Not everyone gets famous playing with model dinosaurs in their garage. Special-effects godfather Ray Harryhausen may be the exception: Not only did he begin his career that way while still a teen in his hometown of Hollywood, but in the process he managed to change the face of the FX business forever. From Mighty Joe Young, a 1949 gorilla story in the King Kong vein he created under the mentorship of original Kong animator Willis O'Brien, to his final film, 1981's Clash of the Titans, Harryhausen conjured a body of work that single-handedly raised the tedious work of stop-action animation to a high art. During that thirty-year career, he stoked the memories of thousands of baby-boomer cinema buffs with such creatures as the Ymir in 20 Million Miles to Earth, the Cyclops and dueling skeletons in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and the Harpies, Hydra and Talos of Jason and the Argonauts.
Now retired and a popular lecturer on the sci-fi and fantasy convention circuit, Harryhausen guests this week at Boulder's Haunted Carnival Festival of Fantastic Film, a collaborative month-long series taking place at several venues around town.
The effects wizard's original vision was firmly planted in fantastic images from childhood storybooks--perhaps one reason his work endures. Harryhausen himself says that the difference between Mighty Joe Young and, say, this summer's Godzilla remake is character. "Our specialty was combining live action with animated figures and using those figures in an intricate relationship to the live characters," he explains. "The creatures were used as actual characters. For Mighty Joe Young, for instance, I would first study a gorilla. I gave character to Mighty Joe by making him pound on the ground every time he was angry. There are nuances, things you do when animating that give a creature more than just movement."
He hasn't seen Godzilla but calls it a copy of his own Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. "People have told me it's just a cold moving thing," Harryhausen says disdainfully. But that's not to say the old master doesn't appreciate modern technique--he's even making a cameo appearance in a Mighty Joe redo in the works. "It has a different point of view on the story, of course," he says. "They're doing the gorilla with Rick Baker's animatronics, but they also used a man in a gorilla suit. It should be very effective."
Despite the credit given O'Brien for the first Mighty Joe, Harryhausen says he created 90 percent of the film's effects. He doesn't seem to mind, though; it was O'Brien, after all, whose Kong inspired his career in 1933 with its giant ape and tiny Fay Wray on top of the Empire State Building. "It haunted me so--I felt that was what I wanted to do," Harryhausen says. "It took time over the years, but I found out how it was made with stop-motion animation, and I began experimenting in the garage." Harryhausen's proximity to the film industry made that easier: Through contacts, he was able to meet O'Brien, who invited him to visit the MGM set of War Eagles. He brought some of his models over in a suitcase; upon seeing them, O'Brien took young Harryhausen under his wing. "Not many people were interested in animation at that time," he recalls. "Now special effects and computer generation have become quite a big business."
Harryhausen's earliest professional dabblings included work on several of George Pal's Puppetoons ventures, as well as his own animated take on Mother Goose rhymes. But he longed to create something less stylized and more exhilarating, a career move that eventually came about more or less naturally. "I found it was more profitable to make monsters," he says. "In the Fifties there were many concepts of what the atomic bomb would bring with it." Mighty Joe was the tip of that iceberg.
Harryhausen never let dealing with the drudgery of stop-motion, a slow process in which hundreds of negligible movements must be shot in sequence, get in his way. "I've always enjoyed it," he says. "It's my Zeus complex, I suppose, my Frankenstein complex, for creating artificial life. It stretches the imagination, puts the viewer in a never-never land that brings relief from the mundane world--particularly in Greek mythology, where there's a whole new world of gods and creatures. And then there are the Arabian Nights--we broke into that when we got tired of the monster-on-the-loose stories. We could destroy only so many cities, after all.
"When I was a child, I saw those Maria Montez pictures with Jon Hall and Sabu, but in those, you never saw the creatures on film. It was all cops and robbers and baggy pants and bad men carrying ladies off over the sand dunes. I wanted to put on screen the actual creatures--to introduce the kind of fantasy elements found in good storybooks." Still, he admits his genre is an esoteric taste. "It's not everyone's cup of tea," he says. "Some find realism more interesting."
Harryhausen tends to get negative about modern trends in the cinema. "Now everybody is in the garbage can, showing only the seamy side of life," he says sadly. "The cinema was made for fantasy. Anything on screen is fantasy, really." And he thinks there are noticeable differences between the violent on-screen meeting of supernatural brutes and nearly any scene in Pulp Fiction. "We had fantasy violence," he argues. "I suppose you can't have a drama without a certain amount of violence, but it's a synthetic violence. It's a fantasy world--a dream world. Greek mythology is just a dream world, full of legends and exaggerations.