the act and copied our picture, making Godzilla (1954), which was just a man in a rubber suit.”
Though few would argue it was Harryhausen’s Beast and not Godzilla that put the special in effects, not everyone can see the difference. “I gave a lecture at the National Film Theatre a few years ago, and someone in the audience asked, ‘Why do you go to all the trouble of stop motion? Why don’t you just put a man in a suit?’ I didn’t know what to say. What do you say to a person like that? I felt like wringing his neck. People who can’t see the difference between Godzilla and what I do shouldn’t be allowed to see my films. They should only be allowed to watch Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) and rubbish like that.”
Following the success of Beast and the similarly themed It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), Harryhausen shifted from contemporary to mythological settings and made many of his best and most popular films, pushing the boundaries of special effects with each new project. For 1958’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, actor Kerwin Mathews engaged in a frenzied battle with a skeleton, a fight that was recreated in more spectacular form in 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts. As in most modern effects movies, the actors found they had to visualise their enemies and shadow box. The difference was, they did it first.
“Kerwin was very convincing. He had a direct line where he looked – a lot of actors tend to look through what they should be looking at, and you can always tell that in their eyes. We rehearsed with Kerwin and a stuntman standing in for the skeleton. The whole thing was choreographed like a ballet, by counts, so they could repeat it each shot. The final repeat was without the stuntman and I put the skeleton in his place. I would analyse the action frame by frame and then animate in relation to what was happening on the screen. When Sinbad put his sword up, I had to have the skeleton get there ahead of him so it didn’t look silly. That’s one of the problems we had with Jason and the Argonauts – trying to time three men swinging their swords with seven skeletons swinging theirs. That one scene took months to film as I couldn’t shoot more than 13 frames a day. That’s only half a second of film!”
Harryhausen hands me one of the original skeletons from that celebrated scene, a detailed miniature in remarkably good condition considering it’s more than 40 years old. Though my coat has deep pockets I worry the model might get squashed in there, so instead of nicking it I move it about a bit, its arms, its head, and wonder what it must have been like for Harryhausen to spend the best years of his life doing more or less the same thing.
“When you’re working on a film, you have to think about it 24 hours a day – it’s not just an eight-hour job. You have to live and breath the film, at least that’s the way I always approached it. I found it takes an enormous chunk of your life. I worked for three years on Clash of the Titans and hardly ever saw my family. Our daughter had to grow up without daddy being around very much. Finally, I felt I’d had enough of it.”
Though retired, Harryhausen keeps himself busy with a strict regimen of accepting awards and talking about himself. A doctor three times over, he has the key to the city of Omaha, Nebraska and a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. “Appropriately enough I’m outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, sandwiched between Harold Lloyd and Jane Russell, who’s something of a special effect herself.”
Harryhausen won’t say a bad word about anyone. That’s the kind of man he is. But he’s 92 years old, dammit, and has a biological need to complain. Things, apparently, aren’t what they used to be. We’ve all been brainwashed by TV. Audiences are jaded, and so are the critics. There’s too much violence on our screens, and sex is everywhere. “If you eat a banana all of a sudden they call you a homosexual.”
America’s changed. “I feel like a foreigner today going back.” Computer effects are too realistic, and most movies suck. “The types of stories they think they’re telling go over my head. I couldn’t understand what The Matrix was all about.” I assure him he’s not alone before blurting, “Can I hold your Oscar?” Harryhausen shrugs and lets me pick it up. “I’d just like to thank…” I begin before being distracted by how heavy it is. Good and solid. You could whack a person with it, stuff it in your bag and be out the door in seconds. Or you could thank your host and slowly put it down, asking at the same time if there’s anything about our modern age he does like.
Wallace and Gromit’s Nick Park and partner Peter Lord get a nod. “They’re dedicated souls and you can see that in their work.” Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron and Peter Jackson too. “They say they were highly influenced by my films.”
Best of all about this day and age is the fact that, “Frankly, my films are more appreciated today than they were in their heyday. I can’t explain it, but I’m not complaining.” Not any more, anyway.
Having worshipped at the alter of Harryhausen and left fingerprints on countless historical treasures, I say my goodbyes. Ray frisks me at the door and, finding nothing, sends me on my way. Magic.