A Chat With Ray Harryhausen

by Ruth and Roger Whiter

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.

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