First Voyage of Ray Harryhausen
Jahnke - Main Page
be honest, I wasn't quite ready to come back into heavy rotation
here at The Bits when, a few
weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Bill Hunt. "How'd you like
to interview Ray Harryhausen?" he asked. I weighed my options
for all of about five seconds before clicking the Reply key. Yeah, I
think I'd like that a lot. After all, how often does one get the
chance to talk to a living legend?
If you require an introduction to Ray Harryhausen, you're at the
wrong website. The images he created are burned forever in our
collective memory. The enormous statue of Talos rumbling to life on
the beach in Jason and the Argonauts.
The giant octopus wrapped around the Golden Gate Bridge in It
Came from Beneath the Sea. The birth of the Ymir in 20
Million Miles to Earth. And, everyone's favorite, Jason's
fight with the skeletons in Jason and the
Argonauts. If you're not a fan of Ray Harryhausen's work,
I don't think you really like movies all that much.
I was twelve when Harryhausen's final film, Clash
of the Titans, was released. So I'm probably the last
generation to know the thrill of seeing these movies on the big
screen. I was around for the original release of The
Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Sinbad
and the Eye of the Tiger and Titans.
And thanks to an intelligent programmer at the kiddie matinee
series, I also got to see Jason
and the original 7th Voyage of Sinbad
theatrically. The impact of seeing these movies bigger than life
can't be overstated. In many ways, when I think of these movies I
still think they represent the essence of what movies should do.
There's magic at work in these pictures. For two hours, you're in
another world, another time, seeing things that can't possibly
happen come to vivid life.
Today, it's impossible to imagine the movies without Ray
Harryhausen. His influence has been enormous, touching virtually
every filmmaker and visual effects artist in the business. But
before he could do all that, he had to learn his craft. Harryhausen
himself was inspired by King Kong
and his first big break came in 1949 when he assisted Kong's
effects man, the great Willis O'Brien, on Mighty
Joe Young. But even before that, Harryhausen was making
his own stop-motion films on 16mm in his garage. Beginning in 1946,
he made several short stop-motion animation cartoons based on
classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Around the same time, he was
also shooting test footage and experimenting with techniques such as
rear projection. These fairy tales and tests proved to be stepping
stones for Harryhausen, teaching him valuable lessons about story
structure, character, and composition.
Ultimately, Harryhausen was able to utilize what he'd learned in
the classic fantasy films we all know so well. But there was still
some unfinished business. Harryhausen had wanted to make a total of
six fairy tales. But in 1953, he began his solo career as an effects
artist with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
Having made the decision to concentrate on feature films, the sixth
and final fairy tale, The Tortoise and
the Hare, was abandoned after Harryhausen had completed
just a few minutes of film. Almost fifty years later, Mark Caballero
and Seamus Walsh, a pair of young stop-motion animators and
disciples of Harryhausen's work, contacted the now-retired filmmaker
and asked if they could finish what he had started. Harryhausen
watched some of their work, liked what he saw, and lent Caballero
and Walsh his original puppets and camera. In 2002, The
Tortoise and the Hare was finally completed and,
amazingly, the finished film is a seamless blend of old and new.
All of these charming early films, including The
Tortoise and the Hare, have now been collected for the
first time on DVD in a two-disc set called, logically enough,
Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection (click on the link
to read my review). It's an impressive DVD that works even better as
a companion piece to the beautiful memoir/coffee-table book Ray
Harryhausen: An Animated Life. Mr. Harryhausen seemed
genuinely excited about the project and it was a privilege and an
honor for me to talk to him about it.
Adam Jahnke (The Digital Bits):
How did The Early Years Collection
come about? Whose idea was it?
Ray Harryhausen: Well, we'd
talked about it some time ago with various people. And then I talked
to (DVD producer) Arnold Kunert about it and it seemed to mature
here (at Sparkhill Entertainment). It was off and on for some time.
Originally, (the Mother Goose Stories and Fairy Tales) were made for
school consumption. And so, Arnold suggested that we put them out
along with some of my early work and experiments.
AJ: You made the fairy tale
shorts for use in schools?
RH: Yes, they were for
elementary schools. Particularly the Mother Goose Stories.
AJ: Is that why the Mother
Goose Stories don't have any narrator?
RH: Yes, I didn't use
narrative at that time. They were short, three-to-four minute
episodes of basic Mother Goose stories. I made them for lower-grade
children so they could see the visual image in relationship to the
written word. And they were very popular in the schools during the
visual education period that happened right after the war.
AJ: How were you able to get
them into schools? Did you do that yourself?
RH: Well, I contacted various
distributing companies and the first ones were leased through Bailey
Films, which I don't believe exists anymore. Then they were
transferred to Phoenix. But the general public hasn't been able to
see them. One or two have been on television. Some were translated
into Spanish. But on the whole, they haven't been seen by the
general public. And I think when they see them, every child should
have one! And it does show the evolution of a particular profession
which wasn't a profession in the early days. Nobody knew much about
AJ: It seems like the Fairy
Tales are some of the few examples of you animating realistic human
RH: Yes, well, they were
obvious puppet films but I tried to give them a personality. Little
Red Riding Hood has her own personality and King Midas has his
personality. So I tried to make them as semi-human as possible. I
didn't want them too stylized because I think you lose your audience
if they're too extreme in stylization. Then they become just puppets
moving. But I tried to give them character and I found that music
became very important. Because most of them are what we'd call
pantomime and a minimum of dialogue. But I had to use narration to
tell the story.
AJ: Was it different for you
animating humans rather than animals or monsters?
RH: No. I call them my
teething rings because most of these were shot before my feature
films. They were shot in my spare time. But they're still fantasy.
Fairy tales are fantasy and legends are fantasy and that's what I
tried to stress in the feature films, along with Mr. Schneer
[Harryhausen's longtime producer Charles H. Schneer] and the
AJ: Judging from the footage
of tests & experiments on the DVD, it seems like at one time you
had entertained the notion of doing a feature-length fully
stop-motion animated film, like Baron
Yes, well that wasn't going to be a feature. It would have been
probably about a half hour long. I don't know. I've lost the script
now and I've made moves so constantly. I know with The
Tortoise and the Hare, I couldn't figure out the ending.
So I had to rewrite the whole script when the boys took over. And
then I made some sketches and continuity drawings and we worked by
mail and occasionally I dropped into Burbank. But I live in London
so it was quite a distance.
AJ: So did you ever consider
doing a feature-length stop-motion film?
RH: I don't think so. I feel
that a feature-length would be a little tedious. You know, Disney
took the plunge (into feature-length animation) with Snow
White but it was beautifully made and it was a musical.
But there are all different techniques. I like to mix humans with
the animated characters. But my feature films were distinctly
different from my puppet films. The puppets were obviously dolls,
you know? But the characters in our feature films, even though we
used the same process, were actual characters and not supposed to be
dolls, in a sense. So there's a big difference and I learned that
from observation of King Kong
and the great work of Willis O'Brien and Merian Cooper.
AJ: I'd like to ask you a
little about the military films on the disc. These were also done as
examples of how the military could use stop-motion, correct?
RH: Yes, I made the bridge
picture (How to Bridge a Gorge)
for that purpose.
AJ: Were any of them ever used
by the military?
RH: No, they weren't used.
They had a technique there and sometimes they used it back east. But
I was stationed in the west in the Special Service division. We made
these nuts and bolts pictures. And I worked with Dr. Seuss on the
Private Snafu cartoons which
were laid out by the Army and then given to various companies to
execute the animation.
AJ: Were you ever commissioned
to do any stop-motion footage for the Army?
RH: I did some, yes, for
specific inserts and things like that. Transitions and what-not.
AJ: Also in the experimental
section, I know many of those stories did go on to be made by other
people, such as The War of the Worlds.
RH: Oh, yes. I wanted to make
War of the Worlds right after
Mighty Joe Young. But nobody
was interested! Fantasy wasn't that popular.
AJ: But then ultimately George
Pal made it.
RH: Finally, he made it, yes.
Jesse Lasky, Sr. had it for six months. He founded Paramount, you
know, and Paramount owned all the rights to the H.G. Wells
properties. They bought War of the Worlds
originally for Cecil B. DeMille but he never got around to making
AJ: What did you think of
George Pal's version?
RH: Oh, I thought it was
delightful. But I wanted to keep it in the Victorian period that
H.G. Wells wrote it. I didn't want to get involved with the atomic
bomb. But he did a wonderful job and it'll be a memorable film. But
everybody makes their own interpretation. Peter Jackson now is
making his version of King Kong.
And I'm sure he'll do a good job because of his track record with
Lord of the Rings. And he
loves the subject as much as I do.
AJ: Have you had any contact
with Peter Jackson about his movie?
RH: Well, just in that we have
a lot in common about it. But he's got to make his version and not
be influenced by me. (Laughs)
AJ: Some of the footage on the
DVD that I was most excited to see was from The
Elementals, which I'd heard a lot about over the years.
RH: Well, that came about
originally because I wanted to get a trip to France. (Laughs)
AJ: That's as good a reason as
any to develop something.
RH: Then at the same time I
developed the script for 20 Million Miles
to Earth. It was called something else at that time. And
I originally had it planted in Chicago. Then when I rewrote the
outline, I made it in Italy so that I could get a trip to Rome!
AJ: How far did you get with
developing The Elementals?
RH: I made a lot of
storyboards which are published in the book and some are on the DVD.
We had several scripts on it but we weren't satisfied. It was a
(producer) Jack Dietz project originally. After The
Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, he got several writers to do
interpretations. But we weren't happy with the scripts, so the
picture was abandoned.
AJ: Do you think it's a
project some ambitious filmmaker could revive like they did with
The Tortoise and the Hare?
RH: Perhaps, perhaps. Who
knows what the future will bring? I'm not a psychic. (Laughs)
AJ: On the documentary on the
making of The Tortoise and the Hare,
it shows how they talked you into doing a little animating yourself.
Did that re-ignite your interest in animation? Are you developing
RH: No, not in the field of
animation. I may, it depends. That's in the lap of the gods.
AJ: Well, I could talk to you
all day but I'm sure you've got other interviews to do.
RH: Well, what you don't have
from me, you have in the book and on the DVD. That tells all!
AJ: It's Ray Harryhausen in a
RH: (Laughs) That's right.
Well, not quite a nutshell. There's four hours of it. Everybody's
raving about it and I'm grateful it's finally being shown to the
public. Because most of those fairy tales and other projects have
only been seen by a very few people.
AJ: Well, I hope it reaches a
large audience, especially kids. I think collectors will pick this
up immediately but I hope kids get to see the fairy tales.
RH: I hope so. People I've
talked to have found it inspirational. I started in my garage and
finally I ended up with a star on Hollywood Boulevard.
I don't think anyone would suggest that Ray Harryhausen's star
isn't one of the most well-deserved on the Walk of Fame. He's had an
amazing journey and we thank him for his imagination, his vision,
and for taking the time to chat with us.
Be sure to check out my review of
Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection.