Ray Harryhausen: Poetry in stop motion

No one does monsters like Ray Harryhausen. Matthew Sweet meets the godfather of scary special effects
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The Independent Culture

It began with a 100ft gorilla and a shy boy from Los Angeles with a thing for prehistoric tar-pits and creatures from outer space. It ended with a Gorgon with a face modelled on Joan Crawford, Laurence Olivier playing Zeus, and the destruction of Argos - that's the Greek city, not the catalogue shop. Now is the time to marvel at the career of Ray Harryhausen and despair. Computer-generated effects may have rendered steel and latex creations obsolete, but his monsters still possess a fleshy corporeality yet to be matched by any pixelated substitute. The scaly talons of the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the swashbuckling skeleton army from Jason and the Argonauts, the six-armed, six-scimitared idol of Kali from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, the pteranodon that scooped up Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC: the grotesques of the Harryhausen bestiary had a life and personality of their own - often more so than the mid-price actors who were hired to attack them with spears.

Their maker, now in his 83rd year, has granted me an audience in his London home. Awards and diplomas punctuate the gold-leaf wallpaper of his sitting-room. The sideboard bears a bronze sculpture of King Kong wrestling a tyrannosaur. An enormous canvas looms over our heads: an imaginary classical cityscape by the Romantic painter Joseph Michael Gandy - a nice illustration of the genealogical relationship between early 19th-century fantasia, Cecil B DeMille and Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans. "I got tired of destroying cities, you know," he confesses. "I destroyed Coney Island with the Beast, I destroyed San Francisco with a giant octopus, I destroyed Rome with the Ymir creature in 20 Million Miles to Earth."

Harryhausen's career is a consequence of the work of a single predecessor, Willis O'Brien. "Obie," he says, "was was the first person in America to make stop-motion animation important." O'Brien's most celebrated creation has been an icon ever since it scaled the Empire State Building with Fay Wray in its paws.

As a boy, Harryhausen was awestruck by King Kong. He would wander from his home in Los Angeles to the back-lot of Culver City studios, where the sets from the film stood, and howl out the ritual call used by the Skull islanders to summon the mighty Kong. ("Bala kum nono ei bala bala!" - he still knows it.) He searched for information on O'Brien's techniques, but found only ill-informed speculation: "There was an article in Popular Mechanics," he remembers, "which showed wires coming out of Kong's heels and a little man with an organ, pressing the keys and making him move." He was determined to crack the secrets of the giant ape's uncanny life. "I had to do everything myself," he reflects, "because I couldn't find another kindred soul."

Martha Harryhausen even surrendered her fur coat to provide the hide for his googly-eyed model of a prehistoric cave bear. "My parents were very understanding. I'm grateful they didn't force me to comply with some other pattern."

Although Harryhausen was a chronically shy teenager - he took a course by the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People to cure him of his nerves - he summoned the courage to ring O'Brien in his workshop at RKO, and made an appointment to visit him. The meeting was productive: when O'Brien was looking for animators to assist him on another monster ape movie, Mighty Joe Young (1949), Harryhausen got a job.

A few short years later, the pupil had usurped his mentor. The chaos of O'Brien's personal life speeded the process. "Obie," concedes Harryhausen, "had a lot of personal tragedies in his life." By the time the two men met, O'Brien had already crawled from the wreckage of two marriages. His first wife, Hazel Ruth Collette, had borne him two sons - William and Willis junior - the eldest of whom had lost his sight to a childhood bout of tuberculosis. And then, one sultry night, Hazel, in a narcotic stupor, had stolen into her sons' bedrooms and killed them with two bullets apiece. She turned the gun on herself, but failed to deliver a mortal blow. Only a few months later, Obie's girlfriend, Hazel Rutherford, was diagnosed with breast cancer. He learned of her condition in the suicide note she left before jumping from a seventh-floor window.

"Obie had many wilderness years," reflects Harryhausen. "He had many projects which came to nothing. He got an Oscar for the special effects for Mighty Joe Young, but when that film came out nobody was knocking on his door. He prepared a film called Valley of Gwangi for RKO, but it collapsed. They made Little Orphan Annie instead." Mighty Joe Young, it seems, went wildly over budget - but not through any fault of O'Brien's. When Howard Hughes bought RKO, the accountants tidied the books by dumping the cost of executives' salaries on the budget of the ape movie..

"I had to make films as inexpensively as possible," recalls Harryhausen. "I did everything. I built the models. I photographed the sequences. I had my own little studio. Some people resented it. Maybe Obie resented it a little, too. "He may have felt that he was in competition with me," admits Harryhausen "That's one reason I came to Europe - I thought it would leave the field open for him over there, but somehow he never got it together. He liked to wait for the big picture, and that was probably a mistake on his part. Nobody wanted to put up that kind of money for a fantasy film. It was a great blow to me when I learnt that he'd passed away. I was out on location in the middle of nowhere, and I didn't hear about it until two or three months afterwards. It's one of the greatest regrets of my life that I didn't go to his funeral."

O'Brien died in 1962, by which time Harryhausen was pre-eminent in the field that his mentor had founded. But the creatures that populated the worlds of Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Mysterious Island were all the grandchildren of the man who brought King Kong to life - and there was to be a last tribute from the pupil to the master. In 1967, Harryhausen and his producers revived Valley of Gwangi, Obie's idea for a Western in which cowboys tussled with opponents more menacing and scaly than the Navajo. The film contains one of Harryhausen's most ingenious sequences, in which a gang of horsemen lasso a snapping allosaur. Unfortunately, the film was acquired by a distributor who screened it as the bottom half of a double-bill with Girl on a Motorcycle. "It was ridiculous," grumbles Harryhausen. "We were making a family film, and they didn't give it any publicity - they just dumped it on the market."

Harryhausen has been in firm retirement since 1981, when he created a realm of gods and monsters for Clash of the Titans. "These days every two-bit commercial uses amazing CGI images," he reasons. "There's no shock value left anymore. Amazing spectacles have become commonplace." But his work has hardly been consigned to the cinematic scrap-heap. His films are mainstays of the bank holiday television schedules; his autobiography, Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, has just been published; and audiences cheer him at science fiction conventions. "Maybe I have the Zeus complex," he admits. "I like bringing things to life. That was half the charm of doing a stop-motion scene. My actors always do exactly what I want them to do."

'The Valley of Gwangi' and 'The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms' are out now on Warner Home Video