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

James Mottram
Friday 25 June 2010 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

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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)

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