By BARBARA ROBERTSON
Ray Harryhausen with Medusa from Clash of the Titans (1981). (Photo: Andy Johnson) (Images courtesy of the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation.)
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By BARBARA ROBERTSON
To the legions of visual effects artists, animators, and filmmakers who have been inspired by and have followed his footsteps, Ray Harryhausen, stop-motion pioneer, visual effects creator and filmmaker, needs no introduction.
Or, does he?
“The thing that most stands out about Ray Harryhausen and is the most difficult to convey,” says filmmaker John Walsh and pauses, “is he didn’t invent stop-motion animation. Willis O’Brien did that with King Kong and Mighty Joe Young. But Ray stands apart.”
In 1989, while a young film student, Walsh made a documentary entitled Ray Harryhausen: Movement Into Life, released the next year. The self-described fan boy continued to stay in touch with Harryhausen, and is now a trustee of the Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation.
“Ray was the person who would instigate a project,” Walsh says. “He was not brought in to facilitate someone else’s vision. He facilitated his own vision. I can’t think of anyone else who’s done that. When we think of the great visual and special effects people – Dennis Muren, VES, Rick Baker, and so forth – they are working on other people’s films. Willis, too, for the most part. But Ray consistently worked on his own films, on stories he wrote, creatures he created. He’s a unique part of film history.”
Harryhausen made 16 feature films during his lifetime and is perhaps best known for Mighty Joe Young (1949), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958); Jason and the Argonauts (1963), One Million Years B.C. (1966), and Clash of the Titans (1981). His honors include the prestigious Gordon E. Sawyer Award from the Academy (presented by Ray Bradbury), the Visual Effects Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award, induction into the VES Hall of Fame (posthumously), the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, an honorary BAFTA (presented by Peter Jackson), the British Fantasy Society’s Wagner Award for his lifetime contribution, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Some of his most famous films have been restored and re-issued in 4K format including The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, which premiered last September in London, along with a surprise. At that premiere, Walsh launched his book, Harryhausen: The Lost Movies (Titan Books). It turns out that in addition to the 16 films Harryhausen worked on that made it into the cinema, many more didn’t.
“I thought the number of films Ray didn’t make would be maybe 40 or 50,” Walsh says. “It was 80. We’ve found amazing examples of offers he received, and projects he was involved with.”
The “we” Walsh refers to is the Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation, which safeguards Harryhausen’s collection of more than 50,000 objects.
In 1986, long before his death at age 92 in 2013, Harryhausen established the Foundation to look after his collection, protect his name, and educate new generations of stop-motion animators. Foundation trustees are now his daughter Vanessa Harryhausen, Simon Mackintosh and Walsh. Actress Caroline Munro, who appeared in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and special effects artist Randy Cook are advisors.
This year, the Foundation will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Harryhausen’s birthday with a major exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh from May 23 to October 25, 2020.
“We’ll have the entire collection of his main creatures, concept art, storyboards and test footage,” Walsh says. “We expect to occupy two or three floors and a dozen different rooms or spaces.”
As part of the restoration process for previous exhibitions and the upcoming centenary, the Foundation has done MRI scanning and 3D mapping of many Harryhausen models to learn what’s inside.
“We’re restoring pieces as we go, trying to get things back as close to how people remember them as possible,” Walsh says. “Ray never kept a log of repairs, never photographed making the creatures, or kept detailed notes on the manufacture. So we don’t know which compounds were used. And the only way to find out what’s inside is to scan. I think people are surprised to learn how heavy and robust these creatures are. They are not delicate. The rubber inside is hard and thick, and the ball and socket armatures are steel, and they’re larger than people think.”
Of course, with 50,000 objects and growing, the collection from which they’ll draw for the exhibition extends beyond his main creatures, beyond the movies for which he’s known.
“[The collection has] everything he kept from the early 1960s onward,” Walsh says. “And he kept everything. Some of the most interesting sketches we have were on the back of letterhead or scribbled on legal pads – he would use both sides. It wasn’t that he was impoverished. He was successful and lived a comfortable life in West London. I think it was because he was a child of the Great Depression.”
“Everything” also includes objects that were sent to Harryhausen. The Foundation is happy to continue receiving items for the collection.
“We’re always surprised by what people donate to us,” Walsh says. “We have an interesting mask in the collection that was sent by a fan in 1960 of the Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. That fan was Rick Baker, who was a schoolboy then. Ray was always generous with his time. It was the same with me when I was a film student. But the latest discovery was Ray’s preliminary sketches on a legal pad for John Huston’s Moby Dick.” It was a project Harryhausen had never discussed publicly.
Hidden within the collection are hundreds of objects from the films that were never made. When the trustees were considering what they could do for people who couldn’t make it to the 100th centennial exhibition in Edinburgh, Walsh suggested documenting Harryhausen’s “lost films” – the films he never made – for the public at large. Walsh didn’t know what he’d find when he started digging into the massive collection, but he found treasures.
“If you asked me to find details about Jason or Clash, I could get that for you in a day or two, but the lost films are scattered amongst the collection,” Walsh says. “It was an amazing experience. We didn’t know what we were looking for, but we found amazing artwork from films he didn’t make.”
Complicating the search was the knowledge that Harryhausen hadn’t been forthcoming about projects that were turned down. “I asked him why he didn’t make Sinbad Goes to Mars, because I had read the book,” Walsh says. “He said he didn’t want to talk about it. I suppose it was frustrating for him. It’s not a great creative process. It’s a scar. So he made fewer attempts to make other films, but the attempts he made were more detailed and the artwork more elaborate.”
Among Walsh’s finds were some unexpected objects. “That there were [things from] unmade Sinbad films wasn’t a surprise,” Walsh says. “But Ray tried to make Conan films in the 1960s. He also tried to get involved with H. G. Wells’ The Food of the Gods. He didn’t make Force of the Titans, the follow-up to Clash of the Titans, but we have his artwork and sculptures for that.”
The Foundation doesn’t seek donations and instead hopes to raise money through projects such as books, speaking events and films.
“We’ve been developing Force of the Trojan,” Walsh says. “And we have a delicious solution for the question of digital versus stop-motion. We want to have a fight between a digital character and a tabletop character. People can make up their own minds about which technique is most magical.”
That fits with the foundation’s goal: To protect Harryhausen’s legacy and educate a new generation of filmgoers. “Ray thought this would be a forgotten technique like shadow puppetry,” Walsh says. “But there are more minutes of stop motion being produced today than at any time during Ray’s career. So we would like to set up a scholarship for a course for students doing stop motion. We’ll do that in 2021, once the centenary is out of the way.”
If money were no limit, the Foundation would have a permanent museum within which would be a film school for students who wish to learn stop motion.
Walsh notes that Harryhausen never had a video assist camera, and no one helped him with loading film or lighting. He just got on with it. He looked at dailies the next day or the day after.
“I think it gave him a certain continuity of performance,” Walsh says, “an individual performance that’s hard to get when working to an overall house style. We’ve played the 4K films to very young audiences and they love it. Kids 10 and 11 cover their eyes because they don’t want to be turned to stone. Parents say they don’t get that from today’s films.”
It’s hard to imagine a major feature film being made today with one visual effects artist instigating the project – writing the script, designing the characters, building them and animating them.
“I think that’s Ray’s legacy,” Walsh says. “To show it can be done. Ray was unique. He was the person who would instigate. Maybe there are visual effects people out there who will think, ‘I can be that guy.’ You never know.”