Skeletons In The Cupboard: A Tribute To Visual Effects Genius Ray Harryhausen

Sabotage Times pays tribute to a man whose behind-the-scenes input changed film forever.
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Sabotage Times pays tribute to a man whose behind-the-scenes input changed film forever.

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Ray Harryhausen died this week at the age of 92. I met him a few years ago when he came up to the National Media Museum in Bradford to promote not only an exhibition of his work but a book about his life. Even while obviously infirm, he had a glint in his eye as people ran around looking at the displays of monsters, ghouls and creatures he had created and the stream of fans – both young and old - who were coming up to him with memories of how much his work had enthralled them. As I chatted to Harryhausen, the results of which you can see below, it soon became apparent just why his work was so memorable: it was because the man behind it was such a joy.

Hands up who remembers the 60s version of Jason and the Argonauts. Okay. Now, do any of you know who played the lead? Didn’t think so (it was Todd Armstrong by the way). But bet you remember the cool stop-motion monsters and the spectacular fight with hordes of undead skeletons, A staple of Sunday afternoon television, Jason — and other films such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and One Million Years BC — has left an indelible impression on generations of cinemagoers thanks to their fantastic worlds and amazing creatures. And it’s all down to the talent — and patience — of one man. Born in 1920, Ray Harryhausen was an animator for around half a century. Seen as a leader in the field of stop-motion animation, he spent many years locked in dark rooms, moving models millimetre by millimetre. What made him decide to devote his life to a most painstaking process?

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“Well, it was a big gorilla. I saw King Kong in 1933 when I was very young and haven’t been the same since. My parents loved to take me to the cinema. As you can imagine, quite a number of fantasy films I seemed to be very impressed with. When I saw King Kong, I didn’t know how it was done. It fascinated because I knew it wasn’t a man in a suit: it had a strange fantasy quality that just seemed to hypnotise me. Then over the years I finally found out about the glories of stop motion and started experimenting on my own with a 16mm. It fascinated me the idea that you could bring to life these static models, The early experiments were very frustrating, but as I got used to it, it became more like a piano. You remember things and it’s much simpler than it looks on the outside.”

Working in his garage, Harryhausen made numerous demo reels — including two dinosaurs in a fight to the death — and also found himself in the army, using his skills to make training films. Despite an impressive portfolio of work, it was harder to break in than one may have thought, “They kept it very quiet about stop-motion and Willis O’Brien was the only one doing it at the time,” he says, referring to his hero, mentor and the man who made the King Kong model. “It was all kept quite secret and nobody knew much about it and so they weren’t really interested.”

But Harryhausen’s enthusiasm and talent couldn’t be denied, and he found himself working with O’Brien on the 1949 picture Mighty Joe Young. Considering the movie concerned a gorilla on the loose, it must have been especially amazing for Harryhausen: “To work with my mentors like Wiis O’Brien it was the highlight of my life. I never thought it would happen, but it did.”

Moving on to science fiction films such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Harryhausen perfected the stop- motion technique. By the time Jason and the Argonauts rolled around, he was the most respected in his field. So, how did he get his ideas for Jason?

“I tried to get away from this ‘monsters on the loose’ because, in the Fifties, mad monsters destroying cities seemed to be very popular. And then Japan got in on it with Godzilla so I thought there must be a new avenue to use stop-motion animation.” He remembers “I always wanted to animate a skeleton but I thought ‘if someone like James Bond fights a skeleton, it would be rather comical,’ but someone like Sinbad — who was a legend in his time — and all that sort of thing, you could use it dramatically.”

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But was Harryhausen too ambitious? “Well, yes, it happened a couple of times. I started out with one skeleton and ended up in Jason having seven,” he says with a chuckle “It took four months to animate the sequence and I thought ‘Why in the world did I do this?’ I had to be sure that, when I made a drawing, that I could put it on the screen.”

By the 70s, Harryhausen was taking on less work but still managed to fit in films such as Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. There were also a couple of projects that never made it to fruition. “One time I wanted to do Dante’s Inferno because it sounded so dramatic. But I sat down and thought ‘Who’s going to sit through an hour and a half of tormented souls?” adding with a laugh, “Nowadays they sit through three hours of tormented souls. [But the] film would have been more serious. I wanted to find new avenues for stop-motion, even after Jason.”

And thus came Clash of the Titans (the charming 1981 one, not the by-the-numbers Hollywood remake)

“They’d have an actor shut one eye and  called him a Cyclops,” he says. “They used to talk about all these wonderful, mythical creatures and you’d never see them on the screen. So I thought Greek mythology would be ideal.”

The film was well-received, especially for its amazing sequences involving Medusa. But, surprisingly, the picture would be Harryhausen’s last. What made him decide to hang up the models?

“I thought I had enough after Clash. I was in a dark room all my career, I was in my sixties and thought this new business of the computer is coming in and the pace has changed to the modern,” he says. “I’m not particularly interested in the future, it’s so cold-blooded. Everything I’ve seen of the future shows it’s rather undesirable. People just want to blast each other out of the sky.”

(Harryhausen would go on to make one more film, a short entitled The Tortoise and the Hare in 2002. Ironically given its matter and Harryhausen’s career, the making of the film actually begun in the 1950s.)

Is there a hint of bitterness towards the new era of CGI? Is Harryhausen not happy with the fact he serves as an inspiration for many of those working in the industry (for example, he gets name-checked in Monsters, Inc.)?. Not a bit of it: Harryhausen is pretty pleased with the industry. “The new generation of computer animators worship the ground that I walk on,” he says with tongue firmly in cheek. “I’m grateful that we made features that left deposits of influence.  It’s quite remarkable: I do think the hype has made [CGI] seem the be-all and end-all, but it’s a wonderful tool. After seeing ‘Walking With Dinosaurs’ or Jurassic Park I couldn’t believe that they could make such convincing looking images in 3D out of a computer.”

At the time, Harryhausen had just completed his autobiography, An Animated Life. Chock full of anecdotes, tips for budding animators and — of course — numerous photographs of his work, it’s absorbing reading and something that Harryhausen Is very proud of. But is it perhaps a eulogy for a lost art form? “I don’t think so. Aardman Animation is keeping it up and so are various other companies, the only thing is that they do puppet films,” he says “But I hope the book will be a big success. The people I’ve shown it to say, ‘It’s what we’ve been waiting for”

Considering the amount of time Harryhausen had spent bringing things to life, it must have been rather refreshing to have someone else doing the waiting. And while Ray Harryhausen will have to wait no longer, his legacy will live in the imaginations through millions of children during countless rainy Bank Holidays.