Ray Harryhausen On His Creatures

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Ray Harryhausen with a Clash Of The Titan Skeleton

This article was originally published in 2012 following an interview with Ray Harryhausen, and serves now as our tribute to the late special effects legend, allowing him to talk us through his groundbreaking career.

An unremarkable trip along the Central Line takes you to Holland Park, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, in West Central London. And in a typically large but deceptively anonymous Holland Park corner townhouse... live the monsters.

All right, that might not quite be true. But in that enormous town house does live Ray Harryhausen, monster-creator extraordinaire (although he prefers the term “creature”) over a career spanning at least six decades. Astonishingly, he practically always worked alone, and uniquely while he never directed per se, it’s his authorship stamped over Dynamation classics from Mighty Joe Young to Clash Of The Titans. “They were my films,” he chuckles. “The directors worked for me.”

Our walk down the austere hallway of chez Harryhausen takes us past closed doors behind which we’re certain may lurk gorgons and hydras, but the room into which we’re ushered contains just Ray himself, and a small bronze cast of one of the Argonauts skeletons. Modestly, he seems baffled that we’d be interested in talking to him, more than once telling us: “It’s all in the books!” With a new documentary, Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, celebrating his life and work, we persuaded the master to talk us through a few of his creations first-hand...

Mighty Joe Young, 1946
"That was my first feature, as an assistant to Willis O’Brien. O’Brien started the whole thing with King Kong. His technique was revolutionary at the time. He invited me to his studio to meet him, and I took some of my dinosaurs in a suitcase, and they gave me a job. I tried to improve on it, but I still admire King Kong because it influenced me enormously. There wasn’t a single superfluous scene in the dialogue or the visuals."

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms

"There was no description in the original script, so I made many different designs for it. I can’t remember what we discarded. He had a round head for a time, but he didn’t look fierce enough. I don’t know where his name came from. People say it’s based on my initials, but I don’t think it is."

It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)

It Came From Beneath the Sea

"Nobody knew that it only had six legs until I happened to let it slip to a magazine. I did that to save animation. Most of the legs are underwater all the time, so you can’t count them. I wish I’d never told anybody. Nobody would know!"

The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (1958)
"He went though many changes, totally at my insistence. He only ever had one eye though, of course! He seems to impress people. Animators always come back to this one. I brought The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad to the attention of many producers over many years, but I couldn’t get it off the ground for a long time. We made it on a very tight budget."

Jason And The Argonauts (1963)
"The sound was very important with him; it adds to his weight. We wanted the sound of twisting metal, because he was very stiff. I got criticised for making jerky animation! I deliberately made him jerky! He was supposed to be a man of metal!"

Jason And The Argonauts (1963)

Jason And The Argonauts

"Those are everybody’s favourite! They were tricky because there were seven of them on the screen at the same time. I directed the actors for this, because their movements had to be absolutely correct, so that the swords would clash believably with the skeletons when we matched the actors with the animation. In Hollywood they specialised in rear projection, but that wouldn’t have been practical enough for the film we were making. We came over to England essentially to use the Rank process [yellow screen, rather than green or blue scree**n], which doesn’t leave a line around your figure when you put two pieces of film together."

Appeared in: Valley Of The Gwangi (1969)

"I always liked dinosaurs. Willis O’Brien did a year’s preparation on this in the ‘40s, for RKO, but it was never matured, until I finally set it up in 1969. We tried real animals in some of the prehistoric pictures, just to save time and money, but the real animals never look as good as the animated ones."

The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad (1974)

The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad (1974)
"Flying creatures take more time, but I like the complicated ones: they’re much more interesting to do. The wire-work always makes things take longer than when it’s just a monster fastened to the ground. Actually I don’t like to use the word ‘monster’. They’re misunderstood creatures!"

Clash Of The Titans (1981)

Ray Harryhausen, Clash Of The Titans' Medusa

"They’d made things with actresses before. One had a wig with rubber snakes in it, and whenever she walked you could see them bouncing, and it looked phony. But I didn’t want to animate gossamer gowns, which she has in the legend, so I designed a snake’s body for her, and she had to pull herself along with her hands. I thought that was very creepy. I wanted red eyes, but I couldn’t find a doll with eyes that colour. It was very expensive to get eyes manufactured, so I always just bought ready-made dolls’ eyes."

Clash Of The Titans, The Kraken

Clash Of The Titans (1981)
"We gave him four arms to make him different! Again, it’s to do something you couldn’t do with an actor. Anything can have two arms, but people would think it was a man in a suit. I detest that! I always worked alone: I did all my own animation, and the sets and the lighting. But on Clash Of The Titans I did have to bring in other animators, because I had a technical problem and got behind schedule. I haven’t seen the recent Clash of the Titans. We did it our way and somebody else did it their way. They wanted to use my name, but I didn’t want to get involved."

  • Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan is in cinemas now.*