Many special effects artists have gone on to obtain iconic status but none hold quite the same household name value as Ray Harryhausen. A legend to those who grew up with his work, the master of stop-motion animation has also attracted appreciation from whole new generations of fantasy film admirers and at 87 years old he is showing no signs of slowing down having just recently wrapped a whole new batch of DVD audio commentaries…..
King Kong was the movie that inspired your career in special effects. Why was this film in particular such an influence?
King Kong was like nothing I had ever seen before. It captivated me and made me want to know how the special effects were done. I eventually learned about stop-motion photography, but the film itself was so well done that I was inspired first and foremost by its quality as a motion picture. I later got to meet and befriend (King Kong effects legend) Willis O’Brien and he was very kind to me and he gave me some good advice when I was just out of high school. I believe that an Oscar should have been presented to him for King Kong, but the Academy didn’t create a special effects award until 1939. Many fine films were not honoured because of that ruling and it’s such a shame.
You began your career in the 1950s with work on projects that were considered “B movies”. Despite the stigma attached to these B-flicks, did you still enjoy working on them?
Yes, I enjoyed working on my early films a lot. I didn’t have a “crew” in the traditional definition of the word. In fact, I did everything myself so I didn’t have to worry about someone talking me out of something. I don’t know how effects artists today can work in teams of 100 or more. I actually applied for a job with the Walt Disney Company in the early 1940s but, luckily, I was rejected. If I had worked with Disney I’m afraid I probably would have become just another cog in Walt’s large machine.
A lot of people have since read those early films that you worked on, such as It Came from Beneath the Sea and Mysterious Island, as representing the “cold war” political climate of the time in which they were made…
Well, in my opinion those films were made to entertain and nothing more. If people want to read messages into them they are certainly entitled to do so but the vast majority of people going to the cinema in the 1950s were going to enjoy themselves not to hear a political message.
What was it like working as part of a major Hammer production on One Million Years B.C.?
As with all of my films I didn’t have a team on One Million Years BC. I worked alone on the design, construction and animation of the creatures and the people at Hammer were very supportive of my efforts and they knew I could deliver something special for them. All of the creatures I created in that movie were equally interesting and equally challenging but my animation techniques were no more revolutionary on that film than any other. I’ve just always been fascinated by creatures which lived millions of years ago. Most children have a fascination with creatures of one sort or another when they are growing up and my creatures were dinosaurs. Another example is the sabre-toothed tiger in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. It was a creature I always enjoyed seeing in books and museums so it was a natural choice for me when it came to doing that film.
Do you think that CGI would have made a difference to you back then?
I have no idea whether CGI would have made a difference because I’ve never worked with it. However, I have fans come up to me all the time to tell me how much more they prefer stop-motion over CGI and that is very comforting.
All the same, do you think stop-motion animation is a dying art?
No art is lost today or ever will be lost. The puppet show, the marionette show, the magic show, or any other type of entertainment which has existed for centuries, will last for many more centuries to come. If entertainment does what it is supposed to do – which is entertain – then it will never die. CGI and stop-motion can co-exist just as animatronics and CGI co-exist in films like Jurassic Park. It’s really all up to the artists behind the scenes.
If you had to pick out your favourite director and your favourite actor to work with, who would they be?
My favourite director was Nathan Juran who I worked with on 20 Million Miles to Earth, First Men on the Moon and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Nathan had won an Oscar for his art direction on John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley and knew how to design a film, so when he began directing he was perfectly suited for our type of movies. As for actors, I loved working with Kerwin Mathews, who just died recently. He was a real pro and a charming man.
How do you react to knowing that the character of Medusa in Clash of Titans has been the source of a more than one or two nightmares?
Oh, I never made a horror film (laughs). The Medusa scene is a bit scary but Medusa herself was always like that. After all, a woman with writhing snakes in her hair cannot be anything but terrifying can she? I wanted the scene to be scary because I wanted the audience to worry about Perseus and wonder if he could accomplish his task without being turned to stone. To me, that’s just good story telling.
How did you obtain the opportunity to move into writing and producing as you did with such classics as Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and Clash of the Titans?
I was always involved with my films from the beginning anyway – offering ideas, writing treatments and producing my special effects segments. Eventually, I simply wanted to take on more responsibilities, so I became credited as producer.
So, finally, what’s next for you?
I’ve just finished doing commentary tracks with my producer Arnold Kunert and several special effects artists for It Came from Beneath the Sea and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. And I did the commentary track for the special 50th anniversary edition DVD for 20 Million Miles to Earth.
So you don’t feel like DVD commentary tracks give away the secrets of your business then?
No, DVD commentaries can be very useful in fact for correcting false impressions and giving information about something which might be beneficial. Besides, my two books have discussed most of my techniques so I don’t believe I’m really giving away any secrets.