Ray Away Day
I can’t name everybody in this snap, but Ray is the very tall one at the back… also the one sitting down in front. John Landis, who did a fine job as MC, deploying every fibre of his weapons-grade affability, is at far left. Our esteemed host, Randy Cook, is behind the man in the green jacket (who is a big famous FX guy also). Peter Jackson, who jetted over specially, is behind Ray. Ray’s daughter is at far right, and beyond her are some very important people indeed but they’re not in the photograph.
So — through circumstances I would have to call miraculous, Fiona and I got to be guests of Randall William Cook, a special effects man and friend of Ray Harryhausen, at the event honouring Mr. H. upon the successful completion of his ninetieth year. I’ve been meaning to interview Randy, a regular Shadowplayer, for some time. I’d read his amazing CV on the IMDb, but hadn’t quite processed how significant his work has been. Where it lists him as visual effects supervisor on the LORD OF THE RINGS films, I’d thought “Wow. Still, I bet they have about eighteen of those.” But Randy was in charge of all the animation, including Fiona’s hero Gollum and her brother’s favourite the giant spider. I am impressed.
I saw two movies at the Film Fest on Friday, THE SQUEEZE (seventies retrospective) and RESTREPO (modern documentary about Afghan war) then hit the sack. We got up at four, made it to the airport by taxi and bus, and then found our flight delayed. This was kind of OK because it meant less hanging around London in the very early hours with nothing to do. We flew in on one of British Airways trained pteradons (“So old it’s new” goes the slogan) and shopped and rested until the big evening. Meeting Randy we then attempted to navigate the concrete labyrinth of the BFI Southbank, an Escher-like structure that seems to fold back on itself. Randy had unfortunately sprained his throat on some whisky the night before and was nursing an Ymir-sized uvula, but his good spirits never flagged. He was yanked away to prepare for the ceremony and we ate.
Taking our seats, we found ourselves behind the geniuses of Aardman Animation and next to Simon Pegg and Reece Shearsmith. It was fun listening to them go through their programme like little kids. When we weren’t doing the same.
What a fine show it was. Ray, expecting a typical Q&A, was surprised to be greeted by celebrity guests and video tributes from the likes of Frank Darabont, Guillermo Del Toro, John Lassiter, James Cameron… Steven Spielberg did his usual extemporaneous gibberish thing, something about a superhighway made of dirt… but the affection and enthusiasm were absolutely genuine. George Lucas made some remark about “the Melies brothers” which suggests he should brush up on his film history… but all these guys were certainly dedicated students of Harryhausen’s oeuvre. I can quibble with the phrasing, but both Spielberg and Lucas latched onto the idea that Ray’s work is part of a continuum stretching back to the origins of cinema, with his own work for Willis O’Brien on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG forging a crucial link with the past. O’Brien started in 1915 and Harryhausen has carried on his legacy and inspired this amazing roomful of people.
The most moving testimony came from Ray’s contemporary and namesake, Ray Bradbury, who spoke of their love and friendship which has endured since early youth. Boldly he urged Harryhausen on to age 100, with himself, slightly younger, following close behind. Nonagenarian artists are subject to the same rules and conditions as the rest of humanity — it’s only via they’re work, if beautiful enough, that they get a free pass to immortality — but I hope they both go on forever.
In person, the animators and effects guys made the best showing. Phil Tippett led the audience in a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday, then repeated the song in a short film in which one of “It’s” six tentacles crushed him to jelly before he could finish a verse. And there was much rejoicing. Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh, who completed Ray’s THE STORY OF “THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE” were there also, sworn to secrecy about which 8 seconds Ray contributed. Rick Baker, his impressive silver ponytail resembling more and more the tail of Pegasus, joined his buddy Landis on stage to pay tribute to the monster master who inspired them both.
The acting community showed their affection via Caroline Munro, still fabulously glamorous, and Gary Raymond and John Cairney spoke with moving nostalgia and affection of being chased across a golden beach by an invisible giant bronze statue. Cairney, a native of Glasgow, was the man I had to speak to afterwards. We formed a nice little Scottish enclave, myself, Fiona, John, and Ray’s son-in-law who hails from Killiekrankie and wore his kilt (a good fashion option in the sweltering heat of the concrete shoebox that is the NFT’s green room.
Reading Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, it was interesting to hear him acknowledge the influence of the Korda THIEF OF BAGDAD. It struck me for the first time that not only did Ray deploy a Pegasus and a Kali statue that comes to life in his work, but that Talos, who squashes John Cairney under his big bronze body in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, is following in the outsized footsteps of Rex Ingram as the Genie of the Lamp. Cinema really is a continuum… everybody who participates is part of it… it’s just that if you’re a tireless genius who reaches the age of ninety and inspires several generations of artists, you stake out a somewhat larger part of it than the rest of us.
Catchphrase of the evening: “We are all the children of the hydra’s teeth!”
Peter Jackson jetted in to pay homage, and screened his own childhood attempts at Harryhausen magic. His stop-motion cyclops didn’t quite measure up to the master’s, but was screened in all humility and humour. His skeleton fight got the best laughs of the evening. “I knew you were supposed to put the skeletons in afterwards, so I filmed myself fighting… but then I couldn’t figure out how to do that. So I’m fighting an invisible skeleton.”
Insights into the Harryhausen process were fascinating and funny. The image of Ray running about with a drawing of an eye on the end of a very long stick, to give the actors something to look at, is an indelible one. It’s something I would like to try myself, in private life. With or without the excuse of making a film.
We also picked up a booklet featuring tributes to Ray from sundry other parties, including actors Martine Beswick (ONE MILLION YEARS BC), Douglas Wilmer (JASON and GOLDEN VOYAGE) and Honor Blackman (JASON). Here’s what the relentlessly sexy Honor says:
“I think of Ray more as a magician than as a man of immense imagination and a brilliant technician. There we were, we thespians, acting our socks off in the ordinary world while he was holed up in his studio of magic, weaving his spells, hoping that we were all doing him justice.
I couldn’t possibly have imagined that forty-odd years later this classic, Jason and the Argonauts, would be enthralling not just youngsters but all ages, generation after generation. It was such a bang watching my very small grandchildren glued to the screen and sudden cries of ‘There’s Nonna’! Then they turn to look at you and can’t quite work it out. To be truthful, I think they recognise my voice rather than my person since (this is tongue in cheek) I don’t wear my hair like that now!
The location in Italy was great, as was dear Don Chaffey, our director, and I really fancied the idea of sitting up on high with Niall MacGinnis controlling the events on earth: my children tell me it was the role I was best suited to!
To have my bust sculpted (I use the term in the artistic sense) for the figurehead on the prow of the ship, the Argo, I was laid on a table in just my bra – above the waist – told to throw my arms backwards and raise my front off the table as far as I could while they took photos from all angles. It took ages. I wonder what happened to those photographs? Do you think they’ll turn up on eBay one day or might we find them in that wicked Ray Harryhausen’s bottom drawer?”
Well, we did learn from Ray’s daughter that he never throws anything away…
Also in attendance: Terry Gilliam, Andy Serkis, Edgar Wright, modelmakers, animators, paleontologists, deep thinkers and Sir Christopher Professor Frayling himself. And a host of others. “Obie” O’Brien, safely nestled in Kong’s palm, looked down from on high.
My own primal Harryhausen memories relate to TV viewings of JASON and 7TH VOYAGE. The TV show Screen Test used to show the Talos scene quite often, or else it would turn up elsewhere. At any rate, I remember tiny me hiding from the big monster on numerous occasions. Gradually working up the courage to watch a little more each time… Randy reports his own tiny daughter approaches monsters and scary stuff with similar caution. You want to build up a tolerance gradually… And once I channel-hopped between VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (a boring, non-Harryhausen movie) and 7TH VOYAGE, because stuff like the cyclops was just too scary for me. In fact, it took a lot of courage to get close enough to the TV, in those pre-remote-control, black-and-white set days, to actually turn the channel and get the giant goat-legged man-eater out of the room.
Later, I saw SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER on the big screen, where it blew away upstarts like THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT and AT THE EARTH’S CORE and all those Godzilla double-features we cheered through as kids. (Ray not only provided the spark for Godzilla himself, with THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, an atomically-activated dinosaur, he introduced the giant monster fight scenario with the Ymir battling an elephant in 20,000,000 MILES TO EARTH, thus keeping the Japanese film biz afloat, with a single big idea, for decades.) And CLASH OF THE TITANS brought the Greek myths I’d enjoyed at school to life in an accessible way. A little campy, still a little scary, a lot of fun. And Fiona was enjoying those same movies on their first runs up in Dundee, all ready to compare notes when we’d eventually meet.
At WETA in New Zealand they scanned Ray’s entire body, and produced this perfect bronze miniature Harryhausen (just the right size to ride an eohippus), now the proud possession of John Landis.
For UK readers, here are two awesome books on Ray’s life and art:
And for US readers:
Once more, Twenty Million Thanks to Randy!