Chat with a Titan: Meeting Ray Harryhausen

Critic and author Marshall Julius recalls his final meeting with stop motion effects legend Ray Harryhausen, whose remarkable legacy and incredible archive is explored in Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two) now.

Ray Harryhausen was the first filmmaker I was ever aware of. When I was very small, and barely able to distinguish between real life and the fantasies I’d get lost in on screen, the last thing I thought about were the folks behind the scenes. Ray, though, was something special: An artist and a technician, a magician, really, or the next best thing, who breathed patient, artful life into the creatures inhabiting many of our favourite films.

In an age before computer effects made everything almost instantly possible, Ray gave us all our first peeks of the impossible. Of roaring, stomping prehistoric beasts. Of exotic, hypnotic mythical creatures. Telling wonderful tales of long ago and far away, he was the star of the movies he made, and his name on a poster was all it took it took to send us to the cinema in droves. 

I was 19 when I first met him. It was 1988 and I hadn’t been working long as a journalist. Ray was promoting something or other and I was invited to meet him for a chat and a tour of his West London home. Until that moment, I had no idea he lived in England. What a revelation! A few days later, there I was, sharing tea, biscuits and stories with a legend, surrounded by art and props from the films that formed me. It was such an exciting afternoon, even today, more than 30 years later, I’ve still not calmed down.

Sadly, Ray passed away in 2013, 92 years old but still sharp, still interested in the world, still passionate about his craft. The interview below was written by me in 2004. It remains largely unaltered and full of film fan glee at spending time in the great man’s presence. 

Chat with a Titan: Meeting Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen and Marshall Julius in conversation. Photo courtesy of Marshall Julius.

It’s been years since Ray Harryhausen demolished a city, but he’ll always have his memories. “I destroyed Rome, Washington, New York, San Francisco, Long Beach…”

Ray's creations have risen from 20,000 fathoms and descended from outer space. For more than half a century, Harryhausen’s special effects have astonished audiences and inspired slavish devotion from generations of movie nerds, myself included.

Given the chance to hang out with the genius who gave us dinosaurs, dragons and sword-fighting skeletons in the days before computers made them commonplace, I immediately made my way to Harryhausen’s fabled West London headquarters: his base of operations for more than 40 years. Besides being his home, it's where he did the lion's share of his animating, and also where he housed the most amazing collection ever gathered:  Display cases bulging with models from his films. Walls crowded with incredible original art. Sculptures, screenplays and even an Oscar, a special achievement nod from the Academy in 1992.

Here's the science bit: Working alone with models he designed and built himself, Ray Harryhausen breathed life into his creations via stop motion animation, a painstaking process involving photographing a model, moving it a tiny bit, shooting it again, and so on, hundreds of thousands of times. When the film's played back the model appears to be moving, a neat effect that made a lot of great movies possible: Jason and the Argonauts, the Sinbad adventures and Clash of the Titans among them. “I remember one commentator years ago saying it was pity I didn’t animate the actors as well,” says Harryhausen with a grin.

Fortified with tea and cookies and sitting not ten feet from Ray’s Oscar, I quizzed him about his beginnings in sunny L.A. “I was always interested in the unusual,” he begins. “People thought I was a little peculiar myself.” 

Ray’s destiny became clear back in 1933 when, at the ripe old age of 13, he first saw King Kong. “I wandered innocently into Grauman's Chinese Theatre one afternoon with my mother,” he remembers, “and I haven't been the same since. I fell in love with the movie, with the fantasy, with the fact that someone dared put a 50-foot gorilla with a girl in his hand on the screen. Nobody had ever done that sort of thing before. It was so outrageous and so convincing that it titillated my imagination".

“Kong haunted me. I kept going back to see it again and again. I desperately wanted to know how they’d brought the creatures to life, but unlike today there were no books on the subject, no DVD extras or magazines full of movie secrets. And that’s the way it should be. If you know too much about a film it destroys the fantasy. Today’s audiences are jaded by inside information. Back in 1933, I had no idea how Kong was made and I had no way to find out, so I had to be imaginative and devise my own methods. I started experimenting with a camera and animation models, then I started making my own dinosaurs, and gradually it turned from a hobby into a profession.”

Ray Harryhausen and Marshall Julius. Photo courtesy of Marshall Julius.

By the early 1950s Harryhausen was working on his first solo project. Loosely based on a short story by school chum and fantasy author Ray Bradbury, Harryhausen's job was to make The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms come to life. “Beast was one of the big blockbusters of the '50s because it revived the monster-on-the-loose theme. It also started a cycle of movies about the atomic bomb."

Capitalising on the public's fear of the unknown, the beast tore up New York like a nuke with teeth. “We cashed in on the fact that the atomic bomb was an unknown element. Nobody knew what radiation would do, what kind of horrors it might bring about. It was in all the newspapers that the scientists were worried about blowing up the world, and the beast symbolised our fears. Then the Japanese got in on the act and copied our picture, making Godzilla, which was just a man in a rubber suit.”

Though few would argue it was Harryhausen’s Beast and not Godzilla that put the special in effects, not everyone can see the difference. “I gave a lecture at the National Film Theatre a few years ago, and someone in the audience asked, ‘Why do you go to all the trouble of stop motion? Why don’t you just put a man in a suit?’ I didn’t know what to say. What do you say to a person like that? I felt like wringing his neck. People who can’t see the difference between Godzilla and what I do shouldn’t be allowed to see my films. They should only be allowed to watch Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and rubbish like that.

Following the success of Beast and the similarly themed It Came from Beneath the Sea, Harryhausen shifted from contemporary to mythological settings and made many of his best and most popular films, pushing the boundaries of special effects with each new project. For 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, actor Kerwin Mathews engaged in a frenzied battle with a skeleton, a fight that was recreated in even more spectacular form in 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts. As in most modern effects movies, the actors found they had to visualise their enemies and shadow box. The difference was, they did it first.

“Kerwin was very convincing. He had a direct line where he looked - a lot of actors tend to look through what they should be looking at, and you can always tell that in their eyes. We rehearsed with Kerwin and a stuntman standing in for the skeleton. The whole thing was choreographed like a ballet, by counts, so they could repeat it each shot. The final repeat was without the stuntman and I put the skeleton in his place. 

"I would analyse the action frame by frame and then animate in relation to what was happening on the screen. When Sinbad put his sword up, I had to have the skeleton get there ahead of him so it didn't look silly. That's one of the problems we had with Jason and the Argonauts - trying to time three men swinging their swords with seven skeletons swinging theirs. That one scene took months to film as I couldn’t shoot more than 13 frames a day. That’s only half a second of film!”

Harryhausen hands me one of the original skeletons from that celebrated scene, a detailed miniature in remarkably good condition considering it’s more than 40 years old. Gingerly manipulating it a little - its arms, its head - I wondered what it must have been like for Harryhausen to spend the best years of his life doing more or less the same thing. 

“When you're working on a film, you have to think about it 24 hours a day - it's not just an eight-hour job. You have to live and breath the film, at least that’s the way I always approached it. I found it takes an enormous chunk of your life. I worked for three years on Clash of the Titans and hardly ever saw my family. Our daughter had to grow up without daddy being around very much. Finally, I felt I’d had enough of it.”

Though retired, Harryhausen keeps himself busy with a strict regimen of accepting awards and patiently answering familar questions directed towards him from a never-ending parade of starry-eyed nerds. A doctor three times over, he has the key to the city of Omaha, Nebraska and a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. “Appropriately enough I’m outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, sandwiched between Harold Lloyd and Jane Russell.”

Of the current generation of big screen magicians, Ray has great enthusiasm for Aardman's Nick Park and Peter Lord. “They’re dedicated souls and you can see that in their work.” Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron and Peter Jackson likewise get an appreciative nod. “They say they were highly influenced by my films," says Ray, who happily lived long enough to see his films acknowledged for the priceless cinematic gems they are. 

“Frankly, my films are more appreciated today than they were in their heyday," reflects Ray with due satisfaction. "I can’t explain it, but I’m not complaining.”

Marshall Julius is an author and critic. He can be found on twitter at @MarshallJulius and on Facebook at VintageGeekCentral. 

By Marshall Julius, 29 June 2021