|Thursday, March 30, 2006 was an exciting day for Fort Worth/Dallas fans of Ray Harryhausen. The master himself was in town promoting his books An Animated Life and The Art of Ray Harryhausen.
Harryhausen, with friend and partner Arnold Kunert (the man behind the successful efforts to get Ray an Oscar and a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame), appeared at the Angelika Film Center in Mockingbird Station before a sold-out crowd of about 350 fans, about half of that higher-priced VIP seating.
The evening was part of the Industry Insights Speaker Series presented by A Bunch of Short Guys [www.abunchofshortguys.com] in partnership with Janimation [www.Janimation.com]. A Bunch of Short Guys is a Dallas, Texas based animation guild that promotes the technique and allows animators to network with one another. Janimation is a Dallas, Texas based digital and computer animation special effects house that has worked on Spy Kids and the Snuggles TV commercials.
The Harryhausen poster distributed to all attendees.
The day began early that morning with Harryhausen promoting the event as a guest on local WFAA, Channel 8, visiting with on-air film critic/host Gary Cogill. Cogill caused Ray to wince by characterizing the original Kong as "corny" and then said that Mighty Joe Young was a better film. Clips from Mysterious Island were identified as Golden Voyage of Sinbad and then Golden Voyage was identified as 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Despite these blunders Ray emerged triumphant. He even brought a skeleton from Jason and the Argonauts and manipulated it on camera.
That evening at the Angelika, ticket-holders were given a 11 X 17 full color poster, a smaller version of the beautiful one-sheet created by Pete Herzog of Janimation. Inside the auditorium, the program kicked off with an extended montage of clips from every Harryhausen feature film. The video projection, on a full motion picture screen, was quite good, and many of the clips featured Ray's special effects artistry in other areas than just stop motion animation. Clash of the Titans received the greatest round of applause, not surprising considering the general age group of those in attendance. First Men in the Moon and One Million Years B.C. were greeted with the sound of crickets. And Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger bested Jason. Then, various members of A Bunch of Short Guys appeared and made their opening statements. Each mentioned what Ray?s films meant to them and how he had affected their lives. From the hemming and hawing it was clear they were awed to have him as their guest.
The Pit and the Pendulum animated short
|Before Harryhausen could appear, there was a special treat. The surprise of the evening was the second public screening of the new stop motion animation short The Pit and the Pendulum. Arnold Kunert introduced the film by informing the assembled group that this was part of a fresh series of shorts and features to be produced under the new "Ray Harryhausen presents" banner. Larry Blamire's upcoming The Trail of the Screaming Forehead will also appear under the banner. (The Austin, Texas visit included a clip not on hand this night, which was disappointing. Blamire's previous film was the spoof The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.) Arnold mentioned that this short was quite appropriate because, back in the days when he was still shooting his fairy tale shorts, Ray had always wanted to do a series of Edgar Allan Poe short films.
The front page of [http://www.thepitandthependulumshortfilm.com], featuring a preview of this film
The lights dimmed and the fans were treated to their first sight of the "Ray Harryhausen presents" credit. A stop motion spider scuttles across a spider web as the camera rack focuses on a blindfolded man being forced down a stone hallway. Brought before a judge he is condemned. A quick fade-out and fade-in finds the prisoner's blindfold replaced with a metal helmet covering his head. Thrashing about he manages to remove it and finds himself perilously close to the edge of a great, black pit from which painful screams can be heard as if from a great distance. His attention is diverted when a drink is pushed into his cell. Guzzling it he passes out.
He awakes on a table under a slowly descending blade that drops closer with each swing back and forth over him. Rats are everywhere and soon they are on his chest, gnawing at the ropes that bind him. Escaping at the last moment, he now faces a moving stone wall that threatens to push him into the pit. Is he doomed?
The six minute color short was produced by Susamma Lougee from a script by Matt Taylor. Mike Weiss and Ryan Fairley were the animators under the direction of Marc Lougee. A preview can be viewed at [http://www.thepitandthependulumshortfilm.com/]. The animation is excellent but the film is a rather straightforward visualization of a plotless tale.
Ray Harryhausen's talk
With the lights up, Harryhausen was finally introduced. He and Arnold sat on stools below the theater screen. There were some technical difficulties with the mikes but, eventually, Kunert was able to guide Ray through an informal, relaxed conversation. Ray appeared well, but a bit tired. He'd been up since the crack of dawn making TV appearances. Still, he was quite feisty and often exclaimed , "It's in the book!" The 85 years-young animator's voice was hoarse throughout the evening, due to a heavy day promoting his books and the event, but he gamely continued, pleasing the gathered fans.
|Arnold: "Why did you want to make a picture like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad."
Ray: "I got tired of destroying buildings."
Arnold : "Yes, you have destroyed a lot of buildings. Ever destroy Dallas
Ray : "No. Too far inland. The Beast needs water.
But when I first presented 7th Voyage it was around the time of Son of Sinbad (1955) and I was told that costume pictures were dead."
Arnold : "You have some affection for Godzilla?
Ray: "I wouldn't go quite that far. He looks like a refugee from a costume ball. Even a five year-old would know it was a man in a suit."
Arnold : "What about the design of your creatures?"
Ray: "Characters go through a lot of changes. The Ymir was going to have two horns and was stout. He looked like Oliver Hardy."
Arnold : "He's not called the Ymir anywhere in the movie."
Ray: "No. We were afraid that we might offend someone in the Middle East." (In the Middle East an "Emir" is a prince or chieftain.)
Arnold : "Dino de Laurentiis. Sorry to bring him into the conversation."
Ray: (smiling) "I have nothing to say."
Arnold : "That remains to be seen."
Ray: "If the '76 version had come out in 1933 I probably would have become a plumber."
Talk turned to the Peter Jackson remake of 2005. In general, Harryhausen was complimentary and seemed impressed with the visualization of Kong. However, he felt the movie was too long.
Ray: "It's almost vulgar what they spend on film today. We were always hampered by tight budgets. I got typecast in the low budget field. The studios started putting penalties on you if you went over budget." (Which meant taking money from other departments, usually the music budget.)
He also commented that he felt too much time was spent on Ann's backstory.
Ray: "By George, Fay Wray was a beauty. She was my pin up girl in 1933."
He recounted his great pleasure at visiting with Wray in NYC and their visit to the top of the Empire State Building. Although unplanned, the building turned the visit into a media event. Sadly, Fay Wray would pass away only two months later.
A surprising moment occurred when he talked about the lack of star power in his films and the general blandness of the actors in his films.
Ray: "The star[s], I think, was my work."
The floor was thrown open to questions from the audience. Here is a synthesis of these questions:
On his early films:
Ray: "If I were to do it today [his version of War of the Worlds] I'd have to do it differently because people might find the aliens hilarious. My dad built my armatures. He used his Sears and Roebuck lathe." His dad worked with him up through The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.
When Ray was creating his fairly tale shorts he was mostly a one man operation -- "They were all done by my own little hands." -- so, he invented names for the credits in order that his name wouldn't be everywhere. "Photography by Jerome Ray. That was actually me."
Originally, he didn?t want to release his early films and experiments on DVD. It took some persuading from Arnold before he decided that "Young people have to understand you don?t start out as DaVinci. You have to work at it."
On Go-motion, the technique that allowed stop motion animators to blur the model during photography and provide smoother movements:
Ray: "I never worried if the figure was blurred. If I needed to I'd use Vaseline to blur."
Where are his armatures?
Ray: "The Cyclops armature is in Berlin, right next to Marlene Dietrich's collection." (Many personal effects belonging to that actress are on display in the museum.)
He still stores things in his home but they are subject to degeneration.
Ray: "'Fine material, but it'll rot,' which I took from The Old Dark House." (he's quoting the classic 1932 James Whale film.)
||Questioner : Which is your favorite creature?
Ray: "I try not to pick one because they get jealous. I like complicated ones like the Medusa and the seven skeletons. I guess Jason was the most complete. I wanted to name the skeletons [in Jason and the Argonauts]. I named one Aguccio. I named another Ishmael. We've all got one [a skeleton] inside of us so we shouldn't be frightened of them."
Questioner : What drove your stop motion passion?
Ray: "A Zeus complex. I had control over these little figures."
Remembering his experience on Mighty Joe Young:
Ray : "Nobody congratulated me on the lion scene, pushing the cage over, except for John Ford. I was very proud of that." (John Ford was Merian C. Cooper's partner in the production company that produced MJY.) "It took me 50 years to discover that modesty is a dirty word in Hollywood."
Questioner : "What makes you go, "Wow!"
Ray: "That's difficult to answer."
Arnold : "You liked Lord of the Rings."
Ray: "Oh, yes!"
The Questioner mentions that Ray recently visited Aardman studios and then asks:
Questioner: "What is the future of stop motion?"
Ray: "Long live stop motion! You have to separate Wallace & Gromit from George Pal's Puppetoons. Like James and the Giant Peach and Nightmare Before Christmas. We use the same technique but it's a different approach."
Then Arnold made a special plea when asked about The 8th Voyage of Sinbad.
Arnold : "Everywhere we go someone asks what's the latest regarding The 8th Voyage of Sinbad? If anyone can get on the internet please go on and say there is absolutely no truth to that rumor." There had been a conversation with the director, Rob Cohen, who suggested that Harryhausen be involved. Nothing more was said until an article appeared in Entertainment Weekly quoting Cohen as stating that Ray would be working on the film. "I called up Rob Cohen and asked him why he would say something like that. Cohen said, "I just caught up in the moment." The budget was $100 million but it didn't seem that elaborate to me. It's unlikely that it will ever be made."
Ray: "I have nothing more to say."
Questioner: "You are just the coolest."
Arnold : "He's quite a bloke. (To audience) What do you think?"
The audience response was to give Harryhausen a standing ovation.
At this point, attendees were offered an opportunity to buy Ray's books and have him autograph it or other materials. A huge line formed around the auditorium. Those who waited in the lobby could buy Harryhausen creature figures from a dealer there. It was great fun watching fans leave the auditorium, signed posters and books in hand, beaming smiles on their faces. Ray stayed beyond the allotted thirty minutes for the autograph session, generously making sure that each and every person received his signature. Definitely, a good time was had by all.
|That was the end of Ray Harryhausen's official visit in Dallas, but it wasn't the end of his visit. The next day he intended to tour the collection at Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum. On the way he stopped in at the home of Sam Calvin. Sam, of course was co-editor and publisher, along with two-time Emmy-winning visual effects creator Ernie Farino, of the fanzine FXRH (Special Visual Effects by Ray Harryhausen), a publication that mightily impressed Ray and led to his friendship with Sam. Present at the brief, impromptu visit were Classic Horror Film Board administrator, illustrator, and co-author of The Famous Monster Movie Art of Basil Gogos, Kerry Gammill and your humble correspondent. Many thanks to the Harryhausens, the Kunerts and Sam Calvin for the memorable afternoon.
Ray Harryhausen and Ryan Brennan
Special thanks to Curt Hardaway for providing some research material for this article
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