Ray Harryhausen possessed one of the greatest imaginations of the 20th century - and he never lost it. His passion for his work radiated from the screen and that passion is probably also what kept him going into his nineties. Ray was a true artist. You don’t plug someone like him into a “visual effects industry” - he needs to show you his visions in a direct and unfettered form, like Doré or Goya. And his work affects your imagination in a manner more akin to painting than photorealism. Ray Harryhausen shows everyone who’s boss.
We were lucky enough to get to know Ray and help him complete an unfinished short film that he had been forced to abandon in the 1950’s – “The Story of the Tortoise & Hare." He had planned it to be the last in his series of Fairy Tale films, and it always bothered him that this final installment kept the series from being truly complete. We had no idea when we reached out to him about it that he would actually take us up on our offer to help get it finished – I guess you could say that the fates were smiling on us that day.
The first official day of production was when we met Ray at the home of his longtime friend, director Nathan Juran (7th Voyage of Sinbad, 20 Million Miles to Earth). Ray introduced us to Nathan, explaining the project and its history. Nathan chuckled and said “50 years, wow, that’s some production schedule!”
After a gentlemen’s agreement and a handshake, Ray walked us through his take on how to tell the story, using his original story sketches. He had even done a few new ones to fill gaps in the early concept. Then – a huge moment – he handed over the original puppets. The Tortoise, the Hare and the Fox. On the way back to our garage studio, we were beyond blown away. We felt so lucky to get to work with one of our heroes, but then it sunk in that we could somehow seriously mess this whole thing up… that was nerve-wracking.
Harryhausen’s style of animation is extremely unique, and our first order of business was to try to wrap our heads around his approach in an effort to make our shots cut in with his. Mimicking another animator’s style is like trying to copy someone’s signature perfectly… it’s really hard. Luckily, it seemed that Ray was getting a kick out of watching us go through all of this and approved of (almost all) of the shots. He hadn’t animated in almost 20 years, but we pleaded with him to contribute some new shots to the film. He was a little coy at first, but it didn’t take much to convince him. He was bitten by the bug again.
Preparing the set for Ray’s first day of animation was intimidating to say the least. But we just had to get over it. He had loaned us the original camera he had shot with all those years ago – a Kodak Cine Special – but it went kaput a couple days before Ray was to come animate and we had to scramble to get our 16mm Mitchell up and running. Lab glitches prevented us from seeing a proper test before setting Ray off to animate, which was maddening, but he didn’t seem to mind. All we could think was “what if we mess up Ray’s first animation in 20 years?”
Ray showed up early and chipper, looking eager to get his hands on the puppets again. This was great to behold. He went straight to the garage and said. “All right, let’s go. Do you have any cutter’s gloves? Surely you animate with gloves on don’t you?” Oh boy. “Uh, yes, of course…” Mark speeded around Burbank looking for white cotton gloves while Seamus distracted an increasingly impatient Ray by loading the camera with a fresh roll of 16mm film.
Getting the loop correctly set in the tiny workings of a 16mm Mitchell while Ray Harryhausen is looking over your shoulder is downright scary. But Mark arrived just as that was complete, and Ray stretched the gloves over his huge Kong-like hands… it seemed he was used to this… and got them into a comfortable spot rather quickly. Ray kicked us out of the garage and started animating.
Three hours later, Ray strutted out with a grin; “Done.” Eight seconds in three hours. To put things in perspective, it normally takes a stop motion animator about 8-10 hours to produce 6 seconds of animation. Harryhausen was a true powerhouse.
The next day, Ray arrived to review the footage… it could not have been more charming. Full of personality and whimsy. We were humbled and reminded of who the real master is. “Play it again,” Ray said with a huge, satisfied smile. We watched that clip together eight or nine times that morning. Thank goodness the camera worked… whew!
Over the next few months, Ray returned to animate several more shots (this time with custom-made gloves by Seamus’ wife Robin). It was gratifying and inspiring to see this artist at 81 years old, jumping back into his work and enjoying it the way he always had. We’ll never forget that.
When "The Tortoise and the Hare" premiered to a sold-out crowd at the Egyptian Theater later that year, Ray pulled us aside and commanded us not to reveal which were the new shots and which were old. He liked the keep the mystery of things. He suggested that if anyone asks, we quote one of his favorite actors, Oliver Hardy, in character: “I have nothing to say.”
This Friday, August 19th, join us for a pair of fantasy film favorites featuring Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion visual effects, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. We will also be doing a ticket giveaway for Guillermo del Toro's AT HOME WITH MONSTERS exhibition at LACMA.