Remembering Monster-Maker Ray Harryhausen
Ray Harryhausen, who died Tuesday in London at age 92, became fascinated with animation after seeing King Kong in 1933. He went on to create some of the most memorable monsters of old Hollywood, from dinosaurs to mythological creatures.
His monsters, however, were never completely divorced from the real world.
"I do a lot of research when I create a creature," he told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 2003. "I like to make him 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 try to keep them within harmony of something they've seen."
Harryhausen, a pioneer of stop-motion animation, won an Oscar for special effects with 1949's Mighty Joe Young, about a girl who raises a giant ape.
He went on to create such memorable beasts as the pterodactyl that kidnaps Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. and the animated skeleton soldiers in Jason and the Argonauts.
While he said that he tried "not to have [them] because the others get jealous," in the end he did pick favorites.
"My favorite monsters," he told Gross, "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 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 be 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."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Ray Harryhausen, one of the masters of stop-motion animation, died Tuesday at 92. He gave life to the ape, "Mighty Joe Young," and the creatures, prehistoric beasts and skeletons in such films as "Jason and the Argonauts," "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad." "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms," "It Came from Beneath the Sea" and "Clash of the Titans."
Harryhausen fell in love with stop-motion animation in 1933, at the age of 13, when 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 work was animating the 1949 movie "Mighty Joe Young," under the supervision of O'Brien.
Here's an excerpt of the interview I recorded with Ray Harryhausen in 2003. I asked him to describe the models he used for "Mighty Joe Young."
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: We had four large models, which were about 15, 16 inches high, and then we had a medium-size 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: 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 was often "Mighty Joe Young."
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 out of this burning building and then caring, you know, this girl in his arm down the burning building?
HARRYHAUSEN: Well, that was quite 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. 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 much bigger scale than it was. And then you'd take that and reduce it on the screen to the size 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 inter-cut with the live action.
GROSS: Wow. So it must have been pretty exciting early in your career to work on this.
HARRYHAUSEN: Well, the little girl on the ledge was only three inches high and she was beautifully machined with a armature inside of her, and it was a pleasure to animate this little child struggling on the ledge almost about to fall off.
GROSS: And what is it about stop-time animation that makes...
HARRYHAUSEN: ...and I made this little child on the ledge almost about to fall off.
GROSS: And what is it about stop time animation that makes, say, "Mighty Joe Young" more convincing than a guy in an ape suit?
HARRYHAUSEN: A man in a gorilla suit is obviously a man. I mean, the proportions are all wrong and in the model animation such as stop motion, you can create the anatomy to look more like a real gorilla. A man has shorter arm than a gorilla and he has to lengthen them by some mechanical means. But in the early days where they made films like in "Gwangi" and "White Pongo" they used a man in a gorilla suit just because it's quicker.
Stop motion animation, of course, takes time.
GROSS: The first feature that you were the chief animator for was "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms." I want you to describe the beast.
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 a retasaurus.
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.
HARRYHAUSEN: Yes. That was the period in history when no one quite knew what would happen with the radiation of an atomic blast. So the beast was a product of the unknown. He was frozen in ice for millions of years and when the atomic bomb exploded in the North Pole, he was freed.
GROSS: Was this one of the first post-nuclear monster movies?
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?
HARRYHAUSEN: It produces giant octopus that pulled down the Golden Gate Bridge.
HARRYHAUSEN: And that period, of course, destructed - 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...
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.
HARRYHAUSEN: 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: 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?
HARRYHAUSEN: Well, yes, I do a lot of research when I create a creature. You know, I like to make him 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 what quite what they are. So I try to keep them within the harmony of something they've seen.
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. I try 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 photographically so they would look the part that they're supposed to play in the picture.
GROSS: So you have a favorite monster, Ray Harryhausen?
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.
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.
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 be 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: Ray Harryhausen, recorded in 2003. He died Tuesday at age 92. You can see the "Mighty Joe Young" scene that Harryhausen described where Mighty Joe Young rescues the little girl from the burning building on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, our TV critic David Bianculli reviews the new HBO comedy series "Family Tree" co-created by Christopher Guest. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.