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Past Article

Ray Harryhausen and Friends
By Jonathan Marlow
August 30, 2004 - 10:40 AM PDT

"These films were never meant to be analyzed."

The following is a partial transcript from a roundtable discussion at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center on 28-April-2004, with stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen, animator Phil Tippett, film historian and director Arnold Kunert (who spearheaded the campaign to get Harryhausen a star on the Walk of Fame in Los Angeles) and Richard Peterson (director of programming for the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center).

From Jason and the Argonauts

Part One: Beginnings

Ray Harryhausen: My old friend here! An armature for Mighty Joe!

Phil Tippett: This is a recreation that a friend of mine did after one of the existing Mighty Joe Youngs. This is a down-to-the-thousands-inch replica of the armature Ray designed for Mighty Joe Young.

Arnold Kunert: He'll have difficulty keeping his hands off that throughout the evening...

Tippett: I can promise you that.

Harryhausen: I don't want to be hooked again.

Kunert: The problem with DVDs these days is that fans of Ray's, all with good intentions, will point out a surface gauge or [some mistake] in the film that they found by going frame-by-frame.

Harryhausen: These films were never meant to be analyzed. They're all the first-takes. Sometimes I would forget and leave a pair of pliers [in the shot]. I'd get a fan letter, "Oh, I saw a pair of pliers." One fellow wrote a whole article about a jiggling lock and I never saw that in the film.

Tippett: The asthetic of it, the quality of the movement or, as Ray characterized it, the surreal layering of all the elements. Your mind just stops asking questions and you let yourself go and be entertained. The moment that the Cyclops came out [in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad], it was all over - the Cyclops, for many of us, is the quintessential Ray Harryhausen design. How did you come about designing the Cyclops?

Harryhausen: Well, the Cyclops went through many changes. At first he had normal legs. I think it's in the book [Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, co-authored with Tony Dalton], this rather early concept of a strange creature with hairy legs. Then I thought everybody would think it was a man in a suit, so I gave him a satyr's body, a satyr's lower half. You couldn't possibly get a human leg into that position. Then I finally decided to put a horn on the top of his head. He went through quite a few changes.

Tippett: I seem to remember looking at a number of the storyboards and the pre-production illustrations that were done for it. The idea for the Cyclops actually went way back, when you were doing Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, It Came from Beneath the Sea, while you were trying to develop the idea for 20 Million Miles to Earth...

Harryhausen: The Ymir [from 20 Million Miles] went through a similar process where he had two horns and one eye. He was going to be a cyclopean Ymir. Then he was very stout but didn't satisfy me. I kept making new drawings. I finally ran into the humanoid figure because you can get a much more interesting movement out of it.

From 20 Million Miles to Earth

Tippett: It is so unusual for the artist to do their own design and critique [their own work]. These days, we're used to a director and a litany of people from the production department coming down and giving their two cents. If you do 800,000 design drawings, each one will have a different idea - I like the eyes from this one and the face from that one and the tail from that one. It becomes this odd chimera. You were in a position, in developing your own projects, where you were able to be completely autonomous and decide when something good enough.

Harryhausen: I was in a fortunate position. Charles Schneer and I made these pictures for very little money. It was very important, after Mighty Joe Young, animation got the reputation of being very costly. I had to go in the opposite extreme and try to make the pictures cost as little as possible. My first solo venture was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Richard Peterson: Let's go back to Mighty Joe Young. You were inspired by King Kong, done by Willis O'Brien. You probably never imagined when you saw the film in 1933 that you would ever work for Willis O'Brien but you did eventually work for him on Mighty Joe Young. You actually did about 90% of the animation on that.

Harryhausen: Yes, I did.

Peterson: Talk about that relationship a little bit because you were working with your hero...

Harryhausen: He was my mentor. I learned about him at the Los Angeles Museum which had several of his miniatures on display in the basement. I was still in high school. I looked over during the study period and a girl had this big book with wonderful illustrations from King Kong. I almost flipped. I told her of my desire to make animation - I'd learned about it by that time - and she said her father had worked with Willis O'Brien on The Last Days of Pompeii. "Just call him up, he's at MGM." The next day I called him up and he invited me down to see the preparation of The War Eagles [an unfinished film where monster-fighting Vikings used oversized eagles as steeds]. I was awed by that. He had three rooms, drawings on every inch of the wall. War Eagles was never made, unfortunately.

Kunert: Prior to going in to meet O'Brien, it seems like, similar to myself and many other people, King Kong was the catalyst. That was the galvanizing thing that set you on this path...

Harryhausen: Willis O'Brien, at least in America, was the originator of stop-motion animation.

Kunert: There wasn't anything else out there.

Tippett: Stop-motion was pretty much relegated to the puppet films, like [Ladislas] Starevitch. Obie was really the first one to combine it with photographic effects and matte paintings.

Kunert: Between King Kong and Mighty Joe Young, in America, there wasn't anything else. Somehow you made your own cave bear out of your mother's fur coat, you made a mammoth and dinosaurs. You had been doing quite a bit of work.

Harryhausen: I made a lot of tests. I had just won an award for a little diorama with a Stegosaurus. I was very proud of that and I put it in a suitcase along with several other animals. I showed it to him [O'Brien] and he said, "The legs [of the Stegosaurus] look like sausages. You'd better study anatomy." So I went back to school and studied anatomy. Now, most of my animals look like Arnold Schwarzenegger!

Tippett: Also, as a result of Obie's suggestion, in addition to anatomy you studied all of the various aspects of filmmaking - editing and lighting and camerawork. You understood how the whole process worked.

Harryhausen: I had to because I couldn't find anyone else to light the scenes so I learned something about lighting. I went to night school at USC. This was right after the war and the film business was looked down about and not really something for the university. So we were stuck away at night [in a corner of the campus]. I took up film editing, which I am grateful for, and art direction. They had art directors from Hollywood giving lectures there. I studied photography. That helped enormously.

Kunert: Your parents were always there for you. This is something that we don't hear very much today - parents tend to be more dysfunctional these days, it seems, but your parents were behind you from the very first moment. They never questioned you. Your mother made all of the costumes for the fairy tales [Ray's Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, The Story of Little Red Riding Hood, Mother Goose Stories and King Midas shorts were circulated to schools all across America]; your dad built all of the armatures. Incredible! What motivated you to take a class in combat photography?

Harryhausen: I was working with George Pal at the time on the first twelve Puppetoons. The war came along and I thought, "Well, I'm going to be drafted eventually." I thought I'd better try to do something that I knew something about. I enrolled in a course - Eastman Kodak and Columbia Pictures had this course at nights on combat photography - and I realized that they [the combat photographers] were shot like clay pigeons by the enemy! I was quite innocent in those days. It's tough to go back to innocence.

Tippett: You worked with [Frank] Capra on the Why We Fight films...

Harryhausen: While I was attending these classes on weekends, I made a short film at night. I felt a compulsion to do this, to show how stop-motion animation could be used in training films. I made this little 16mm picture in my garage and showed it to my teacher at the time and he showed it to Frank Capra. So, I transferred into his division. I worked with Ted Geisel [Dr. Seuss] on the Snafu cartoons. His department laid out all of the cartoons and then turned them over to Disney or Warner Bros. or Universal to execute them. That was a great experience and I always appreciated it.

Tippett: How many years was it from the time that you saw Kong... did you see it during its original release in 1933?

Harryhausen: I saw the original screening at Grauman's Chinese Theater [in Hollywood].

Tippett: You started working on Mighty Joe Young in 1945?

Harryhausen: I started in 1945 when I got out of the Army. I was with O'Brien for about two-and-a-half years. The first year we were just preparing the picture. It was on and then it was off. It was going to be in color; then it was in black and white. In the meantime, while the script was being formulated, Obie was making many drawings and they were incorporated into the script. I had the great pleasure of mounting the drawings, just on a minor retainer fee. I helped to mount pictures and sharpen the pencils! I began to know how he thought in planning scenes. He'd make twenty little sketches a day and I would mount them all and label them.

Tippett: The amazing thing to me is the technology that was available at the time. You were shooting on 16mm for your own projects. You were "home schooled" in stop-motion.

Harryhausen: Today you have so many books on stop-motion and special effects.

Tippett: In those days, too, once you completed a shot you had to unload the camera, take the film to the lab and, if you were lucky and if you lived in-town, you might get it back the next day but probably not for two or three days. The lag time between actually moving something and understanding [if it worked] is quite an amazing feat. I liken it to playing the piano with earmuffs on. Ultimately, by the time you get to Mighty Joe Young, you've developed a style that's flawless - the signature Ray Harryhausen style.

Harryhausen: When I started Mighty Joe Young, I used a stopwatch. I had a lot of experience with the fairy tales, but a gorilla is something different. At tea breaks, I would eat celery and carrots so that I could feel like a gorilla!

Kunert: In the Little Miss Muffet and Mother Goose Stories, all the way through the time you were preparing Mighty Joe Young, your were polishing your animation skills and developing new techniques, all of which you eventually integrated [into your work].

Harryhausen: You have to project yourself into the figure when you're animating, otherwise it doesn't ring true.

next >>>

"These films were never meant to be analyzed."
"The windows of the soul."

back to past articles


Jonathan Marlow
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

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