Variety reports that Henry Selick (who wrote and directed last year’s Oscar-nominated stop-motion hit CORALINE) has signed a deal to make films for Disney-Pixar. Selick worked for Disney back in the 1990s on TIM BURTON’S A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH. The later film was a box office disappointment, prompting a Disney exec to conclude that there was no future for stop-motion.
Fortunately, decades alter, Disney’s animation head honcho John Lasseter feels differently. Ironically, Lasseter created Pixar animation, whose computer-animated blockbusters such as TOY STORY seemed to sound the death knell for stop-motion. Hiring Selick to make stop-motion films is part of Lasseter’s recent strategy of reviving old-fashioned, traditional forms of animation, which also includes the hand-drawn cell animation used in last year’s THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG.
With the re-make of Clash of the Titans hitting theaters this week, Warner Bros. has released the original 1981 film on Blue-Ray disc. To celebrate, here is part V of my interview with Ray Harryhausen, discussing his hand-crafted approach to creating the film’s special visual effects.
Mr. Harryhausen, who will celebrate his 90th birthday in June, will be having a retrospective exhibition of his original stop-motion models and related items at the Academy of Motion Pictures Gallery the same month.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you supply the original story for CLASH OF THE TITANS?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: No, it was Beverly Cross who came up with a 25-page outline called Perseus and the Gorgon’s Head, taken from Greek mythology. Beverly has worked with us for some time. He also worked on Jason and the Argonauts and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and had written a picture for Charles (Schneer) called Half a Sixpence. We had quite a good relationship with him on all of those films. He is also a Greek scholar, which was important and rather rare. In his college days he studied all the Greek classics, so he also knew all the stories of ancient Greece. Beverly also lived in Greece for quite some time and he told me that while he was living on a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, he felt he could develop something with Perseus. I had always wanted to do the Perseus story, in fact right after Jason I wanted to make it, but I never clearly saw the development of the story. So Beverly came up with quite a good outline of how we could get a progressively good story out of the tale. Then I went my way and made some drawings of what I thought the visual elements should look like and Beverly enhanced his treatment, incorporating my visuals, because in our type of picture we have to start with the visuals.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You took certain liberties in adapting the Perseus myth to the screen, didn’t you?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, because most mythologies are rather fragmented, with many of the climaxes occurring in the first reel. In Greek mythology, the stories are so episodic you have to rob from one legend and put it into another. You can’t just take the Greek myths the way they are. You have to shape it and glamorize it. I like to glamorize my skeletons and I like to glamorize my dinosaurs. I think if you just took Greek mythology and put it on the screen you’d find it would be a big bore to everybody, because you don’t have a natural development of what is needed for a screenplay. We don’t like to tamper with the myths, but for example, in CLASH OF THE TITANS, we found that according to the legends, Pegasus is supposed to come from Medusa’s blood. Well, if we left it that way, we couldn’t have Pegasus come into the picture until reel eleven. Since we wanted to use Pegasus throughout the story, we had to develop another concept to account for him, which we did by having Zeus explain that Calibos was once a normal person, who was given a certain area to control on Earth and he slew all the herds of Zeus’s wonderful flying horses. That accounted for the fact that Pegasus came into the story before Medusa got her head cut off.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: The idea of the Gods playing with the life of the human characters was an idea you carried over from Jason and the Argonauts, wasn’t it?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, we really needed a transition between the Gods and the mortals, like the chessboard we used in Jason. You’re dealing with an almost surrealistic type of film that needed to depict the Gods, so I came up with the idea of a miniature amphitheater where the Gods could put these miniatures figures into the arena and shape their destinies.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: On CLASH OF THE TITANS, you had your biggest budget ever. Did you still find you had many shots that could have been improved?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Oh yes, many. You always run into that problem. You see, there’s this delusion, where people on the outside of filmmaking think you take a camera and just put it down under ideal conditions. But when you’re on location, taking 80 people from country to country, there are many compromises you have to make, because of the weather, because of accommodations in the summer, because of many things. For example, we had to shoot some plates in very bad weather, and I regretted that, but we’re not in a position to keep re-shooting scenes until we get it perfect. On all the pictures we had to compromise, because we usually had very tight budgets, especially compared to pictures that are made today. Today a picture can cost $100 million dollars and you don’t even see half of it on the screen, or if you do see it, you can’t understand the story. But as somebody once said, “these are the conditions that prevail.”
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What about the seagull that appears behind the opening titles of CLASH OF THE TITANS. Were you satisfied with that?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Well that was done mostly with high contrast mattes in the optical printer. After we had filmed the seagulls, we took them out and put them in a different background, simply because we were in no position to find a talented seagull to take with us to the Amazon jungle and put them in the proper background we had chosen for the trip to Mount Olympus.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: If you were offered the chance to make a film with a $100 million budget, what would you do?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I think I would faint! Seriously, working as I did on mostly very tight budgets it made you think about cheaper ways of doing things. I had to do that right from my first solo effort, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which only cost $200,000, so I had to devise a simplified way of combining the models with a live action background. Even with a bigger budget, you still have to find short cuts and make compromises.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Is that what happened with the Kraken scene in the finale of CLASH OF THE TITANS? It looks like there is a background plate of the sky that is missing.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, I had always planned to have dark and threatening storm clouds behind the Kraken for the sacrifice of Andromeda, along with lightning effects to suggest the wrath of the Gods, but because of time and budget considerations, we were never able to complete the scene to my satisfaction.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: The Kraken is actually taken from Scandinavian mythology, isn’t it?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: The name is, but the sea monster is from the Greek myths. However, in the Greek stories, the sea monster was never actually named which is why we borrowed the name from the legends of the great giant squids of medieval times, when sailors didn’t have a name for a giant squid, so they called it a Kraken. John Wyndham wrote a story called The Kraken Wakes (1953) and several other stories have been written using that name, as well. But the Kraken is definitely a much later name than the sea monster that is supposed to devour Andromeda in the Greek legend. And since we had to give our creature a name and we didn’t want to call it Leviathan or Behemoth from the Bible, we decided to settle on the Kraken.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Was CLASH OF THE TITANS the first time you had assistance on the animation?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, because we had deadlines and had to get the film out by a certain date. As I result, I had to take on help. So I asked Jim Danforth to come in and animate Pegasus, because I had seen a horse he had done for a commercial some years before, while he was at Cascade. It was a commercial for a floor wax that showed a herd of horses that went rushing across the floor, so I felt he would be the right man to do the flying scenes of Pegasus. He also animated Dioskilos, the two-headed dog. Then we hired a young English animator, Steven Archer, because I had seen some of his work with clay figures. He had done three or four test subjects on his own, just for fun, but under very distressing circumstances, so I thought he would work out well. Steven ended up doing most of the animation for Bubo, the owl. Then both Jim and Steven did bits and pieces of the Kraken, because we had spasmodic pieces of film shot for each sequence of the Kraken.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You mentioned earlier that one of the keys to your long collaboration with Charles Schneer was that you never agreed. Couldn’t that be a real problem if you and Jim Danforth or Steven Archer had differences of opinion on how to animate a sequence?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Not really, because most of the sequences had already been laid out in storyboard form, so there was already a broad outline for both Jim and Steven to follow. Of course, any animator has to use his own judgment, because while you are animating on the set, so many things can be suggested. Once you are on the set, one pose suggests another, so most of the animation has to be done right there on the spot. So what I tried to do was to focus everyone’s attention towards the one specific channel that I thought would work for our overall purpose.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Earlier you said you never wanted to do a scene like the skeleton fight in Jason again, but you didn’t make things very easy for yourself when you gave Medusa all those snakes in her hair.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Well, with Medusa we needed to have a lot of snakes in her hair, otherwise she wouldn’t look right. After all who wants a Gorgon that’s skimpy on snakes! We ended up giving her twelve snakes, plus one on her arm. Each snake had a head and a body with a ball and socket armature, so I had to animate twelve snakes for each frame of film, plus the rattle of her tail, keeping all of that in synchronization. Then, because she plays opposite Harry Hamlin in a ten-minute scene and had to shoot arrows, we had to have an intricate model that was fully jointed. The final puppet had 150 joints throughout her body. Each of her fingers was jointed as well, so she could shoot arrows. We also built a much larger Medusa model, but it didn’t photograph with as much detail, so it wasn’t used in the final film.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What was your inspiration for the design of Medusa?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I did a lot of research, and looked at Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze sculpture in Florence which shows Perseus holding Medusa’s head up at arm’s length. But I found that most of the classical Medusa’s were simply a rather attractive looking woman’s face with snakes in her hair. That wouldn’t turn anybody to stone, unless I miss the point of Greek mythology. Most artists, other than Cellini, all pictured her as a normal woman who simply had snakes in her hair. That wouldn’t be very dramatic for a motion picture, so I gave her a scaly face, and a more evil face than most of the classical concepts. Then I thought that the serpentine motif could be extended, by making her into a snake woman, which is something you find in German Gothic concepts. They used to combine the snake and the woman—no reflection on womanhood—but many of the early Gothic concepts involved that type of idea. Maybe that came from my Germanic background.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: The Snake woman in THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD was sort of a early version of Medusa, and there’s a beautiful color sketch of her in The Art of Ray Harryhausen (on page 158).
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: That was just a simple tinted watercolor. The Snake woman was a forerunner of Medusa, but she had a bra. For Medusa we also started out by giving her a boob tube, but we didn’t like it, we thought it would look too vulgar, so we just decided to light her very discreetly. We wanted her to appear in a very mysterious kind of lighting to maintain the mood.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In An Animated Life you talk about the film Noir type of lighting in MILDRED PIERCE (1945) that influenced the Medusa sequence.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, I was very impressed by Mildred Pierce which I had seen years ago, and how they did the lighting on Joan Crawford’s face where she was moving in and out of shadows. So I tried to get that type of lighting on Medusa. That lighting was all dictated by what was going on in the background plate that had already been shot by our cameraman, Ted Moore. We had flames flickering throughout the sequence from braziers on the full-size live-action set, so I had to have a flicker effect on Medusa to match it, otherwise she would look like she had just been pasted on. I did all the lighting myself and devised a red and orange color wheel that cast colored light on the Medusa puppet, so it appeared as if she was lit by torch fire.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: And Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932) inspired Medusa’s initial entrance.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, I remembered seeing FREAKS, which had a man in the circus with no legs who had to pull himself along the ground with his arms. So when I began animating Medusa that image came to my mind, because she has no legs either. I thought it would be a good way to have her enter the scene—having her pull herself along with her arms. It gives a very weird impression when you first see her. She seems like a freak, so you feel a bit sorry for her.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did you achieve the effect of having Medusa’s arrow knock over Perseus’s shield?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: On the live-action set we had a long wire going up to the shield, and off camera we had a man who shot the arrow. The arrow rode along on the wire, and we put hydrochloric acid on it so it would smoke as it went by. Then when I went to animate Medusa, I put her in the right position, so when she releases the miniature arrow it matched the rear-projection plate that was behind the model.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: After Perseus decapitates Medusa what did you use for the ooze that comes out of her neck?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: That was done with wallpaper paste tinted red. It was quite effective and originally it was supposed to poison anyone who touched it. But we found we didn’t want to go into that kind of extreme detail for the scene, so in the end we didn’t use it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you ever think about having Medusa speak?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: No, because then you’d be getting into the realm of the puppetoon, and we didn’t want that. It’s all right for puppetoons, but it’s never convincing for an animated character. No matter how carefully you animate a creature like Medusa, if you attempt to use dialogue you are really trying to play God, and that’s not my mission in life.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Is that why you decided to use an actor for Calibos, alongside the stop-motion model?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, because we initially started out with Calibos as being only a bestial character, with one cloven hoof and a tail. Naturally you can’t find an actor with a cloven hoof and a tail, so originally Calibos was just going to grunt and groan, a la ONE MILLION YEARS, B.C. Then we decided in the final screenplay that we would need to have some exposition and dialogue from him, in order to keep him from being a dull character.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Calibos also has a touch of pathos about him. When he gives Andromeda the necklace, it invokes the memory of their past love and what he once looked like.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, Desmond Davis, the director was trying to get the feeling of Jean Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST into those scenes. Calibos was simply the victim of circumstances. Zeus turned him into this apparition of horror because they were whimsical Gods who were created in man’s image and they seemed to like revenge, which is really not very God-like. But in those days the Gods had many whims.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: CLASH OF THE TITANS was the first and only time you had a cast of big name actors to work with.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, we never really had stars in our pictures. We didn’t think we needed them because the pictures didn’t have star parts. Instead we tried to keep a minimum of dialogue and stress the fantasy aspects of the pictures. CLASH OF THE TITANS was the only one where MGM felt it was necessary to have some star names. We got some notable actors, mostly to play the Greek Gods. Beverly Cross had written a section into the script that glamorized the Gods, which I think worked out quite well, because who else could play Zeus, but Laurence Olivier? Maybe Charlton Heston, since he played God*, but Laurence Olivier was ideal. Although he wasn’t very well at the time—he was sort of on his last legs, and in rather poor health, but he gave a good performance. So I was most grateful we had at least one picture with a lot of stars in it. Of course, the stars got more money working for two weeks than I got for working two years! But that’s the way the cookie crumbles and you can’t worry about it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In your earlier films, although you didn’t have star names, you always had excellent British character actors, like Douglas Wilmer, Laurence Naismith and Patrick Troughton. In fact, all those actors appeared in Sir Laurence Olivier’s film version of RICHARD III. Did you see RICHARD III when it came out in 1955?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Oh yes, although that was many years ago. And as you say, we always had very talented actors, even if they were not what today you would call stars. But they were all very competent actors: Douglas Wilmer was brilliant as King Pelias in Jason and later we used him in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD as the Grand Vizier. Laurence Naismith was also in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, and we used him again in THE VALLEY OF GWANGI.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What led you to retire after making CLASH OF THE TITANS?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I had enough of spending my time in a dark room after everybody else went home. I spent most of my life in a dark room, painted black, which can be depressing if you are aware of it, although I was never aware of it. I also felt that tastes had changed. After CLASH OF THE TITANS, we were going to do a follow-up, and I helped Charles develop a script with Beverly Cross called FORCE OF THE TROJANS, although a lot of the effects work would have been farmed out to someone else. But even though CLASH OF THE TITANS had made a lot of money for MGM, they didn’t want to back it. They felt costume pictures weren’t suitable, and the pictures the studios wanted you to make all had to have explosions in them every five minutes. So I’m grateful that I got in on the tail end of the great days of Hollywood.
- Actually, Heston played Moses in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and John the Baptist in THE GREATEST STORY EVERY TOLD, but not God himself.
Old legends never die; they just fade away…
Over at NJ.com, Stephen Whitty has an interview-profile of Ray Harryhausen, the legendary special effects maestro responsible for the original version of CLASH OF TITANS. The 90-year-old Harryhausen is a major influence on today’s fantasy filmmakers, but he seems indifferent to their efforts. His reaction to the remake (which he has not seen) is: “Not really my cup of tea.” He explains:
“When they said they were going to make a new ‘Clash of the Titans,’ I read they were going to make it in a ‘realistic’ way,” he says. “Well, how can you do that? Who in their right mind is going to believe a horse can fly? If you want realism, you should go look at reality. What we always gave the audience was fantasy.”
Whitty’s article provides a good synopsis of Harryhausens film career, which stretched from the 1940s to 1981’s CLASH OF THE TITANS, and it is nice to see that the remake has lead to the spotlight shining back on the man who gave so much to so many of us during the formative years of our childhood, when we could evade giant caterpillars on the moon, face off against six-armed statues in the Middle East, or face Hydras and Kracken’s in Ancient Greece.
However, it is just a little bit saddening to see Harryhausen so removed from the movie medium. I suppose he is simply sick of the Hollywood rat race and has no interest in even acting as a mentor to the filmmakers of today who grew up on his work. Instead, he prefers to spend his retirement working on special edition DVDs of his old movies or publishing glossy books about his work.
What really hurts, however, is seeing that his Sense of Wonder seems to blunted. Harryhausen was once an innovator: he took a technique that dated back to the silent era, and he updated and modernized it, breathing life into inanimate objects that became incredible creatures on screen. Critical reaction to his work was often muted, praising the effects but dismissing the films overall as mere showcases for his talent, as if Harryhausen’s own special brand of movie magic was not justification in and of itself. (Why is writing a good line of dialogue considered more praise-worthy than bringing imagination to life?)
Today, however, Harryhausen sounds a little bit like his old critics, irritated by advances in film technology, indifferent to the wonderful achievements they have engendered, openly hostile to advances in story-telling. Just look at this:
What he thinks about current fantasy films, though — well, that’s not so delightful.
The pacing annoys him. (“Modern-day audiences seem to expect an explosion every five minutes.”) So do the plots. (“We went back to the old legends. They base their movies on comic books.”) And most of the major “breakthroughs” leave him unmoved.
“‘Avatar,’ I’m sure it’s impressive,” he says. “But it’s more or less ‘Flash Gordon,’ isn’t it? And 3-D — I suppose it’s more refined now, but we had that back in the ’50s.”
I have never been a fan of what I term the “Golden Age” approach to film criticism, in which a mythical Golden Age from the past (usually conforming to a viewer’s impressionable youth) is revered as the high-water mark in the history of cinema, followed by an inevitable decline. Motion pictures – like all the arts – live and breathe and grow. The classics of yesteryear retain their appeal, and we celebrate them for it, but we should not hold them up as the eternal yardstick by which all modern work seems lacking. ”
The lesson that Harryhausen never learned from the formative experience that inspired his career – a childhood screening of KING KONG (1933) – was that, although a fantasy, the film was grounded in unpleasant reality (the Great Depression) that reverberated with audiences; also, it was filled with dark undercurrents that register more profoundly with adults than with children. Do I really need to point out that the plot is driven by a primitive, sub-human creature’s lust for a beautiful blond woman? And that the resulting sexual frustration leads to an orgy of destruction and loss of innocent life? As wonderful as Harryhausen’s films are, he never captured that kind of raw, primordial power, even when the scripts he worked from were based on Greek mythology, like CLASH OF THE TITANS.
Harryhausen was a master at providing child-like fantasy that appealed to young and old with an innocent sense of awe and wonder, but his technique was capable of achieving much more. In fact, perhaps the best single sequence he ever created is the Medusa set-piece from the ’81 CLASH OF THE TITANS, which plays like a mini-horror movie. I guess that scaring an audience – as opposed to amazing viewers – was not where his heart was at, but even fairy tales can be Grimm – and are the better for it.
I don’t know whether the new CLASH OF THE TITANS will match its predecessor or successfully capture an adult tone appropriate to the tragic nature of Greek mythology, but the remake deserves to be assessed on its own terms, and a “more realistic” approach to characters and storytelling (even in the context of a mythical fantasy) could yield interesting dividends. If you don’t at least believe in the possibility, then your Sense of Wonder is as dead as a victim who has stared into the Medusa’s eyes.
This morning, Cinematical posted a retraction-denial regarding an article posted yesterday, which had stated that Tim Burton would be making a 3D stop-motion version of THE ADDAMS FAMILY. The source of the news was Deadline Hollywood. MTV followed up on the story and got this response from Burton’s reps:
“There is no truth to the story. Tim has not lined up any of his upcoming projects.”
Placing special emphasis on the second sentence, MTV’s Adam Rosenberg speculates that “not lined up” does not mean “out of the question” and suggests the project could be something Burton is tentatively considering for the nebulous future. But it would have to take its place in line with numerous other projects, including the feature film version of DARK SHADOWS and a 3D stop-motion version of his old short subject, FRANKENWEENIE.
This DVD collects the first two season’s worth of episodes from Aardman Animations’s British stop-motion television series, along with the 1990 Oscar-winning theatrical short subject on which the show is based. Each episode recreates the formula of the original film, mimicking a documentary format, with actual recorded interviews serving as dialogue spoken by a series of colorful animated creatures. The results can be a bit repetitious when viewed one after the other, but the series manages to keep uncovering new ground by focusing each episode on a different theme. Throughout the course of two seasons, some characters even emerge as mini-stars, offering up droll dialogue and observations on a wide range of topics.
The TV episodes and the theatrical short subject, the DVD set contains a number of extras that provide a glimpse of the work that goes into making the series.
- Bringing Creature Comforts to Life: Live Action Video (LAV) – director acts out action for animators.
- Creating Creature Comforts – Behind the Scenes
- Favorite Bits
The making-of featurettes are loaded with interviews from the behind-the-scenes personnel, including the animators, the directors, and Nick Park (who directed the original short subject). The highlight is a look at the interviewing process, which reveals the actual human faces of the interview subjects whose taped responses provide the voices for the animated creatures; it becomes clear that Aardman Animations has a few favorite “stars” who they know will provide the kind of dry humor that inspires the animators.
CREATURE COMFORTS is the first Oscar-winning film from the unbeatable team of Aardman Animations and director Nick Park. Presented as a documentary, the 1990 stop-motion production features a series of interviews with zoo animals, who express an amusing variety of views regarding their stay in captivity – sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant.
Much of the humor derives from the casting of the animal characters to match the pre-recorded voices. CREATURE COMFORTS, which took home an Academy Award in the Animated Short Subject category, features claymation creatures (technically, plasticine) whose lip movements are synchronized with unscripted dialogue recorded live via interviews with people asked about living conditions in England. Putting these words in the mouths of animated animals, suggests some interesting parallels between the human condition and living life in a cage: A gorilla complains about the cold, wet climate. A koala bear feels very looked after by his keepers. The highlight is a puma, obviously feeling confined in his pen, who keeps repeating the word “space” as he years for wide-open terrain.
The animation, with its exaggerated lip movements to match the human enunciation, delivers perfect performances that bring the characters to life as they struggle to make their point for the camera. The psuedo-documentary format results in a talking-heads style of filmmaking, but Park adds a few visual flourishes, in the form of sight gags taking place in the background. The result is a delightful short subject with as much entertainment and artistic value as many feature-length films.
Now out of print, Image Entertainment’s 2000 DVD combines CREATURE COMFORTS with three other titles from Aardman Animations: WAT’S PIG, NOT WITHOUT MY HANDBAG, and ADAM. CREATURE COMFORTS is presented in a 1.85 transfer enhanced for widescreen TVs; the other films are presented in full-frame 1.33 transfers. There are no bonus features. CREATURE COMFORTS is the highlight of the four, but the other films are all remarkable and entertaining in their own right.
WAT’S PIG, written and directed by Peter Lord, is an amusing prince-and-the-pauper type tale of identical twins separated at birth. The story, which is presented as a sort of mini-epic, is told without more than a word or two of dialogue, with a split screen detailing the lives of the two boys as they grow up and eventually meet when the peasants rise up and storm the local castle. The ambitious film was nominated in the Animated Short category in 1996.
NOT WITHOUT MY HANDBAG – written and directed by Boris Kossmehl, with an assist on the script from Andrea Friedrich – is a mondo-weird, almost psychedelic story about what happens when a woman misses a payment on a home appliance: according to the fine print, she forfeits her soul, which is dragged to hell. However, the woman just can’t rest quietly without her handbag back on Earth, so she returns to the land of the living to reclaim it. Fortunately, her neice is not too alarmed by the unexpected reappearance (“My aunt is a zombie from Hell,” she observes casually”). Despite the Aardman pedigree, and the bright colors, NOT WITHOUT MY HANDBAG feels a bit like something from Tim Burton and/or Henry Selick. If you dig NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS or CORALINE, you should get a kick out of this.
ADAM is another Oscar nominated Animated Short from Peter Lord. Presented with a tongue-in-cheek simulation of awe, the film depicts what happens when the hand of God (or more accurately, the stop-motion animator) fashions a lump of clay into the first man, and then creates a companion for him (though not quite the companion that was expected).
This stop-motion film featuring offers “slightly less than $10 worth about the meaning of life.” Directed by Tatia Rosenthal, who co-wrote with Elgar Keret, based on his stories, $9.99 features the voice of Geoffrey Rush as a surly guardian angel looking out for the interests of an unemployed 23-year-old who purchases a book that promises to reveal the meaning of life (apparently, there are six). Anthony LaPaglia, Samuel Johnson, and Claudio Karvan are also in the vocal cast. Earlier this year, the L.A. Times reported that Regent Releasing would distribute $9.99 on April 3, but the date was pushed back to June 19.
From the Regent Releasing Website:
Have you ever wondered “What is the meaning of life? Why do we exist?” The answer to this vexing question is now within your reach! You’ll find it in a small yet amazing booklet, which will explain, in easy to follow, simple terms your reason for being! The booklet, printed on the finest paper, contains illuminating, exquisite colour pictures, and could be yours for a mere $9.99.
This is the ad that alters the life of the unemployed 28 year old who still lives at home, Dave Peck. In his struggle to share his find with the world, Dave¡¦s surreal path crosses with those of his unusual neighbours: an old man and his disgruntled guardian angel, a magician in debt, a bewitching woman who likes her men extra smooth, a broken hearted man who befriends a group of hard partying two inch tall students, and a little boy who sets his piggy bank free. Their stories are woven together, examining the post-modern meaning of hope.
What with all the “family-oriented” animation that we’re going to be saddled with over the next few months, Tatia Rosenthal’s debut stop-motion animated feature, $9.99, comes as a welcome change. Based on the stories of Etgar Keret — who for the indie film crowd is probably best known for writing the seed story that became WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY — the film is a tart, funny, and ultimately moving examination of people’s quest for meaning in their lives. And since those people include a widowed retiree being hounded by a singularly surly guardian angel (played fantastically by Geoffrey Rush), a commitment-phobe who spends his days entertaining a trio of two-inch tall frat boys, and a guy who falls in love with a model with some rather extreme preferences in her beaus, Rosenthal has more than enough opportunity to let her animation process spin some weird ‘n’ wonderful visuals.
Direct from MIGHTY MOVIE PODCAST, here’s my interview with Rosental.
Bruno Coulais’ score for Henry Selick’s 3D-animated film, CORALINE, is an enchanting enactment for orchestra and choir, which brings to wonderful life the magical environment and story concocted by the brilliant author Neil Gaiman. The music features a perfectly appropriate blending of unusual instruments (mechanical piano, electric bass guitar, jazzy flutes, what sounds like a child’s xylophone, squeaks and squeals and all manner of bells and percussion oddities) with both adult and children’s choirs and a pervasively eloquent harp which is liberally spread throughout the length and breadth of the movie. The inclusion of a cute if very short song by the band They Might Be Giants fits nicely within the overall sensibility of Coulais’ music. This is a wondrous score, melodically intriguing, instrumentally engaging, and completely intoxicating.
Coulais, 55, was trained in classical music in Paris but gravitated toward film music through the suggestion of several acquaintances. He was asked to compose music to a documentary film by director François Reichenbach in 1977, but his first foray into feature films was in Sébastien Grall’s film, LA FEMME SECRÈTE, released in 1986. He had scored more than fifty films and television works when his music for the 1996 documentary film, MICROCOSMOS, brought him to international attention. His ability to provide music of eloquent grace and beauty for this new breed of artistic documentary with limited narration was further solidified with WINGED MIGRATION (2001), GENESIS (2004), and THE WHITE PLANET (2006).
Bruno Coulais has been equally adept in scoring dramatic subjects, such as 2001’s horror-fantasy, BELPHÉGOR – PHANTOM OF THE LOUVRE (2001), VIDOCQ (2001), and SECRET AGENTS (2004). His nearly 150 film scores to date have covered nearly every genre and embraced all manner of musical styles. Known for his use of ethnic instrumentation and human voice, Coulais is among the new breed of French composers – Alexandre Desplat, Armand Amar, Philippe Rombi among them – providing notably expressive work in contemporary cinema.
One of the first things to be noticed about a Bruno Coulais score is that one barely resembles another. From the energetic drama of VIDOCQ with its malevolent darkness and twisted chambers of sonority to the haunting ethnic melodies of the adventure drama HIMALAYA (1999) or the eloquent classical choir work that gave such poignancy to LES CHORISTES (2004, THE CHORUS, which earned him his third César Award), Coulais relishes films that allow him to become as varied as possible.
In CORALINE, director Henry Selick’s impressionistically animated interpretation of Neil Gaiman’s short story, an adventurous but lonely girl named Coraline (“Not,” she reminds everyone, “Caroline”) finds a mirror world that turns out to be a strangely idealized version of her own, but one whose sinister secrets soon keep her from returning home. It was Selick’s style of animation (ala his work on THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH) and the way in which the film was shot that gave Coulais his initial inspiration for the kind of music the film would need, rather that its nuances of story and fantasy.
“At first, I don’t attach myself to the narrative because I think music must be another character of the film,” he said. “I’m sensitive to the light, to the mood, and everything that you cannot see directly.”
Coulais devised his enchanting instrumental design according to Selick’s visual interpretation of the story, which gave the strange alternate world of Coraline’s home and its button-eyed denizens a menacing clarity.
“While watching the pictures of CORALINE, I was struck by the extraordinary pictorial invention as well as the different stratum of the film: the routine/the fantasy, the epic side/the dark side, the fear, etc. and I agreed with Henry Selick, that we must use a wide musical range in order to realize all these diversities,” Coulais said. “The challenge was to make emerge a musical unit in spite of these different stylistic [elements] and I believe that the themes have played this part.”
Once he had established the musical design of CORALINE, Coulais developed the score to coincide with Coraline’s journey, her descent into the darkness of the world beyond the bricked up wall inside the drawing room door (where her button-eyed Other Mother has entrapped her), her heroic attempts to escape from that world and save her real parents, and her ultimate redemption and triumph.
“Once I wrote the main music themes of the film, I tried to work in a chronological order so I could respect the film progress,” he said. “I needed to start from a realistic, routine mood and then go into a fantastic mood, becoming more and more frightening. It was important to make the music evolve with the story. The first themes, like the one illustrating Coraline’s first visit in the house, seem peaceful in order to make the character’s world more realistic. But then the bizarreness and the anxiety take over. Some funny and absurd bits join the music. But even from the beginning there are some musical touches that make us understand we’re not in a completely realistic film.”
Coulais composed and recorded his score in France while communicating with Selick in Hollywood. Selick had used his music from WINGED MIGRATION and MICROCOSMOS as temporary music while building his final edit of CORALINE; although Selick didn’t expect Coulais to mirror those scores in his original compositions for CORALINE, this temp track gave the composer a kind of referential shorthand that let him know the type of music Selick had in mind for his film.
“Despise the distance and the language barrier, I’ve rarely felt so close to a director,” Coulais said. “Henry explained what he was expecting from the music for each sequence. Once the demo was done, I sent him an mp3 file to listen to. He gave me his first impressions and then, later on, his final remarks once the music was edited in by [film editor] Christopher Murrie.”
For Coulais, the most challenging aspect of scoring CORALINE was keeping pace with its shifting tone and supporting its sense of mystery and menace – and doing so with music that conveyed both mysterioso and emotional expressions. “There are two sequences which for me, were extremely important,” said Coulais. “The first sequence is the mice Marching Band on which I tried to write a score where the density and the scale were that of the mice, using all kind of instruments like toys, Chinese instruments, child’s brass and child’s piano, but also instruments of a traditional Marching Band. The second and the most important is for me the sequence between Coraline and the Other Mother where I intended, in spite of the malevolency of the Other Mother, to bring a certain emotional level to the scene.”
Like much of Coulais’ film music, his CORALINE score sounds like nothing else he has written, embodying a musical character and style all of its own. Coulais believes this is possible due to the wide range of films he has been able to score, and the willingness of directors not to impose certain strictures upon him.
“A kind of schizophrenia exists because sometimes a composer gravitates to the idea of being at the service of the film; sometimes he inclines to write the most personal music as possible,” Coulais said. “However, some movies allow the composer to be as free as possible in the writing of the music score. I am of course unable to define my style, but I can say that I am attracted to strangeness, and to the hybrid mixing of human voices and instruments. Although, I do also like to work with homogeneous instrumentation, like a string quartet.”
Ray Harryhausen’s latest book, A Century of Stop Motion Animation (Watson–Guptill) arrived in bookstores last November without much fanfare; Harryhausen did not make a trip from London to promote it stateside, as he had for his previous two volumes. But placed alongside An Animated Life and The Art of Ray Harryhausen, the current book completes a trilogy of essential reading for anyone with the slightest interest in Harryhausen’s work or stop-motion animation. In fact, taken together, the three books beautifully compliment each other; there is very little duplication among them, so with the three volumes you get a wonderful wealth of pictures and information on virtually every aspect of Harryhausen’s films. As Harryhausen frequently replied when asked questions while promoting An Animated Life in 2004, “It’s all in the book!”
This newest volume is once again beautifully designed (by Ashley Western), with many rare drawings, diagrams, models, posters and production photos taken from the vast archive of material Harryhausen began accumulating in 1933, after seeing King Kong for the first time.
Given Harryhausen’s preeminence in the field, he is ideally suited for writing a history of stop-motion: after meeting Willis O’Brien in 1939 he has known virtually every prominent practitioner of the craft. Tony Walton actually narrates the history in this volume, but Ray’s knowledge of the craft is clearly at the heart of the story.
As an admirer and friend of Willis O’Brien, Harryhausen devotes almost one-fourth of the book to his mentor (60 out of 240 pages). The chapter on O’Brien, entitled “Visionary and Star Maker,” is nothing less than spectacular. Gorgeous shots from The Lost World, King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, The Animal World and The Black Scorpion are featured alongside rare O’Brien artwork for his many unrealized projects, such as Creation, War Eagles, Gwangi and King Kong vs. Frankenstein.
The first chapter outlines all the basic techniques involved in stop motion, with illustrations featuring models of creatures taken mostly from Ray’s own films. This is followed by a fascinating history of early stop motion efforts, from 1897 to 1930, providing valuable background on the now mostly forgotten pioneers of the art.
A chapter on contemporaries of O’Brien and Harryhausen features George Pal, Jim Danforth, Jiri Trnka, Karel Zeman, and several European animators with whose work I suspect many people will be quite unfamiliar.
There is also an invaluable chapter in which Harryhausen discusses in some detail his creative approach toward animating his creatures, from his beloved dinosaurs to the skeletons and Medusa.
Rounding out the book is a chapter on the Cascade Pictures generation of animators, including David Allen, Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren, Doug Beswick and Randy Cook, followed by a closing chapter devoted to the work of the newest group of animators employed by Tim Burton and Aardman Animation.
To call it the best book written on the subject is really an understatement, since as Ray points out in his forward, there really has not been a history of the art and craft of stop-motion before this. This is why it is such a joy that the first comprehensive volume on the subject has been written authored by the world-renowned maestro of the art!
To celebrate, here is Part IV of my interview with Ray Harryhausen, wherein he talks about the work of his mentor, Willis H. O’ Brien.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did your first meeting with Willis O’Brien come about?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I first learned about Willis O’Brien from an exhibit at the Los Angeles natural history museum. They had several of his miniatures on display in the basement. Then while I was still in high school, one day during study period I looked over at a girl who had this big book with all these wonderful illustrations from King Kong in it and I almost flipped. I went over to her and introduced myself and told her about my desire to do animation and she said her father had worked with Willis O’Brien on The Last Days of Pompeii. She told me that O’Brien was now working at MGM on War Eagles and that I should call him up there. So the next day I called him at MGM and he kindly invited me down to the studio. When I got there I was in complete awe at all the pre-production drawings that were covering every inch of the walls. They showed all these giant eagles, who at the climax of the picture were seen perched atop the Statue of Liberty! So after that meeting I kept in touch with O’Brien, and he encouraged me and became my mentor. I learned many things from Obie.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You devote a whole chapter in A Century of Stop Motion Animation to Willis O’Brien, who began his career right here in San Francisco.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, Obie did some of his first animation on the roof of the old Bank of America building here, using two clay figures. He started out way back in 1914, or even before that in some of his early experiments, but he was from Oakland and worked as a sculptor for the San Francisco World’s fair in 1915. Then he worked for the Edison Company and tried many different things. When he was very young he ran away from home and became a cowboy, then a sports cartoonist for a San Francisco newspaper. He loved boxing and wrestling, so when we were preparing Mighty Joe Young, we used to go to quite a few boxing matches, because there was a time when we thought we’d have two Gorillas let loose in San Francisco beating the heck out of each other on top of a cable car that had broken loose and was going down a hill. Obie made several big drawings of that sequence, because he loved San Francisco, but unfortunately that was discarded in favor of the burning of the orphanage.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Weren’t both your mother and your grandfather originally from San Francisco as well?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, my Grandfather first came to San Francisco in 1850, and he was a gold miner, who moved to Nevada City where my father was born. But my mother grew up in San Francisco.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In the book you also talk about the many projects Willis O’Brien planned that never materialized.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, a lot of pictures he planned folded under him because of budgets and things like that. War Eagles collapsed at MGM when Merian Cooper was called into the Army to join the Flying Tigers. While Obie was at MGM he also had some ideas for the Marx Brothers. He wanted to have these three big Pelicans carry the Marx Brothers in their sacks and have them crash land on an island in the Pacific. He made many drawings for that, but I don’t know what happened to them. Then Obie had Gwangi set up at RKO, until it was canceled and replaced with Little Orphan Annie. He had a lot of personal tragedy in his life, as well.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: When you were making Clash of the Titans at MGM, did you attempt to locate any of the War Eagles drawings from the MGM archives?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, because Obie had done many drawings for the project and way back in 1939 when I first went to see Obie at MGM, I saw three rooms where every inch of wall space was covered with all these drawings and beautiful paintings. Only a few of them seemed to have survived. I think they must have chucked them all into the furnace. Miklos Rozsa told me that all the scores he wrote at MGM ended up being tossed into the furnace, so I don’t think many of those drawings exist anymore.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Or else they may have sold them off in the ’70s, when MGM auctioned off all their props and got out of film distribution.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I did hear a story later on about some of the drawings being sold on Hollywood Boulevard, but I never saw any of them. Charles [Schneer] and I had even considered doing War Eagles right after we finished Clash of the Titians. Charles had gotten the original scripts that were written by Cyril Hume out of the MGM library, but nobody at the studio seemed to be interested in making it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: After working with Willis O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young in 1949 did you hope to continue collaborating with him on his future projects?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, because initially Merian Cooper was going to produce H. G. Wells The Food of the Gods, but that was dropped, and I think Cooper also had in mind Mighty Joe Young Meets Tarzan, because we had made Mighty Joe Young at the old Selznick studio, and at the time Sol Lesser was making the Tarzan pictures there. Then Obie had a story idea he had sold to Jesse L. Lasky, The Valley of the Mist. But we were unfortunate, because we got caught in a change of management at RKO and all the overhead of the studio got dumped onto our picture. It made Mighty Joe Young appear to be far more costly than it actually was. So nobody wanted to touch animation. Obie’s technique also involved using these large glass paintings about ten feet wide and he painted all the scenery on the glass so you could get this wonderful jungle, like you saw in King Kong. But that was a very costly process because of all the time it took to paint the scenery. You had to have a staff of two or three very good artists to make a painting of a tree, actually look like a tree. It was just too costly.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In your Film Fantasy Scrapbook, you mention that O’Brien’s story idea for Valley of the Mist somehow won an Academy Award.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, there was a big problem with that, involving lawsuits and everything else. I don’t know all the details, because I heard the story second-hand, but Obie had originally prepared a story about a boy, a bull and a dinosaur. The story ended up in a bullring with the boy’s pet bull fighting an allosaurus. Obie had made a thick book of production illustrations that was very impressive and Jesse L. Lasky was going to produce it for Paramount. Jesse Lasky, Jr. who had written The Ten Commandments for Cecil B. DeMille was writing the final screenplay based on Obie’s outline, but once again it was one of those projects that never matured. Somehow it went through various hands, and I think it came back to O’Brien and he sold it to Eddie Nassour and then it went somewhere else. There were all sorts of problems with the rights to it, until eventually they took the dinosaur out of it and made it as a separate picture in 1956, called The Brave One.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: And the story credit for The Brave One was given to “Robert Rich” who was actually Dalton Trumbo hiding under a pseudonym, because at the time he was blacklisted for supposedly being a communist.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, so nobody knew who the author was. There was a lot of talk, then a lawsuit with the Nassour brothers, who made The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956), which was a sort of modification of Obie’s story.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: None of O’Brien’s films dealt with mythological subjects, did they?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: No, most of his animation dealt with either a gorilla or dinosaurs. He made that wonderful silent version of The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, with Wallace Beery and Bessie Love that had many dinosaurs, I think 25 dinosaurs. He had always been associated with the prehistoric world, which is wonderful. It’s earlier mythology than Greek mythology.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In The Art of Ray Harryhausen you talk about how Gustave Doré was your inspiration for much of the pre-production artwork you and Willis O’Brien drew.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, in fact I very rarely did any drawings in color, because Gustave Doré’s black and white engravings had always excited me. I thought he had a wonderful theatrical style, and many art directors copied Doré in the silent period, as did Cecil B. DeMille for many of his silent biblical pictures. But I originally started out making continuity sketches by doing something I got from Obie. He used to take pieces of photographic paper that hadn’t been developed and sketch out a basic idea and then wipe the back of them with powdered charcoal and pick out the highlights with an eraser. Then he’d sketch in the outlines with a dark pencil. Later on, I began doing these big drawings in black and white, based on Gustave Doré’s technique. His drawings were perfectly set-up, with a dark foreground, a medium middle ground, and a hazy light background, so you got a wonderful sense of depth. In fact I’ve always wanted to do Dante’s Inferno, because of Gustave Doré. He had done the first illustrated book of Dante’s Inferno—“A Trip Through Hell”. I felt that would look terrific in animation, but when I got deeper into it, I thought, “Will people be able to sit through an hour and half of tormented souls writhing in Hell?” Although these days they sit through over two hours of tormented souls!