From One Generation to the Next: Ray Harryhausen in the 21st Century
Editor’s Note: One recurring theme to emerge in the wake of Ray Harryhausen’s death yesterday was the tremendous influence his work continues to exert over today’s filmmakers, over three decades since his last film, CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981). With that in mind, we are publishing this 2006 article, which uses the occasion of Harryhausen’s appearance at an animation festival to illustrate the high esteem with which the stop-motion pioneer was regarded by the next generation of animators.
Article by Frank Garcia; Interview by Frank Garcia and Graeme Bennett
On April 2001 a remarkable convocation was held in Vancouver, Canada, where a meeting between a legendary filmmaking pioneer and today’s animation and computer artists at the annual Digital Media Exposition was held as part of the Vancouver Effects & Animation Festival. Thundering and sustained applause from an appreciative audience greeted filmmaker and stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen as he made an appearance at the Exposition to sign autographs and to screen a reel presenting highlights of his long and illustrious film career, interspersed with tributes and commentary from today’s filmmakers.
Because of his work as a producer, writer, director, special effects technician and designer on a series of fantasy adventures spanning over 17 films, Harryhausen has inspired generations of filmmakers and animators to launching their own professional careers. This is a man who has single-handedly animated, without computer assistance, images that have imbedded themselves into the minds of countless fans. Many of his noted admirers are today’s legends: directors George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron; makeup artists Stan Winston, Rick Baker; modelmakers Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston and Phil Tippet.
Ray Harryhausen revealed that he appeared at the event because he is still very interested and active at attending festivals and conventions. “I like to keep up with the times, although I don’t want to get involved with the computer,” said Harryhausen with a wan smile. “Computer generation, I think is a wonderful tool, but it’s not the be-all, by-all that everyone seems to think it is. I wish I had a computer to blot out the strings of my flying saucers! I had to paint out each wire in every frame! If you passed a cloud, you’d see the wire if you were so close to the lens. A computer can wipe out a cable holding Arnold Schwarzeneggar. It’s helpful in that respect.”
A recipient of the Gordon Sawyer award in 1992 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Harryhausen says that he also stays busy with other activities. “I am doing a lot of sculpting in bronze. We had to cannibalize many of the characters in our films because of time and money. Some of them no longer exist so I try to revive them in bronze.”
The figures being made include the Cyclops from THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and the rhedosaurus from THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. These figures were made for Harryhausen’s personal use and for display at the permanent exhibition at the Sony Film Museum in Berlin, Germany which is titled Artificial Worlds: Ray Harryhausen.
Discussing his views on today’s visual and animated special effects, Harryhausen remarked that “they do some marvelous things. The BBC made a documentary called Walking with Dinosaurs, that was very impressive. There were things that we couldn’t do, like multiple animals walking off in the distance. That would take forever in animation. And we can move [the camera] on objects. There were certain things that would have been very difficult for us to do with travelling mattes. I had to pave the way for that technique on film rather than digital — the way it is today.”
Harryhausen has a very simple philosophy when it comes to the nature and use of stop-motion animation. “Animation to me is: you don’t expect them to be too real. You know that dinosaurs don’t exist. You try to make them as real as you can, [but] if you make them too real, it loses the fantasy. I always felt, like a good painter, if you ask a landscape artist to paint a photographic copy of a scene, it’s not an interpretation. Anyone can do that. You want to give your interpretation. The modern films try to make it a semi-documentary, not a melodrama, like the Sinbad voyages, Perseus and Jason, rather than just a straightforward, ‘Look! A dinosaur! Another dinosaur!’ This is what I learned from Willis O’Brien. He was the only one to make the dinosaurs movie stars.”
Sadly, CLASH OF THE TITANS was his final feature, but Harryhausen is relieved to know that all of his films continue to be distributed and appreciated today thanks to television, videotape and DVDs. “Thank god it’s not dated,” he says. “All our films are reissued to new generations, and they appreciate it even more than the original release!”
For three of today’s busiest animation artists – Vancouver animator David Bowes, and MTV’s CELEBRITY DEATHMATCH co-creators Eric Fogel and Steve Jaworski – appearing with Harryhausen at the festival’s stop-motion effects panel was a dream come true. For Bowes, who was also an exhibitor at the Digital Media Expo, and who specializes in stop-motion and clay animation, Ray Harryhausen was a childhood inspiration. Watching JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS on television with his father set him on a long journey that culminated in his becoming an professional animator with extensive commercial and corporate credits.
“My father really loved Ray Harryhausen’s work,” Bowes said. “The films would appear on TV, and my Dad and I would sit down and watch, and I was so inspired by this. My Dad’s favorite was the skeleton scene. When Jason was trying to kill the skeletons, you basically couldn’t kill them. Because, as Ray told me the other day, ‘You can’t kill death.’ Jason could only escape by leaping off the cliff. To this day, I still have that spookiness. And Ray Harryhausen’s animation instills that emotion. At 24 years old, [inspired by] the memories of what Ray Harryhausen had created, I decided to do my own.”
In addition to producing lively animation for music videos and children’s programming, a major project for Bowes in 2001 was completing animation for VOYAGE OF THE UNICORN, a four-hour mini-series starring Beau Bridges which aired Spring 2001 on The Odyssey Channel in the United States to high ratings.
“I don’t know if you can replicate that [type of animation] today with computers,” notes Bowes. “There’s something about the real puppets he used — and the timing! Just think about it — there were no video assists at that time. Everything was blind animation. It all had to be precise and timed out meticulously to the live action. The man is a legend of his own time.”
Being a professional animator and having the opportunity to be introduced to his childhood hero was a big thrill for Bowes.
“It was a big honor,” he says. “You have so much respect and admiration for this person. And then, to actually meet this person. To me, as an animator, I spend 12 hours in front of the camera, and you think about other people in the past who have done this, and I would think about someone like Ray Harryhausen, and what he went through. When you really start getting involved in the process and starting a business, and you look back at your roots and wonder how did I get into this? What did inspire me? It was Ray Harryhausen.
“A lot of people think stop-motion animation is boring, like watching paint dry.” Au contraire, says Bowes, “You’re going into another world. And you’re into your characters. Seven, eight or 12 hours later you’ve created this fabulous scene. It’s absolutely magical.”
Bowes’ final thought is intriguing: “I wonder, today, people who are playing video games, where will they be when they’re my age?” Can the inspirational cycle repeat itself?
For Eric Fogel – co-creator of the very popular, satiric stop-motion CELEBRITY DEATHMATCH, which pits a variety of celebrities against each other in the wrestling ring to comedic effect – meeting Harryhausen sent him back to his childhood.
“I remember begging my mother to let me stay up late at night to watch THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD,” says Fogel. “I just remember that the images of the creatures that he’d created were the coolest things I’d ever seen. Those images stayed with me throughout all my childhood and growing up. They were with me when I decided to go to film school to pursue a career in stop motion animation.
“Still, to this day, on CELEBRITY DEATHMATCH, we’re using his work as a point of reference for the work we do on the show. He created a palette for us to work from and being inspired by.I don’t think [his work] hasn’t lost any of its edge or attitude or beauty in all these years. It’s got a timeless quality. I think it stands up.”
Because of dedicated artists like Bowes, Fogel and Jaworski and all the other animators in the visual effects industry today, the memory and appreciation of Harryhausen’s films and his stop motion animation techniques will live on.
There has been so much activity in 2006 over Harryhausen’s continued impact that it is safe to say he is undergoing a renaissance and a heightened appreciation by his admirers of today’s generation. Just look at these events that took place earlier this year:
- On March 2006, a soundtrack CD album was released from Monstrous Movie Music, of re-recorded music from MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Also included was music from 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH.
- On April 2006, Harryhausen was bestowed upon with a lifetime achievement award at Universal Studios from a new honorary society of motion picture character designers called Cinerouge. The award was a bust of Lon Chaney as he appeared in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925).
- On June 2006 Mindfire Entertainment, an independent film production company, announced that they will be producing four movies under the banner “Ray Harryhausen Presents” which will be films drawn upon ideas supplied by Harryhausen. Many of the ideas to be explored deal with Sinbad, Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts and a “lost” film project called THE ELEMENTALS. Mindfire’s CEO, Mark Altman says that Harryhausen will be actively involved in the stories development and special effects. Computer graphics will be used to simulate Harryhausen’s process, Dynarama. Other projects also revolve around “alien invasion” or “lost world” themes.
- On July 2006, Blue Water Productions announced a new line of comic books under the banner “Ray Harryhausen Presents” based on stories from the various films he created. On the lineup are six comic titles including WRATH OF THE TITANS, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, andSINBAD, ROGUE OF MARS.
“As an artist, I’ve always enjoyed exploring new and exciting areas,” Harryhausen said in a statement. “Although many of my feature films were adapted into the comic-book format, I have never been directly involved in that art form until now. I look forward to seeing characters from my films in new and exciting adventures.”
BlueWater President Darren Davis says he’s humbled to have Harryhausen aboard. “Ray Harryhausen is one of the reasons I create comics. CLASH OF THE TITANS made a priceless impression on my career. I’m honored to work with Ray.”
Harryhausen’s role in the comic books will consist of approving the story and artists and making sure the visions are not compromised. As a result of the comic books, potential spinoffs includes live-action or animated films and, perhaps, even toys.
The comic books will begin December 2006 and will become five-issue story arcs.
If all this isn’t enough, Strictly Ink, which specializes in media-related trading cards, will be releasing in 2007 a limited-edition run of a series of cards titled The Harryhausen Collection, which is devoted to images from his fantasy films.
Today, at 86 years old, Harryhausen’s career looks like it’s taking off all over again!