Supernal Dreams: Ray Harryhausen on Willis O’Brien and “A Century of Stop Motion Animation”

If you asked me what I thought Ray’s greatest achievement was, I’d say that in my mind it has been his whole life, his entire career. He is the finest animator that ever existed.

—Ray Bradbury


Ray Harryhausen’s latest book, A Century of Stop Motion Animation (Watson–Guptill) arrived in bookstores last November without much fanfare; Harryhausen did not make a trip from London to promote it stateside, as he had for his previous two volumes. But placed alongside An Animated Life and The Art of Ray Harryhausen, the current book completes a trilogy of essential reading for anyone with the slightest interest in Harryhausen’s work or stop-motion animation. In fact, taken together, the three books beautifully compliment each other; there is very little duplication among them, so with the three volumes you get a wonderful wealth of pictures and information on virtually every aspect of Harryhausen’s films. As Harryhausen frequently replied when asked questions while promoting An Animated Life in 2004, “It’s all in the book!”

This newest volume is once again beautifully designed (by Ashley Western), with many rare drawings, diagrams, models, posters and production photos taken from the vast archive of material Harryhausen began accumulating in 1933, after seeing King Kong for the first time.

Given Harryhausen’s preeminence in the field, he is ideally suited for writing a history of stop-motion: after meeting Willis O’Brien in 1939 he has known virtually every prominent practitioner of the craft. Tony Walton actually narrates the history in this volume, but Ray’s knowledge of the craft is clearly at the heart of the story.

As an admirer and friend of Willis O’Brien, Harryhausen devotes almost one-fourth of the book to his mentor (60 out of 240 pages). The chapter on O’Brien, entitled “Visionary and Star Maker,” is nothing less than spectacular. Gorgeous shots from The Lost World, King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, The Animal World and The Black Scorpion are featured alongside rare O’Brien artwork for his many unrealized projects, such as Creation, War Eagles, Gwangi and King Kong vs. Frankenstein.

The first chapter outlines all the basic techniques involved in stop motion, with illustrations featuring models of creatures taken mostly from Ray’s own films. This is followed by a fascinating history of early stop motion efforts, from 1897 to 1930, providing valuable background on the now mostly forgotten pioneers of the art.

A chapter on contemporaries of O’Brien and Harryhausen features George Pal, Jim Danforth, Jiri Trnka, Karel Zeman, and several European animators with whose work I suspect many people will be quite unfamiliar.

There is also an invaluable chapter in which Harryhausen discusses in some detail his creative approach toward animating his creatures, from his beloved dinosaurs to the skeletons and Medusa.

Rounding out the book is a chapter on the Cascade Pictures generation of animators, including David Allen, Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren, Doug Beswick and Randy Cook, followed by a closing chapter devoted to the work of the newest group of animators employed by Tim Burton and Aardman Animation.

To call it the best book written on the subject is really an understatement, since as Ray points out in his forward, there really has not been a history of the art and craft of stop-motion before this. This is why it is such a joy that the first comprehensive volume on the subject has been written authored by the world-renowned maestro of the art!

To celebrate, here is Part IV of my interview with Ray Harryhausen, wherein he talks about the work of his mentor, Willis H. O’ Brien.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did your first meeting with Willis O’Brien come about?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I first learned about Willis O’Brien from an exhibit at the Los Angeles natural history museum. They had several of his miniatures on display in the basement. Then while I was still in high school, one day during study period I looked over at a girl who had this big book with all these wonderful illustrations from King Kong in it and I almost flipped. I went over to her and introduced myself and told her about my desire to do animation and she said her father had worked with Willis O’Brien on The Last Days of Pompeii. She told me that O’Brien was now working at MGM on War Eagles and that I should call him up there. So the next day I called him at MGM and he kindly invited me down to the studio. When I got there I was in complete awe at all the pre-production drawings that were covering every inch of the walls. They showed all these giant eagles, who at the climax of the picture were seen perched atop the Statue of Liberty! So after that meeting I kept in touch with O’Brien, and he encouraged me and became my mentor. I learned many things from Obie.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: You devote a whole chapter in A Century of Stop Motion Animation to Willis O’Brien, who began his career right here in San Francisco.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, Obie did some of his first animation on the roof of the old Bank of America building here, using two clay figures. He started out way back in 1914, or even before that in some of his early experiments, but he was from Oakland and worked as a sculptor for the San Francisco World’s fair in 1915. Then he worked for the Edison Company and tried many different things. When he was very young he ran away from home and became a cowboy, then a sports cartoonist for a San Francisco newspaper. He loved boxing and wrestling, so when we were preparing Mighty Joe Young, we used to go to quite a few boxing matches, because there was a time when we thought we’d have two Gorillas let loose in San Francisco beating the heck out of each other on top of a cable car that had broken loose and was going down a hill. Obie made several big drawings of that sequence, because he loved San Francisco, but unfortunately that was discarded in favor of the burning of the orphanage.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Weren’t both your mother and your grandfather originally from San Francisco as well?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, my Grandfather first came to San Francisco in 1850, and he was a gold miner, who moved to Nevada City where my father was born. But my mother grew up in San Francisco.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: In the book you also talk about the many projects Willis O’Brien planned that never materialized.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, a lot of pictures he planned folded under him because of budgets and things like that. War Eagles collapsed at MGM when Merian Cooper was called into the Army to join the Flying Tigers. While Obie was at MGM he also had some ideas for the Marx Brothers. He wanted to have these three big Pelicans carry the Marx Brothers in their sacks and have them crash land on an island in the Pacific. He made many drawings for that, but I don’t know what happened to them. Then Obie had Gwangi set up at RKO, until it was canceled and replaced with Little Orphan Annie. He had a lot of personal tragedy in his life, as well.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: When you were making Clash of the Titans at MGM, did you attempt to locate any of the War Eagles drawings from the MGM archives?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, because Obie had done many drawings for the project and way back in 1939 when I first went to see Obie at MGM, I saw three rooms where every inch of wall space was covered with all these drawings and beautiful paintings. Only a few of them seemed to have survived. I think they must have chucked them all into the furnace. Miklos Rozsa told me that all the scores he wrote at MGM ended up being tossed into the furnace, so I don’t think many of those drawings exist anymore.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Or else they may have sold them off in the ’70s, when MGM auctioned off all their props and got out of film distribution.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I did hear a story later on about some of the drawings being sold on Hollywood Boulevard, but I never saw any of them. Charles [Schneer] and I had even considered doing War Eagles right after we finished Clash of the Titians. Charles had gotten the original scripts that were written by Cyril Hume out of the MGM library, but nobody at the studio seemed to be interested in making it.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: After working with Willis O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young in 1949 did you hope to continue collaborating with him on his future projects?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN:
Yes, because initially Merian Cooper was going to produce H. G. Wells The Food of the Gods, but that was dropped, and I think Cooper also had in mind Mighty Joe Young Meets Tarzan, because we had made Mighty Joe Young at the old Selznick studio, and at the time Sol Lesser was making the Tarzan pictures there. Then Obie had a story idea he had sold to Jesse L. Lasky, The Valley of the Mist. But we were unfortunate, because we got caught in a change of management at RKO and all the overhead of the studio got dumped onto our picture. It made Mighty Joe Young appear to be far more costly than it actually was. So nobody wanted to touch animation. Obie’s technique also involved using these large glass paintings about ten feet wide and he painted all the scenery on the glass so you could get this wonderful jungle, like you saw in King Kong. But that was a very costly process because of all the time it took to paint the scenery. You had to have a staff of two or three very good artists to make a painting of a tree, actually look like a tree. It was just too costly.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: In your Film Fantasy Scrapbook, you mention that O’Brien’s story idea for Valley of the Mist somehow won an Academy Award.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, there was a big problem with that, involving lawsuits and everything else. I don’t know all the details, because I heard the story second-hand, but Obie had originally prepared a story about a boy, a bull and a dinosaur. The story ended up in a bullring with the boy’s pet bull fighting an allosaurus. Obie had made a thick book of production illustrations that was very impressive and Jesse L. Lasky was going to produce it for Paramount. Jesse Lasky, Jr. who had written The Ten Commandments for Cecil B. DeMille was writing the final screenplay based on Obie’s outline, but once again it was one of those projects that never matured. Somehow it went through various hands, and I think it came back to O’Brien and he sold it to Eddie Nassour and then it went somewhere else. There were all sorts of problems with the rights to it, until eventually they took the dinosaur out of it and made it as a separate picture in 1956, called The Brave One.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: And the story credit for The Brave One was given to “Robert Rich” who was actually Dalton Trumbo hiding under a pseudonym, because at the time he was blacklisted for supposedly being a communist.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, so nobody knew who the author was. There was a lot of talk, then a lawsuit with the Nassour brothers, who made The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956), which was a sort of modification of Obie’s story.

A gorilla versus a dinosaur

LAWRENCE FRENCH: None of O’Brien’s films dealt with mythological subjects, did they?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: No, most of his animation dealt with either a gorilla or dinosaurs. He made that wonderful silent version of The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, with Wallace Beery and Bessie Love that had many dinosaurs, I think 25 dinosaurs. He had always been associated with the prehistoric world, which is wonderful. It’s earlier mythology than Greek mythology.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: In The Art of Ray Harryhausen you talk about how Gustave Doré was your inspiration for much of the pre-production artwork you and Willis O’Brien drew.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, in fact I very rarely did any drawings in color, because Gustave Doré’s black and white engravings had always excited me. I thought he had a wonderful theatrical style, and many art directors copied Doré in the silent period, as did Cecil B. DeMille for many of his silent biblical pictures. But I originally started out making continuity sketches by doing something I got from Obie. He used to take pieces of photographic paper that hadn’t been developed and sketch out a basic idea and then wipe the back of them with powdered charcoal and pick out the highlights with an eraser. Then he’d sketch in the outlines with a dark pencil. Later on, I began doing these big drawings in black and white, based on Gustave Doré’s technique. His drawings were perfectly set-up, with a dark foreground, a medium middle ground, and a hazy light background, so you got a wonderful sense of depth. In fact I’ve always wanted to do Dante’s Inferno, because of Gustave Doré. He had done the first illustrated book of Dante’s Inferno—“A Trip Through Hell”. I felt that would look terrific in animation, but when I got deeper into it, I thought, “Will people be able to sit through an hour and half of tormented souls writhing in Hell?” Although these days they sit through over two hours of tormented souls!

About the Author

Lawrence French

LAWRENCE FRENCH celebrated his 20th anniversary as a contributor to Cinefantastique Magazine with his cover story on the making of THE RETURN OF THE KING. As Cinefantastique’s longtime San Francisco correspondent, he has written numerous stories about Pixar and Lucasfilm, and interviewed such genre stalwarts as Vincent Price, Tim Burton, Ray Harryhausen, John Lasseter, Phil Tippett and Ray Bradbury. He is also the editor of the highly regarded website on Orson Welles, Wellesnet.com. His book as editor of Richard Matheson’s Edgar Allan Poe scripts for THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM was published by Gauntlet Press in 2007, with a second volume on TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN due out in the future. For Cinefantastique Online, he currently writes the regular column Supernal Dreams.

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