Innovative filmmaker Ray Harryhausen chats with Brent Sprecher about his career, his current projects and the comic books inspired by his films.
Ray Harryhausen, pioneering artist and filmmaker of such classics as Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981), continues to captivate and inspire more than twenty-five years after his last feature film was released. Despite the explosion of computer-generated characters in today’s cinema, rendered using ultra-sophistocated software like Pixar’s Academy Award-winning RenderMan, there are few that can match the incredible imagination of Harryhausen’s stop-motion creations.
Harryhausen, born in Los Angeles in 1920, became fascinated with filmmaking when he saw King Kong claw his way through the jungles of Skull Island in the 1933 classic movie by Willis O’Brien. Harryhausen’s fascination with the mechanics behind the monster led him on a life-long journey to master the art form of stop-motion animation. Harryhausen’s expansive imagination and incredible ability to breathe life into static models birthed some of the most victorious heroes and terrifying monsters in film history.
Still going strong at 87, Harryhausen tours regularly and oversees Ray Harrhyausen Presents, an umbrella banner through which he can offer his support to up-and-coming filmmakers in the field, as well as promote works adapted from his films, such as the new line of comic books from Bluewater Comics.
BRENT SPRECHER: Ray, first of all, let me say that I am a huge fan of your work. I was fortunate enough to see many of your films on the big screen growing up because Clash of the Titans was so successful that the local art-house theater featured your earlier movies on Saturday afternoons during summer break. I remember having to get to the theater early to get a good seat because it was always packed. Your heroic champions and amazing creatures sparked in me an interest in fantasy and mythology that continues to this day. You’ve cited the work of Willis O’Brien in King Kong (1933) as being seminal in your decision to create what you call “kinetic sculptures.” Who else inspired you as a young artist and where do you draw your inspiration from today?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Other than Willis O’Brien, the two greatest influences on me as an artist were Gustave Dore and John Martin. Their work still haunts me today and was a major influence on both me and Willis O’Brien. Much of King Kong is reminiscent of the work of Dore, particularly in the Skull Island scenes.
BS: Science fiction, fantasy and animation are all genres historically overlooked by critics and the Hollywood elite as having less artistic merit than other types of films. You received an Oscar in 1992 and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003. Did you seek the acceptance of, for example, the Academy throughout your career or were awards more of an after-thought to the work itself?
RH: I didn’t consciously seek awards during my career, but I hoped that our films would be acknowledged by the Motion Picture Academy at some point. Sadly, that was not to be.
BS: You signed autographs at the San Diego Comic Convention along with your friend, Ray Bradbury, and screened your newly-colorized 20 Million Miles to Earth. For a convention celebrating art forms still considered somewhat on the fringe of popular culture, were you surprised by the turn-out?
RH: My producer Arnold Kunert and I have attended the Comic-Con for the past several years. We are never surprised by the large crowd. Arnold attended the convention in the 1970s when it was held at one of San Diego’s downtown hotels, but things have changed quite a bit over the past decade or so since the movie studios got more involved with the promotion of their upcoming films.
BS: For years, pop culture “experts” have predicted that comic books, as a successful publishing venture, are on the verge of extinction, due to competition from film and video games. By the late-90’s, those predictions appeared as if they were coming true. Today, comics have rebounded considerably and many of Hollywood’s successful “marquee” properties are comic book-based. Those same experts have said the same thing about stop-motion and other forms of traditional animation. Do you think that computer-generated animation will ever wholly supplant more traditional forms?
RH: No form of entertainment has ever truly been eliminated. Puppets, marionettes, stick figures, stop-motion animation will always have a place in entertainment. It’s easy to predict the demise of an art form, but the reality is something entirely different.
BS: Darren Davis of Bluewater Comics recently rolled out the Ray Harryhausen Presents series of comic books, including 20 Million Miles More and Wrath of the Titans, with many more titles based upon your classic films scheduled for release in coming months. You and your producer, Arnold Kunert, have approval over all of the Ray Harryhausen Presents stories. How does that process work? Is it more of a “yes” or “no” process, or do you and Arnold offer suggestions to help Darren Davis’ team construct the storylines?
RH: Arnold and I trust Darren and his colleagues to create stories which are faithful in tone and structure to the films Charles Schneer and I created between the mid-1950s and the early 1980s.
BS: Is there a Ray Harryhausen “bible” listing characters or storylines that are off-limits to Bluewater Comics or is it pretty much “anything goes,” as long as the material doesn’t contradict the films?
RH: Everything must pass through Arnold’s and my hands before it goes to print. Darren understands this and abides by our agreement.
BS: You’ve said in the past that you consider your films completed works. What about Darren Davis and Bluewater Comics made you decide to further the adventures of your classic characters?
RH: I’ve always enjoyed exploring new and interesting territories. The comic book was something I had never before considered, but it seems to be a “good fit” for our type of stories.
BS: Ray, in addition to your incredible stop-motion creations, you are an extremely talented artist. Your piece, Ymir fights Elephant, was also released at the San Diego Comic Convention, and several of your pieces have already been spot-lighted in Bluewater Comics releases. Can we expect to see more artwork from your archives?
RH: Yes, Every Picture Tells A Story, the art gallery handling my artwork, has plans to release one or two prints each year.
BS: The internet is filled with amateur stop-motion films and TV programs like Robot Chicken use the technique to great effect. However, there are few people in Hollywood with the vision—and clout—to be able to produce a big-budget stop-motion feature today and have it be successful. Tim Burton is the contemporary film maker whose name immediately springs to mind as being one of those few. Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas re-introduced the art form to a whole new generation of movie fans. What do you think of Tim’s work and have the two of you ever met?
RH: I met Tim several years ago and he has been a guest at my house in London more than once. He’s a very talented and interesting man and I enjoy being with him.
BS: Also under the Ray Harryhausen Presents banner, but unaffiliated with Bluewater Comics, is your support of projects like The Pit and the Pendulum, which helps spotlight up-and-coming artists in the field of stop-motion film. Are there other projects in the works that might bear the Ray Harryhausen Presents banner?
RH: Yes, we are currently exploring a variety of subjects. Please ask your readers to go to my official web site, www.rayharryhausen.com, from time to time for the latest news.
BS: Two more of your Columbia films, It Came From Beneath the Sea and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers are due to be re-released, in color for the first time, in November. Are there any other new releases or upcoming projects you would like to mention?
RH: Not at this time. We are in negotiations on other projects, but I am not at liberty to discuss them now.
BS: Ray, thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions and for all of the magic you’ve brought into the world.
RH: Thank you for asking me. I enjoyed it.
Originally published October 10, 2008.