Ray Harryhausen Interview

Ray Harryhausen positions a figure on set

Producer, special effects coordinator, director, stop-motion animator, inspiration and genius are just some of the titles that Ray Harryhausen has had attached to his name during his more than 50-year show business career. Chris Neumer talks to Harryhausen about the life he’s made for himself, alone, while locked in dark rooms.

by Chris Neumer

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RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Hello

CHRIS NEUMER: Hi Ray, nice to be talking to you.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: You sound miles away.

CHRIS NEUMER: I guess there’s some truth in that, I’m in Chicago, an ocean away.  It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Thank you.

CHRIS NEUMER: How could I not get excited about talking to a man with your esteemed history? Jumping right in, what kind of mindset do you have to get into to be a stop-motion animator?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I don’t quite understand the question.

CHRIS NEUMER: Well, you worked alone a lot, you worked in a series of dark rooms, what kind of mindset–what is going on in your head as you’re preparing to work with the miniatures?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: (laughs) Oh that’s a deep question. I can’t remember all that goes on, but mainly it was a concentration of the action and your next move and the next pose. One pose suggests another pose.

CHRIS NEUMER: I had been talking to a second-unit director recently and he said about stuntmen, “You have to be a special kind of crazy to be a stuntman.” Not everyone can drive a car into a tree on command, I thought a similar kind of thing would have to go along with being a stop-motion animator. You have to be a special kind of person to tackle this, don’t you?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: It’s not everybody’s cup of tea. Some people find it tedious. I’ve never found it tedious. But that’s peculiar to different people.

CHRIS NEUMER: What is it about the medium that makes it so appealing to you

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Well, I don’t know. I think it’s the thought of trying to bring something to life, an inanimate object to life. Maybe it’s a Frankenstein complex, or a Zeus complex. (laughs) The fascination is if you can capture on film what you have in your mind, well, you’re animating. That’s half the charm; waiting for the rushes the next day to see if you did capture it.

CHRIS NEUMER: In the one second of film that you managed to shoot the day before.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes.

CHRIS NEUMER: I was curious to know, were there ever situations where you’d have to scrap weeks worth of your work due to timing errors or the movement of the creature didn’t look quite right

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: No. Unfortunately, we had to work on very tight budgets. So practically you see in all our films is the first take. We seldom had time to do retakes unless there was a technical problem that we had on Clash of the Titans. Everything I’ve done is mostly the first take.

CHRIS NEUMER: So even if there were a slight SNAFU, you’d continue onward.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: It has to be planned very carefully so that you know at a certain point you can cut a close-up in.

CHRIS NEUMER: I saw the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms for the first time recently and noticed that at one point in time the beast is picking up a police officer who had been firing his gun at him and I couldn’t believe it was timed as well as it was. It’s got to be tough doing that. I’m sure you guys had the live-action actor on a rig and you put the beast in front of him, but getting all that in-synch, and on the first take at that, seems incredibly hard.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: (laughs) It does take good timing. You do have to analyze every frame for movement so that the beast’s head goes up at the same speed as the policeman on his wire.

CHRIS NEUMER: I know in live action there’s always a lot of storyboarding. Do you meticulously storyboard your work or is it as you said before, “All in your head.”

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I storyboard every sequence that I work on. It’s all storyboarded ahead of time so that we have a minimum of waste. We were always working on tight budgets so we have to have a minimum of waste. We seldom overshoot if we can help it.

CHRIS NEUMER: What type of time frame would you use for each storyboard? Per second?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: It’s more or less like a cartoon in a comic book. A progressive of the action showing what’s going to be on the screen, whether it’s going to be rear projection or travelling matte or whatever. It has to be very carefully storyboarded to keep a minimum of waste.

CHRIS NEUMER: It all comes back to the budget, doesn’t it?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yeah.

CHRIS NEUMER: One of the other things people automatically think of when they hear your name is your pioneering work in stop-motion. I didn’t realize you did as much work with other special effects like rear projection and travelling mattes as you did. Was it difficult integrating all that into your animation work?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: That would all be planned ahead of time, of course. And very carefully planned so that we could have a schedule. When the actors finish the main production they have to do sometimes against a blue screen or a rear projection plate and that all has to be calculated ahead of time.

CHRIS NEUMER: I understand that. What I was asking was, was working with the rear projection or the blue screens harder to do than actual animation itself.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: As I say, it has to be planned very carefully. You use rear projection if the animation character is in front of the people and you use travelling matte if the people are in front of the animated character. That all has to be broken down ahead of time while you’re shooting the animation.

CHRIS NEUMER: I realize you had it all planned ahead of time and that you had it storyboarded ahead of time, but did you enjoy working with the rear projection and shooting that the same as you did creating the animated characters and deciding how they would move, etc?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Well yes. It’s all part of the action. You have the action in the mind while you’re shooting.  I’d always shoot my sequences where–because I know roughly in my mind what the animated character will do, where the director wouldn’t. Our pictures are not what you’d call a director’s picture. The director’s main job in our film is to get the best out of the actors. But the picture has to be laid out by [the producer] and the writers and myself long before the director comes on the picture.

CHRIS NEUMER: Just like one of the big special effects picture today.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Sometimes. It depends. There’s a different technique today than the technique we used.

CHRIS NEUMER: That being what?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: CGI is an entirely different type of situation. You couldn’t put it in the same category.

CHRIS NEUMER: Why? I read a statement of yours where you said that computer generation is a wonderful tool and not the be all that everyone thinks it is.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes. I think there is room for every technique. After all, the end product is to entertain. Look at Kermit the Frog, he brought back hand puppets and The Thunderbirds brought back the string puppet. If you can entertain, that’s the end product. I don’t think the audience gives a damn what technique you use as long as it looks good on the screen.

CHRIS NEUMER: So you look at CGI as a tool and not a method of entertainment?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I feel it’s a tool. As you know, in a thirty-second commercial you see the most amazing images, the amazing image is no longer spectacular. It’s become mundane because it’s over used. The computer seems to be able to do anything. So people take it for granted, I think. There’s something that happens in stop-motion that gives a different effect–like a dream world–and that’s what fantasy is about.

CHRIS NEUMER: Are you a fan of directors like Henry Selick, Peter Lord and Nick Park?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I don’t quite understand the question.

CHRIS NEUMER: Um, are you a fan of the current works of stop-motion animation like The Nightmare before Christmas and Chicken Run?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Those are puppet films. Chicken Run and The Nightmare before Christmas were obvious puppet films. They have stylized puppets. Our type of picture tries to convince you that the dinosaur is real on the live set while we were shooting it. It’s a different technique although we use the same basic principle of stop motion in order to make them move. But the stylized puppet is an obviously puppet film. In Chicken Run, all the characters were very stylized.

CHRIS NEUMER: Even though they were both stop-motion films, you don’t consider them to be in the same type of work that you do because of the different intent?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: It’s a different approach. Our characters, we have stop motion characters go all through the picture as a character–like the Emir in Twenty Million Miles to Earth or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms–rather than where, in obvious puppet films. it’s a different technique altogether of entertainment.

CHRIS NEUMER: Because–

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: It’s more for comic effect than for a serious melodrama effects.

CHRIS NEUMER: So your characters were designed to be realistic and theirs were not. That’s the main difference?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, that’s the difference between a stylized puppet–we tried to get rid of the concept that it is a puppet.

CHRIS NEUMER: So with that in mind, you must consider some of the computer generated characters to be closer to what you were doing, like Gollum in The Two Towers.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Absolutely. He was a remarkable character. I couldn’t believe he was computer generated. It shows that it can be done. He had enormous character.

CHRIS NEUMER: I remember reading somewhere else that one of the reasons you enjoyed working alone was because you were able to control all the movements of the stop-motion characters.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: That’s right, yes. Much of the computer generated images [are done by different people]. Somebody puts them in the skin, somebody does the basic skeleton. Another person will put the detail in on the eyes. It’s almost like a committee working rather than an individual.

CHRIS NEUMER: True, but in the case of Gollum, there was an actor who was working in the suit to help garner the movements. Do you think that that might have had an influence on why you thought the final product was so good?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Enormously. There are subtle movements when you film live action that are very difficult to put into an animated character.

CHRIS NEUMER: Just out of the blue, that’s really true. When you were working on the projects during the ’50′s did the limits of the medium ever bother you?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I don’t quite understand the question.

CHRIS NEUMER: Well, you couldn’t move the camera during a take and had to work under very strict guidelines. Did you ever feel that that hampered your efforts?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: It has a limit, but you try to work within that limit. For example, in The Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, in order to make the saucers look big the cameras had to be very close to the miniatures, which were sometimes only 5-6 inches in diameter. So the wires holding the miniatures would be a problem because you’d be so close to the miniature you’d see the wires. But with computer animation, generation, you can just wipe the wires out afterwards. You don’t have to worry about it. In my case I had to paint out the wires in each frame of film. Which all took time, of course.

CHRIS NEUMER: How much time does it take to do that?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: It all depends on the scene and how complicated it is.

CHRIS NEUMER: What would you use to wipe out the wires from the frames

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: You’d paint the wires the same color as the background.

CHRIS NEUMER: Easy enough.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: You’d do that in each frame of film. If the wire passes a cloud, you have to paint that section of it white. It all takes a great deal of time. The computer in that respect would be a big help.

CHRIS NEUMER: Did you ever find when you were working with the stop-motion characters that animating animals or dinosaurs to be a much different task than animating humans

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Oh yes. You can’t put humanoid actions into a four-legged creature that you could with somebody with a physiognomy like an ape or a gorilla. You can put some human traits on a gorilla, where they would look like a cartoon if you put them in a dinosaur.

CHRIS NEUMER: Let me ask this, when you were working on the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, how did your approach to that character differ from the times where you were creating more human things like the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I don’t quite understand the question.

CHRIS NEUMER: How would you approach creating an animal vs. creating a human character like the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: In that case you would study–if you were animating an animal–I used to go to the zoo, and we photographed a gorilla walking across the screen. All it did was walk across the screen, sit down and pick his nose. (laughs) But he gave me a guide as to how the gorilla moves. But your imagination has to do the rest. Imagination and experience.

CHRIS NEUMER: Since you can’t go to the zoo and watch dinosaurs–

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: With a dinosaur you’d study a lizard, a monitor lizard, or a crocodile. You’d try to keep it within the realm of those movements rather than an animal movement like a gorilla.

CHRIS NEUMER: You said in another interview that you tried to instill a sense of sympathy into certain characters–like your Cyclops. How did you try to go about creating audience sympathy in your stop-motion characters?  This seems really difficult to do.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: It’s done in several different ways. I can’t describe it. It’s something you just feel. We poked the Cyclops’ eye out and you felt rather sympathetic for him when he was blinded.

CHRIS NEUMER: Easy enough.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I think it’s very important to get sympathy. We tried it in Twenty Million Miles to Earth for this creature that was brought from Venus and out of his element. He was a victim of circumstances so you don’t want to make him too villainous.

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