|by Dov Kornits
Modern animation owes a huge debt to Ray Harryhausen, an animator, producer and effects consultant who pioneered the use of stop motion animation in films like Jason and The Argonauts, Mighty Joe Young (the original) and The Clash Of The Titans. FILMINK's Dov Kornits caught up with this legendary pioneer of special effects just before his first visit to Australia as a guest of the Brisbane International Animation Festival.
In the days before the rise of digital technology and computer animation, the best way to create realistic creatures and fantastic beings was through the painstaking method of stop motion animation, whereby small models were moved frame by frame to create the illusion of flowing movement. The undeniable father of this form of animating is Ray Harryhausen, who was first inspired by the 1933 classic King Kong ("It struck such a chord with me, and it wasn't just the animation. It was the structure of the story. It took you out of the world of the Depression and into the most outrageous fantasy world imaginable. This kind of filmmaking was something that I felt I must do."). After a stint in the army's motion picture unit under Frank Capra, Harryhausen became a producer and chief animator on a number of ground breaking films: Mighty Joe Young, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad and One Million Years BC. Despite retiring after 1981's The Clash Of The Titans, Harryhausen is still a revered figure, even appearing in cameo acting roles in Spies Like Us, Bevery Hills Cop III and the remake of Mighty Joe Young. In 1992 Harryhausen was presented with the Gordon. E. Sawyer special achievement award at the Oscars by Tom Hanks, who proclaimed the legendary Jason And The Argonauts his favourite film of all time. "I was very flattered when Tom Hanks said it was his favourite film, even putting it over Citizen Kane and Casablanca. Orson Welles would turn over in his grave!" says a bemused Harryhausen.
But despite his status today, and the current melding of art and technology, Harryhausen was never considered an artist, even in his most prolific periods. "It was never considered art. No, it wasn't art because nobody really knew what it was all about. Nobody knew how to use it. I was just the boy in the back room. A lot of the films I worked on are now considered "Ray Harryhausen films" and the actors and directors sometimes get very upset."
Like his predecessor and inspiration Willis O'Brien (who did the classic King Kong), Harryhausen's work was rarely regarded as the secret to the film's success. "I worked on Mighty Joe Young in 1949 with O'Brien, and that film got the reputation of being so expensive that nobody was knocking on his door. That was most disturbing. At that time they were called B-pictures, so I had to devise a way of making them as inexpensive as possible so they couldn't say no. On The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which we made with an independent company, I got hardly anything out of it. We made the whole picture for $200,000 and they sold it outright to Warners for $450,000. Warners have now made millions out of the picture. It's a classic now. It's on DVD, video everything. It actually inspired Godzilla."
One of the greatest misconceptions about Harryhausen, and one that still exists today, is that he was merely an effects producer with no creative control or input into the films that he worked on. "I actually stimulated The Seventh Voyage, 20,000,000 Miles to Earth, Sinbad. I collaborated with the writers. Many times I actually brought in the story. For The Seventh Voyage, I devised a twenty-page outline and made eight big charcoal drawings as well, and that's what sold the picture. So I'm not just an animator. I wear many different hats. I don't say that out of egotism. A lot of people think I'm just handed a script and told to put it on a screen. But that's not the case. And I guess that's why the films are considered "Ray Harryhausen films" now. It just developed that way. There were also several projects that I wanted to do that never got off the ground. I always wanted to do 'Dante's Inferno' in stop motion, but I didn't think people would sit through an hour and a half of tormented souls. But now they sit through three hours of tormented souls. So I was obviously wrong!"
The modern equivalent of Harryhausen's style would appear to be Nick Park, the creator of the much-loved Wallace and Grommit cartoons. "It's a very different kind of work than what I do, but I love his stuff. It's stop motion and it's based on the same principal but they're openly made as puppet films. In our films we try and make the creatures and characters part of the film, and not obvious puppets. But I think his Creature Comforts is brilliant, and I can't wait to see his new one, Chicken Run. They invited me down to see their set up when they started. It's a beautiful new stage, a great place to work, and they're training new animators."
And what of the amazing, technically eye popping advances being made in the world of digital animation. "It's all changed now. I'm amazed at what you can do with digital technology. But I'm not frustrated. It's just another avenue. I think everyone is sort of made for their time, and I had my day and did sixteen features and I'm very happy that I was able to do that. I should be very grateful. But digital is a very different step. It's a step into the more, shall we say, mechanical age we're living in now. I'm amazed at what's going on. The BBC did a documentary called Walking with Dinosaurs, and the dinosaurs were so realistic, it was just amazing. I know vaguely how it's done but I don't think I could convert myself to this technique. I've retired and I've had my stint in the sun, or the dark room rather. I really admire what's happening in the digital field, but I still get a lot of letters from fans who say they prefer the old technique because there's more heart in it, and more character. The stop motion animation used to give fantasy films the added dimension of a dream-like quality because you knew it wasn't real. And that's what was the fascinating part about it. You couldn't figure out how it was done, and the same applies to the digital. Unfortunately, they're also using digital in advertising and news programs, and it's going to wear itself thin because you can see anything. A thirty-second advert will show you the most amazing images on the screen. But the end product of a film is to entertain. And you can entertain with string puppets, Thunderbirds, or hand puppets like Jim Henson, or stop motion like Nick Park. It's all entertainment."
According to Harryhausen, not all the technological advances that have been made are for the best. "People have been brain washed today with so much junk. They can't even appreciate good music today because they've been brainwashed with this loud pop crap that keeps pounding you in the theatre and on TV. It's sad to think about how films have deteriorated to the standard that they have today. They sell a picture on its special effects, so you have to have an explosion every five minutes to pacify the kids with short attention spans. We never made films to be sold on the special effects. We used the special effects because we were making fantasy films. We've been accused of it by critics but we chose stories first."
And sometimes the best way to look forward is to look back. "Science fiction author Ray Bradbury, film curator Forrest. J. Ackerman and myself all joined the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, and we were talking about space platforms and trips to the moon and things like that way back in 1938 and people thought we were crazy. And now look at what we've got! We were really ahead of our time, I think."
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originally posted: 03/12/00 21:17:51
last updated: 03/12/00 21:45:08