VFX Titans Remember Ray Harryhausen
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Debra Kaufman : VFX Titans Remember Ray Harryhausen
When Academy Award winning visual effects artist Phil Tippett was five years old, he saw the 1933 King Kong on TV. "It did something to me," he says. "That's when things started percolating. In 1958, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad was released and I annoyed my parents until they took me to see it. That movie was like a bolt of lightning to me. I had to figure out what it was all about."
Phil Tippett with Ray.
Profoundly inspired by the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion classic, Tippett bought a camera and began experimenting, learning drawing, sculpting and animation. By the time Tippett was a teenager, he had been invited into the circle of a triumvirate of friends who would have a pivotal impact on his career: author Ray Bradbury, Harryhausen, and Forrest J. Ackerman, who published Famous Monsters of Filmland and turned his house into a museum of sci-fi/horror/fantasy films. "Ray [Harryhausen] wasn't a mentor because I never worked with him," says Tippett. "He was more like an inspiration. I studied his work all the time."
The iconic skeleton scene from 1963's Jason and the Argonauts.
Ray Harryhausen was an inspiration to many young people fascinated by stop-motion animation and handcrafted visual effects. Everett Burrell, currently Senior VFX Supervisor at Look Effects, was also obsessed with Ray Harryhausen's old stop-motion movies. When he was 12, Burrell went to hear Harryhausen speak at a theatre in Anaheim and found himself in an audience of a dozen people. He asked Harryhausen so many questions that the stop-motion master took him aside and showed him some of his models. That was the beginning of a relationship that led to correspondence, advice, lunches and a tribute film Burrell and friends made that spoofed the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts. "Ray was the big part of why I went into visual effects," says Burrell.
Ray with Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Everett Burrell.
Ray Harryhausen, who died May 7 at the age of 92, has been lauded as a cinematic mentor of such filmmakers as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. But his more direct proteges are the many, many young people who followed him into a career of animation and visual effects. "What an accomplished life as Grandfather of stop motion animation industry," says Rose Duignan, co-founder, HUB Project Management. "All I can say is Ray was the most humble superstar I've ever met. His kindness and generosity to all young animators is legendary."
Everett, fascinated with vfx models.
"Ray Harryhausen's impact on an entire generation (several actually) of filmmakers cannot be overstated," agrees Industrial Light & Magic Animation Director Hal Hickel. "All those animators and visual effects artists whose lives were changed by their first viewings of Jason And The Argonauts or The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad have gone on to transform the way movies are made. Each of them trying again and again to reproduce the wonder they first felt as a child watching Jason fight those skeletons. We all owe Ray such an enormous debt of gratitude."
Richard Edlund, ASC was another creative on Star Wars and visual effects pioneer who knew Harryhausen over the years. "Ray was a stepping stone for the industry, a significant one and a real nice guy on top of it," says Edlund. Jeffrey A. Okun, VFX Supervisor/Sr. VP VFX of Prana Studios and Chair of the Visual Effects Society, was also hooked on "movies, storytelling and fantastic imagery that looked real" when he saw The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and adds Tim Burton and Ken Ralston to the list of those who have been inspired by Harryhausen. "You can easily see his impact was huge - if not all encompassing," says Okun. "Not only was he a creative Giant (with a Capital 'G') but he was funny, inventive, talented, generous and just fun to be around." Okun has his own "when I first met Harryhausen" story. "I had the pleasure to get to know Ray first in the U.K. after a long period where he seemed to be fading from sight," he says. "It was at Pinewood at a special presentation and dinner. From that moment on he was a great friend and mentor to me."
Just as Harryhausen was a mentor to many, he had his own source of inspiration: Willis O'Brien. Harryhausen was 13 when King Kong came out in 1933, and the impact was identical to the one his own work would have on a later generation. He often said that he was never the same again, and became fixated on trying to recreate the stop motion animation created by O'Brien. Experimenting at home on his own, at 18, he began making his first film, Evolution of the World, with stop-motion dinosaurs. He also met two other young people equally obsessed with science fiction and monsters: Forrest J. Ackerman and Ray Bradbury and all three become fast friends.
Harryhausen finally finagled a brief meeting with O'Brien (who advised him to study anatomy after seeing his dinosaur models) and continued his solitary struggle to master stop-motion animation. When World War II intervened, Harryhausen ended up working for Frank Capra making propaganda films. Post war, he continued his one-man filmmaking, focusing on fairy tales such as The Storybook Review and Little Red Riding Hood. He soon landed a job with Puppetoons filmmaker George Pal, who used puppets with replaceable parts, a version of stop-motion animation that is still in use. That job put him in close proximity with O'Brien, who now in his early 60s, was also working for Pal. The relationship must have positively inclined O'Brien towards Harryhausen, because he hired him for his next movie - and what some might argue was O'Brien's last hurrah -- Mighty Joe Young.
Although it wasn't a box office success, Mighty Joe Young did garner O'Brien an Academy Award for Best Special Effects, no doubt at least a kind of lifetime tribute to the aging visual effects artist. But although O'Brien was the film's effects supervisor, Harryhausen reportedly did most of the hands-on work. "My feeling is the most amazing work that Harryhausen did was on Mighty Joe Young," says Edlund. "If you look at the quality of the stop motion in King Kong and compare it to Mighty Joe Young, which came about ten years later, it's interesting how much the quality of the work improved in that time."
Within a couple of years, Harryhausen's career began to take off. With the birth of the monster movie craze of the 1950s, Harryhausen has the right obsession (and skillset) at the right time. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in 1953 was quickly followed by It Came From Beneath the Sea in 1955, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). This fruitful period also was the beginning of a 30-year relationship between Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer. In addition to the monster movies, Harryhausen and Schneer worked together on The Animal World (1956), on which both Harryhausen and O'Brien were co-credited as Effects Technicians.
Working with Schneer was a double-edged sword. "Ray was used by Charles Schneer who produced these lame movies that were badly written and cut and that took advantage of Ray's incredible stop-motion talent," says Edlund, who goes on to describe how Harryhausen. "He did practically all the work himself. Schneer would rent him a garage in Downey, give him $20,000 and Ray produced all the work."
At the same time, it appears that being a one-man band suited Harryhausen's temperament, and this long stretch of monster movies gave him plenty of time to hone his stop-motion, split screen, rear projection and lighting skills. "With Schneer, they worked with minimal budgets," agrees Tippett. "The movies were never blockbuster. He was a singular guy; there was nobody as hands-on as Ray was."
"O'Brien's films were largely done under the auspices of the studios," Tippett continues. "Mighty Joe Young had a huge production team that made it cost prohibitive from a studio standpoint. If Ray was doing a shot on Mighty Joe Young, it could take him 10 or 12 hours, and meanwhile lots of grips and other crew were sitting around collecting a salary. The studios were nervous about making those things. Ray figured out a system he called Dynamation, a simple compositing approach that if you shot things a certain way allowed him to create high volume all by himself, without a high overhead."
Harryhausen's personality also lent itself to solitary work. "I would pry a lot about his process but he was very private and secretive about it," says Tippett. "He pretty much had boiler plate things to say about his work; there were no huge revelations. A lot of it stemmed from the fact that he believed that he was kind of the sorcerer/magician character and that knowing how it was done was a distraction from enjoying the craft. He kept secrets and processes close."
The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad from 1958.
If the 1950s monster movies were cheesy, he (and Schneer) made a lasting impression with the next movie, and their first in color: The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, a fantasy film closer to Harryhausen's interest in fairy tales. The movie famously features a sword fight between a live-action hero and a skeleton. The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960) and Mysterious Island (1961), two more fantasy films, followed and, then, in 1963, Jason And The Argonauts, in which Harryhausen brings back the stop-motion skeleton that thrilled audiences in Sinbad and ups the ante with an entire army of them. Both The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and The Argonauts are often cited as his most influential films.
In 1964, Harryhausen (and Schneer) worked on First Men In The Moon, and, in 1966, provided the effects for One Million Years B.C., which was not produced by Schneer. In 1969 came The Valley Of Gwangi, originally an O'Brien project and one that combines cowboys and a T-Rex, and a Sinbad follow-up in 1974 with The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad.
From Jason and the Argonauts, 1963.
Although Harryhausen was only 54 when The Golden Voyage of Sinbad was released, his days as a stop-motion filmmaker were numbered. All those young people he had inspired and encouraged were grown-up and, after making their own 8mm movies with effects built in their parents' garages, were turning to the big screen. Lucas made THX 1138 in 1971; Dennis Muren had started working in visual effects on small films at the same time; and others in what would become the digital visual effects industry were honing their skills as cameramen, stop-motion animators and miniature/model makers.
The look of stop-motion animation - indelibly linked to those 1950s monster movies - was also beginning to look dated by the early 1970s; the clock was ticking on stop-motion animation's primacy as a visual effects technique. Harryhausen and Schneer stayed the course with Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which came out in 1977, within weeks of Star Wars.Then, in 1981, he and Schneer debuted Clash Of The Titans, still remembered by many visual effects artists with nostalgia.
At the time, Tippett was working on the same lot, shooting Dragonslayer. "He was always very secretive," says Tippett. "I would go over there and hang out. It was more being part of a fellowship. Ray didn't like to talk about the work that much - he just liked to do it."
"Ray and I would go out to the pub at the end of the day," he recalls. "We were nursing pints, and he was winding down and said this [Clash of the Titans] was going to be his last thing. Sometimes I feel like a monk, he said. He was like an alchemist in his lab. There was a certain amount of magician/showmanship involved. He had figured these things out and he really didn't want to tell people how to do his job. He definitely had his eye on the competition."
But there's little indication that Harryhausen understood at that time who the competition was: not another, better stop-motion animator but something he could never have predicted - digital effects. Although he did try to get funding for several other projects, his words to Tippett were prophetic: Clash of the Titans was his last major movie. He was 61 - not ready to be consigned to retirement - and yet he did not embrace the nascent world of digital effects. "Lucas and Spielberg started creating much more elaborate A List movies in the studio paradigm with many more people working on the show," says Tippett. "[On Star Wars] I worked with Dennis Muren, there was a model department, electronics people developing motion control....it was all much more like O'Brien's studio system, with a 35 year old boss who realized what VFX could bring to cinema. And that was based on the inspiration that Ray gave us."
The Kraken from Clash of The Titans (1981)
Edlund has another memory about Harryhausen's reaction to digital visual effects. "I was on a panel that was a retrospective of Ray's work," he says. "Harryhausen and Dennis Muren were on the panel. They showed this really crude animation of prehistoric animals fighting and you could see all the issues. Then they showed other stop-motion animations where you could see that they'd learned a lot. Next, they showed a clip from Jurassic Park, and Ray's jaw dropped...it was kind of sad in a way. These advances in technology occur naturally - they're almost like footprints on the face of the history."
Harryhausen did not plunge into the new era of digital effects. Instead, he took on the role of an emissary from the golden age of analog fantasy/sci-fi filmmaking, and the creator of some of its most iconic images. He was honored with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Gordon E. Sawyer Award for "technological contributions [which] have brought credit to the industry" in 1992.
He wrote books, among them Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, co-authored with Tony Dalton. He made cameo appearances in several films, including Spies Like Us (1985), Beverly Hills Cop III (1998) and the remake of Mighty Joe Young in 1998. His huge fans, animators Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh (whose credits include Sponge Bob Square Pants) convinced Harryhausen to direct and co-produce The Story of the Tortoise and the Hare, one of his own short films, which he had to abandon to work on his first feature film. Harryhausen was also inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2005.
On Harryhausen's 90th birthday, two years ago, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) held a star-studded tribute to the stop-motion animator. John Landis' emceed an evening that presented James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston, Guillermo Del Toro, and dozens of A List directors and visual effects supervisors gathered to celebrate Harryhausen. Among the highlights of the evening (for me) was Muren showing the attendees that he still keeps a photo of him with Harryhausen in his wallet, and Peter Jackson's very (unintentionally) funny Ray Harryhausen homage films he shot as a teenager.
[Please take a look at this beautiful tribute on YouTube by BAFTA:
Watching the 45-minute BAFTA video, I am so struck with the effusiveness, the delight, the warmth with which everyone remembers and honors Harryhausen. His life spanned the history of visual effects, making him what blogger Jason Kottke calls a "human wormhole," which NPR science commentator Robert Krulwich defines as a person "who lives long enough to create a link -- a one-generation link -- to figures from what feels like a distant past." "Their presence among us shrinks history," he says. Krulwich gives the example of how, in a New York City diner in 1973, he met a man who was next door neighbor's with the mad monk Rasputin, or the three Civil War widows lived into the 21st Century.
Why do I call Harryhausen a human wormhole? His inspiration and close mentor was Willis O'Brien, who was born in 1886, and started his film career in 1915 with The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy. "O'Brien was like Keaton and Chaplin," says Tippett. "They invented what they did. They saw the possibilities and started goofing around and made it work." Thomas Edison was impressed enough to hire O'Brien to make other films with a prehistoric theme.
In fact, Tippett reports that Harryhausen was a tremendous fan of Melies' work and counted among his prized possessions one of Méliès' business cards. "Ray was very aware of Méliès at a time when he had long fallen off everyone else's radar," says Tippett. "When you're into stuff like stop-motion animation, you dig deeply and that's what Ray did. I knew he was very aware of Méliès work and methodology."
On the other end of the span, Harryhausen inspired the modern age of digital visual effects. "He lived to be 92 and saw everything," says Burrell, who says he watched Harryhausen movies the night his friend died. "One of the last things we talked about was how he saw the evolution of effects from miniatures to Star Wars and motion control. He lived to see it all."
"His work and name will live on with those fantastic images that he thought up, bought to life and presented to numerous generations that still inspire," says Okun. "With the support of his wife, Diana, he moved the art, science and craft of our industry a long way down the field and his touch can be felt, if not seen, in almost anything we do."
Tippett notes how he gets more accolades for the work he did in his own pre-digital phase, which is now also part of history. "Things aren't made like that anymore," says Tippett. "A lot of people in my studio bemoan the fact that they miss the days that people made things with their hands."
When we grieve Harryhausen's passing, we are at least in part grieving perhaps the last living link to the earliest days of movie visual effects. Stop-motion animation lives but as a team sport, not the endeavor of one driven artist who works alone, behind his own green curtain. Harryhausen not only provided us with decades of imaginative, innovative work, but inhabited the role of the eminence gris, the senior statesman with grace and good humor. We were lucky to have known him.