Ray Harryhausen

On Tuesday the 17th of August 1993 the Preston S.F. Group had the immense privilege of welcoming film special effects legend Ray Harryhausen as our guest.

Strangely Ray did not receive an Oscar for the animations on any of the films which have inspired more than one generation of movie makers. That recognition came in 1992 after a campaign by fans, which resulted in a Lifetime's Achievement Award.

Between 1949 and 1981 Ray provided the monsters for sixteen major films:
  • 1949 Mighty Joe Young
  • 1953 The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
  • 1955 It Came from Beneath the Sea
  • 1955 The Animal World
  • 1956 Earth vs. The Flying Saucers
  • 1957 Twenty Million Miles to Earth
  • 1958 The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad
  • 1960 The Three Worlds of Gulliver
  • 1961 Mysterious Island
  • 1963 Jason and the Argonauts
  • 1964 First Men in the Moon
  • 1966 One Million Years B.C.
  • 1969 The Valley of Gwangi
  • 1975 The Golden Voyage of Sinbad
  • 1977 Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger
  • 1981 Clash of the Titans
As might be guessed from his name, Ray Harryhausen is of German descent. His grandfather emigrated to America in 1855. Ray was born in Los Angeles in 1920. His father worked at RKO for a time as a machinist but Ray didn't know anybody else in show business so there was no nepotism involved in his move into film.

When Ray was a boy he remembers films referring to monsters like the Roc and the cyclops but they were never shown. It was only when Thief of Bagdad by Korda came out he started to see fantasy elements on the screen. Then came King Kong. Willis O'Brien was the animator for this ground shaking film and Ray was so impressed he called him and told him of his fascination. By this time Ray had set up a mini studio in his garage and had filled a few stop motion shorts involving dinosaurs and bears.

He was invited to see O'Brien and Ray took his animals down. O'Brien gave some useful advice and urged the young Ray to continue.

When a sequel to Kong was proposed a few years later, O'Brien remembered Ray and asked him to be his assistant on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. This proved to be O'Brien's last big budget film, while it was the first step in Ray's career.

Mighty Joe Young was not a fantastic success and Ray decided to return to producing short films on his own. He made a series of films based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes.

He did rejoin O'Brien briefly as a dinosaur movie initially known as THE STAR BULLS and then VALLEY IN THE MIST was being filmed, however this was never completed and Ray felt he needed to do films on his own.

Entrepreneurs Jack Dietz and Hal E. Chester contacted Ray, a little later, wanting to make a cheap monster movie to cash in on the success of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Ray took on the job for the very low fee of $10,000 plus equipment. This film was entitled THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, and it was only after the film script had been written that a similarity to the recently printed Ray Bradbury's short story was noticed. To save future embarrassment the production company sent Ray Bradbury $2,000. the film was a big box office hit.

After this Ray wrote a couple of screen stories but they had to go on hold as the finance couldn't be found to make the films. Meanwhile Charles H. Schneer, a production executive at Colombia Pictures, wanted to make a film about a giant octopus. After seeing "The Beast" he knew Ray was the man to do the animations. IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA was made for $150,000. It was said that the reason why the octopus only had six tentacles was to cut down cost. However it did originally have eight, but Ray cut two off to simplify the animation. He is sure that if he hadn't mentioned this fact to reporters one day no-one would have noticed the fact.

IT was reasonably successful and Ray turned to one of his own projects; an Arabian Nights fantasy. He tried a few producers, but in the end Irwin Allen (later to be known for THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE TOWERING INFERNO) was interested not in the Arabian Nights project but a 15 minute introduction to THE ANIMAL WORLD. This introduction showed the dinosaur age, and Willis O'Brien aided Ray in producing the sequence in the remarkably short period of six weeks. Next came EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS. UFOs were hot after WAR OF THE WORLDS was released in 1953 and Charles H. Schneer wanted to produce a UFO 'scare' movie with lots of action. Ray had been interested in UFO sightings and his models were based on actual 'sightings'. Especially the one which was supposed to have landed in England in 1954.

TWENTY MILLION MILES TO EARTH which was released in 1957 was based on one of the screen stories Ray wrote in 1955. It told of a Venusian monster called the Ymir who had the ability to double its size overnight. Ray designed the model to be a sympathetic cross between the basic human form and a dinosaur. The animation and the monster is some of Rays best work. Incidentally this is the only film Ray actually appeared in. He can be seen in the crowd fleeing from the zoo at the end.

The film was a great success and this encouraged Schneer and Ray to team up again. This time it was to make Ray's Arabian Nights film, which was to be called THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. This was produced for the amazingly low cost of $630,000 and became a huge financial and critical success.

In 1960 THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER was released. The Swift classic involves many mixtures of different sized people and a new process developed in England called Sodium backing was needed because it gave instantaneous matte - unlike the blue screen method which requires about seven or eight processes first. They made their centre in England and filmed in Spain. This was when Ray decided to set up home in Britain, and has been living in London for 22 years.

A year later MYSTERIOUS ISLAND was hitting the screens. This Jules Verne story involved a number of giant animals, and the original script also called for dinosaurs. These were dropped before filming started. In fact a lot of planned ideas were left out at the last minute, like links between the island and Atlantis and a man who turned green from eating the wrong sort of mushrooms.

Then came the most famous and possibly the best of Ray's films JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. This was originally to be called Jason and The Golden Fleece, but a film of that title had been used by an Italian company a couple of years before. This film is the one which haunts most adult's memories of the films which stimulated their childhood. The scene of the Hydra's teeth skeletons fighting Jason and his shipmates, and the towering image of the giant statue Talos coming to life are classics of the cinema.

'Jason' was a huge box office hit and the Schneer and Harryhausen partnership followed it up with a less demanding project. FIRST MEN IN THE MOON was a H.G. Wells story of a trip to the moon in Victorian times. They decided to go for quaintness rather than of Science reality. The film was well scripted (partly by Nigel Kneale the creator of Quatermass) and well acted. There was much less stop-motion than in Jason and they even cheated a bit by mixing stop-motion Selenites with children wearing monster masks.

The science in ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., Ray's next film, was also seriously flawed. Dinosaurs and humans never coexisted, but the combination of the Harryhausen animated dinosaurs and Raquel Welch in a mink bikini was bound to be a success.

Ray's next film kept on the dinosaur theme but limits them to a secret valley in Mexico. THE VALLEY OF THE GWANGI combined stop motion with life sized models and Ray is particularly pleased with the Gwangi; "It had more things to do than an ordinary animated character, so I had to make it much more detailed."

Next came THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD in 1975. The monsters include a centaur, a griffin and the six armed Kali statue which does battle with Sinbad. Seemingly when the film was first released it contained a shot of Caroline Munro, the heroine's bare breast making a surprise appearance. It missed the censor but was spotted by sharp eyed reviewers and all prints were returned for trimming. The third and last of the Sinbad movies, SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER had some nice effects, but is generally regarded as the most disappointing of the three.

CLASH OF THE TITANS was Rays last film, and although it had some wonderful effects and a host of big-name stars it was a box office flop. To some extent this could be laid at the doors of some American reviewers who said Laurence Olivier looked like an old man in a nightgown. Ray wonders if certain parts of America had even heard of a toga!
If Clash of the Titans had been a success another film was proposed, to be called SINBAD AND THE SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD.

Ray retired at the age of 61 after a rich and illustrious career. When asked by Allan Bryce why he quit Ray says: "There were a number of reasons. One was I found that the kind of thing that the front office expected you to put into films were not my cup of tea, and I would rather not do that type of thing. It's not in my field. The other reasons were that I had simply had enough of it, spending my life in a dark room. I think the most joyous time of working on a picture is in the planning stages. The shooting is also exciting, but then there's the long drawn out period where you have to put it all together, and I was always the one left to that while the rest went off to make two or three other pictures. It was such a time consuming thing, and I just couldn't face it any more."

Finally, Ray recently met Steven Spielberg and seen some of the computer animation from JURASSIC PARK. He thinks it looks promising and impressive but hopes that they use some stop-motion as well.

"I saw some dinosaurs that Phil Tippett made and they were very good. But I understand that for much of JURASSIC PARK they studied the movements of the dinosaur in GWANGI. So I'm rather flattered by that."

[Note: the majority of this article was taken from Allan Bryce's article on Ray Harryhausen in the June issue of THE DARK SIDE]