[Interview conducted in 2003 for the publication of ‘Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life’ by Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton. Published by Aurum Press.]
How did this book come about?
“Well I started it after a Film Fantasy Scrapbook and then I found I was repeating myself in what I was saying, because I’m not a professional writer. I was talking one time to Tony Dalton, who had interviewed me for the British Film Institute at regional theatres, and he got interested and said he would like to work with me on it. So we worked together on it and this is the result. We worked on it for over five years.”
The drawings in the book are fantastic works of art. What was their practical purpose in terms of getting a film made?
“They were mainly to sell the idea because they’re visual. Our type of picture was a visual thing. A lot of times when you try to raise money, they don’t have an idea of what it’s going to look like when you just use words. I found that out from Willis O‘Brien. Obie used to make these wonderful drawings for ‘Mighty Joe Young’ and for ‘King Kong‘. He had a whole staff on ‘War Eagles’ just to make paintings and drawings. I had to be very careful that whatever drawing I made, I felt I could put it on the screen. A lot of people draw them up and then when you try to put them on the screen, it’s impossible.”
Did you ever say you could deliver something before you actually knew you could? The guys at Pixar [Toy Story, Finding Nemo] say that’s often been how they’ve worked.
“I tried to avoid that. I tried to prove myself. When I took on ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms‘, I used to make tests on 16mm, just to see if the theory I had in mind would be practical. I did it all on my own, nobody paid me for it, just to prove it to myself. Some people like to say things and then never prove that they can do it. I tried to establish in my mind that I could do it even before I opened my mouth.”
Your interest in stop-motion came about as a result of seeing King Kong in 1933. Why was that such a defining moment for you?
“That’s a very difficult thing to analyse. It’s just very peculiar to my mentality, I suppose. My parents, as I explain in the book, took me to see films like ‘The Lost World’ and ‘Metropolis‘, when I was four or five. Then, when I was 13, I saw ‘King Kong‘, and I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know anything about stop-motion at the time and it was so different from anything else I had seen. Max Steiner’s great, Wagnerian score, just struck something in me. Other people look upon it as a horror film, but to me it’s the most wonderful fantasy adventure. It’s Never Never Land.
“It’s not just the special effects that affected me, it’s the whole structure of the story. They take you from the Depression-era mundane world into the most outrageous fantasy that’s ever been put up on screen. I think that was a great accomplishment. Also, the script was so economical in live-action terms. Today they pad up the live-action and you say, ‘When am I going to see the monster?’ In ‘King Kong’ it was an integral part of the structure. “Unfortunately, Willis O’Brien [the pioneer of stop-motion in America and Harryhausen‘s mentor] doesn’t get much credit for the basis of the story. He made all his preparation for a film called ‘Creation’ before ‘Kong’ turned up, and when Merian C. Cooper took over RKO, he saw all the tests for ‘Creation’ and a lot of that was incorporated in ‘Kong‘, as well as parts of ‘The Lost World‘. But the minute O’Brien’s thing goes into the writer’s realm, the writer gets credit for it. I’ve had the same situation. I bring in many ideas for sequences, and then we have these ’sweat-box sessions’, as I describe in the book, and then, of course, the writer incorporates them in the script in a logical way so they become his concept. Where, actually, they’re mine or Mr Schneer’s [Charles Schneer, Harryhausen’s producing partner on films such as Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans] or somebody else‘s. I don’t mean that to say the writer is taking unfair advantage. It’s his idea to incorporate these ideas. But, as I say, a lot of ‘Kong’ came from Obie and ‘Creation'.”
It was not just the story that fascinated you, though, but the very process that created King Kong, wasn‘t it?
“It was fascinating. You knew it wasn’t real, yet you knew it wasn’t a man in a suit. You know, they had films like ‘Ingagi’ and ‘White Pongo’ in those days, with Charles Gemora in a gorilla suit -- which always looked like Charles Gemora in a gorilla suit! He claimed that he was part of King Kong but he wasn’t. It was all animated. He did do a thing that Sid Grauman financed afterwards that was made with puppets, so he was the gorilla in a puppet film. But it was never finished and it disappeared into infinity.”
Stop-motion takes a lot of patience.
“Oh, it takes enormous patience.”
Did that come naturally to you?
“No, I had to develop it. I was very impatient until I worked with George Pal on Puppetoons. I spent two years working in his process where he had 25 separate figures to make one step. That taught me patience. Another thing that taught me patience was I had painted a glass painting to shoot through for a test scene, and I lost my temper, threw the hammer on the floor and it bounced and went up through the glass and ruined three weeks' work. After that I vowed I would never again lose my temper.”
You worked with Willis O’Brien on the 1949 animated ape movie, ‘Mighty Joe Young‘. Was the prospect of working with him as daunting as it must have been thrilling?
“It was the highlight of my life to work with Merian Cooper and Willis O’Brien. Good Lord! Some people worship movie stars. I worshipped them.”
You did 85% of the animation on ‘Mighty Joe Young‘, I believe?
“Yes, I worked with Obie mounting his drawings and sharpening his pencils until production started. It was called off many times. And then a few weeks would go by and it was called on again, when they got new sources of finance. I was with him in the preparatory stages and then when animation started, I did 85% of the animation.”
What did you learn working with him?
“Naturally I saw ‘King Kong’ about 150 times. But working with him on the preparation of ‘Mighty Joe Young‘, I knew instinctively what would please him and what he liked, because during the mounting of his drawings and everything we would talk about script. He would go to the story conferences, I never went to them, with Ruth Rose [co-writer], Merian Cooper [co-director] and Ernest Schoedsack, and he would bring a drawing in and they would incorporate it into the script in a logical way. Sometimes he would come back and say, ’Oh, they didn’t like my idea’, and then later on it would turn up in the script. But such is life. “It wasn’t until many years later -- I was very modest in those days, I was even thinking of changing my name to a shorter name -- that I discovered modesty is a dirty word in Hollywood. If you don’t claim credit for your own work, someone else will.”
Mighty Joe Young was a hit, the special effects won an Oscar, and yet both you and O’Brien found yourselves out of work. Why?
“Well it wasn’t the blockbuster they had hoped, and it got the reputation of costing a lot of money. We were the only picture shooting at RKO when Howard Hughes took over, and they dumped all the overheads of the heads of each department on our budget. Our budget was about $1.5m and by the time the bookkeeping had finished, it was over $2m, and that frightened a lot of people in 1949. Nobody, after Obie, won the Academy Award for special effects. Nobody was knocking on his door. It was pathetic because he should have gotten something for ‘King Kong‘, because that was his greatest triumph.”
I find it incredible that you have never been nominated for an individual film.
“Never! No! I never submitted because I lived in Europe. But Columbia submitted many of our films and they were completely ignored. We submitted the skeleton sequence in Jason and the Argonauts, nothing like it had ever been put on the screen before, and today it is considered a class, but it was completely ignored.”
“I have no idea. That’s not for me to analyse.”
You eventually received a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1992. Do you feel like scratching out the Lifetime Achievement bit and adding the name of a particular film you think should have been given an Oscar?
“Well there were several things, like the swordfight with Kali in ‘The Golden Voyage of Sinbad‘. Nothing like that has ever been put on the screen. That was submitted and ignored. It was not even nominated. You see, nobody knew much about animation and there was nobody there to push it. If I had lived in Hollywood and been an aggressive person, I probably would have had a little more say. A friend of mine connected with the special effects division said when they ran the Kali sequence, even the bigwigs of the special effects department didn’t know how it was done. They thought it was a man in a suit. That alone I would have thought would have at least been nominated, because it was a complicated sequence to do. So was the Hydra sequence in Jason and the Argonauts. So was the skeleton sequence. That alone took four-and-a-half months to do."
Was the lack of recognition dispiriting?
“Well stop-motion was very little known and I don’t think they had a category for that, like today they have a category for animation. But there may have been another reason, I don’t like to dwell on it, but I did everything myself and sometimes if you have a department in a studio and you have 25-50 people working in it -- like they have 80 people doing computer animation now -- to have some little poop come along and make a film without all these people around, that may have been resented. I don’t know. I was grateful that I finally got recognised with a Lifetime Achievement Award. But I think Jason should have had some recognition and the Kali sequence in Golden Voyage should have been recognised. I think the roping sequence in Gwangi should also have been recognised but it wasn’t even submitted.”
Do you think that you might have sometimes been punished for other elements in the films?
“The fact that they were low budget could have something to do with it in the back of people’s minds. It does no good to analyse. Some critics were very unfair to us, I think. They used to condemn a lot of our actors in the early days because we never used stars. They used to say, ’It’s a pity Mr Harryhausen didn’t animate the actors,’ which was flattering to me but not to the picture or the actors. Torin Thatcher, in ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’, was a very experienced actor and he held the whole picture together really, as Sokurah. He was bigger than life as a magician and he knew just how far to go over the top. I think that helped the film enormously.”
I imagine if you’re playing against a creature you can’t see, but which you know is going to be fantastical, you have to be quite expert in judging how far to push your acting?
“That’s why I make these drawings. They’re published in the scripts so that the actors know what they’re looking at when all they’ll have to look at is a pole or a stuntman. That’s why I direct all the scenes myself that I’m involved in. Sometimes the director of the main part of the film resents that. One director tried to get me fired; he thought I had too much say.”
Was there often friction?
“There was often friction but we can’t help personality conflicts, that’s part of the business. I try not to take my head off and chomp on it. I’m very undemonstrative, shall we say. Sometimes I regret that. But then again, when I look back, I say, ’If I had been demonstrative, maybe I wouldn’t have made 16 feature films.’”
In the book you say that studios today wouldn’t tolerate a maverick who makes it up as he went along. Is that how you viewed yourself?
“No, no, one never does. You don’t call yourself that. That’s for other people. I just felt that’s what I had to do, that I had to be by myself. When we were on ‘Mighty Joe Young‘, there were about 40 people in the miniature department, and for a year we had four matte painters, and they cost a lot of money. Then, of course, we had four projectionists who would load the projector in the morning and sit and read the paper the rest of the day, while I was doing all the work. So I thought, ’This is ridiculous to pay for all this.’ Besides, I like being by myself because using the single figure technique that O’Brien developed with King Kong it requires enormous concentration requires enormous concentration to get a continuity and flow of action that will be pleasing on the screen. If someone asks you the time and you deviate from what you had in your mind when you’re animating, it can cause enormous problems. In computer animation you can go over it and go over it and refine it and refine it. It would take days but with this system, once something happened diabolically, seldom were you able to save the scene. You either used what you had and then put a close-up where the accident happened, or some other device.”
Of course this was all very expensive, and you quote a diary entry in your book where you say stop-motion would die if you couldn’t find a way to make it cheaper.
“Well it would have died. There were people in Europe like Yiri Trinka and Staravitch, who experimented around the same time as Obie did. I don’t know how big a crew they had, but they did have a crew, I think.”
A lot of your career seems to be have been about trying to keep stop-motion alive.
“I was trying to keep it alive, and I was looking for new avenues for stop-motion because it got too tied into monsters-on-the-loose. Ever since ‘Lost World’ and ‘King Kong‘, they ended up coming into a city and destroying it. I destroyed Washington, I destroyed Coney Island, I destroyed San Francisco, and even Rome. I made new ruins against the old ones. So it got rather repetitious. I was looking for a new avenue and I always wanted to animate a skeleton. I thought, ‘If James Bond or someone like that fought a skeleton, people would just laugh. But if a legendary figure like Sinbad, where you believe that in that period there was magic and all that sort of thing, they would take it seriously as a melodrama.’ So I started going through all the Sinbad stories and I concocted a 20-page outline, made eight big drawings, some of which are published in the book, and took them all around Hollywood. Nobody was interested. They said, ‘Costume pictures are dead’, because Howard Hughes had just made Son of Sinbad and it died at the box office.
“They made Arabian Nights tales with Sabu, but you never saw the creatures on screen. They would talk about them as though they were off-stage. You never saw the Cyclops and if you did, it was usually a Greek wrestler with an eye glued to the middle of his forehead. So I said, ‘We have got to approach these legendary characters like Sinbad in a way where we show the creatures, because they‘re the fascinating part of the stories.’ I‘m glad I stuck to my guns because finally when Charles Schneer and I were looking for a subject, I brought out my drawings and he fell in love with them and got Columbia to put up the money. But we had to do it on a very tight budget, which caused a lot of compromises. Originally I wanted to make it as lavish as the Korda Thief of Baghdad, but people just wouldn’t go for that type of budget. “The next step, of course, was Greek mythology. I remembered the Sand and Sandals Italian epics, where Steve Reeves and all the musclemen were involved. Then they had a flying horse with wings three-feet long on each side and you’re supposed to believe that that could lift a Hercules-looking man up into the air. So I thought there’s so many wonderful characters in Greek myhtology, like Cyclops and dragons, all these other creatures, and I approached it from that angle. Finally we made Jason and the Argonauts, which I think gave stop-motion a whole new venue to work in.”
Before all that, though, you had developed a cheaper method of stop-motion, which you would eventually call Dynamation. The first time you showed what could be done was on 1953’s 'The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms', wasn’t it?
“Yes, that’s where it first came into action but it wasn’t called Dynamation at that point. That was the preliminary test for trying to eliminate matte paintings because they cost so much. You have to have very talented artists to do that convincingly. I had to prove that you could make animation in a less expensive way than ‘Mighty Joe Young‘. But once you get trapped in low-budget pictures, the next producers says, ’Oh, we can’t afford that kind of money. You will have to make it for less.’ I was trapped in the low-budget film industry for quite a while. I think I learned more from doing it than if I had all the money in the world, because then you start to do experiments which are very costly. We couldn’t afford to do experiments. Practically everything you see in our films is 90-95% the first takes because we couldn’t afford the time involved to redo a scene unless it was diabolical. Some scenes I would like to do over and refine them, but it wasn’t on the cards. I’d like to do some of the harpy scenes over [in Jason and the Argonauts], and in Clash of the Titans I‘d like to do the scorpion scene again.”
With this new process, it was just you working alone?
“Yes, just me. Finally I had an electrician to be sure the lights were all burning. Because sometimes I would be concentrating and I wouldn’t notice a light burned out or something. I did all the camera work myself, lining it up, loading the projector -- it all worked automatically -- because I wanted this freedom to concentrate without having any distraction. I didn’t want anyone to sway me with ideas, where you have a whole bunch of people and somebody will say, ‘Don’t do it that way, do it this way.’ I did it the way it should be done. Well if you don’t like it, I’m a failure. But if you like it, I’m a success.”
What set your system apart from the one that Willis O’Brien was using?
“There was a split screen technique I developed where you project an image of a live-action set, say a street in New York, on a screen about four-feet wide, and then put a model on a table and split the screen with a matte between the photograph and the model, and photograph one of half of the picture with the model in the picture, animate it frame by frame, cover that part up and expose the other part to hide the animation table. An example is the church scene in ‘The Valley of Gwangi’ where we used a real church and then through a matting process I devised, we were able to give the illusion that Gwangi is inside.
“Willis O’Brien used many glass paintings and they’re expensive. We had a crew of about 47 people throughout the animation period on ‘Mighty Joe Young‘, and that lasted almost a year. These type of films, fantasy films particularly, were kind of dicey so they didn’t want to spend very much money. I had to concoct a way of putting these creatures into contemporary settings without the high cost of making miniatures and painting glass. So that was the first experiment, ‘The Beast from 20,00 Fathoms‘, of what we later called Dynamation.”
You say in the book that the skeletons in the original story of Jason are rotting corpses and that if you were making the film today, that’s what audiences would expect.
“Oh they would. Everybody is looking in the gutter today. Things we threw out in the 50s and 60s, and the great Golden Age of Hollywood, as bad taste, things people wouldn’t go for, all of a sudden are the norm today. You know, I just read an article in this morning’s paper that said a lot of people are going to see a particular film now just because it’s nasty. Now why do we want to go and see nasty things? At one time I wanted to do Dante’s Inferno, because Gustav Dore’s illustrations were fascinating to me. He was one of my mentor’s, too. But when I started analysing Dante’s Inferno, I said, ‘Who’s going to sit through an hour-and-a-half of tormented souls?’ Today, you sit through three hours of the most ghastly tormented souls. So I was obviously wrong. People today, or at least the people that make the films, think that’s what the public want.”
Does it depress you?
“It’s frightening. That’s why people like Tarantino are popular. I haven’t seen those type of pictures but from what I have read of them, they’re all based on the negative, you know? Why do you want to pay five or 10 pounds to go to a cinema and be depressed and hate your fellow man when you come out?”
Your films, of course take place in the realm of fantasy and you have always had a soft spot for dinosaurs. Why?
“I think because they are of a fantasy and they’re bizarre. The fact that they did live and no longer live, I think, puts them in the realm of fantasy.”
You call your creations creatures not monsters, and you have talked about dignifying them with human emotions.
“Yes, like the Ymir in ‘20 Million Miles to Earth'. He went through a metamorphosis of different appearances before I arrived at his final torso. I felt the humanoid form was best because the audience could then identify with certain little gestures.”
Do you think calling them monsters belittles them, because it suggests something one-dimensional?
“It is. They’re not monsters, they’re misunderstood creatures. The Ymir, in ‘20 Million Miles to Earth’ came down from Venus and he looked different. I mean look at how we frown upon a spider or a poisonous snake. The first instinct is to kill it, you know? These are shapes that we’re not aware of and some are very disturbing. I wouldn’t like to handle a tarantula, right? But this media, as I say, Willis O’Brien developed for the dinosaur period, where you restored creatures that you couldn’t photograph today. CGI has done a wonderful job. But the realism, if you get too real in fantasy, I think you lose the fantasy. You make it mundane.”
I read that if ‘King Kong had been made with CGI you probably would have done something else.
“That’s true. I probably would. But if anybody’s going to remake it, if it has to be remade, I think Peter Jackson can do the best job. He loves the original and I think he will be more sympathetic to the whole concept of the original than Dino De Laurentis was, who only was looking at it from the point of view of box office. I’ve talked to Peter about it, and I’ve seen some of his illustrations and his dinosaurs. He kindly flew my wife and I down to New Zealand, and we had a wonderful 10 days there. He started to plan ‘Kong’ years ago and he showed us some of the dinosaurs and Kong, just the skeleton of it. But I think if anyone’s going to redo it I think it’s best he does it, because he loves the subject. Dino De Laurentis, all he saw was a smart-ass girl making remarks at a gorilla. The fantasy aspect, the dinosaurs and the mystery of the island, was completely discarded.
“The original ‘King Kong‘, I think, will always be an original, no matter how many remakes there are or how good they are. I used to say, sometimes, ‘If Dino De Laurentis’s ‘Kong’ had come out in 1933, I probably would have become a plumber’. Not that the special effects were bad but the whole concept of the picture had no relation to the original concept.”
You actually considered remaking ‘King Kong’ at some point, didn‘t you?
“I was with Hammer and after ‘One Million Years B.C.’ they tried to get the rights and they couldn’t. I think it was a blessing because they wouldn’t have put the money and the thought into it that Peter Jackson is. They would look upon it more as a commercial project rather than a love project.”
Jackson will probably use CGI to create King Kong. You have said before that you don’t think something like the skeleton sequence could be equalled in the new medium.
“Well, they’ve tried it. In The Mummy there was a skeleton. But I think, unfortunately, today, everybody’s jaded because of television. When I was growing up, we used to look eagerly to Saturday night when you could go see the latest film. Films were important to our life then. Today there’s so many on the market, any Tom, Dick and Harry can call themselves a director and make a film. I find today’s filmmaking very confusing because they don’t have a continuity to the story. They think telling a story is old-fashioned, which is a load of rubbish. Everything has to be a short cut because the attention span of young people is limited, due to commercials. And you see the most amazing things on television in a 30-second commercial. So the amazing image on the screen is no longer unique. It’s been made mundane by over exposure.”I was impressed by Jurassic Park, which I thought used CGI in an amazing way.
“Jurassic Park was very impressive. I found the animals very believable and so realistic, and they could do moving shots that we couldn’t do in stop-motion. There are some rare occasions where it’s very impressive. But it’s not the type of film we made. Our creatures were characters in the script. For example, you take the puppet films like Chicken Run, they’re obviously a puppets because they look wooden, although they’re beautifully done and they move remarkably well. They pay attention to story which is good. But a puppet film is distinctly different to what we were doing. Charles Schneer and I made this series of fantasy films where the animation was part of the character rather than obvious animated characters. Some people even believe the baboon in ‘The Golden Voyage of Sinbad’ was a real baboon. You can’t train a baboon. So I’m very flattered.”
There‘s actually a fantasy element inherent in stop-motion itself, it seems to me, because the effect it produces is of something that is almost but not quite real.
“Yes, it’s like a dream. And stop-motion adds to that strange quality that is like walking on a tightrope. That’s what fascinated me about ‘Kong‘, but I didn’t know how it was done then. Today, they expose all the special effects before the film comes out. That’s why I used to be called precious about keeping everything a secret. My philosophy at that time was that if a magician tells you how he pulls a rabbit out of a hat, you’re no longer interested in his trick.”
Is that why you have done the book now? Now that CGI has superseded stop-motion, did you feel that it was time to expose the tricks of your trade?
“Yeah, because everybody else has exposed everything. For a good many years I kept it as secret as possible. That was half the charm of ‘Kong’ at the time. Nobody knew how it was done and there were misleading articles in magazines; it was Charles Gamora in a suit; it was a big mechanical gorilla that was operated with an organ in Popular Mechanics. Today, Cinefex and Cinefantastique all expose the tricks. Now they’re putting out these books on special effects which, I think, to the average person it’s like a magician betraying his secrets. Because it’s not a question of secrecy so much as a question of wanting you to get in the spirit of what you’re looking at on the screen.”
To me it always seems as if your effects have a physical presence that's often absent from a lot of CGI work.
“Possibly, because it’s now a group effort rather than a single effort. I think Willis O’Brien put love in his Kong just as I tried to put love in my creatures. Putting yourself into the model.”
Looking back, do you have any regrets about having cut yourself off from people so much to make these films?
“You can’t have regrets, really. At the time you do it the way you think it should be done and that’s it. Maybe I did it wrongly. I could have established a company, like Rick Baker and Phil Tippett, and had people do it, but I didn’t want to be an administrator."
Nick Park, the creator of ‘Wallace and Gromit’ and ‘Chicken Run’, has said that animators need to be obsessive. Is this true?
“You have to want to do it more than anything else in the world. It’s painful sometimes if you can’t do it, so you have to be a bit of a fanatic, I think, to see these things through. You’re stopping your mentality down from a flow into a single frame, and that’s not easy for some people. Jim Cameron said he tried animation and he found it tedious. I never found it tedious for some reason that’s quite peculiar to me.”
Indeed, it seems from early on you were temperamentally suited to working on your own, because you say in the book you couldn’t have worked for Disney.
“That‘s right. I applied for a job with Disney in the Fifties and I got refused. That’s the best thing that happened to me because I would have been a cog in a wheel. Although I admire Disney’s work and I’m not condemning that technique of having a mass of people doing it. That was one of the advantages of the animated cartoon, why it grew. Stop-motion came in about the same time as the animated cartoon, but the animated cartoon could be industrialised. It wasn’t until Industrial Light & Magic [ILM] took over the special effects for Star Wars that they were able to industrialise it by having departments like they have in the animated cartoons. Because they have to get it out! I admire that but it didn’t seem to be the path I wanted to follow.”
You were an only child. Were you quite solitary and do you think this made it easier for you to work alone?
“I was, yes. I was very introverted and I still am, I suppose. I can’t help it, it’s the way I was born. I’m sure it helped because it caused me to concentrate on the thing I loved to do. And I have been very fortunate over the years to be able to do what I wanted to do when I was very young without too much interference. Of course, I did have quite a lot of restrictions with the type of budgets we had, but I tried to overcome that some way.”
What’s been the primary joy of it for you? Has it just been bringing to life things which are in your imagination?
“Half the charm I find is on the Moviola when you get the rushes back the next day and see if you captured what you had in your mind. That lasted me for a good many years.”
Have you also been driven by the desire to give people the same feeling you had when you saw ‘Kong‘ for the first time?
“Not consciously, although probably I was, yes. Nothing like it had been seen and it haunted me for years.”
Talking about ILM and Star Wars, the latter came out the same year as Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. When you saw Star Wars, did you realise then that the era of stop-motion had perhaps passed?
“I never thought in those terms. People looking at it might have done. I just wanted to make the next picture. But finally, after ‘Clash of the Titans’, I felt I had had enough of being in a dark room while other people on the production went out and made two or three pictures while I was still on one.”
You have also said that it was becoming more difficult to work on your own.
"Well, it became more difficult, let us put it that way. I could have probably, but it became more difficult.”
Do you see a continuation between what you were doing and what is being done today? I mean there’s an obvious continuation from O’Brien to you.
“It’s like a snowball. I was impressed by Obie’s work and people now seem to be impressed by my work. People are impressed by CGI, so who knows what’s next? Maybe holograms, I don’t know. It’s hard to predict what the future is. If I was in a mind to predict at the time I made ‘7th Voyage‘, I would probably have been a millionaire if I had kept certain things back, but in those conditions it wasn’t possible. You had to turn everything over to the studio to get the picture made. My interest was to get the picture made rather than great financial rewards. Today, people get fantastic salaries just for doing the basket work or making a head or something. That’s why pictures are costing millions. ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms‘, the whole picture only cost $200, 000, including the special effects. You can’t buy a costume for that today. You start talking about $100 million on a picture.”
Do you see your influence at work today?
“Well it’s not for me to see my influence. Other people see it, I don’t claim that. I’m glad I did what I did, because no one else was doing it. Like I was influenced by O’Brien, young people come to me and say, ’You made my childhood,’ you know? When I go to sign these books and stills at various conventions, you have a family of three generations come up and say, 'My father saw your films and he taught me to see them, and I’m teaching my child’. I feel like Methusala. I think that’s a blessing that Charles and I have left something positive, because today some of the films leave such a negative effect it’s frightening. And they wonder why little five-year-olds get their father’s gun and shoot a fellow student. Television and films are praising violence and the negative. Hollywood got condemned for making happy endings, but, you know, when you go to a cinema you want to come out feeling happy, not watch somebody in the process of dying.”
Are there any projects you regret not making?
“I’d have loved to make more Greek mythology, and Dante’s Inferno, and Ilya Mourometz, a Russian fairy tale, but it probably would be too expensive to make.”
Two animators, Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh, recently completed an 11-minute animated version of Aesop's ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ begun by you in 1952. How did this come about?
“I had done three or four minutes of animation on it and then given it up, but I still had them and that’s still in the picture. So Mark and Seamus studied my technique in my previous fairy tale films and wrote me and said, ’We’d love to finish it for you. We won’t charge you anything.’ I said, ’Oh my God’, because I thought it would never be finished. So after a previous offer to complete it fell through, I felt that they could do it, and they did a wonderful job.”
How did the collaboration work?
“Mostly by fax and phone. I couldn’t find the final script, it had been lost, so I had to re-write the whole story, and I faxed it to them. Occasionally, when I went over to America, I would drop in and we would have personal contact. They did it in their spare time. It was done over a long period.”
You did some animation on it, didn’t you?
“I did. When I got trapped there they said, ’Come on, do a scene for us.’ I did it but I don’t want to get hooked again.”
How did it feel?
"I don’t want to get hooked again.”
© Stephen Applebaum, 2006