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The First Voyage of Ray Harryhausen

The First Voyage of Ray Harryhausen

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

To 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, Ray 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.

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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 stop-motion animation.

AJ: It seems like the Fairy Tales are some of the few examples of you animating realistic human characters.

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 writers.

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 Munchausen.

RH: 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.
Ray Harryhausen with a few of his creations

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 it.

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! (Laughs)

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 anything new?

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 nutshell!

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.

---END---

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 Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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