On Wednesday morning, half a day ahead of the UK, when I logged onto Facebook, I saw Randall William Cook had posted a beautiful picture of an old Ray Harryhausen:
Two things struck me immediately, I knew exactly where this photo was taken, because only last year I was sitting in that very same room, having tea and cake with Ray, and why would Randy be updating his cover photo with that particular image that day? One of my greatest childhood influences had passed away, and it suddenly struck me just how influential Ray Harryhausen has been in my career so far.
As long as I can remember I wanted to make monster filled special effects movies. As a very young child, my mother used to take me to the Natural History Museum in London. Like all young boys I was crazy about dinosaurs. One day I saw a poster for something to do with more dinosaurs. My mother explained it was a talk and that I wouldn’t enjoy it, but I demanded she took me to it. They didn’t want to let me in. I was too young. I wouldn’t be able to sit still. The rest of the audience were adults. I was 4. I sat still for the whole talk, and I knew almost every name of every dinosaur. And during that talk they played an excerpt from a film with stop motion dinosaurs fighting.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a scene from One Million Years B.C., the dinosaurs animated by Ray Harryhausen. I was hooked.
For some reason whenever my parents took me to visit my grandparents there were always one of three movies playing on tv – King Kong, Jack The Giant Slayer, and Jason and the Argonauts.
They all had one thing in common - giant monsters created through the magic of stop motion and special effects. When those films were playing, nothing else mattered – fishing trips and building things in my grandad’s garage were put on hold. I was enthralled by the special effects magic required to bring those monsters to life, and it’s those three movies that laid the foundations of the only thing I can ever remember wanting to do as a job.
I was 6 when Golden Voyage of Sinbad came out at the cinemas. I’m not sure if I got to see it then, or later on TV. Either way I was in heaven watching it, whisked away to exotic landscapes filled with an evil homunculus, a fight with an animated figure-head of the ship, a cyclopean centaur vs a griffin, a six armed Kali statue, a soon to be Dr. Who and Caroline Munroe (my first childhood crush) in a bikini.
Then came The Valley of Gwangi and One Million Years B.C. definitely on tv. I was still under 10 years old but and was still enthralled by dinosaurs (and also now by Raquel Welsh in a fur bikini).
More films followed on tv – Mysterious Island, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Mighty Joe Young, First Men in the Moon, the 7th Voyage of Sinbad. I would scour the Radio Times at Easter and and Christmas school holidays to find out if any of these would be playing again, and slowly my parents began to learn that when a ‘Ray Harryhausen’ movie was going to be showing on TV, nothing would stop me watching it.
By the time I was about 10 years old I knew all about stop motion animation, armatures, split screens and rear projection after finding a few rare books on special effects in my local library and later at the first Forbidden Planet bookstore on Denmark Street in London. I was building models of prehistoric creatures and monsters and skeletons and trying my hand at sculpture. I was still adamant I was going to become a stop motion animator one day.
Then Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger came out at the cinema. I know I saw this one at the cinema as I still have the one-off movie magazine with the poster in the middle I bought when it came out.
Sinbad and The Eye of the Tiger is probably my favourite Ray Harryhausen film – even more exotic locations, the trog, the sabre toothed tiger, Prince Kassim as a baboon, another Dr. Who actor, the mechanical minotaur, Jane Seymour in a bikini! But the creatures that stood out the most for me, probably indicating my early love of horror films were the 3 skeletal demon things summoned from the fire:
Finally there was the last of Ray’s films, Clash of The Titans also filled with a plethora of creatures and monsters – the two headed Cerberus, Pegasus, giant scorpions, Bubo the mechanical owl, a stop motion version of Calibos, a giant vulture, the Kraken, and probably Ray’s most iconic creation, Medusa:
Compared to the 2010 remake (which has no-where near the heart of the original) Ray’s original designs are still for me the definitive version. Ray’s Kraken looks like a well thought out creature that is slave to the Gods, rather than the modern version which looks like it was designed by a bunch of film executives trying to hit every possible idea of what an undersea monster should be: a ridiculously enormous mishmash of crab and octopus and lobster but without any thought to what a creature from Greek mythology might actually look like.
While Ray’s Medusa had character and intelligence, the modern 2010 version again falls into the ‘bigger must be scarier’, with a riduculously large snake body with a disproportionately small human torso and head stuck on the end. That tiny petite pretty mouth couldn’t possibly eat enough food to support that huge body. There was intelligent design behind Ray’s creatures, and at least he wasn’t prudish enough to think that Medusa needed to wear a bra.
I never did become a stop-motion animator, I found I designing monsters on paper easier than sculpture, mold-making and building armatures. But I never gave up the dream of working in film special effects. But back then it was a closed shop – if you didn’t know someone already working on special effects there was no way of getting into this secretive, exclusive and very small industry where movie magic was made. So I ended up in art college studying illustration, and becane a freelance illustrator for 10 years, pre-computers, painting using an airbrush and paintbrush. And mainly painting monsters for book and magazine covers, but all the while still wondering how I could still fulfill my dream of working in the film industry.
Then photoshop and the CGI dinosaurs of Jurassic Park came along, and suddenly airbrush artists and those who could still create commercial art with a pencil and paintbrush and were a dying breed. I realised perhaps this was my way into the film industry, and aged 30 I went back to University to study for a Masters Degree in Computer Animation, with the intention of learning how to create and animate dinosaurs and monsters and follow in the footsteps of those that had followed in Ray’s – people like Phil Tippet who had made the transition from stop-motion to CGI creatures or Randy Cook, who’d animated the Terror Dogs in Ghostbusters, a copy of which I’d attempted to sculpt aged 14.
Once again my artistic skills thwarted me, and I discovered I had a particular skill that everyone on the course needed, but nobody liked doing – texture painting – painting the digital surfaces and skin of CGI creatures. I graduated the course and landed a job at Framestore in London. They were the CGI company of the moment having just created the CGI dinosaurs for the Walking with Dinosaurs tv series. I was going to work on their next series Walking with Beasts, and also a one-off special, The Ballad of Big Al. Finally the 4 year old in me and the Ray Harryhausen fan was going to be involved in creating some dinosaurs! But this is as far as I got – designs for the textures of the Apatasaurus.
At the same time I’d also applied for and was offered a job at Weta Digital as a texture painter on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I left Framestore after only a few months and with much regret never having actually seen my dinosaur skin design through to the end, not realising that at Weta I would ultimately spend 3 years working on some of the most iconic monsters in film and literature – the Balrog, the Fellbeast, the Mumakil and Shelob.
One day at Weta Digital, one one of the company’s internal mailing lists, someone posted a comment about a film they’d recently seen, and how the animation in it was ‘bad, like Ray Harryhausen bad’. I immediately jumped to Ray’s defence via email, swiftly followed by Randy Cook, then head of animation on LoTR, and another Ray protege (and who’d also created the stop-motion animation on John Carpenter’s The Thing, one of my favourite horror movies, as well as the incredible forced perspective effects on the 1980′s The Gate). Between Randy and myself via email we publicly berated the poor artist on his lack of understanding about the history of visual effects and animation, who Ray was, and how films like Jurassic Park, Starship Troopers and Lord of the Rings would not exist if Ray’s films hadn’t come before them, and why some of the shots in the cowboys vs dinosaur roping scene in Valley of Gwangi still baffle even the most experienced visual effects artists to this day and why the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts, a sequence that today would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, require a small army of vfx artists backed up by a huge amount of computing power is still one of the greatest special effects scenes in cinema history, and all created by just one man:
The artist, duely educated and humbled, apologised.
Sometime during the making of Lord of the Rings, Ray Harryhausen came down to visit Weta and did a talk for the artists, curated by Randy Cook and Peter Jackson, and of course I was there. After the talk, a few people had books or DVD’s for Ray to sign. I produced the now 24 year old copy of my Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger poster-magazine, bought when I was a 10 year old. This is Ray about to sign it by using Randy Cook’s back as a rest, while Peter Jackson tries to get a look in.
I had the signed poster framed and it’s now one of my most treasured film memorabilia. It sits on the floor in my studio in Wellington to keep it out of the light. because I can’t hang it up on a wall as it’s already faded too much with age.
The second time I met Ray was in San Francisco in 2004, when I was working at Tippett Studio on the visual effects for Constantine. A new book had been published about Ray’s work, and Ray would be visiting and would be available to sign copies. There was some trepidation about his visit. Apparently he’d visited once before, and some of the artists again didn’t know or seem to care who Rat was, much to Phil Tippett’s annoyance. I seem to remember once again, some younger artists were left more than a little humbled and educated about who Ray was, and I got to meet Ray’s legacy, and I got my copy of his book signed.
The third time I met Ray was in 2012, at his home in London. I was with a talented writer, Iain, with whom I’d been helping develop a feature film project (unsurprisingly involving monsters), and we were to meet and have a breakfast meeting with an extremely famous American director, who may have made a film in London about an American werewolf. We’ll call this director John. The meeting didn’t exactly go to plan. Iain and I were underprepared, and John spotted the flaws in our project straight away. But he was a consumate gentleman, and offered to try and help us overcome a brick wall we were up against.
Then, as the meeting was drawing to a close John asked us out of the blue if we’d like to have tea with Ray Harryhausen this afternoon. John was going to see Ray, who lived quite close by and Ray liked visitors as he didn’t get out much as he wasn’t in the best of health. Iain and I jumped at the chance and we agreed to meet John back at the hotel after lunch. Then the doubt set in. Maybe we shouldn’t go. We didn’t know Ray, maybe we’d be intruding. But it’s Ray Harryhausen! Our idol. And what are the chances of us getting invited for tea with both Ray (and John!) again.
A few hours later we were back waiting in the hotel lobby. John appeared and promptly whisked us off to Fortnum & Mason where he bought cake for Ray. Ray loved cake said John. Then into a taxi heading off towards Kensington. Again, Iain and I exchanged glances. We doubled checked with John – are you sure it’s ok for us to come along? We don’t want to feel like we’re intruding. But John was adamant Ray would be happy for the company and always liked meeting people, especially genuine fans of his.
And so we found ourselves at Ray Harryhausen’s house, having tea and cake with a living legend and our inspiration since childhood – two living legends actually if you count John. We talked a little with Ray, but both of us were nervous, the way you are when you have a chance to have a chat with your hero over a cup of tea and have so many questions you’ve wanted to ask for a lifetime but can’t think of a single one there and then.
Ray (who had an incredibly wicked sense of humour) was surrounded by wonderful people looking after him, including a curator of all Ray’s work (Tony Dalton I think?), who had been slowly cataloging and archiving all of Rays drawings, moulds and models that Ray had kept in the house. It turns out Ray had kept everything. Tony had just found a box full of moulds hidden away. He brought one in for us to look at. It was the pristine mould of the 6 armed Kali puppet from the Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.
“Would you like to see Ray’s study and workshop?” asked Tony.
I didn’t realise Ray had worked from his house. I always assumed he’d worked out of a film studio for each film. We were shown up to the third floor, past beautiful bronze sculptures of Rays creatures and famous monster fight scenes from his films. Then into his office. In the center of the room were two large desks left as if he’d just left the room. Standing by a box of pens on one was a tiny clay sculpture of Bubo the owl from Clash of the Titans, sculpted and painted by a child fan and sent to Ray.
I’d seen some of Ray’s original stop motion models in various exhibitions over the years, but here, in glass cases were almost every creature from my childhood and on the walls beside them, Rays drawings, and storyboards and sketches and designs. Possibly the greatest treasure trove of fantasy film history on earth.
The one thing that stood out the most for me was the statue of Talos, the bronze statue from Jason and the Argonauts. And it was TINY. I still can’t work out how Ray managed to create such a sense of scale from that tiny puppet, that iconic moment when Talos comes to life and moves his head; and the filmmaker in me was frantically trying to work how what lenses he’d filmed it just to get it to work with the live action rear-projection background he’d animated to.
Then Tony asked Iain and I if we’d like to see Ray’s workshop. Iain an I looked at each other – there’s more!? A portion of a wall had no display cases on it and appeared wallpapered over, but it concealed a hidden door I hadn’t noticed. And behind that door was a tiny room complete with workbenches, where Ray had sculpted, moulded, cast and build all of his stop motion models. This tiny room was where the wonderful monsters of my childhood had been made.
Iain and I discussed whether we should take any photos of the study and workshop. We decided no. We were privileged to have seen this. It was just for us and not something we felt we needed to or even should share images of on facebook or elsewhere. We had another cup of tea with Ray, and John, and more cake, and then made our excuses and left, both completely overwhelmed by the experience.
It’s now 41 years on from that lecture on dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, and that 4 year old child grew up to have his dreams of working on special effects movies and helping to create dinosaurs and monsters come true, and all thanks to the inspiration of Ray Harryhausen and the foam rubber models he breathed life into. Peter Jackson said that Lord of the Rings was his Ray Harryhausen movie. As a filmmaker I’ve yet to make my own Ray Harryhausen movie, but I will.