From 2003 here’s an interview Richard did with stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen. His animated characters, like the T-rex of “The Valley of Gwangi,” the ape of “Mighty Joe Young,” the fighting skeletons of “Jason and the Argonauts” and the giant crab of “Mysterious Island” ignited the imaginations of generations of filmgoers. In this interview we find out what sparked Mr. Harryhausen’s imagination.
RICHARD: I have to start with the question that you’ve probably been asked a thousand times but, I know that King Kong kind of started you on this whole journey that leads you to being here today and the release of An Animated Life, but just tell me a little bit about the first time you saw the movie and the effect that it had on you.
RAY: well, the effect was devastating, not devastating, but just awesome. I remember my aunt worked for Sid Grauman’s mother. She was a nurse, and she took care—his mother was an invalid and he gave her three tickets to see this strange film called King Kong. I knew it was about a gorilla and I like gorilla pictures, but it was so different that they showed these pictures of…stills of him on the Empire State Building and all that sort of thing so… It fascinated me, so we went one afternoon my mother and my aunt and myself to Grauman’s Chinese, and at that time they had…Sid Grauman was a great showman. He had these spectacular stage shows to precede the film showing inside the cinema, but in the foyer of Grauman’s Chinese where all the hand prints and foot prints of famous stars, they had the big bust of Kong they used in the picture, that used to be for close-ups of people in his mouth, chewing on them. It worked by compressed air and it had trees in front and pink flamingos strutted around in the foreground, so all this atmosphere was fantastic. And they have these big 11 by 14 stills all lined up in the front of the cinema, so you were anticipating something unusual and of course after the stage show, which lasted about an hour, they had natives on flying trapeze and the sort of tradition of Kong background, and then of course there was a slight pause before the film opened, and to see King Kong for the first time on a big 30 foot screen is an awesome experience. It was to me when I was thirteen, and I hadn’t been the same since.
RICHARD: Well, I read a quote from you where you said If you had only seen the remake that was done, that you’d probably be a plumber today. So, I think it doesn’t really underestimate the power of that film to say that it really changed your life.
RAY: It certainly did. It wasn’t just the technical virtuosity, it was the structure of the story. It took you by the hand from the depression of the 1930s and brought you into the most amazing, outrageous fantasy that’s ever been put on the screen. Nothing like it has ever been done at that time. Now, of course CGI tries to duplicate the spectacular image, but it’s a different world, a different feeling. I think stop-motion lends itself to giving that dream quality, where if you try to make fantasy too real, you bring it down to the level of the mundane.
RICHARD: I want to talk about that a little bit later and the whole idea of computer-generated graphics because that’s what I think happens with computer generated graphics, but we’ll get to that there’s a lot in between the story. You used to go see the film with Ray Bradbury anytime you got a chance to, and I’ve heard stories that you guys used to go to the old Pathe lot in Culver City where the King Kong wall was. Just tell me a little about that.
RAY: Yes, the King Kong Wall was there. I lived in the back part just over the hill in Baldwin Hills and we used to, a gang of us, come up to the gate and look through. We could see the big (inaudible) the 40 acres in Pathe Selznick Studios. They burned it down of course for Gone With The Wind, later, but we used to stand there and recite some of Ruth Rose’s dialog “Bala. Bala kong mama ee.”[laughter]. But that was an event, and then my father had urged him to take me to the La Brea Tar-Pits, which was out in the wilderness…
RAY: There were no buildings around, and it was outside of Los Angeles. Today it’s right in the middle of the Miracle Mile, but these bubbling tar-pits—there was no museum, just a few models of the animals as they may have been in the day of the La Brea Tar-Pits, but that was one, and then…If we saw a replay of Kong many months later after it was first released, way out in Pasadena or Eagle rock, we would get three or four of us, get together on the red car and go out and see a replay of Kong.
RICHARD: Well, these were the days before video, of course so you know…
RAY: No, they didn’t have such things…
RICHARD: So, it really makes it special, I think, when you have to work to see the film a little bit…
RAY: And you couldn’t get copies, I mean, there was nothing, no books about it. Occasionally, a magazine would have so called “exposé”, but they were usually wrong. Not much was known about stop-motion, and I remember the popular mechanics magazine had an article one time, showing a big mechanical gorilla walking through a jungle with cables coming out of his heel, and a little man in the corner playing an organ and he was supposed to have been manipulating this robot, which was completely false. And, it wasn’t till’ six months later probably that I discovered the glories of stop-motion photography.
RICHARD: Well yeah, because…Now, you ended up meeting Willis O’Brien, who was the King Kong animator and a legend, and became a friend of yours but…and someone that you worked with, but it was sort of an interesting way. You met him through a friend in high school.
RAY: Yes I did. It was during a study period before another class, and we were supposed to be studying the next class’s schedule. And I looked across the room and I saw this book open, there was a girl reading it with a big picture of Kong, cause my eyes went out like Bugs Bunny and I went over afterwards and introduced myself and told her how I was fascinated with Kong and I was experimenting with stop motion, and she said: “Well, call him up. He’s at MGM, and he’d be happy to talk.” Not many people knew about stop motion, so I guess I was rather unique, and I called Willis O’Brien the next day and he kindly invited me down to the studio MGM to see his preparation for War Eagles. When I got into his office, my jaw dropped because every inch of the wall was covered with drawings and beautiful paintings. He had three artists working with him and enormous preparation went into that picture, but it was never made.
RICHARD: Well, you had been experimenting with stop-motion, so you had taught yourself, I guess…
RAY: Yes I had, because there were no books on the subject, and there was very little information, so I had to imagine what—how they did it. Of course, I ran Kong over, I went to see it many times, but when I got a video, I still enjoy seeing the film. I think it’s an experience that you rarely have. Maybe I’m a fanatic, but [laughter] you have to be, I think, if you’re going to absorb something. It wasn’t a normal profession, and I had no idea whether I could ever make a living out of it because it started as a hobby.
RICHARD: Where did you get the equipment, I mean, you need a film camera, you need…
RAY: I finally borrowed a camera—an old Victor—for my first experiment. It didn’t have a one-frame shaft. So I had to touch the button and hope I got one frame. Sometimes I got two, sometimes three and sometimes none, so the animation was rather jerky but I still found the fascination to see this cave bear giving the impression that it was alive and that it was artificial. Maybe I have a Zeus complex. An alchemical…alchemist of the ancient time who wanted to make the perfect (inaudible)…
RICHARD: Well, its interesting to me too because that first bear that you animated was actually made out of your mother’s fur coat.
RAY: I didn’t get a whipping, although some rumours said I did but no, she didn’t want it anymore.
RICHARD: Yeah, the story that I had heard is that you sort of surreptitiously borrowed it without telling her
RAY: Well yes surreptitiously. No, I found her, she was very co-operative and my father. It think your parents, it was very necessary because you weren’t sure of yourself and you weren’t sure this was something to follow, but they followed it as a hobby, and I used the garage as a studio. They left the car outside. Later on, my father built me a hobby house behind the garage.
RICHARD: do you think that by teaching yourself and not learning how to do this through reading books, and you know, by watching the movie King Kong, is that what gave you the kind of unique style you have?
RAY: I think it did, yes. It all added up. I didn’t know at the time because it was very fragmented. I took courses after the war, GI courses at UofC on film editing and art direction and photography. I learned to cast, because I couldn’t afford to have it done outside, and I didn’t know anybody who knew anything about molds. So I had to learn to make plastic casts, I had to learn to make armatures, I had to learn many different trades, which you don’t have to do when you’re just pushing buttons.
RICHARD: What sort of person does it take to make stop-motion animation? Because I see it as hours and hours and hours spent in a dark room, doing very precise work. What sort of personality traits do you need to be able to do that sort of work?
RAY: Patience I suppose is the key word, but I didn’t have patience in the beginning. I think I learned patience when I worked with George Pal’s Puppetoons. I worked two years with him in nineteen thirty-seven, thirty-eight…and thirty nine, I think—thirty eight and thirty-nine, and that taught me patience. His technique wasn’t as flexible as Willis O’Brien.
RICHARD: Well, cause they had different heads for the…
RAY: he had 50 heads for one character; A-E-I-O-U, so he could synchronize these heads with the dialogue. I didn’t want…it was all sort of pre-animated. He had 25 separate figures to take one step and all he did was substitute a new figure each frame of film…and that wasn’t very creative. But Willis O’Brien’s technique, it was single figure that is jointed, and each frame, when the shutters closed, you move it and then take a picture. It’s a series of still pictures like a cartoon.
RICHARD: Well, I heard that you learned patience by losing your patience one time and throwing a hammer.
RAY: Yeah, hah, you read about that?
RICHARD: Yes, yeah.
RAY: Yes, I was working on something—I had done a glass painting to give depth to a certain scene and I had a big Glass on the stand in my work room—and then something went wrong, I threw my hammer on the floor and it bounced up and broke the glass. I thought “I must never lose my temper again!”
RICHARD: Yeah, that’s a, that’s a…
RAY: …So that helped cure me of temperament.
RICHARD: That’s kind of a heart-breaking way to learn something.
RAY: It’s the hard way.
RICHARD: Now, you worked with Willis O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young.
RAY: That was the highlight of my life, yes.
RICHARD: So, tell me…Just tell me about working with him. Were you intimidated? Because, again, the story that I’ve heard and maybe you can clear this up, is that while he won the academy award for the film, you actually did 85 percent of the animation in that.
RAY: More than that, 90 percent. Yes.
RAY: Most of them were the first-takes, and I know…I started out in the basement scenes. I worked with him for a year before in preparation, and the picture was on, then it was off, then it was on, and then it was going to be in color and we made some tests in color and then it was too expensive so they were going to do it in black and white. But it took over a year before the production actually got the go-ahead. In the mean time, I was mounting all these storyboards, so I knew pretty well what was in his mind, how he wanted to do it. So we didn’t have to talk about it very much, because I sort of absorbed everything in that year of working with him. He made 20 drawings a day of continuity, and of course, he would take them in. He would have an idea about a certain sequence and he would take them into the story conference, which he and Cooper and Schoedsack would have. I wasn’t invited, but he as the head of special effects took these ideas in, and of course, they would be incorporated by the writer, and then they become the writer’s. Everybody would think the writer thought it up. And that’s how King Kong was made because Willis O’Brien was on Creation for RKO. That was a dinosaur picture similar to The Lost World, and when Marian Cooper took over the studio as the head, he saw some of O’Brien’s work, and he had this idea about a gorilla, so a lot of King Kong came from Creation as well as The Lost World. So, it’s not just the writer who dreams up all these fantastic ideas.
RICHARD: Well, it’s interesting to me to hear you say that because I have a quote here from you where you say that: one of the things, as you look back over your career is that the mistake you made in your early career is not to have more of an ego and say “I did that.” You know, you wish you hadn’t been as modest.
RAY: Particularly in my fairy tales. My father went under the name of Blasauf, which was his mother’s maiden name. My mother went under the name of Reske, which was her maiden name because I thought that’s pretty egotistical to see “Harryhausen, Harryhausen, Harryhausen”
RAY: I even…The camera man credit I put Gerome Wray because I didn’t want the “Harryhausen, Harryhausen, Harryhausen”, but I found that modesty is not a very nice word in Hollywood.
RICHARD: Yeah, it’s a four-letter-word in Hollywood, I think.
RAY: So, I contributed more than just special effects. I contribute to the story, just as Willis O’Brien contributed to Kong and his films. I contributed to all our films. I work very close with the writer. In the early days, and even as far back as Golden Voyage, We had to make these pictures for a very tight budget, and the only way we could do that is to pre-plan the picture very carefully so that there’s no waste. You know what The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad cost? We shot it in Spain.
RICHARD: That doesn’t even pay for the food on a…
RAY: Costumes. You can’t even buy a costume today when they spend millions, two-three million on a picture. But, they do it much more elaborately than we do, but it’s still almost vulgar the type of money that is spent on a film.
RICHARD: I think now the movie Troy that came out, it’s a Brad Pitt film, it cost a 180 million dollars. It’s the most expensive movie ever made.
RAY: It has to be a blockbuster to get it back.
RICHARD: How can it make its money back? You know, because by the time you add in marketing, and all that stuff, you’re looking at 250 million dollars.
RAY: I know. Because it almost costs as much as the picture to publicize it.
RICHARD: I have to ask you about King Kong—I keep coming back to it—you can see, as you watch King Kong, fingerprints on Kong almost. His fur moves.
RAY: That’s wind blowing through him.
RAY: You must rationalize these things.
RICHARD: Did you ever ask O’Brien about that, or is that because…I know…
RAY: Well, that couldn’t be helped in those days, they used rabbit fur. On Mighty Joe Young we used a process that George Lofgren devised where he substituted the hide with rubber
RAY: …so it would stretch. And I tried to animate Mighty Joe from the back when I grabbed him so that you wouldn’t get that ripple, and I think it worked pretty well, but his…The type of fur that he devised was very conducive to keeping it from wiggling so much, because Kong had rabbit fur and it wasn’t treated properly, but…That’s wind, he’s a big boy. He’s 50 feet high. So you’d naturally see wind blowing through his fur.
RICHARD: Maybe it’s one of those happy accidents that happens every now and again.
RAY: Gives him character. I missed it in the remake.
RICHARD: Well yeah, the remake..
RAY: I have nothing to say.
RICHARD: I know, I think it’s better left unsaid. Umm… One of my favorite characters you had to build was the miniature Raquel Welch.
RAY: [short pause] Oh, yeah
RICHARD: In—For one million years BC.
RAY: Three and a half inches high, inaudible Raquel Welch. I had the pleasure of animating her being picked up by the pterodactyl. And that was a lot of time.
RAY: That was many years later.
RICHARD: But those…These little figures that you made really are little works of art. This—I know that that figure is in a museum in Berlin.
RAY: Yes, in Germ—Germany. In Berlin, I have an exhibition which is more or less permanent at the Berlin film Sony museum. And it’s been there for some years. It was formally at the old UFA studios, in –I’ve forgotten the name of the little town just outside of Berlin.
RAY: It was there for two years as part of the studio tour, that’s where Marlene Dietrich was discovered, and where Fritz Lang made Metropolis.
RICHARD: Wow…Which is your old friend Forry Ackerman’s favorite movie.
RAY: It is, and it’s one of mine. I remember my parents took me to see Metropolis when I was four, five, I think and I always remember that robot lady being…sitting in her chair with these rings—electric rings—going up and down, turning her into a live, woman robot.
RICHARD: Now, do you think that we know too much about how movies are made now?
RAY: Yes, yes. It’s a shame because half of the charm of Kong when I first saw it was that I didn’t know how it was done. And I knew it wasn’t a man in a suit. But now, some of these magazines, they tell you how special effects are done before the film comes out and I think it spoils the effect, because now it’s just a series of splendid, exciting, happenings and they’ve forgotten the story. The whole point of making a film is to tell a story, I thought.
RAY: Not just to exhibit a variety of special effects.
RICHARD: Now, you were always a science fiction fan, from, clearly from the time…as a young man you created a magazine with Ray Bradbury, and Forrest Ackerman when you were young. Why then the switch from making science fiction films in around the late fifties, around 1958 into making fantasy films.
RAY: Well fantasy films, I prefer to go to the past. I destroyed Washington with a saucer picture, I destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge with an Octopus. And Rome, I destroyed Rome with the Ymir, and even Coney Island with the beast. And it gets tiresome, particularly when Tokyo got in on the act. Godzilla started destroying Tokyo, which was a copy of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, practically. It got tiresome. So I was looking for a new avenue for the use of stop motion, and I came across the legends of Sinbad. If you had James Bond fighting the skeleton, it could be comical, but if you had the legendary character of the magic time of Sinbad who personifies adventure it’s a different thing. You could accept it as a melodramatic situation and that was my first drawing on the seventh voyage of Sinbad. I made eight big drawings to try and promote the story of Sinbad—this was right after Mighty Joe—and I took it around Hollywood. Howard Hughes had just made a film called the Son of Sinbad.
RICHARD: …With Vincent Price and…
RAY: With Vincent Price, and Dale Robertson, and he had Lili St. Cyr and her bosom pals from Main Street, she was a fan then so… But costume pictures didn’t do very well apparently, and everybody said costume pictures are dead. So I had it in my files for years until I worked with Charles Schneer, and when we were looking for a subject, I brought out my drawings and a twenty page outline, and jumped at it, so I’m grateful that we got it made. I had to rethink the whole picture because originally I wanted to make it as lavish as Alexander Korda’s’s thief of Bagdad but it just wasn’t in the cards, nobody wanted to spend that kind of money, so we finally made the whole picture for 650,000 dollars.
RICHARD: It seems unbelievable today to think that, particularly when you see the film.
RAY: It looks more lavish than actually it is.
RICHARD: …Which is the magic of film, I guess.
RAY: That’s the magic of film.
RICHARD: Now, when you partnered with Charles Schneer—he produced a great many of the films—and do you think that that gave your career a longevity that…because I just think of Willis O’Brien and the financial problems that plagued him for his entire career and I wonder if you learned from watching your mentor Willis O’Brien having problems—Financial problems—and having trouble getting films made, and said: “You know, this Charles Schneer fellow, he’s gonna…he’ll get my films made”
RAY: It obviously had something to do with that. I know…He was always waiting for the big picture, the expensive picture and I had to go to just the opposite, and unfortunately I got tied up in the low-budget bracket for quite a long time. Once you do that, and you make a picture for little money, like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms only cost 200,000 dollars. The whole picture
RICHARD: Wow, wow.
RAY: The next producer said: “We don’t have that kind of money. Can you make it for this much?”
RICHARD: [laughter] …For a hundred and fifty thousand, yeah…
RAY: …So, you get trapped in that, but fortunately our budgets went up as Columbia saw that our pictures couldn’t help but make money because they were made very reasonable. And Charles planned the live-action very carefully and I planned the animation very carefully, and the three of us worked with the writer, the two of us, directly—before the director even comes on the picture. This is not what you would call the director’s picture in the European sense of the word. The director’s job on our films is to get the best out of the actors,
RAY: And I remember one journalist said, in the mid-west I think it was. He said that “It’s a pity Mr. Harryhausen didn’t animate the actors.”
RAY: I was flattered, but it wasn’t very nice to say that about the actors.
RICHARD: Well, because of some of the low-budget constraints that you had working on these films though, they led to some of the biggest innovations, I think, of your career. Things like…I’m thinking of Dynamation, and the processes that you were forced by necessity to create because you didn’t have the money to do it any other way.
RAY: That’s correct. The word “Dynamation” came about because in the early days, journalists would—even on Mighty Joe YoungMighty Joe Young—they said there was animation in the film and the word animation has always been associated with cartoons, drawn animation. So we tried to devise a name that was distinctive from the animated cartoon, and Charles came up—he had a Buick apparently that had “Dynaflow” on the dashboard, so he thought one day: “Let’s combine it with the word ‘animation’” And that’s how it was born. Dynamic Animation. The publicity department, of course, felt that the next picture should have something new and fresh, so they called it “Superdynamation”, and then the next top picture we made, they felt it needed a stronger publicity campaign and they called it “Electrolytic Dynamation”. Finally it was called “Dynarama”, which has nothing to do with animation.
RICHARD: Exactly, yeah. Well, that reminds me the way… The creation of the word reminds me of a story that Forrest J Ackerman told me one time about driving in the car with his wife and he was talking about science fiction, and she mentioned something about a Hi-Fi stereo and he said: “Hi-Fi, Sci-Fi!” and that’s how he created the term “sci-fi” for science fiction.
RAY: Apparently he did, yes.
RICHARD: When you retired after Clash of the Titans, the quote was: “I got tired of sitting in the dark”
RAY: That’s correct.
RICHARD: …And just tell me why…
RAY: Not sitting, working.
RICHARD: …Working in the dark, and I wonder: Was it that? Was it that films had changed? Was it that computer animation was moving in?
RAY: Well, there were many reasons. Some were personal and I don’t know, I just felt that it’s time I do something else. Other people of the crew that we had on the live action sections would go out and make two or three pictures while I was still on one. And then there were other reasons. I felt that the type of story that seemed popular and the front office wanted to push were not my cup of tea…
RAY: Some of them were too violent and they had introduced too much sex and various other things, so I thought…And CGI was just coming in, it was in its infancy, but I felt I had enough, so I retired.
RICHARD: I don’t want to run out of time here… (TAPE RUNS OUT)