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Piecing together the story of Ray Harryhausen

As a book of posters celebrating the work of movie animator Ray Harryhausen is about to be published, Dan Carrier talks to film-maker John Walsh about his hero... and friend

06 September, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Ray Harryhausen with the clockwork owl he created for Clash of the Titans, his final film

HIS work is the perfect, and fittingly eccentric, marriage between fine art and the B-movie, and his creations have haunted the dreams of generations of film-lovers.

Ray Harryhausen was the renowned creator of hits such as Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans and the Sinbad films – all featuring the exquisite, hand-made stop-motion animation that earned him the sobriquet of being the most creative all-round film technician and storyteller of his generation.

This weekend, a new book celebrating the poster art of Ray’s films is set to be released, along with a special screening of a newly digitised print of his First Men In The Moon at the Regent Street Cinema.

Film-maker John Walsh befriended Ray and has been a fan all his life. He recalls the impact of going to the cinema during school holidays and how theatres would put on Harryhausen films. “We’d have a choice of either some Disney number with dogs and cats playing pianos or something much more interesting,” says John.

With the advent of home video, he would record films such as One Million Years BC when they were on TV and watch them again and again.

Aged 18, John was at the London Film School and decided to would make a short about Ray and his work as an animator.

It was 1989, eight years after the success of Clash of the Titans, which was to be his last film.

“I got out a big old London phone directory and there was only one R Harryhausen listed,” he says. “I had to ask my parents if I could use the phone and they said after 6pm, when the charges were cheaper.

“He answered himself. I said hello, and then realised I had no idea what it was I wanted to ask him, but there he was on the other end and we started chatting.”

John arranged to visit Ray and he made the short film about his work. The pair became friends, keeping in touch over the years. “I’d send him transmission cards advertising films I had made, and then, on his 90th birthday, I went to an event at the BFI where the likes of John Landes and Peter Jackson came to pay homage to his work,” he adds.

After this landmark event, John became a trustee of The Ray Harryhausen Foundation – a body that seeks to catalogue, archive and promote his work – and saw Ray regularly. He created a new project to record Ray speaking about how he made his films. They started with Clash of the Titans and then worked backwards to Mighty Joe Young.

And Ray kept a detailed log of all his creative processes, forming an extraordinary archive of more than 50,000 items relating to a lifetime in film.

Ray Harryhausen with John Walsh

“He just never threw anything away,” says John. “And I mean everything. He was what we call today a hoarder, meaning we have a record of a vast body of work.

“He, of course, kept obvious pieces, the figures and models but then smaller pieces too, like paintbrushes he had used on particular jobs, eye balls that were never used in models, test Polaroids, and correspondence relating to films.”

It has given John a remarkable cache to draw on for a two-volume celebration of his work, the first of which is out next year. His first tome on Ray is called The Lost Films of Harryhausen – and draws on the immense number of reels and footage that was never released.

“For every film he made, there were three he didn’t,” he says.

“There are deleted scenes that never made it to the final version, there were the films he wanted to make and then the films he turned down,” says John. “He was so incredibly prolific.”

Ray’s work is unique for a number of reasons. While this includes his originality, his talent as a visual artist, as a storyteller and as a technical groundbreaker, it was also his role in how films were made.

“In film, the special effects team are seen as facilitators,” says John. “They are asked to come and fill in the gaps, help bring the director and the writer’s vision to life. But not so with Ray. He instigated the ideas, he knew what he wanted to animate. He was a producer, writer and director as well as the head of special effects. He was not a facilitator of other’s ideas: he mainly created his own films.”

Just as John was, Ray was inspired by the films he watched as a child. Aged 13, he saw the 1933 film King Kong, and told John “…it changed my life for ever”.

“He wanted to know how it was done. He knew it was not a real gorilla but he just wasn’t sure how they made it happen,” John adds. “He wanted to know the magician’s secrets. It took many years – he wrote to the film company, asked question after question, and eventually got to work with Merian C Cooper, the creator of King Kong.”

But it wasn’t just mechanical monsters he loved: he was interested in fine art, too. He was inspired by the work of the French artist, printmaker, illustrator and wood engraver Gustave Doré, and the American Charles R Knight, who painted depictions of dinosaurs from studying their bones.

Ray’s work has only gained more traction and currency in recent years, as new viewers are thrilled by his work and filmophiles who loved it when he was working continuing to celebrate his remarkable canon.

John has noted at screenings how older people come to watch films they have always enjoyed, and younger people, who see them for the first time, and are used to big-budget computer generated effects, are just as enthralled.

“I see youngsters hiding behind their hands as they watch,” he says. “And they are actually extremely violent – more violent than you might recall. You watch Medusa get her head cut off.”

First Men In The Moon is being screened at Regent Street Cinema at 3pm on Saturday, September 8. See regentstreetcinema.com
Ray Harryhausen – The Movie Posters. By Richard Holliss, £29.99 from Amazon.

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