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

Ray Harryhausen at the Vancounter Effects & Animation Festival
Ray Harryhausen at the Vancounter Effects & Animation Festival

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 Harrhausen walks the festival corridors
Ray Harrhausen walks the festival corridors

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.

The skeleton battle from JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) - a memorable influence on the creators of CELEBRITY DEATH MATCH
The skeleton battle from JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) - a memorable influence on animator David Bowes.

“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.

THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD - a major influence on the co-creator of CELEBRITY DEATHMATCH
THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD - a major influence on the co-creator of CELEBRITY DEATHMATCH

“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.”

Medusa from CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981) - a huge influence
Medusa from CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981). The film made a "memorable impressions" on Darren Davis.

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!

Revisiting Raiders

Decades later, a trio of teens look back on their home movie remake of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

It’s amazing to realize that it took Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford 19 years to conjure up a fourth Indiana Jones adventure, one they called INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, which was released this past summer. The film first premiered at Cannes, France and it was quite well received. The film went on to gross big-time box office with $783 Million worldwide. Now, on October 14, 2008, the DVD edition is being released by Paramount Pictures on DVD and Blu-Ray discs.

But it’s also just as amazing to realize that there is another Indiana Jones production that you’ve probably never heard about. It’s the adventure story of how three kids from Mississippi, just hitting into their teens, decided to film their own adaptation of one of Hollywood’s most successful blockbusters. Their story is the one about bonding friendship and relentless determination.

When Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb decided in the summer of 1982 to hand-craft a personalized version of Steven Spielberg’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, it was just the beginning of a long, fractious and arduous seven-year journey for the trio. They scraped every penny from their allowances and called in favors from classmates, adults and kids in their orbit towards filming a shot-for-shot remake of Spielberg’s $20 million homage to the movie serials of the 1930s.

“To Strive, To Seek and Not to Yield…”

In summer of 1981, Chris, Eric and Jayson (who ranged in age from 11 to 13 years old) were living and going to school in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Ordinary kids, they became friends and discovered a shared passion for RAIDERS and Strompolos was eager to become Indiana Jones. He roped in Zala, who agreed, and then Lamb joined the team. The three assigned themselves multiple roles to play in front and behind the camera.

In addition to being the star Strompolos also handled the producer and sound mixer duties. Zala cast himself as Belloq, the arch-rival archaeologist working for the Nazis, and then constructed the storyboards and art direction. Lamb kept himself behind the camera as cinematographer, editor and special effects.

Often filming in their own bedrooms, their parents’ basements or on location, the boys soon came to understand the challenges of their filmmaking tasks. This was in the days before RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was commercially released on videotape. No scripts were available, so the entire adaptation had to be fashioned from memory and help from references like the comic book and the novelization.

To complete all the shots they needed, the boys had to film over the course of seven consecutive summers, finishing in 1989. In the final film, it showed: The ages of the actors often fluctuated from scene to scene, depending when it was filmed.

However, RAIDERS THE ADAPTATION was so carefully crafted that anyone familiar with the actual Spielberg production could easily recognize characters, costumes, locations and sets. And yes, the boys even managed to find themselves a submarine to use in their film. Cannily, many camera angles are eeriely close to the original film’s look and feel. Even the editing’s tempo are very close to the original film.

When RAIDERS THE ADAPTATION finally finished production after six tough summers, it was 1989; editing was handled at the local television station, which lent equipment and space so that the boys could complete their work.

Shortly thereafter, a cast and crew screening was held at a local PepsiCo auditorium to an audience of about 200 people. Everyone laughed and cheered and the boys were happy. Life could now go on.

It wasn’t until years later, on December 2002, that a filmmaker named Eli Roth gave a videotape dub of the movie to Harry Knowles, webmaster of the ¨uber-film geek website Aint It Cool News. (Roth got obsessed with the film after it was passed on to him by other fans who had caught an NY University screening when Eric was a film student there.)

As an unannounced, and impromptu screening, the audience was at first simply stunned to see RAIDERS THE ADAPTATION. And as they absorbed the film, they responded with delight and cheers. Five months later, in May 2003, the filmmakers reunited in Austin, Texas for another screening, and the reaction was equally enthusiastic. That’s when the three boys realized their private little film project finally had broken out into the world.

“Crack the Whip”

Today, Chris Strompolos says that what kept the three of them, over seven years of hard work, going on the project was simply that they were confident and had strong support from their family and friends. “We were surrounded by a lot of naysayers, “When are you going to finish that RAIDERS thing!?’ We were inspired to prove them wrong,” he says. “The most prominent point was that the working team of Eric, Jayson and I — the working chemistry was so strong — particularly between Eric and I. We just found each other as friends and that’s been the nature of our relationship.”

It was truly a collaborative effort, says Strompolos. The many who worked behind the scenes were conscripted into the adventure when problems were needed to be solved. “It was just a volunteer effort from summer to summer,” he says. “There were people who stayed around for the whole time,” like Eric’s little brother Kurt, who snagged at least six different on-screen roles.

As an example of the tribulations endured by the boys, the actress originally cast as Marion Ravenwood filmed a few scenes but then something unexpected happened. “She had moved to Alaska without telling us!” recalls Strompolos. “We were unable to finish. We had to reshoot everything.” Another girl, Angela Rodriguez, who was spotted by Zala at the local church, agreed to take on the role. “She was a perfect match and it ended up being really great,” he sighs.

“We just wanted to do the best we could. We never had any plans or intentions to ever show it to anybody. We were just doing it for the love of it, for ourselves. It was a fun project. We never had an end goal in mind. We weren’t going to sell it or distribute it. After many years of trial and error, we had a shot that we loved or something that really worked, we just got even more excited.”

Strompolos says when the three of them reunited at the Austin, Texas screening with Harry Knowles in attendance in May 2003, they were stunned at how many people actually showed up to see the film. “Our hearts sank because we thought, ‘My god! Don’t they know that they’re going to watch something that was shot in Mom’s basement!’ We didn’t know what we had,” he chuckles.

“It Belongs in a Museum!”

Since 2003 the three boys, now in their 30s, have continued as friends and working together. “The RAIDERS movie gave us a certain momentum,” says Strompolos. He asked Zala to join him in business and the collaboration has worked out well, bringing to fruition a film production company, appropriately titled Rolling Boulder Films.

In fact, since that year, the boys have been touring with their RAIDERS adaptation at charity screenings all across the country with a few international countries like Australia, Germany and Canada. “We always do it in affiliation with a charity,” he says. “For example, in Vancouver, all proceeds went to the Canadian Cancer Society.” Strompolos estimates they’ve flown to about 40 or 50 U.S. cities. Earlier this year the film had its Los Angeles premiere screening. “We’re booked for events all the way to the end of the year and in fact we’re looking into events for 2009,” he says. “We’re trying to get overseas. We’re in discussions about Iceland, Norway and the U.K.”

Sitting in with an audience who is discovering the film for the first time is a constant revelation, says Strompolos. “Obviously, we’ve screened it so much and I don’t sit with the audience every time,” he says. However, there are special moments that happen. “When the energy in the room is just so incredible, Eric and I will say, ‘Let’s watch it!’ For us to view it with an audience is pretty incredible because when we finished the movie, I was done with it. I was burned out and moved on to other things. Screening it for audiences, and seeing the joy and inspiration it brings to them, has allowed me to revisit that chapter in my life all over again. It’s incredible to me, in a room with 500 people, watch them whoop, holler and cheer and just have an amazing time.”

During one of those screenings last year in Mississippi, in a large turnout at a theater, the boys were reunited with their Marion — Angela Rodriguez, whom they hadn’t seen in about 18 years. “Angela’s really happy,” says Strompolos. “She’s completely cool that [the film has] gotten as much attention as it has. She’s a shy sort and doesn’t like the spotlight, which is ironic. She’s a single mom. She’s doing well. I was just in Minneapolis and saw Angela again. She’s still delighted to have had a part of the whole thing.”

Armed with three copies of the film on VHS tape, a DigiBeta copy and a DV Cam copy, Strompolos reports that “We sell out theaters. We get cheers and standing ovations. People are inspired and overjoyed. It’s taken on an incredible life of its own. Someone said our story is an evergreen story. And I think there’s always going to be someone who wants to see our movie, so we can keep touring.”

As a result of their fame with the RAIDERS adaptation, the boys sold their life story to film producer Scott Rudin and Paramount Pictures, which has a completed script by Daniel Clowes. “They’re going to hit the pause button on it for a bit,” says Strompolos, who notes the film is in active development. “Because INDY IV is out in the theaters, they are going to wait until that rides out its wave, and then start putting together the film.”

Rolling Boulder’s next project is a bona-fide feature film. They snagged for themselves a Paramount development deal with their production company. The film is titled THE RIVER CHASE. “It’s sort of a ‘southern gothic action-adventure film,’ says Strompolos. “It’s a river quest. It takes place in present-day Mississippi which is our home state. The script is done. The concept artwork is done and we’re putting it together.”

Another item on their slate is a “passion project” spearheaded by Jayson Lamb, a behind-the-scenes documentary of their RAIDERS experience titled WHEN WE WERE KIDS. “He’s taken all of the footage and digitized them,” notes Strompolos.

When INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL bowed at movie theaters this summer, Strompolos, Zala and Lamb once again revisited with their favorite hero. “It was a real pleasure to see Harrison do his thing again,” notes Strompolos. “It wasn’t a perfect script. But I think the mythology of the Indiana Jones saga, the excitement of watching him again, was everything it could be. I’m so happy that the fourth movie happened in my lifetime!” he laughs.

The trio’s association with Indiana Jones got as far as receiving a personal letter from Steven Spielberg, who screened their adaptation and he expressed his admiration for their work and telling them that their work was the best homage to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Later, the three filmmakers were granted a personal audience with Spielberg at his office at Universal Studios.

Although RAIDERS THE ADAPTATION was filmed and cut together using primitive videotape equipment, today Strompolos and Zala tour with the film by carrying a VHS tape copy, a DigiBeta copy and a DV Camcorder copy. The three of them are resisting any notion of taking today’s advanced video editing and special effects tools and taking it through a restoration process to upgrade the quality. “There are some dangers in that and the reason we haven’t done that yet is there’s a purist’s quality of the film being edited by a child’s hands,” notes Strompolos. “Aside from the opening scroll, we haven’t touched a frame of it. That’s part of its charm. People like that it hasn’t been touched. We’ve had people come to us and say, ‘Don’t you touch a frame of this!’ I’m sure curiosity will get the better part of us at some point. We’ll clean it up, take it through a restoration and re-cut it just to see what we end up with. It’s on our list of things to do.”