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Tribute: Special Effects Pioneer Ray Harryhausen

posted by Nell Minow

ray and ray and nellOne of the greatest thrills of my professional life was the chance to talk to one of the towering figures of film history, Ray Harryhausen, the special effects genius to transformed movie-making in the years before digital technology.  Today, we mourn his passing, less than a year after the passing of his lifelong friend, Ray Bradbury, who joined us in the interview.

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I asked Mr. Harryhausen if he thought that what he was doing was acting as well as animating.

Of course! You’re working with actors so you can’t let them upstage you. I learned from King Kong you have to get sympathy for the villain. Hard to do with a Tyrannasaurus Rex! You can get sympathy for a humanoid form, but it is harder to get sympathy for an animal. So [in “20 Million Miles to Earth”] we adapted the original design for Ymir to make him more like a human, his torso anyway. He originally had one eye, like a cyclops. We had to wiggle the tail a lot to distract the audience. I always did a lot of research but was not bound by it, just inspired by it. The Ymir was from Norse mythology originally, but we changed our mind.

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I brought in the story; I was very modest in those days. It took me 50 years to learn that modesty is a dirty word in Hollywood. Originally, we had the rocket ship land in Chicago, but I wanted a trip to Rome, so we moved the landing to Italy so I could go there and scout locations. We added our ruins to theirs.

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Fantasy was a word he came back to several times.

I did not do horror; I did fantasy. Fantasy is “what if” — it’s stretching your imagination. We don’t want to be associated with horror. I don’t like them to be called monster films.

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He said his two biggest challenges were the multiple characters in Jason and the Argonauts and the Medusa in Clash of the Titans.

The most challenging creature was Medusa with twelve snakes in her hair. I did not want to animate a cosmic goddess, so we gave her a snake’s body. We did not want to go with the classical concept of a pretty woman with a pretty face and snakes in her hair; we wanted to make her furious. We borrowed the bow and arrow from Diana. We borrowed the seven heads from Hercules; you always had to remember which head was going in which direction. With the multiple figures in “Jason,” We couldn’t do rotting corpses coming out of the ground at night in “Jason;” we had to do clean-cut skeletons in the daylight. The things you see today would frighten the devil.

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Even in the days before CGI, there were issues of changing technology.

We had the advantages and disadvantages of changing technology in building our creatures. Originally, we used foam rubber, which shrinks 10-15 percent so the clay models were a little fat and you can see that some of the stand-ins were a little stouter. It depends on how long you cook it, how long it holds up. It is fine material, but it will rot. We have a big display of the models in Germany at the Sony Museum.

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Mr. Harryhausen had one final comment, about following your dreams.

Don’t let anyone talk you out of it.

May his memory be a blessing.   

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