“God Complex,” Hallowed by thy Name!

An Interview with Ray Harryhausen

by Volume 9, Issue 8 / September 2005 18 minutes (4305 words)

It was a thrill to finally interview legendary stop-motion animator and special effects genius Ray Harryhausen, an artist I’ve been in awe of since I was a child. Harryhausen saw the original King Kong at the impressionable age of thirteen during its first run and it changed his life forever. His desire to learn how Kong was made led to a lifelong career of his own in special effects, specializing in stop-motion animation, a process whereby custom-constructed realistic miniature puppets are manipulated by hand frame-per-frame and composited with live action elements to make them look as if they’re mingling with live actors (the same process used by Harryhausen’s mentor Willis O’Brien for King Kong). In turn, Harryhausen inspired countless others to pursue special effects careers of their own. Among some of his most renowned films are Mighty Joe Young, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 20 Million Miles to Earth, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years BC, Valley of Gwangi, and the film he retired with in 1981, Clash of the Titans.

Trembles with idol Harryhausen

This year the FanTasia Film Festival, in conjunction with fps Magazine, brought the 85 year old Harryhausen to Montreal to present him with a lifetime achievement award. But the day before he was scheduled to personally introduce Jason and the Argonauts to FanTasia audiences and deliver a Q&A, he appeared at a few public autograph signings at Montreal shops to promote his latest DVD release “Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection.” To my astonishment, one of these signings was so sparsely attended I got to spend close to an hour with Harryhausen and his handler. My jaw dropped when Harryhausen pulled out one of the actual skeleton animation models he used in both The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. He had it lying inside a toy coffin where I was able to examine it up close. It was still remarkably detailed despite the fact that it’s almost 50 years old and made up of built-up cotton and liquid latex over a metal armature. Eventually, Harryhausen took the model out of its coffin and began to play with the malleable limbs. I asked if by any chance I could bend one of them and he graciously allowed me to. As he held the base I delicately and nervously bent the skeleton’s arm and then moved away muttering excitedly to myself how I’d always wanted to know what it felt like to manipulate one of his creations. Pliability was remarkably smooth and rigid at the same time. I went around for the next few days asking people if they’d like to touch my finger because I touched movie magic history and it felt all tingly!

Trembles Touches Movie History

Later on, realizing the autograph session was nearing its end, I fixed my gaze on the model to examine every detail as closely as I could, knowing it was my last chance. I couldn’t find any seams anywhere revealing where the metal joints might be screwed together despite Harryhausen explaining how he’d occasionally have to do surgery to make repairs mid-shoot. I noticed that the hands and feet had less detail, individual digits weren’t represented. They were blobbed together into single masses because filming didn’t call for close-ups on them. Hands were tightly wound around swords and shields so they were never in view enough to scrutinize on film. As I moved around to get a better look, suddenly Harryhausen snatched his model away and returned it to its coffin, snapping me out of my trance. It was a little awkward, like we were two little boys and I was looking at his toy too intently. Friends ribbed me later how Harryhausen probably thought I was getting ready to steal his baby and run away. I like to think he simply thought my incessant staring was rude and I was embarrassing his creation. After all, the same skeleton was banned by UK censors when first released, deemed “the most extreme form of nudity” (according to Harryhausen in an interview). The following is my own interview with him over the phone to Hollywood conducted July 13, 2005, the week before his visit.

Offscreen: Hello?

Ray Harryhausen: Yes.

Offscreen: Mr. Harryhausen? Oh hello, how do you do? It’s a pleasure to talk to you; I’ve been a fan for many years.

RH: Oh great, wonderful. What pictures did you like the best?

Offscreen: Which do I like the best? Oh, um, it’s all over the place. Mysterious Island, I love the honeycomb sequence…

RH: Oh yes.

Offscreen: Um, ??Seventh Voyage of Sinbad??… Oh yeah. I like it all. Um, I have a lot of books and magazines on the topic too. I dunno if you were given my questions. I was told to email questions beforehand.

RH: I like to be spontaneous about those things.

Offscreen: Ok, good.

RH: Just so I don’t start figuring out what kind of answers to give.

Offscreen: Ok, I’ll fire away… You’ve expressed a preference for straight-ahead animation over the kind of preplanned pose-to-pose method that George Pal employed in his more restrictive replacement-animation Puppetoons (a technique that employed multiple pre-animated sculptures in various poses rather than one bendable model). Can you give me an example of any sequences where you were in the middle of a shot and decided to go somewhere other than expected with your technique?

RH: You mean in the Willis O’Brien technique?

Offscreen: Well from what I understand, you left room for improvisation.

RH: Oh yes, that’s the beauty about the single figure. It’s a jointed figure that has every joint that a real anatomy would have and then one pose leads to another. When I start a scene I know the broad outline but not the details. They come to you as you’re animating.

Offscreen: Has there ever been an instance where your character went completely somewhere you didn’t expect it to?

RH: Well sometimes, but we try to keep it so that you don’t have to because usually everything I’ve done is one take (laughs). Whereas with computer generated animation you can go over and over and re-plan it. But we never had time or the budgets to do that. And nine-tenths of everything you see in the 16 features I’ve worked on, they are all first takes.

Offscreen: Fantastic. How would this affect your placement of tie-down holes? (Note: Harryhausen’s movable mechanical armatures, the fully functional skeletons his creatures were built over, had to be fastened to the miniature tabletops they traversed in order to freeze them in space for cameras to capture them frame-by-frame, so “tie-down” holes got drilled throughout sets for their feet to get bolted secure). Would you speckle your miniature sets entirely with potential areas for your creations to wander around in?

RH: Sometimes, depending on the project. Particularly with a certain type of animation. I know O’Brien, with some of it, would have a board with many holes. When we did Mighty Joe Young we had a table with holes every inch, drilled in, and they were hidden by matte paintings and miniatures.

Offscreen: So that left a lot of room for improvisation.

Trembles across from Harryhausen

RH: Yes, so when you’re animating you could put the foot anywhere, as long as it gets to a hole.

Offscreen: Was there ever an instance where you wanted your creature to get somewhere and there wasn’t a hole?

RH: Oh yes, then you drill one as you go along. That’s why it’s much more creative than the static puppet film.

Offscreen: When you’d be working with projected elements to be composited, for instance in a shadowboxing sequence between a human and a creature, would you rehearse the choreography of your models in your head while rerunning the live action footage?

RH: Well you’d do the live action footage first of course. We used stuntmen as in the case of the seven skeletons (Jason and the Argonauts). We had stuntmen with the numbers on their backs from one to seven, so we could keep track of where one crosses the screen, he’d get to a certain point to receive the sword of the actor. During the shadowboxing process, he stops the sword at a certain place. You gotta have a skeleton at that point. That means analyzing every frame.

Offscreen: Ok, so it’s a little more restrictive then.

RH: Oh very, because it required enormous synchronization, with seven skeletons all running around, getting them to give the appearance of them stopping the actors’ swords.

Offscreen: Ok, so anytime there’s any kind of interaction with any live-action element there are more restrictions.

RH: Oh, absolutely, it takes a longer time because you have to analyze every frame and make counts and notes about it.

Offscreen: King Kong puppet builder Marcel Delgado paid so much attention to detail he apparently used a cotton build-up technique when constructing animation models as opposed to injecting foam latex into molds which I believe is the method you chose for economic reasons.

RH: It took less time, that was the main reason.

Offscreen: He’d build up ligaments and musculature in anatomically correct layers so that when joints would bend, the muscles would actually shift to and fro under the skin like actual living beings.

RH: On Mighty Joe Young he did a model with separate individual muscles.

Offscreen: Did you ever have the opportunity to animate one of these constructions or at least manipulate one to get the feel of it, and what was the difference, if any?

RH: Yes one of the Mighty Joes I did, it didn’t change it that much. It depends. That was the way they were doing it in the early days before foam rubber.

Offscreen: Foam’s a little more sophisticated as a process, right?

RH: Yes.

Offscreen: But did you notice much difference? Could you see the musculature shift underneath? Did that actually occur?

RH: It depends on the sculptor.

Offscreen: Ok. Because it’s an interesting idea, it must be a thrill to actually animate that, to actually feel the musculature shift underneath.

RH: Well yes, that gives it a little more plausibility. But you gotta project yourself into it, into the figure, because otherwise it’s just movement for the sake of movement.

Offscreen: You have to provide character.

RH: Maybe it’s called a “god complex” if there’s such a complex (laughs).

Offscreen: No matter how technically fantastic a model might be it all comes down to who’s manipulating it.

RH: Well if you wanna get something with character rather than just an animated model. That takes a lot of experience.

Offscreen: Under the duress of being covered with foam latex, armatures can apparently encounter problems, like screws loosening or joints freezing up. Have you ever had to perform major surgery or retooling on a model mid-shoot?

RH: Oh yes, it depends; sometimes a puppet has to be taken apart completely.

Offscreen: Right in the middle of a shot?

RH: Overnight, yes.

Offscreen: Could you share with us any sequences in particular where you can recall this having happened?

RH: Oh no (laughs), it’s so long ago.

Offscreen: Nothing that we could spot, huh?

RH: No, I can’t recall.

Offscreen: Seamless.

RH: Sometimes the puppet will fall over if the joint is loose in the middle of the scene and then you have to start all over again.

Offscreen: From scratch.

RH: Yeah, because you don’t know exactly where it was.

Offscreen: Hot lights might affect it?

RH: Sometimes. And then sometimes just the wear of the ball and socket joints.

Offscreen: Former stop motion animator Phil Tippet’s go-motion process more than did the job of solving the problem of strobing but apparently it was a somewhat restrictive way to work. (Note: The problem of “strobing” has always dogged stop-motion animators, the effect of onscreen jerkiness whenever a model moves too fast because freeze-framing doesn’t capture the natural blurs that occur in live-action. Tippet’s revolutionary go-motion process had computerized rods automatically move the puppet while the shutter was open to create a blur, a process that eventually led to the kind of full, often overly blurred CGI we’ve been inundated with for years now). Other methods have been to take multiple exposures per frame of a model’s movements or to smudge a piece of glass in front of the model with Vaseline-like substance.

RH: Oh yeah, they all used different techniques.

Offscreen: Have you ever experimented trying to come up with a solution to this problem?

RH: Oh yes, but I don’t think it’s that big a problem.

Offscreen: Well, in your work it isn’t, but did it ever dictate or influence the staging and characteristics of any of your creatures?

RH: Oh, it would restrict you enormously. It would all depend on microscopic movements (laughs). If you make a millimeter movement, it’s much slower than a centimeter movement.

Offscreen: I happen to own a pack of old color 3D View-Master slides about dinosaurs entitled Prehistoric Animals.

RH: Yes, from the Animal World film?

Offscreen: Yes, and I’ve heard that during the peak of the 3D craze you experimented with 3-D but found the prospect too impractical for puppet animated motion pictures.

RH: It’s just too time consuming because it would mean you’d have to shift the camera, and in my technique I used rear projection a lot so that would mean you’d have to change the rear projection image as well. It was just too impractical to make a picture that way; it would take too long, particularly for one person. And I always worked alone.

Offscreen: Are these 3D View-master images the results of these tests?

RH: No. At the end of the film, when we finished, we took a week and I worked with the people who produced this effect and I posed all the animals for that particular situation.

Offscreen: So you did indeed do the 3D setups for those View-Master reels.

RH: Yes I posed them in the proper positions.

Offscreen: That’s great. Have any of the film footage tests survived? Did you do any actual film footage in 3D of these View-Master subjects?

RH: I only made some tests of my own for a film we were going to make called The Elementals and also with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. But I don’t know what happened to them, I can’t find them.

Offscreen: That’s too bad, that would be nice to dig up.

RH: It was good up to a point. But using the rear projector, you would get 3D in the foreground and no 3D in the background unless you went to all the trouble of shooting the double image for that purpose.

Offscreen: It must still be a thrill to see. I wouldn’t doubt if it made the miniatures look a little like miniatures too though.

RH: Oh yes, I think so.

Offscreen: Your “Ymir” creature (from 20 Million Miles to Earth) came to a spectacular end atop the Roman Coliseum inspired by the demise of the original King Kong. If you were involved in a Kong remake taking place in a contemporary setting, have you ever thought what kind of landmark you might like to employ to stage a last stand that could match the kind of impact and topicality the Empire State Building had in its day?

RH: (Laughs) no I… Not really, I think it’s difficult because the Empire State Building was a special monument in 1933 and now there are other types of buildings that even top its height. It was ideal for that period. I think one would have to think it through very carefully.

Offscreen: They’re remaking it right down to the Empire State Building climax?

RH: I think so, as far as I know. Peter Jackson, you can’t really call it a remake, it’s his interpretation. It’ll be a different interpretation. In Dino DeLaurentis’ interpretation in the seventies, he took all the fantasy elements out of it.

Offscreen: It was terrible, yeah.

RH: It was one of the great fantasy films of all time, so if you remove the fantasy elements, it becomes kind of ridiculous.

Offscreen: It was gibberish.

RH: Particularly to have a girl make smart-talk to a big gorilla.

Offscreen: Years ago I saw you speak at a horror movie convention and when someone asked you which director you’d like best to work with in the future I believe you quipped either Mel Brooks or Woody Allen. If you were to come out of retirement is there anyone you’d like to work with today?

RH: (Laughs) oh not really, I don’t think I’d want to. I don’t think I’d wanna come out of retirement.

Offscreen: Is the long-running debate over computer generated imagery versus stop-motion animation amongst stop motion animation fans and practitioners, like a former colleague of yours, Jim Danforth, still raging or have they all begun to accept CGI?

RH: CGI has its virtues as a tool, but they hype it to the point where everything else should be discarded which I don’t agree with. Thunderbirds brought back string puppets, Kermit the Frog brought back hand puppets which go back to ancient Rome. So it depends on the story you’re telling. Some techniques are better than others for certain types of stories.

Offscreen: Absolutely.

RH: CGI has a tendency now of becoming mundane because you see in a thirty second commercial the most amazing images, so the amazing image is no longer a shock. Because you see that anything can be done on the computer.

Offscreen: Saturation point.

RH: It reaches the point where I think it defeats itself. And that’s why I think different techniques depend on what story you’re telling.

Offscreen: Uh huh… Ok, this one’s a little longwinded: I used to worry that my bias towards stop-motion over CGI was rooted in the fact that since my youth I invested so much energy marveling at how stop-motion sequences were accomplished, as a fan I bought all the books and magazines on the topic that I could find. But once CGI took over, it left me cold because the materials were less tactile, leaving me uninterested as to how it was executed. But although wonderful things are being done via computer, the more I think about it, the more I realize there’s simply a different kind of magic going on in stop-motion, a whole different category unto itself.

RH: Completely. I get a lot of fan mail saying they prefer my films to CGI. But like I said CGI is overexposed and you know anything can be done. On a fantasy film I think it defeats the point if you try to make it too realistic. Half the charm of King Kong was that it was like a nightmare. You couldn’t believe you eyes. You knew it wasn’t real and yet it looked real.

Offscreen: But people’s thresholds have irreversibly evolved to a sophisticated level when it comes to suspension of disbelief.

RH: They’re a little more critical today.

Offscreen: Yeah, like King Kong for example actually made audience members faint when it first came out, but today it’s even difficult to get some viewers through a black and white film.

RH: I know (laughs).

Offscreen: Do you think stop-motion could ever be a viable medium again?

RH: Of course, if it gets the right story.

Offscreen: I’m referring specifically to the kind that tries to emulate “realism” as opposed to cartoony puppet animation.

RH: Yeah but that isn’t the point in fantasy, to make it too real.

Offscreen: But I mean, like, as opposed to Tim Burton-style puppets.

Harryhausen on stage with Fantasia’s André Dubois and (background) fps‘s Emru Townsend

RH: They’re very stylized.

Offscreen: My favorite is when there are otherworldly stop motion creatures interacting with actual human beings. But I just wonder if people’s thresholds have irreversibly evolved to the sophistication of CGI.

RH: Motion pictures have become so inundated in our society over the years. Stop motion adds something to a fantasy film whereas with CGI, I could never see the point of making everything too real, unless you’re making, you know, a special documentary about something. The BBC made Walking with Dinosaurs and that was beautifully done. But that was a different thing. I think when you’re making a melodrama or a subject depending on fantasy subjects, if you make it too real you lose, you defeat the point, you bring it down to the mundane.

Offscreen: If you discount the close-ups, the staging for stop-motion animation is very theatrical, inspiring an almost primal recognition of the proscenium arch. Magician’s sleight-of-hand comes into play also when there’s a need to distract audiences away from potential flaws in a composite or something (whenever strong creature design and action isn’t already doing the job). It has a classic theatricality to it as opposed to CGI where extreme, dizzying, impossible camera moves have become the new sleight-of-hand, you know, just to distract.

RH: It’s very difficult to do that in stop-motion.

Offscreen: But the stop motion on the other hand has this wonderful theatricality where it just commands your attention.

RH: I’ve always felt that yes. Are you involved in animation personally?

Offscreen: Oh yes, I’m more of an armchair animator but I’ve tried my hand at stop motion. As a career, I don’t know, but for the rest of my life I’ll always be trying to build some puppets to animate. The cost gets a little higher now that some of the materials are becoming more and more obsolete but I think you can mix and match with digital, do the stop motion with a digital camera.

RH: A combination I think would work quite well.

Offscreen: Especially for a hobbyist, you know?

RH: As you know, lip-sync in stop motion is very difficult. It looks so mechanical in the puppet movies, but people don’t mind it because it’s stylized.

Offscreen: Speaking of lip-sync, I wanted to ask you about the Baron Munchausen creature in your latest DVD “The Early Years Collection.” There’s a brief clip from your early tests that is just unbelievable. The lip-sync is fantastic.

RH: Oh, talking to the child?

Offscreen: Yes, apparently you had wires behind it? You were manipulating wires?

RH: No they were little levers. The head was about 2 or 3 inches in diameter so we could put little levers to get different expressions. Again, so long-drawn and complicated I had to give it up. In Clash of the Titans we had a character called Calibos and at first there was no dialogue for him, he was mute, and I was gonna animate it totally but as the script developed we found it necessary to give him dialogue. So that’s why we chose an actor like Neil McCarthy who had a very strong face, and we added a little makeup to make him look like the animated model for dialogue close-ups only.

Offscreen: Well I hope there’s a resurgence. I think there could be, maybe not so much in a commercial sense but, you know, experimental maybe, experimental movies could employ stop motion. The line has blurred between experimental and commercial before so I don’t see why not.

RH: Yes, well people are so critical, you know, I’ve learned over the years that no matter what you do or how good it is, somebody will come outta the woodwork and criticize it (laughs). Everybody wants to be a critic. In the old days, you know, motion pictures were a novelty. But today journalists say negative things about them which influence the audience and then they start looking for the flaws rather than the entertainment value.

Offscreen: I dunno, I believe there should be a resurgence of some kind because it’s too good. It’s a good medium.

RH: Yes it is, it’s a delightful medium and very flexible if you have imagination.

Offscreen: And tactile. Well I look forward to seeing you in Montreal and Jason and the Argonauts again on the big screen this time.

RH: Right, let yourself be known, as I say I meet so many people it’s hard for me to remember names (laughs).

Offscreen: Let myself be known?

RH: Yes, if we get together, remind me again.

Offscreen: Ok, Rick Trembles is the name… as in “trembling.”

RH: Ok, I’ll remember that name.

A shocked looking Trembles with the Man

Offscreen: Remember that I’m the one that interviewed you about all the little technical details. Thank you very much.

RH: You’re very welcome and all the best. And good luck with your animation. Bye-bye.

All photos featuring Rick Trembles and Ray Harryhausen courtesy of Jerry Scott

Rick Trembles’ own twisted film review comic panels are familiar to Montrealers from their appearance in the Montreal weekly Mirror. The panels have been compiled in the book Motion Picture Purgatory, which was launched at FanTasia last year. The book can be purchased directly from its publisher FAB.

For a whole lot more fun and information on Trembles’ music (The American Devices), comic art, animation, and film work I urge you to visit his personal website snubdom.

Volume 9, Issue 8 / September 2005 Festival Reports   animation   fantasia   fantastic cinema   jason and the argonauts   king kong   mighty joe young   ray harryhausen   science fiction