IF the name Ray Harryhausen doesn’t conjure up images of sword-wielding skeletons, many-headed monsters and super-size apes then you clearly had a misspent youth. This master animator, the most famous exponent of stop-motion animation, is, to his art, what Hitchcock was to the thriller and what Disney was to the feature-length cartoon. The list of films which boast special effects by Harryhausen includes many of the most imaginative and dazzling of their era, and such is their timeless appeal that this long retired 85-year-old is still asked about them on an almost daily basis.
Despite being far too young to have worked on it, one film with which Harryhausen has long been linked is the original, 1933, version of King Kong. His well-known passion for the film has led to his becoming, over the years, something of a spokesperson for it. Now, with Peter Jackson’s new take on the story due in cinemas next week and with the original film coming out on DVD, Harryhausen is relishing the chance to relive the thrilling experience of seeing King Kong the first time round.
He says: “I was 13 when I saw it and it changed my life. It had an enormous impact on me. Afterwards, I found out all about the glories of stop-motion animation – and I haven’t been the same since! It wasn’t just the technical aspects of it: it was the story as well. We had never seen anything so outrageously fantastic before.”
Although, as Harryhausen points out, it wasn’t a “eureka, I’m going to work in cinema” moment, he did begin to take a serious interest in this new form of animation which he had first encountered when he was taken to see the dinosaur movie The Lost World, back when he was five. The stop-motion animation in both it and King Kong was done by Willis O’Brien and by a stroke of luck Harryhausen discovered that one of his classmates was O’Brien’s niece.
“I called him up and he invited me to his office to see his preparations for a film entitled War Eagles. I walked into his office, and saw three rooms with every inch of wall space covered in drawings of War Eagles. I almost flipped. There weren’t many people interested in stop-motion at that time so I guess he thought I was rather unique.” Although Harryhausen had pals – including the future sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury – who loved King Kong, his own experiments with animation were pretty much solo efforts. “I did everything myself. If I wanted something I had to make it, so I had to learn how.”
O’Brien shared his technique – of editing together shots of a jointed model in a succession of subtly different positions in order to suggest independent movement – with Harryhausen. It gradually became apparent that Harryhausen’s hobby was his vocation, but he was aware that special effects alone do not make for a rewarding cinematic experience. He explains: “I had to learn many different skills – I took classes in writing, film editing and art direction.”
After serving in the Army Motion Picture Unit, where he worked with the great director Frank Capra and Dr Seuss creator Theodore Geisel, Harryhausen embarked on a series of short films based on fairytales before joining O’Brien to work on a project which would reunite many of the members of the cast and crew from King Kong. Mighty Joe Young (1949) had a similar storyline to Kong but its plot and characters were clearly inferior to its spectacular, Oscar-winning, special effects.
During the 1950s, Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation – which he went on to christen Dynamation – found a home in the blossoming sci-fi genre. He brought his love of dinosaurs into play by devising the special effects for The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury story about a prehistoric creature which is awakened after an atomic explosion. The film’s success guaranteed Harryhausen work in a string of monster-on-the-rampage movies in the 1950s.
However, he was soon ready for fresh challenges. “I got tired of destroying cities,” he jokes. “In 20 Million Miles To Earth we destroyed Rome, in It Came From Beneath the Sea we destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and in Earth Vs Flying Saucers, we destroyed Washington. In fact, I knocked over the Washington Monument long before Tim Burton did in Mars Attacks!”
But it was in the world of mythology that Harryhausen had the most fun – and produced some of his most unforgettable fantasy sequences. The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) blew audiences away with its cast of mythological monsters. He says: “I loved the Arabian Nights films they made in the 1940s. They would always talk about the Cyclops and the roc but you never saw them on the screen – they were always offstage.”
The Harryhausen sequences that most people remember best are those of the sinister skeletons sword-fighting with live actors in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, the 1963 film which Tom Hanks said was, for him, “the greatest picture of all time”.
Harryhausen laughs as he shrugs off the charge that he was responsible for a lot of childhood nightmares: “We tried to make the skeletons so that they weren’t too frightening but skeletons have always been associated with death, and of course this causes problems when you use a skeleton in a film – how are you going to kill it, if it represents death? So we had to have it fall off a staircase and break into pieces in The Seventh Voyage, and then they leaped into the water – and of course skeletons can’t swim very well!”