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Ray Harryhausen Interview

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By Scott Essman
How does one write an introduction to an interview with the person who is arguably the finest below-the-line cinema craftsman ever? Stop-motion animator and filmmaker Ray Harryhausen’s achievements and influence are incalculable. Numerous giants in the world of cinema have cited his work, especially in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), as the inspiration for their career in films.
Harryhausen has provided a detailed overview of his career in the new book An Animated Life, co-written by Tony Dalton. Now 84, Harryhausen retired in 1980 and lives in England. He still makes journeys to his hometown of Los Angeles to meet with friends, colleagues and protégés. On a recent book tour, he took time out to reflect on the book, his pioneering career, and the future of animation in film.

Below the Line: How proud are you of your book?
Ray Harryhausen: Well, I’m delighted with it. Billboard Books in England published it and did a beautiful job of it. Co-author Tony Dalton and I are very proud of it. It’s gotten wonderful reviews.
BTL: Have you ever stopped to think about how many fans you have, and how many people were influenced by your work, and maybe even indirectly by the work of people who followed your work, such as Phil Tippett, Jim Danforth and Dave Allen?
Harryhausen: When we made the pictures, of course, it wouldn’t cross one’s mind. But I’m so grateful that we’ve left a positive influence. Charles Schneer and I tried to make our pictures understandable. We always got the best composers. Music is so important. I learned that from watching King Kong. And we had wonderful composers score our films because they’re a visual type of thing. We try to keep a minimum of dialogue. Sometimes we’re criticized for that. But you don’t want a complicated story for a fantasy film. And music’s so important when you have striking visual images, which we tried to create on the screen. We had Bernard Hermann score four of our films. And the last, Clash of the Titans, was done by Laurence Rosenthal. Both marvelous composers who have great imagination and a feel for fantasy.
BTL: When you think about the impact of the work of Willis O’Brien [King Kong chief technician] on your work, do you think you wouldn’t have done what you ended up doing without him? Or do you think you might have gravitated toward stop-motion anyway?
Harryhausen: Oh, that’s all speculation. I say sometimes that if the 1976 version [of King Kong] had come out in 1933, I probably would have become a plumber or something. But my mother wanted me to become a commercial artist. I don’t know… somehow it gelled. I think the fickle finger of fate had something to do with it. Because of little signposts here and there, I felt a compulsion to do certain things. But I felt a compulsion to study camerawork. When I entered the Army I thought I wanted to be a combat cameraman. I didn’t realize they were shot like clay pigeons, so I’m glad I didn’t. But I made a little film, four minutes long, called How to Build a Bridge. And my teacher showed it to the Eastman Kodak company, [and] he showed it to Frank Capra, and I got transferred into the Special Service Division. I worked with Ted Geisel on cartoons and made models and several covers for Yank magazine. So it was a great experience that I got to do something during the war that I was able to do, rather than just carry a gun.
BTL: In the black-and-white films of the ’50s, It Came from Outer Space and 20,000,000 Miles to Earth, it seemed like you were creating your own distinct style, especially with the Ymir character. Do you think those characters were different from any that had come before it?
Harryhausen: Well, I don’t analyze it in that way, I leave it to other people. You can analyze it—there was a book called Girl in the Hairy Paw, which tried to portray King Kong in many psychological different phases. I think a film is like an inkblot. It tells you more about the person who’s watching it than it does about the film itself. Merian Cooper always says that he just set out to make a damn good piece of entertainment. And that’s what we set out: to entertain the public in a positive way. And I’m grateful that we have. At signings a family of three generations will come up and say that our films made their childhood.
BTL: Do you have a favorite character?
Harryhausen: The others get jealous if I have a favorite character. I like the complicated ones. I like the Hydra, the seven skeletons fighting scene. They’re a challenge. I like Medusa. That’s one of the highlights. I still find a soft spot in my heart for the first scenes I did in Mighty Joe Young of Joe pushing over the lions’ cage. I think that’s one of the highlights of my career.

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