Susan King, our Hero Complex specialist on classic Hollywood, caught up with effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen by phone recently. Here’s her report on their animated conversation:
Retired special-effects wizard Ray Harryhausen — who celebrates his 90th birthday on June 29 — was something close to a one-man operation when it came to creating movie magic. And what magic he created with the rhedosaurus from “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,“ the cyclops from “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” the skeleton army from “Jason and the Argonauts” and Medusa from the original “Clash of the Titans.” Harryhausen was the one drawing, storyboarding, creating the models and then moving his creatures one frame at a time in order to achieve the memorable on-screen motion.
Harryhausen’s innovation was “Dynamation,” a technique that allowed his models to be integrated into live-action footage. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is celebrating his legacy with a free exhibition, “The Fantastical Worlds of Ray Harryhausen,” at the academy’s Fourth Floor Gallery through Aug. 22. The exhibition features original models, drawings, storyboards and behind-the-scenes footage from his various films. Sony Picture Entertainment is also celebrating his birthday with the Blu-ray release of 1963’s “Jason and the Argonauts,” which includes the famed skeleton army that fights the heroes with swords. Though Harryhausen grew up in Los Angeles, he has long called London home. He recently talked on the phone about his legacy.
SK: What other birthday celebrations are happening for you?
RH: We are also having an exhibition here in London at the new London Museum. It starts on my birthday, June 29.
SK: So you must have done extensive storyboards for your films?
RH: I made a lot of drawings. The pictures I made were not made as a director’s picture as they say in Europe with the auteur as director. The directors sometimes didn’t come on the picture [until deep into pre-production]. Charles Schneer, the producer, the writer and myself made up the story and the script. If the director was inspired by something and contributed a good idea we incorporated it into the script. These pictures are made with the same process that they use in puppet films. Today when you think of stop-motion you think of Aardman Animation and “Wallace & Gromit.” We tried to disguise our puppets as the characters in the film. I get a lot of fan mail saying they prefer our type of special effects than computer CGI and that sort of thing.
SK: What type of difficulties did you encounter making your films?
RH: We who make the films see things differently than those who see the finished product. They don’t see the trouble that we went through. In “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” Willis Cooper, our photographer on several films, lost his key lights. The net broke when they were loading them on the ship to go to Majorca. He lost two or three of his important lights, but he managed to light the caves of Arta with the lights he had. The sound batteries went dead and we had to dub the whole picture — or most of it.
SK: Will you be traveling to Los Angeles for the academy exhibition?
RH: My days of traveling are over. At the age of 90 it’s hard to go through the airport and take off your shoes and take off your belt. And then coming back from California, it’s 11 hours difference in time.
SK: Are you still working at all?
RH: No. I retired 20 years after “Clash of the Titans.” It was released in 1981. Have you seen the new one? Who else could play Zeus than Laurence Olivier, but he’s no longer with us. I think our films are appreciated more today than when they were first released. We colorized our black and white films. We did three in black and white and they have been colorized with a new process. I am grateful for that because a lot of people won’t look at a film unless it’s in color.
SK: That’s sad.
RH: It is sad, but some of the best films were made in the early days before color.
SK: Weren’t you involved in colorizing the 1935 fantasy “She” that was produced by Merian C. Cooper, who co-directed “King Kong”?
RS: We went through every frame in the picture to colorize it. It has improved the film. Merian Cooper wanted to make it in color, but RKO cut his budget at the last minute, so he had to shoot it in black-and-white.
SK: I know this is difficult to answer, but do you have a favorite among your films?
RH: I try not to because, well, the others get jealous.
– Susan King
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PHOTOS: Top, a 1963 handout photo of Triton holding back falling rocks in the movie “Jason and the Argonauts” (Los Angeles Times archives). Second, a troglodyte does battle with a sabre-tooth tiger guarding an ancient shrine in the movie “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.” (Columbia Pictures Industries Inc.). Third, Ray Harryhausen, left, and Charles H. Schneer holding the Medusa and Bubo the Owl designs from “Clash of the Titans,” their final collaboration (Arnold Kunert, www.rayharryhausen.com). Fourth, the Minaton, one of the creatures in “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.”
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