A Chat With Ray Harryhausen

Ruth and Roger Whiter were lucky enough to meet Ray Harryhausen for tea and a chat about his career, the craft of stop-motion and the value of careful planning.

Ray Harryhausen.

Ray Harryhausen.

Roger and I were asked to interview Ray Harryhausen on the basis that we both work in the stop-motion business in London; Roger makes puppets, and I animate, mainly for children's series and specials. Many of our colleagues trace their interest in animation to watching as children Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years B.C., The Valley of the Gwangi, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and the other "dynamation" fantasy films Harryhausen made with producer Charles Schneer. In fact I was working for a director who had, aged fourteen, slipped away from a school trip to the South Kensington museums, armed with a super-8 projector, in order to show Mr. Harryhausen his own experiments in stop-motion. As we sat down to tea, however, served in mugs which claimed "Clash of the Titans -- MGM's big one for Summer 1981," I had to confess to this still rather imposing figure that I hadn't spent my childhood watching his films. Having arrived at being an animator by a more circuitous route, I needed to explain my rather limited knowledge of his work. At the same time, my appreciation of his skills as a remarkable character animator, who worked under circumstances I can barely imagine, is entirely without the benefit of nostalgia. Roger, on the other hand, was more familiar with the films and had shared a love of the giant creatures in Mysterious Island with his father. He was very keen, however, to ask Ray about his early work in puppet animation. Roger was born in California, but learnt his trade as a stop-motion puppet maker here in England, where, along with the rest of Europe, stop-motion has always been a much more dominant medium, and where the industry is currently thriving. This tends to make him very interested in the much more limited history of puppet animation in the United States. He was interested in Ray's detour from the experiments he carried out as a teenager, animating dinosaurs, to the fairy tale films he made after the war:

Roger Whiter: Now, you started off being interested in dinosaurs, and then you worked on George Pal's films, and then you went into the army. Is that right? Ray Harryhausen: Yes. Roger: But when you came out of the army, you didn't go back to dinosaurs straight away? Ray: Yes I did. I went on with my experiments with evolution. I carried on with 16mm and shot a lot of dinosaur sequences. But then I wanted to make something with a beginning, a middle and an end, not just a lot of miscellaneous scenes, so I attacked the fairy tales, the Mother Goose stories. I always call them my teething rings because I learnt a lot about story control. Roger: Is it possible to get them on video? Ray: They are, but it's hard to trace them down. Phoenix Films of America, they have handled my fairy tales over the years. I made four of them -- five of them.

Roger: I've got a list here -- Miss Muffet -- Ray: Little Miss Muffet, that's part of the Mother Goose stories. Little Miss Muffet, Old Mother Hubbard, Queen of Hearts, and Humpty Dumpty are all in the Mother Goose stories. Then I made Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, and The Story of King Midas. They were all made in my garage. They were complete stories, ten minutes each, with a beginning, middle, and an end.

A scene from Harryhausen's early Little Red Riding Hood film. © Animation Art Gallery London.

A scene from Harryhausen's early Little Red Riding Hood film. © Animation Art Gallery London.

Roger: What did you do while youwere in the army? I saw that there was a film about bridge building. Ray: I was working with George Pal when the war came along, and I thought that I'd like to get into something that I'm capable of doing, so I made this thing, a three minute short, of buildinga bridge. I was going to Columbia Pictures and Eastman Kodak hada class going for cameramen. I signed up to be a field cameraman.I showed this film to my professor and he showed it to Frank Capra. When I had a meeting with Capra and Colonel Lipvark they were justforming this SCPC, the Special Service division. I worked on someof the "Why We Fight" series during the war, then we made Nuts and Bolts. I also acted as an assistant cameraman. Andthen I worked on Snafu, with Ted Geisel, Dr. Seuss. He was in charge of the Snafu character.

Roger: Did some of these films that you've mentioned have puppet characters? Ray: No, Snafu was a flatbed cartoon, but I made three or four statues for the Yank magazine covers.

Roger: Did the bridge building film have characters in it?

Ray: No, it was just toys I bought in the five and dime store. Roger: What brought you to Willis O'Brien's attention? How did he find out about you when you started working on Mighty Joe Young? Ray: Well, I'd known Willis O' Brien since high school. I'd contacted him after King Kong. He invited me down to his studio at MGM and I brought some of my dinosaurs in a suitcase.There weren't many people interested in that type of thing at that time, so I was rather unique, I guess. And then I showed him mypuppet films over the years, we kept in touch, and he showed them to Merian Cooper, and I got to be his assistant.

Harryhausen with his own creation Mighty Joe Young. © Animation Art Gallery London.

Harryhausen with his own creation Mighty Joe Young. © Animation Art Gallery London.

Dynamation Versus The Puppet Film

Ray said that he followed in the footsteps of Willis O'Brien, who took stop-motion animation out of the realm of the puppet film. This was a theme to which our conversation kept returning. Roger and I had hoped to elicit his expert opinion on all sorts of stop-motion film making in Europe and America, but Ray, although he takes a keen interest in these things, kept coming back to the same distinction: that Nightmare Before Christmas, Jiri Trnka and Starevich, George Pal, Will Vinton, Nick Park and Barry Purves make "puppet films," and his own life's work is something distinct from that. When I asked him whether he had ever longed to animate free of the restrictions of fitting to live-action, he replied that that was the whole point of what he did -- "otherwise you're making a puppet film." Perhaps this feeling was influenced by his experiences working on puppet films for George Pal, using his painstaking replacement technique, in shorts such as the Jasper series: Ray: They were little stylized puppets, and his method was to substitute for each move. It took 25 separate figures to make one step. They were animated on paper first, and then they were transferred to wood, and cut out on the bandsaw. So they had a cycle of 25 puppets to take one step and then they'd just keep repeating that. So it wasn't very creative on the set, because it was all pre-animated. So I preferred Willis O'Brien's technique where he used a single figure. I admire my stamina for sticking it out for two years. It taught me patience. I've lost it since. They never quite caught on in America, although he was in business for three or four years before he turned to features. They were fascinating and beautifully made, but they didn't catch on with the public; the cat and mouse stuff with Tom and Jerry seemed to attract the public much more.

It's easy to see the challenge and attraction of animating jointed characters such as the seven skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts compared to that sort of technique, especially as Ray had so much say in the films he finally made with Charles Schneer:

Some of Harryhausen's work in the Sinbad series gave him practice for the more complex movements in The Clash of the Titans. © Animation Art Gallery London.

Some of Harryhausen's work in the Sinbad series gave him practice for the more complex movements in The Clash of the Titans. © Animation Art Gallery London.

Ray: I brought in the stories many times. I don't just do animation. Twenty Million Miles to Earth, The Seventh Voyage, The Golden Voyage, are all based on outlines I made, plus my drawings. So I always worked with the writer, and the producer, and sometimes the director wouldn't come in until the picture was ready to go. It's not a director's picture as you imagine in the European sense of the word. It has to be laid out -- otherwise we couldn't make them for the price we did. I was responsible for laying out the special effects and making the picture practical. I went out to locations and picked them out. We picked out locations in Spain that hadn't been photographed before for Seventh Voyage, and we used 5000 year old temples for Jason. So our films had a lot more to them than entertainment value, and I'm glad that a lot of people recognize that now. People realize now the value of them as educational. I think they use Jason and Clash of the Titans in teaching Greek mythology. We had an actress called Maria Montez, I don't know if you've heard of her, she and John Hall and Sabu used to make pictures for Universal like Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Well, you never saw any of the fantasy creatures. They would talk about the cyclops but you'd never see it on the screen, it was always O.S., you know. So I was determined when I got into making films that we were going to put these fantasy elements on the screen.

The challenge of making these fantasy elements into stars in their own right, within the context of a live-action feature, seems to be what drove Ray in his use of stop-motion.

Ray: Medusa was fascinating to work with because I gave her a snake's body so that she could pull herself with her hands which gave her a very creepy aura. I didn't want to animate cosmic gowns. Most Medusas you see in the classics have flowing robes which would be mad to even try to animate. I see the Russians do a lot of windswept gowns but then it's a puppet film and you accept it, but it doesn't look convincing. It's a stylized form of expression. But I'm amazed they even attempt it.

Ruth Whiter: Do you think it can be distracting? Ray: It can be, but then you accept it because it's a puppet film. If you did that on Medusa it wouldn't be acceptable, it would just look like bad animation.

The Business Of Animating

Ray talked about a trip he had made a few years ago, when he'd visited Will Vinton's studios in Portland, Oregon, and also met with two paleontologists who had originally been inspired by his dinosaur films. He talked about joining them for a dig and the amount of patience needed for that type of work, which led us to talking about the commonly held view that animators need an unusual amount of patience. Ray: A lot of people thought my work was very tedious, and it can be if you look at it from that point of view, but I never looked upon it as tedious. Ruth: People come into the studio and the first thing they always say is, "Oh, you must be so patient," and I think, there are so many jobs in this world where you're working on a tiny part of a whole, animation is just one of them, and what they really mean is, "I couldn't be bothered to do it myself." Ray: They don't know the joy of seeing the film come back and what you had in your mind is on film. Ruth: The only thing I find tedious is something with no character, like making a plane fly around in the air, but otherwise it would never occur to me that it was. Ray: No, that's the same for me. I did find parts tedious, when I had to do things because they had to bridge something. I was very limited in what I could do with flying saucers, because they're just a metal disc. I had to try and put character in as if they were intelligently guided. Did you ever see that, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers? We destroyed Washington DC. That's not the reason I fled to Europe.

In fact, Ray saw the live-action shoot as more demanding of patience:

Ray: That's why I never became a director. I never had patience with people. My characters always did exactly what I told them to do. Roger: That was one of our questions, actually, why didn't you just direct the whole film. Ray: I'd like to have, but I thought something would suffer, the animation or the rest of it. Many times I felt like I'd do better than what the director did, but some of them got a little discouraged because they didn't have full charge of making the film, and sometimes there'd be battles of egos. We always had to lay out our films very carefully, because they were always made on a tight budget. Charles would always keep a tight reign on the live-action, and I did all the animation, and all the construction of the puppets. Sometimes I had other people model them, but I would in the end make the final puppet myself. When I started out, I couldn't find another kindred soul, and if you wanted something you couldn't just go out and find somebody who'd do it, so I had to learn to do it myself. I took courses at USC in film editing and art direction and photography when I was still in high school. Roger: What did you do about foam casting? Ray: I learned to do that with the Dunlop material. I cast most of them myself. I sometimes had people model the actual figure because the texture takes so much time. I sometimes had the staff sculptors do figures based on my drawings. Roger: And who did the mechanics; who did the armatures? Ray: I had the ball and sockets made, different sizes, and then I put them together to fit my particular needs. But I had to learn to do everything because I couldn't find another kindred soul. Now you see eighty people listed doing the same things I was doing by myself.

Ruth: You said recently that one of the reasons you retired was that you'd spent long enough working alone in dark rooms... Ray: Yes, I got rather tired of that after a while.

Whereas Harryhausen worked virtually alone, current stop-motion productions like The PJs use many artists to bring their characters to life. © Will Vinton Studios.

Whereas Harryhausen worked virtually alone, current stop-motion productions like The PJs use many artists to bring their characters to life. © Will Vinton Studios.

Ruth: Were you literally alone? The way I know stop-motion studios to work is that there will be lots of other people setting up your shot, and then you're on your own while you animate, but at least you see people throughout the day. Were you literally setting your own camera, your own lights, and your own rigging?

Ray: The only person I had with me was an electrician, to be sure the lights didn't blow out without my noticing. But I actually set the lights, I did my own camera work, my own animation, and my own sets. I did everything -- except on the last film, I had to bring in other animators because we got behind, we had a technical problem.

Ruth: How did you like working with other animators?

Ray: I preferred to do it myself. I don't like delegation because I find that particularly with a jointed figure so much of it is createdon the set. You know the broad outline of what you're going to do but all the little nuances come from one pose leading to anotherand I find that's very hard to tell somebody else. They've either got to have a sensitivity to that or not. You don't want movement just for the sake of movement.

Ruth: My experience of animation in the last few years is that it's got far more specialized. In children's series animation a few yearsago you'd direct yourself and light your own set and load your own camera, whereas since I've been doing it it's been very specialized and nobody lets me do anything but animate. I don't know if you've noticed that shift as well? Ray: Oh yes. Ruth: And do you think that's a good thing?

Ray: From my point of view, no. I prefer to work alone, even today. Even on Clash I did all the set ups myself. I had just an electrician, although I had Jim Danforth and Steve Archer, who came in just about the middle of the production.

Ruth: I wonder sometimes if the idea gets lost because there are too manypeople worrying about their little bit of it.

Ray: Sometimes it takes a committee to make a decision. With Charlesand I, I could always do whatever I wanted to. Charles had an independentcompany away from Columbia, and we could always make our own decisionswithout a committee making those decisions. They would make theoverall decision whether to produce the picture, but that was all. They left us alone. Ruth: You've sort of touched on the next thing I'm going to ask. I find animating most fulfilling when I don't feel restricted by any external pressures on the shot; for me they'd be where the lighting man wants the character to end up, or a camera move, or the fact that someone's already filmed the next shot and you haveto match it. If I don't have too many of those restrictions I feel I can start animating with what I call the back of my brain, it's not such a conscious process. When I look at lots of your shots, it looks as if you've got to that state where you're animating intuitivelyand really enjoying the freedom...Ray: That's because I lay it out myself on the storyboard.I know pretty well in the broad sense what I'm going to do, because I have to know that when we shoot the live-action, so that it'llsynchronize. Then I know pretty well when I get to the animationstage, what that scene requires. Ruth:

Do you think it's the experience of knowing what you're going to want to do in that situation that enables you to plan that in advance? Ray: Yes, one pose leads to another. You know the broad outline and then you get a pose and you think, that'll go great if it goes into this pose, and then you try and make it blend into the next pose, within the periphery of what you have to work with. Ruth: So you made sure you weren't restricted?

Ray: Oh, absolutely. I was never restricted. I was never told what to do. I worked carefully with the live actors. The dueling scene in Jason, with the skeletons, that had to be very carefullylaid out, and then it took four months to do the animation to match it, because the touching of the swords, and all that, had to be perfectly synchronized or it wouldn't be convincing.


That's what impresses me most. You must have known how you were going to achieve that way back before you started trying to do it. Ray: Ohyes, definitely.

This was the deepest impression I came away with. Ray Harryhausen's characters appear to have been animated with an instinctive freedom and joy which gives them personality and makes them rare enough in any form of animation, and yet their movements had to be planned and allowed for months in advance, and actors -- and the whole of a live-action shoot -- directed so that those plans wouldn't be compromised. On top of that, Ray had the whole technical side of stop-motion -- the lights, cameras, setsand puppets -- to deal with alone, as well as animating "blind," without the aid of any kind of video assist to help him remember which of Medusa's snakes was travelling backwards and which forwards. We discussed advances in computer generated animation for a while. Ray pointed out that many of the animators at ILM had been guided by Phil Tippett, who "has a great sense of style for movements," and he was clearly impressed by the Walking with Dinosaurs series made in this country, which he said had "a wonderful sense of the movement of animals," and he could have used their technique of copying the sway of an elephant's skin for his elephants in Twenty Million Miles to Earth and Gwangi. "But it takes so many people," he said, "You have to go throughso many channels, it's almost like making a film by committee."It must be Ray Harryhausen's ability to take personal command of what he wanted to achieve that made his films with Charles Schneer, as he himself proudly claims, unique. Animation World Magazine would like to give a special thanksto the Animation Art Gallery London for providing the Ray Harryhausenfilm images for this issue. Roger Whiter moved from Los Angeles to England to go to art college, and met Ruth studying illustration at Maidstone College of Art,but both became interested in stop-motion animation at the sametime. Roger has specialised in puppet armatures, and has been involvedin making puppets for Mars Attacks!, Brambly Hedge, Chicken Run and currently Upstairs Downstairs Bears, as well asseveral independent and student films. He has also acted as puppet maintenance for three of Famous Flying Films' Cabbage Patch Kidsfilms. Ruth Whiter worked as an animator on several children's series including Tom and Vicky, Titch, Rocky and the Dodos, The Animal Shelf and Rotten Ralph, as well as the fifth Cabbage Patch Kids film, Vernon's Christmas. Ruth and Roger were married in 1995 and are expecting their first baby at the end of February 2000!