Skip to main content

Ray Harryhausen, Master Special Effects Artist

He created model-animation and composite-cinematography techniques. His trademark Dynamation method made possible a whole genre of science fiction and fantasy films. His work include The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans.

21:51

Other segments from the episode on January 6, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 6, 2003: Interview with Ray Harryhausen, Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh; Interview with Susan Raymond and Alan Raymond.

Transcript

DATE January 6, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Ray Harryhausen, Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh
discuss stop-motion animation and films they have animated and
ones that have influenced them
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Ray Harryhausen, gave life to the creatures and prehistoric beasts
in such films as "Jason and the Argonauts," "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad," "The
Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," "It Came from Beneath the Sea" and "Clash of the
Titans." He's one of the masters of stop-motion animation. A restaurant is
named after Harryhausen in the recent animated film "Monsters, Inc." A
short
children's film that he started 50 years ago was recently completed by two
young animators who we'll meet a little later. That film will be shown this
month at the Sundance Film Festival, and it's been nominated for an
animation
award known as the Annie.

Harryhausen fell in love with stop-motion animation when in 1933, at the age
of 13, he saw the movie "King Kong." That ape was brought to life with
stop-motion animation by Willis O'Brien. Harryhausen's first feature film
was
animating another ape, "Mighty Joe Young," under the supervision of O'Brien.
I asked Harryhausen to describe the models he used for "Mighty Joe Young."

Mr. RAY HARRYHAUSEN (Animator): Yes, "Mighty Joe Young," we had four large
models which were about 15, 16 inches high and then we had a medium-sized
model about eight inches high and then a small one about three inches high
for
very long shots. And they were all used for, depending on the size of the
picture, whether it was a long shot or a close-up.

GROSS: So how do you get that small model to look like a giant ape in the
scene?

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Well, it's all by comparison, size comparison. Of course,
you have to have humans, just as in the film "One Million B.C." we had to
have
humans with dinosaurs although they never lived in that period. But you
have
no comparison unless you have something that everybody is familiar with.

GROSS: And then you kind of match them after the fact? You put them in the
same scene after the fact? They're shot separately?

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, sometimes they're optically put in through a
technical
process called traveling matte. Otherwise they're put in through a process
called rear projection, miniature rear projection, which was the basis of
most
of "Mighty Joe."

GROSS: So explain how stop-time animation works.

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Stop-motion animation is very similar to the cartoon. You
have progressive drawings, each drawing is a little more progressive than
the
previous drawing. But instead of using a flat drawing, you use a
three-dimensional model that has ball and socket joints made of metal. And
then when the shutter is closed on the camera, you go up and move it. You
move the head, you move the eyes. You have to keep all the movements in
synchronization. Then you step out of the frame and shoot one frame of
motion
picture film. There are 16 frames to the foot on 35mm. So it's the same
basic principle as the cartoon only you're using a three-dimensional model.

GROSS: And, you know, when you see the actual model moving, like when you
see
"Mighty Joe Young" moving or one of the dinosaurs that you've created, it
has
an almost otherworldly effect to it because it's moving, it looks real and
yet, there's this almost like rippling kind of effect that makes it seem
otherworldly. Does that work for you? Do you like that effect, that
otherworldly effect?

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: I think that effect works beautifully for fantasy films
because you're not trying to make a documentary. And one of the great
advantages, I've always felt, of stop-motion animation is that it gives the
illusion of a dream world. In a dream, a nightmare, you know it's not real
and yet it looks real. And I think that stop-motion adds to that, where if
you try to make--in a fantasy film too real, you lose the element of the
fantasy.

GROSS: And what is it about stop-time animation that makes, say, "Mighty
Joe
Young" more convincing than a guy in an ape suit?

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: A man in a gorilla suit is obviously a man. I mean, the
proportions are all wrong. And in a model, animation such as stop-motion,
you
can create the anatomy to look more like a real gorilla than--a man has
shorter arms than a gorilla and he has to lengthen them by some mechanical
means. But in the early days where they made films like "Ingagi" and "White
Pongo," they used a man in a gorilla suit just because it's quicker.
Stop-motion animation, of course, takes time.

GROSS: Now I should tell you I grew up watching "Mighty Joe Young" over and
over and over again. I grew up in New York, where they had Million-Dollar
Movie and they'd show one movie continuously all week, and the movie of the
week often was "Mighty Joe Young." So...

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Wonderful.

GROSS: Yeah. So like a lot of New Yorkers, I know that movie awfully well.
There's a scene where, you know, "Mighty Joe Young" is being hunted by
people
who think that he's evil and dangerous. And as he is driving with his human
companions in a van, they pass a burning apartment building. And a young
girl
is on a high floor in this building, and "Mighty Joe Young" risks his life
climbing through this burning building to rescue this young girl. How did
you
animate him getting up this burning building and then carrying, you know,
this
girl in his arm down the burning building?

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Well, that was quite a complicated process. We, of
course,
shot the burning building at a very high speed as a separate piece of film,
and then it was composited in the camera through a process of rear
projection.
Many scenes were done in that fashion. We shoot the burning building--the
burning building was about five, six feet high, and then it was shot at 96
frames a second, which slows down the motion of the flame so that it looks a
much bigger scale than it was. And then you take that and reduce it on a
screen to match the size of the gorilla. And then the girl many times was
animated, as well, on his back. And the little child on the ledge was also
animated many times, intercut with the live action.

GROSS: Wow. So it must have been pretty exciting early in your career to
work on this.

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Well, this little girl on the ledge was only three inches
high, and she was beautifully machined with an armature inside of her. And
it
was a pleasure to animate this little child struggling on the ledge almost
about to fall off.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is the great animator Ray
Harryhausen, master of stop-motion animation.

The first feature that you were the chief animator for was "The Beast from
20,000 Fathoms." I want you to describe the beast.

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: The beast was a composite animal. He was sort of a bit of
a
brontosaurus mixed with an allosaurus mixed with a tyrannosaurus. We didn't
want a known beast because it wouldn't fit the story and it would be in
competition with "The Lost World," which had been made in the silent days.
So
we had a composite beast which they named rhedosaurus.

GROSS: And the premise of the movie is that the beast, this, like,
prehistoric beast is brought back to life because of radiation from a
nuclear
bomb blast.

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, that was the period in history when no one quite knew
what would happen with the radiation of atomic blasts. So the beast was a
product of the unknown. He was frozen in ice for millions of years, and
when
an atomic bomb exploded in the North Pole, he was freed.

GROSS: Was this one of the first, like, post-nuclear monster movies?

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: It was an early monster movie, yes. It was one of the
first. The next picture we made, "It Came from Beneath the Sea," had the
same
basic premise, that you didn't know what would happen if the atomic bomb was
exploded underwater.

GROSS: And what happened?

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: It produced this giant octopus that pulled down the Golden
Gate Bridge.

GROSS: So...

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: At that period, of course, anything that had destruction
in
it was very popular at that time.

GROSS: Now I understand the city of San Francisco wasn't wild about the
idea
of destroying the Golden Gate Bridge, and they didn't want you to shoot on
location. Obviously, you weren't going to destroy the bridge for real, but
would you remember what the negotiations were like with the city over...

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Well, I think it was the city fathers who felt that people
would lose confidence in the structure if they saw that the bridge could be
destroyed by an octopus, even though it was a giant octopus. But we
overcame
that, of course, by putting cameras in a bakery truck, and secretly we shot
the scenes we found necessary to use in the film.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite monster, Ray Harryhausen?

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: I try not to have because the others get jealous.

GROSS: Oh, and, boy, you don't want to be around when those monsters get
jealous.

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: No, not when they're in that room. No, my favorite
monsters are the more complicated ones like the Hydra, had seven heads which
you had to animate. And the seven skeletons took a lot of time.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: And, of course, Medusa in "Clash of the Titans"--she was a
fascinating image to animate. I had to keep 12 snakes in her hair all
animated to the--moving in harmony with the rest of the body besides giving
her a bow and arrow and a rattlesnake's tail. So these more complicated
images I find much more interesting to animate than the simple, normal
figure,
I suppose you'd call it.

GROSS: You know, so many of your monsters are based on, you know, dinosaurs
and giant lizards. Are there certain real lizards or insects or animals
that
you studied closely and based some of your creations on?

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Well, yes, I do a lot of research when I created a
creature.
I liked to make them logical. That's my theory, is that if you make them
too
extreme, too exaggerated, you lose your audience because they're just a
grotesque piece of whatnot. You don't know quite what they are. So I tried
to keep them within a harmony of something they've seen. For example,
dinosaurs--you couldn't possibly photograph them in reality. So we had to
create them artificially. Elephants, for example--you would study an
elephant
as to how a dinosaur might move. You'd study a lizard, a crocodile or a
monitor lizard to try to get the reptilian feel to the dinosaur, not to copy
them.

You always have to glamorize, I think, when you're making a film. That's an
ugly word sometimes in today's market, but I tried to glamorize the
movements.
I tried to glamorize the creatures, not make them just exactly the way they
may have been in the early days, but photographing them so they would look
the
part that they're supposed to play in the picture.

GROSS: Have you seen "Jurassic Park"? And I'm wondering...

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Yes.

GROSS: ...what did you think of the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park"?

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Oh, they're marvelous. I think the CGI is a remarkable
advance in entertainment. But I don't think it's the be all and by all. I
think there's room for every media depending on the story you want to tell.
Kermit the Frog--Jim Henson brought back the hand puppet that goes back to
ancient Greece and made it suitable for entertainment. And "Thunderbirds,"
of
course, is very popular with the stringed marionettes. And I've always
maintained that the miraculous image--when we made pictures in the '50s, the
miraculous image was rare. You didn't very often see unusual images such as
the Cyclops or the dragon on the screen at that time. But today, we're
inundated. In a 30-second commercial, you see the most amazing images. So
the miraculous is no longer miraculous.

GROSS: My guest is stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. His films include
"Jason and the Argonauts," "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" and "The Beast from
20,000 Fathoms."

There's an animation that you started 50 years ago, "The Tortoise and the
Hare," that's just been completed with the help of two young animators who
are
also your fans. And they're actually in the studio with you and they're
going
to join our conversation now. They're Seamus Walsh and Mark Caballero, and
they've done animations for the Cartoon Network, "The Simpsons" and MTV.

Ray Harryhausen, did you work with them on completely it or did you just
leave
it to them?

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: No, I worked with them as much as we could. I tried to
find
the story. I shot four minutes of animation in the '50s. And then, of
course, monsters were more lucrative financially. So I felt somehow with
all
the moves we've made and the various houses we've occupied, I lost the story
continuity, so I had to start from scratch. So I made a new continuity and
set designs for them, and then we met several times and they contributed
enormously to it and contributed to the storyboards. So it was sort of a
group finishing project.

GROSS: Did you have the original models for the tortoise and the hare?

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, the original models were 50 years old, and
fortunately,
I'd kept them in fairly good condition. The only one that was...

GROSS: Did they have arthritis, or anything? I mean, were they still
functioning? Yeah.

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Rigor mortis didn't set in yet, no. They were very
workable, and Mark often said that it was a pleasure to animate them. They
were made by my father, by the way, way back in the late '40s and early
'50s.
And my mother dressed them, made the costumes, and they were still good and
they hadn't faded. They did a bit of touching up. I think they remade the
gloves and a few other minor thing and remade the tortoise because,
unfortunately, the tortoise was lost. I had a set of heads for the
tortoise,
but no body. So based on the drawings and the photographs of the original,
they reproduced the tortoise.

GROSS: Mark and Seamus, you've come of age in an era of computer-generated
imagery, but you use stop-time--stop-motion animation in your own work. Why
use stop-motion animation when you could use, like, digital effects of
various
kinds?

Mr. MARK CABALLERO (Animator): You know, it probably goes back to when--we
both grew up separately as kids, but it kind of goes back to when we were
kids--I know I can say it for myself, and I know Seamus well enough to say
the
same thing--watching the shows, you know, up on the big screen with the
stop-motion and knowing that it's animation, but not really quite
understanding how it all works, that it is real. And that definitely
influenced us into wanting to do it ourselves, because there's a whole
tangibility aspect of these models that we get to animate and, you know,
imbue
life into, so to speak. And you have a complete control over your entire
set.
And Ray calls it a Frankenstein complex.

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Or a Zeus complex.

Mr. CABALLERO: Or a Zeus complex. And it's just--it feels so much--I don't
know, I feel like I can put in so much more emotion and energy into a
dimensional object rather than having have to create it on a computer screen
or draw it. And I'm not the best at drawing consecutive images at the sa...

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Well, computer animation requires a great many people,
doesn't it?

Mr. CABALLERO: It does.

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Each person does a separate thing. It's more a
conglomerate. It's less of a one-man point of view. I think that makes a
difference, too, don't you?

Mr. CABALLERO: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think so. It is appealing, the fact that
you don't have to have a giant crew of people working on this, each handling
a
separate task of a character. What you got on film as you've shot is what
you
get. And the next morning when you see that up on the screen, it's pretty
exciting 'cause you know that you actually did the whole thing yourself.

Mr. SEAMUS WALSH (Animator): You control the entire scene that you just
shot.
And even though nowadays they're done with CG or animation, like cell
animation, where there's a lead animator in control of the entire process,
there's a lot of points where that lead animator doesn't actually animate
that
character. And when you're doing stop-motion, you're pretty much
controlling
the whole character throughout the whole thing, so you're carrying that same
emotion and personality within you and you're bringing it on to your
character
at all times.

GROSS: Ray Harryhausen grew up watching "King Kong" and "Frankenstein" and
those, you know, early monster and horror movies. Mark and Seamus, I'm
interested what monster movies or cartoons did you grow up watching that
made
the biggest impression?

Mr. WALSH: Well, I was lucky enough to have cool parents that showed me
Ray's
films and "King Kong"...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. WALSH: ...even though they were old by the time I was a child. And I
was just immediately fascinated by "7th Voyage of Sinbad" and "King Kong."
But I also really loved the Rankin Bass holiday specials like "Rudolph the
Red
Nosed Reindeer" because they were all done using the same technique; they
were
just different uses of the same technique.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WALSH: And I know that Mark would probably say the same thing.

Mr. CABALLERO: Pretty much the same thing. I used to--I did have the
nightmares of Ray's Kali coming in and attacking, or...

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: What?

Mr. CABALLERO: ...or the Cyclops or even, you know, on the Rankin Bass
stuff,
all that stuff was a tremendous...

Mr. WALSH: That Abominable...

Mr. CABALLERO: Yeah, a tremendous influence.

Mr. WALSH: That Abominable Snowman scared me. And even...

GROSS: Now, Ray Harryhausen, how do you feel hearing that your Cyclops
followed Mark into his nightmares?

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Well, it's quite exciting that--Willis O'Brien's work
impressed me so, and the snowball keeps rolling on and getting bigger and
bigger, and now my work has impressed other people. So I'm most grateful
that
our films have affected people more than just an hour of entertainment.
When
I go to these conventions, I have a family of three generations come up and
say, `You made my childhood. Your films changed my career.' Two professors
in Canada said that if it hadn't been for "One Million B.C." and "Gwangi,"
they wouldn't be paleontologists. So our films...

GROSS: I hope they weren't expecting to find Raquel Welch in their studies.

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: No, well, that's theater. You'd have to--that, again, is
glamorization of a film. But--so I'm grateful that this snowball is rolling
on. Who knows what will come from Mark and Seamus in the future.

GROSS: Well, Ray Harryhausen, Seamus Walsh, Mark Caballero, thank you so
much
for talking with us.

Mr. CABALLERO: Thank you very much.

Mr. WALSH: Oh, thank you very much for having us.

Mr. HARRYHAUSEN: Thank you.

GROSS: Ray Harryhausen's films include "Jason and the Argonauts," "The 7th
Voyage of Sinbad" and "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms." Mark Caballero and
Seamus Walsh completed Harryhausen's animated short "The Tortoise and the
Hare."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, putting the life of a real American family on TV decades
before the current reality TV craze. We talk with filmmakers Susan and Alan
Raymond. Their 1973 PBS documentary series chronicled the lives of the Loud
family. Their new documentary is about the death of Lance Loud.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

'Fresh Air' remembers Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (Part 3)

We conclude our tribute to Sondheim by listening to archival interviews with collaborators and performers, including Stephen Colbert, James Lapine, Paul Gemignani and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

52:30

'Fresh Air' remembers Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (Part 1)

Sondheim, who died Nov. 26, was the lyricist and composer who gave us Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and other shows. In 2010 he spoke about his writing process, from rhyming to finding the right note.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue