The man behind the myths
Published Date: 25 June 2008
By Tim Cornwell
AMONG the many myths and monsters that Ray Harryhausen conjured for the movies, the skeleton sequence is what people most remember. Jason and the Argonauts boasted a hydra and a bronze giant, but the skeletons in mortal combat with the film's live-action heroes made it a classic.
Seven grimacing skeletons burst out of the soil and attack Jason and his comrades. There's a jerky, lurching, remorseless quality to their movements; some are shattered by sword thrusts, others cut and stab the men. The human cast – lead by Todd Armstrong – may be forgettable. The skeletons are not.
Only six minutes long, it was a defining sequence in stop-motion animation, created by tiny movements of a model, puppet, props or scenery, filmed frame by frame.
"I spent four months putting the skeleton sequence together, which annoyed the people who financed the picture, but it was necessary so it would look convincing," says Harryhausen, the animation pioneer who turns 88 this weekend.
An original skeleton model sits on the table in front of him. About 12 inches high, they were metal framed with about 40 tiny adjustable ball-and-socket joints, so it has "every joint that a human has", Harryhausen says proudly.
He worked mostly alone with the models, using a back-projection screen to synchronise their movements with men swinging their swords in live action scenes already filmed. On complex scenes he got through 13 frames a day, about half a second of film. "When a skeleton was going from A to B he had to be there to meet a sword in a certain frame, and that takes time to calculate."
Harryhausen gives an "In Person" talk at the Edinburgh International Film Festival today. This year he brings out a third book, with his regular collaborator Tony Dalton, called A Century of Model Animation.
The festival event has already sold out; Harryhausen is a living Hollywood legend, and the programme quotes Steven Spielberg's tribute, just one of many: "Everything that Ray did influenced me, and I salute him every day."
Stop-motion special effects have been mostly replaced by computer-generated imagery (GCI) of the kind that delivered the skeletons in the Pirates of the Caribbean, for example. But Harryhausen is the man whose pterodactyl took off with Raquel Welch in 1966's One Million Years BC, and whose cyclops grabbed sailors in 1958's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. In The Valley of Gwangi, a 1969 film that's a glorious pastiche of western camp, white-hatted cowboys lasso his dinosaurs to twangy music with period titles.
"We never saw them as B-movies. We were criticised because we made them cheaply," he says. "Our pictures have survived over the years where so-called A-movies that spent ten times what we spent have fallen by the wayside."
Clash of the Titans, his biggest, and last film, in 1981 featured his famous Medusa, a slithering creature with snakes in her hair and a rattle on her snaky tail, moving through 150 tiny joints and sharing the bill with such major stars as Laurence Olivier. "You have to ignore criticism, because no matter what you do, you will be criticised. We were criticised all the time. When we had Laurence Olivier playing Zeus, a middle-class moron in America said he looked like a tired old man in a nightgown."
Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles in 1920. He remembers early fantasy films where screen sirens shone but the monsters were missing. "They would talk about the mythology of the creatures, but they were always off the screen," he says.
That changed for him with the original King Kong in 1933. "I saw King Kong when I was 15 and it changed my whole life."
He learned everything he could about stop-motion work, by the time the Second World War finished he was making stop-motion fairy tales, before finding a job with the King Kong animator, Willis O'Brien, on Mighty Joe Young.
The films that followed, including The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and First Men in the Moon are fondly remembered, but Harryhausen found after Clash of the Titans that interest in stop-motion had shrunk, and decided after 16 films it was time to retire.
Stop-motion is still practised, most famously by Nick Park in the Wallace and Gromit films, and by Tim Burton in the likes of The Corpse Bride.But unlike Harryhausen they don't blend puppetry with live actors.
Harryhausen now lives in London. He met and married his Scottish wife, Diana, when he was working at the Rank studios.
He no longer watches many films. In his own films, the monsters, however elaborate, were built into the story, not for their own sake, he says: "I find it a little difficult to absorb anything related to CGI." His fans tell him they have what CGI tends to lack: an elusive quality of "heart". "Today they forget that they are telling a story and you have a series of explosions, one after the other, which seems to pacify the audience. In CGI you have dozens of people; one does the head, another does the skin, another does the hair. I always wanted to do it myself because I had a concept that I felt was right."