Publishing during a pandemic – 'Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema'

In 2020, the National Galleries of Scotland published 'Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema'. The book delves into her father’s archive, using precious family memories, photos and drawings, to provide a fascinating and intimate profile of one of cinema’s true greats. This blog by Jennifer McIlreavy, former Publishing Coordinator, explores the challenges which arose due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In early 2020, the National Galleries of Scotland, in collaboration with the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, was gearing up to celebrate the centenary of Ray Harryhausen’s birth. Ray Harryhausen is widely known as one of the most influential animators of all time.

A major exhibition was expected to draw die-hard fans from across the world. Our Publishing team had the unique opportunity to work closely with Ray’s daughter, Vanessa, to bring the heart of the exhibition to Ray’s fans. The aim was to create a magnificent book that, instead of recreating the exhibition, would instead exist as a fascinating accompaniment. We had asked Vanessa to write a personal account of her life with her father, telling us never-before-heard stories about the man behind the legend. 

We also asked for contributions from those who knew and worked with Ray on his legendary films. Together with the wealth of stories from Vanessa, the book was shaping up to be a completely unique take on the life of a cinematic great.  

It quickly became clear that Ray was not only innovative, immensely talented and surrounded by an array of very famous friends and colleagues, but he was also a genuinely kind and gentle man. It was clear how much his family and he had loved one another. But surely he must have had some flaws? We thought that if we included one or two stories that centred on, perhaps, a time when he was feeling a bit grumpy, it would give an even greater sense of the whole man.  With the universally positive remarks about his character from his colleagues and friends, we asked Vanessa about this and her answers were wonderful – to me, they made him all the more loveable!  One example that made me laugh was when Ray had single-mindedly used the family oven to set one of his models - and dinner had tasted like rubber for weeks afterwards! 

Like everything else in 2020, the book's publication was all brought to a crashing halt by COVID-19. 

Luckily, the editorial work was well advanced, and the design was underway by the time Covid sent us all to work from our kitchen tables. We suddenly faced new and unforeseen challenges.  

During our proofing stages, Vanessa had to get home from Canada and quarantine in isolation for two weeks – finding that she had no internet or a phone signal indoors. We communicated with her once a day when she was able to walk to an outdoor spot in the premises where she could get signal.  

There was also the unprecedented issue of showing cover options and choosing materials over Microsoft Teams. Team members tilted their heads back and forth while I tried all sorts of ridiculous contortions to demonstrate how various laminates, foils and finishes looked on the cover in different lighting conditions. Despite the obstacles, the publishing team managed to get the book to print.

We predicted that the book would be popular with fans – but we didn’t predict exactly how popular. Almost as soon as we had printed, we had to start working on an even larger reprint.  

The book has been featured in major newspapers, online magazines, podcasts and radio shows, and has also won a Rondo Hatton Award, voted for by fans around the world. In addition, it was recently announced that the book has been shortlisted for the Saltire Society's Scottish First Book of the Year 2021. This kind of coverage has been exciting for us, and a testament to the originality of the book.  

Publishing a highly illustrated, high-quality book during a pandemic is not easy but customers have validated the fact that all the obstacle hurdling was well worth the effort. As we got to know Ray through his daughter’s stories, we came to admire him as his fans do. We sensed Vanessa’s love and admiration for her father, and it became a labour of love for all of us. It is great to see that book buyers are responding to this.  

The feedback from everyone involved was that Ray’s life story was a wonderful tonic to the bleak reality of 2020, and we all enjoyed getting lost in his and Vanessa’s world. We are glad to be able, despite the circumstances, to bring these 200 pages of escapism to readers and, if the five-star reviews and fantastic sales numbers are anything to go by, the public is now enjoying getting lost in this world every bit as much as we did. 

Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema (paperback)


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Shortlisted for Saltire Society Scotland's National Book Awards, First Book Award 2021

This landmark exhibition book examines 100 objects selected from the Ray Harryhausen archive by the animator's daughter Vanessa. The book is packed with Vanessa’s personal stories from a life watching her father make world-famous films that changed the course of cinema.

17 November 2021