Here’s an interview I did with Ray Harryhausen when he visited San Jose for a film festival devoted to fantasy and sci-fi. The legendary stop-motion artist, best known for “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958), died Tuesday in London at age 92. Among those who embraced Harryhausen as a key influence were Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, George Lucas and, representing the next generation f/x specialists, Phil Tippett.
by Glenn Lovell
If, like many a giddy adolescent, you’ve never been able to quite shake the horned cyclops and saber-rattling skeleton in “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” you’ll want to know more about their creator Ray Harryhausen, the meticulous stop-motion artist who has given life to some of Hollywood’s most memorable oddities, including an undulating snake woman, reptilian Martian and, on Mysterious Island, a giant crab.
Harryhausen’s last screen credit was 1981′s “Clash of the Titans,” another of his beloved Greek mythology adventures. Prior to that he oversaw the Dynamation (three-dimensional animation) on 1977′s “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.” Before that he labored on “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad,” released in 1974.
One movie approximately every three years — or, as Harryhausen breaks it down, “One year of pre-production (scouting European locales, polishing the script, etc.), one year of arranging for financing — ‘Clash’ was in the $12 million bracket — and 16 months alone with my models and assistants.”
Jason’s battle with the children of the Hydra’s teeth in “Jason and the Argonauts” lasts five minutes on screen and took four-and-a-half months to orchestrate (or two days for one second of movement). The dreaded Medusa, with rattlesnake tail and individually animated viper curls, has about six minutes in “Clash of the Titans.” Harryhausen lived with the Gorgon for three months.
“That’s why I’m working less and less now,” he explained. “It cost so much to do one of our fantasies, and they’re not everybody’s cup of tea, you know. The studios are more interested in science fiction hardware these days.”
So he sticks with the time-consuming “old-fashioned methods,” some learned while apprenticing with mentor Willis O’Brien on “Mighty Joe Young.” These techniques enabled him to mangle the Golden Gate Bridge in “It Came from Beneath the Sea” and trash the Washington Monument and Capitol Building in “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.” Referring to the latter unpatriotic act, Harryhausen laughed, “No, there’s no hidden symbolism there. That wasn’t the reason I left the country.” (He moved to London 20 years ago because it’s centrally located and allows him to scout locations in Spain and Italy.)
None of Harryhausen’s films has received the praise and attention of “7th Voyage,” which, though heavily censored in England as too violent, “earned an enormous amount of money and became the year’s big sleeper … In England they cut the whole skeleton sequence, some of the fight between the Cyclops and dragon and the scene where the Cyclops roasts one of Sinbad’s men on a spit. They just said those scenes would frighten children. Fantasy never hurts anyone. It’s healthy, cathartic. Children enjoy the grotesque.”
Speaking of the grotesque, where did Harryhausen get the inspiration for “7th Voyage’s” ill-tempered Cyclops? “I just wanted to make him as belligerent as some people I’d met — belligerent and primitive.”
“Jason,” he recalled, was released in a market already glutted with poorly dubbed “Hercules” clones from Italy. Adding insult to injury, critics cited liberties with Greek mythology. As an acknowledged expert in the area, Harryhausen was livid. Vindication came when several university scholars rushed to his defense.
“It’s obvious from their writing that most critics have no idea what Greek mythology is all about,” he said. “They also wrote that I borrowed my mechanical owl in ‘Clash’ from R2D2. The idea of the mechanical owl goes way back to Greek mythology, which came a little before ‘Star War.’”
Further disappointment has come from studio publicity mills that have either ignored his movies or misrepresented them as standard sword-and-sandal fare. Harryhausen called “Valley of the Gwangi,” a 1969 Lost World western, and “First Men in the Moon,” a fanciful 1964 adaptation of the H.G. Wells story, “my most neglected films.”
“Warner Bros. didn’t know how to sell ‘Valley,’” charged Harryhausen. “When they saw the word ‘gwangi,’ people thought it was a Japanese monster film. When ‘First Men in the Moon’ came out just at the time when man set foot on the moon. So that destroyed the fantasy element. Suddenly moon travel was a real proposition.”
Harryhausen smiled and hedged when asked about his next screen project. “I don’t know. Don’t hold your breath. It’s in the lap of the gods.”