HT Talks To ... Ray Harryhausen

The meticulous effects auteur looks back on a career spent creating movie magic.

During a time when movies were made entirely by hand, Ray Harryhausen knew better than anyone how to make the most spectacular cinematic creatures come to life. Inspired, like so many, by the original King Kong, Harryhausen honed his filmmaking skills on a variety of short subjects before he tackled his first feature film, Mighty Joe Young, working alongside Kong's stop-motion maestro Willis O'Brien. For you kids reading at home, stop-motion animation is the painstaking process of moving one or more specially designed models a precise fraction of an inch for each frame of film. Do it perfectly 24 times in a row (which can take a full day or more), and you've created one second of a movie. Along the way, Harryhausen even invented the Dynamation technique to more realistically combine his creations with live-action backgrounds, and his work became the gold standard that continues to stoke Hollywood's collective imagination. His 1957 black-and-white, monster-attacks-Rome opus 20 Million Miles to Earth was colorized and released on Blu-ray disc, the first Harryhausen title in high def, along with a new DVD boxed set that adds colorized special editions of Earth vs. The Flying Saucers and It Came From Beneath the Sea, all from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

So, what does it mean to you that some of the most creative and talented people working in film—George Lucas, Peter Jackson, the Pixar gang—all tend to be fans of yours?

I'm very flattered and honored that so many people in the film industry have come to respect me and my films. Obviously, when I started making films, I was only interested in getting the job done to the best of my ability. The fact that my work is admired is wonderful.

Audiences knew what they were getting with your movies. Did you ever think of your name, or of Dynamation, as a box-office draw?

I always made the films with the idea that they should be entertaining for as many people as possible. I never thought of them as potential box-office successes or failures. Of course, I always hoped they would be successful, but that wasn't my primary reason for doing them.

How patient do you have to be to do what you do?

One needs to be very patient to do stop-motion or, for that matter, any job that requires precise movement. I learned patience early in my career when I worked for two years with [legendary fantasy film director/producer] George Pal in the early 1940s.

Did you ever just lose it one day and shout, "I can't do this anymore!"?

I imagine I became very frustrated from time to time, but that's a perfectly normal human reaction. My frustration or irritation was never enough to make me stop what I was doing. . . and enjoying.

How do you think your films look on modern home video versus the reissue prints that would go out to theaters?

The films look wonderful, of course. All of the new technologies are making films look better than when they were first released.

The fact that your work was so precisely focused and lit, is that level of quality paying off as it now enters the high -definition world?

Yes, I suppose that my precise lighting will look quite good in high definition. However, I have not had an opportunity to see any of my work in that medium yet.

Does the eye of the modern audience have different expectations compared with 50 years ago?

I have no idea.

Have any visual effects—past or present—actually fooled you?

Possibly. I cannot recall. So many films have used visual effects over the years.

Ever since laserdisc, fans have been able to view your animation one perfect frame at a time, as you created it. Do you appreciate the attention, or would you rather it not be dissected?

I think being able to see stop-motion one frame at a time takes away some of its magic, but I have no control over the technology. I assume that people looking at my work will still enjoy it even if they know how it was done.

Did your movies benefit from the shroud of mystery that used to surround the movie-making process?

I suppose they did. I don't know if giving away visual-effects secrets would have made any difference in the box-office success of any of my films, but it is possible some effect might have been felt. Neither I, nor anyone else, has any way of knowing.

As a result of the secrecy, there wasn't a vast amount of behind-the-scenes footage, was there? Do you regret that?

I suppose having some behind-the-scenes footage might have been valuable to today's audience, but we never thought of it as particularly important during my career.

But nowadays, DVDs are so loaded with special features beyond the movie. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

I suppose it gives the DVD purchasers a feeling that they're getting their money's worth. It's neither good nor bad.

The King Kong [1933] DVD—which you participated in—was such a gift to the fans. Is that set the kind of thing you wish you'd had years ago, as a fan yourself?

It was a fine DVD, but I always preferred not knowing how some of the magic was accomplished in films. It kept the films that much more mysterious and unusual.

What's the trick to making such big, fantastical movies on a budget?

There's no trick to doing it. If you're given a specific budget, you must stay within the budget if you want your film released. It's strictly good business. I always knew how much time I would have on each film and how much money

I was being paid before the cameras rolled, so it was never a problem for me.

Was Clash of the Titans the biggest budget of your career?

Yes, Clash of the Titans had the biggest budget, but most of the budget was necessary for the distinguished cast we had on the film.

Isn't it almost superhuman to be able to go back and make 20 Million Miles to Earth in color, 50 years later?

No, I enjoyed it. We didn't really re-shoot the entire film. My friends at Legend Films in San Diego and I collaborated on the color selections, and a talented colorist named Rosemary Horvath placed the colors into her computer. It was quite magical.

Can you talk at all about the colorization process?

I don't have much knowledge in that area. I suggest that you and your readers go to the Legend Films of San Diego Web page [www.legendfilms.net] for more information.

We're now in an age of digital restoration of traditional film. Apart from the color, did you—or would you—make any changes to 20 Million Miles, or any of your movies? Dirt removal, stabilization. . .?

Before any of my films are colorized, they must be completely restored in every possible way. Of course, that includes dust removal and scratch removal. Therefore, the black-and-white prints of my films are better looking now than ever.

Last question: Does it take you forever to set the dinner table, adjusting each knife and fork a tiny fraction of an inch?

I eat my meals just like everyone else. I never adjust my real life to 24 frames per second.

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