Before I knew his name, I knew who he was.
First time would have been when I lived in Vancouver, more years ago than I care to get into; I would have been 6 or 7. Anyway one favorite, and repeated excursion was to a nearby theater that would show “family friendly” movie matinees every weekend. Remember this was before home video, so these would have been your only chance to see such classics outside of the afternoon movie on one of your 13 local and national channels. They showed movies, and we went frequently. And more often than not, it was a movie where the Big Name was the guy who made the monsters. Actually, let’s fix that, because Ray Harryhausen never thought of them as monsters. Creatures, yes, but not monsters. He was very specific about that when I met him years later.
The Ray Harryhausen movies were the draw for us kids. Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (based on a story by his childhood friend, and another Ray — Bradbury). They were colorful even when they were in black and white, with easily defined lines between good and evil, with a menagerie of giant vultures, Cyclops’, sea creatures, dragons, and skeletons waiting in the wings to strike.
[A note about those skeletons; at a screening of Jason and the Argonauts in 2004, the climactic appearance of those skeletons brought an entire theater to its feet, filling the auditorium with cheers. Ray was there and smiled the whole time.]
Back in Vancouver, all my dad had to saw was “Ray Harryhausen movie” to get me into the car. See, even he knew who Ray was. And I grew up with Ray as a giant figure in my life, as big as Godzilla who while a man in a suit, still held true to the vision Ray Harryhausen established; creatures, not monsters. In summer of 1980 I even made my own Super-8 stop-motion animated film. Well, not really a film; just a bunch of my Star Wars toys animated by my unseen hand and 24 frames per second. I still have it here.
For years to follow, every so often when one of ray’s movies would appear on TV on a rainy afternoon, it had my attention even when I had seen it numerous times before. This continued through my teens and into my 20s, and when I bought my first DVD player, the very first DVD I bought and watched on it was The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
In 2004 I got to meet and interview Ray (following that rare screening of Jason and the Argonauts, no less) on the occasion of the release of Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life. My hour with him began as he, his publicist, and his assistant were finishing their room service lunch (and Ray, ever the grandfather, reminded his assistant she hadn’t finished the capers on her Eggs Benedict) He was a very friendly, soft spoken man, and for the next hour we talked. About movies. About his work. About his favorite movie (one he shared with me, King Kong) About the generations of filmmakers he inspired.
That last point is the one you’ll hear a lot of this week. The people he influenced, and the films they made that serve as 24 fps tributes to Ray. Steven Spielberg and Jurassic Park; George Lucas and Star Wars; James Cameron and Terminator 2; Guillermo del Toro and Pacific Rim (surely the ultimate homage to Ray’s genius). But for me the ones he had the greatest impact on are the low budget DIY filmmakers who work out of the sheer love of the craft. The ones you haven’t heard about yet. That’s Ray’s legacy; he set the bar all creative types have to try and live up to.
So thanks, Ray, for everything. We’ll try our best to make you proud.
[My interview with Ray ran in Rue Morgue Magazine, albeit in a slightly edited form. In honor of Ray, and with Rue Morgue’s blessing, I have included the full interview below.
“The story is forgotten a lot of times among the effects driven films you see today. You know a lot of people criticized my stories for being very simple, but that was the key to their success; they’re simple morality tales. The fantasy aspects are what make them unique. You can’t go on having a complicated story with fantasy; you’re making a story all ages can enjoy.”
To call Ray Harryhausen opinionated is an understatement; he’s been around the block enough times to state, in blunt terms, what he likes and dislikes about what he sees as the decline of good storytelling in the movies. And he should know; from the first viewing of King Kong through a lifetime of dreaming his own legendary monsters, this icon has created, shaped and influenced fantasy film storytelling more than any other. From the towering Cyclops of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and skeletal warriors of Jason and the Argonauts to dinosaurs and flying saucers, Gorgons and Harpies. Now, his memoir Ray Harryhausen; An Animated Life is introducing a new generation to his work and re-acquainting a legion of fans with the creations he spawned. And unlike many of today’s filmmakers; students of the “more is more” school of effects overkill, Harryhausen can still pinpoint the key to making us believe in the wondrous.
“With effects today the doors are wide open and that’s part of the problem,” he states bluntly. “In the fifties the amazing image was unique. But today in a thirty-second commercial you see the most amazing things; so the unique is now rather mundane. That isn’t to say there isn’t still some innovation in movies today. From the time I saw Willis O’Brien’s work in The Lost World I was fascinated by dinosaurs. And several years ago the BBC did a series called Walking with Dinosaurs that was just wonderful. They looked very real; you could do dolly and helicopter shots of these herds of dinosaurs that would have taken forever in the days I was working. But on the whole my wife and I don’t go to many films today; they’re all too violent and depressing for me. They’re looking into the gutter when they should be gazing at the stars.”
Indeed Harryhausen’s films inspired a generation of storytellers to look at the stars; genre heavyweights Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Peter Jackson all lists his work as a major influence. We need not look far from the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park and the armies of Mordor to feel his influence. Harryhausen wonders; “Why do people still watch my work? I think they find something more to it than meets the eye; there’s more to our stories than people give us credit for. Maybe people today just want the spectacle placed over the story because they’re accustomed to that. The effects are beautifully done but lots of movies [today] seem to be built around what they can do with effects. They are important but shouldn’t take precedent over a good story told well.”
Yet the child in Harryhausen beams when he recalls the thrill of watching a giant ape climb the Empire State Building those many years ago, and feels a kinship with the filmmakers his work inspired in turn. It was seeing Kong that led him to seek out the creator of the film’s still extrordinary effects, the legendary Willis O’Brien. “He was a friend and a mentor in that order,” Harryhausen smiles warmly. “He taught me a lot; the importance of studying anatomy which I took very seriously. Any artist should have an interest in and take inspiration from the real world and use that as their basis. You can study anatomy, movement, sculpture; but it’s more important to keep the story front in your mind.“
And yet, for all the talk of people and films he’s influenced, Harryhausen draws a long sigh, lamenting the slide in quality storytelling in film today.
“The studios are trying to make silk purses out of sow’s ears and failing miserably. The old Studio System, for all its faults, really made brilliant films. But now businessmen and lawyers and bankers are running the studios; they don’t love movies, they love product. And they make product.”
“Now, I never worked ‘in’ the studio system,” he continues. “That was one of the benefits. Animation was a unique field; back then people didn’t know very much about it so I was able to work independently. It started out as a hobby working alone in my garage but I always worked alone. Every bit of animation you see in my films [besides Clash of the Titans] was done by myself. And the people who just thought I was an effects man were wrong; I was involved through the entire process. I’d bring in many original ideas. On all of the Sinbad films I brought in a twenty-page outline and we’d get a professional writer to come in and elaborate on it. But they mainly came from my drawings because the writer couldn’t envision what I could do for the least expense. We made our pictures on a very tight budget, yet tried to get a very spectacular feel to them. And I think we achieved that. “It would often depend with us on what was possible given the money and time we had. I would often start by doing pictures of various sequences that I felt I could do for a reasonable cost. The writer and I would have numerous discussions as to what was possible and he’d put that in.”
“And even now that has changed; movies are so ambitious that the work is done in groups, which can also lead to a watering down of creativity. The reliance on computers; they call it progress. I think there’s still a place for more traditional forms of animation but ultimately it’s the public purse that decides if they want spectacle every five minutes.”
At eighty-four, Harryhausen should be content to enjoy himself and stay far away from the trials of modern moviemaking, but of course he has other plans; “I have something new that is coming out,” he beams. “The Tortoise and the Hare is something that I started in 1952 but never finished; I was too busy with features. I still had the puppets though and two young fans contacted me about four years back and asked if they could finish it. So I loaned them the puppets and the camera I used and they finished it! So you’ll see it on video and DVD with the other fairy tales I’ve made since 1945. Hopefully it will be released in time for this Christmas.”
Ray Harryhausen is one of the last of a generation whose impact on storytelling may never be fully appreciated. But he remains a quiet, humble man, proud of his work and overwhelmed that it still draws fans around the world. “I hope this book will be an inspiration to people who know my work and also to those just starting to learn about it. All told I have been very fortunate to be able to do something I always wanted to do and that’s how I spent my life.”