When Ray Harryhausen was a young boy, his parents took him to a movie called King Kong and he decided to devote his life to creating the same kinds of effects that made him believe there was a giant ape on the Empire State Building. "For me it stimulated a dramatic imagination of a gothic nature." He taught himself the same stop-motion animation techniques that were used in King Kong and the dinosaur movie, The Lost World. In films like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and It Came from Beneath the Sea he took movie special effects to an entirely new level of fantastic realism.
Mr. Harryhausen was at Comic-Con to promote a new 50th anniversary release of 20 Million Miles To Earth with lots of DVD extras. On Friday night, he provided live commentary for the film, noting at least three times that the Venusian reptile monster (called Ymir by the film-makers but not identified that way onscreen) never attacked anyone until he was attacked first. It was clear that he had more affection for the creature than he did for the story's human characters. Understandable -- the reptile was a better actor. On Saturday, he sat down with a small group of reporters to talk about his career.
I began by asking Mr. Harryhausen if he thought that what he was doing was acting as well as animating.
Of course! You're working with actors so you can't let them upstage you. I learned from King Kong you have to get sympathy for the villain. Hard to do with a Tyrannasaurus Rex! You can get sympathy for a humanoid form, but it is harder to get sympathy for an animal. So we adapted the original design for Ymir to make him more like a human, his torso anyway. He originally had one eye, like a cyclops. We had to wiggle the tail a lot to distract the audience. I always did a lot of research but was not bound by it, just inspired by it. The Ymir was from Norse mythology originally, but we changed our mind.
I brought in the story; I was very modest in those days. It took me 50 years to learn that modesty is a dirty word in Hollywood. Originally, we had the rocket ship land in Chicago, but I wanted a trip to Rome, so we moved the landing to Italy so I could go there and scout locations. We added our ruins to theirs.
He did not feel that his artistic vision was compromised by colorizing the new release.
We would have shot them in color if we had the budget. We had to do them on the cheap and not let them look cheap.
He does not admire what he calls the "hyper-realism" of today's CGI special effects or DVDs that reveal too much about how the effects were created.
When you try to make fantasy too realistic you defeat the fantasy. It is a shame that DVDs tell everyone how everything was done. It spoils the fantasy.
Fantasy was a word he came back to several times.
I did not do horror; I did fantasy. Fantasy is "what if" -- it's stretching your imagination. We don't want to be associated with horror. I don't like them to be called monster films.
He liked to run things himself and seemed pleased he was getting credit not just for the special effects but for the movies.
I liked to work alone because I didn't like anyone telling me what to do. This was not director's picture in the European sense of the word. In our films, the director's job is to get the best out of the actors. And these were not films built around the actors. We had three different Sinbads. We shot the live action first, planned very carefully. Everything is probably the first take.
He said his two biggest challenges were the multiple characters in Jason and the Argonauts and the Medusa in Clash of the Titans.
The most challenging creature was Medusa with twelve snakes in her hair. I did not want to animate a cosmic goddess, so we gave her a snake's body. We did not want to go with the classical concept of a pretty woman with a pretty face and snakes in her hair; we wanted to make her furious. We borrowed the bow and arrow from Diana. We borrowed the seven heads from Hercules; you always had to remember which head was going in which direction. With the multiple figures in "Jason," We couldn't do rotting corpses coming out of the ground at night in "Jason;" we had to do clean-cut skeletons in the daylight. The things you see today would frighten the devil.
Even in the days before CGI, there were issues of changing technology.
We had the advantages and disadvantages of changing technology in building our creatures. Originally, we used foam rubber, which shrinks 10-15 percent so the clay models were a little fat and you can see that some of the stand-ins were a little stouter. It depends on how long you cook it, how long it holds up. It is fine material, but it will rot. We have a big display of the models in Germany at the Sony Museum.
His childhood influences continued to inspire him. He mentioned King Kong and She several times.
You'll see shades of She in First Men in the Moon.
It sometimes took years of planning before any footage was shot.
My complicated pre-production drawings had two purposes. To help with planning and to let the actors know pretty well what it will look like. Actors have imagination -- an actress might have to make love to a teapot. I have to be very careful to draw things I know I can do because we used them to raise the money.
Toward the end of the interview, we were joined by Mr. Harryhausen's lifelong friend, sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury, nattily attired in suspenders and a tie featuring grinning jack o'lanterns.
We met through our mutual love of dinosaurs. King Kong inspired us both. "The Lost World" -- nothing like it had been done. My first influence was Lon Chaney. I have total recall from birth on, and I can remember when I was very young seeing "Hunchback of Notre Dame." Then "Phantom of the Opera." These things teach you about love, falling in love, stories for a lifetime. Then there was Buck Rogers when I was nine. I got the job of reading the comic strips on the radio. My pay was tickets to the movies -- "King Kong," "Murders in the Wax Museum." I was rich! Because we are surrounded by reality, which is stupid, we fall in love with Beauty and the Beast, Jack the Giant Killer. When I was five years old, I fell in love with fairy tales. Love what you do and do what you love and forget about the money. I wanted to become a magician, and I did, didn't I?
Mr. Harryhausen had one final comment:
And don't let anyone talk you out of it.