Harryhausen's birthday: time to celebrate a titan of Hollywood

Ray Harryhausen – the daddy of stop-motion animation – turns 90 next week. Tomorrow, BFI Southbank rounds off a month of screenings and events with a celebration hosted by the director John Landis. It is comforting to know that though computers dominate special-effects nowadays, his pioneering techniques are still admired.

Harryhausen has always been something of an outsider. He recalls a review in The Hollywood Reporter of his 1958 adventure The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the precursor to his 1963 masterwork, Jason and the Argonauts. "It said, 'Every Hollywood technician should see this picture.' And I think that queered me with Hollywood." Two years on he had left LA for London, where he has lived ever since.

"Our pictures were never nominated for an Academy Award," he sniffs. It's a slight barely soothed by the fact the Academy gave him a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1992. By then, it was 11 years since his last film, Clash of the Titans. But a new generation of filmmakers – Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, Tim Burton and Peter Jackson – were beginning to show their debt.

The French director Louis Leterrier, whose remake of Clash of the Titans has so far taken $429m (£288.6m), called Harryhausen during pre-production. "The only thing [Harryhausen] mentioned was the cast", he says. "I had to swear to him I would cast the movie properly." Even so, Liam Neeson's Zeus was never going to compete with the original. "We had one of Britain's greatest actors – Laurence Olivier. Who else could play Zeus? I was delighted with it," smiles Harryhausen.

He created his first monster – a cave bear – in his parents' garage in 1933, the year he watched King Kong for the first time. Two years later he wrote to Willis O'Brien, the animator who made Kong come alive. "He said, 'Come and visit me.' So I brought my models to him. He looked at my stegosaurus, which won a second prize at a museum, and said, 'The legs look like sausages! You better study anatomy.'" This he did, in art school, shortly before the war. During the second world war, he worked under Frank Capra in the Army Motion Picture Unit, animating sequences to educate soldiers about the use of military equipment. Afterwards, O'Brien took him on as an assistant on the sub-Kong effort Mighty Joe Young (1949). Much of the animation was left to Harryhausen – which resulted in O'Brien winning the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

Harryhausen says he has the "certain temperament" needed for animation work, "which maybe puts me in the category of peculiar". I ask if he has always had steady hands. "People tell me they look like bananas," he grins. "I never questioned it!"

If he has one regret, it's that he was not a better businessman. "I could've been a multimillionaire by now. I always liked to work alone because I never wanted to be talked out of something. If you have somebody else with you, you'll be talked out of an idea that might be a success."

Ray Harryhausen: a Birthday Celebration, BFI Southbank, London SE1, tomorrow (Bfi.org.uk)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor