John Landis on Ray Harryhausen and the Art of Stop-Motion

As part of its ongoing mission to both educate and entertain audiences, Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox is initiating a series that focuses on the art of stop-motion animation. Showcasing films as diverse as the adorable work from Aardman through the surreal tales by Jan Švankmajer, the films run the gamut from classics to arthouse fare.

If there’s one name synonymous for many of the art of capturing frame-by-frame the performance of an articulated puppet it’s Ray Harryhausen. A student of King Kong’s Willis O’Brien, Harryhausen would define the craft for generations, spawning the likes of Phil Tippett (Star Wars, Jurassic Park), Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline) and many others to push the boundaries of the technological and storytelling possibilities of stop-motion.

John Landis (Blues Brothers) will be presenting several films at Lightbox that highlight Harryhausen’s skill, including a master class on the astonishing work done in Jason and the Argonauts. Dork Shelf spoke to John by phone from his home in Los Angeles, discussing Harryhausen’s work, Landis’ own relationship with the man, as well as Ray’s continuing inspiration on filmmakers to this day.

Dork Shelf: The day I was born, supposedly, they were playing Jason and the Argonauts on TV. It’s fitting that I ended up being named Jason and one day becoming a film critic fascinated with the films of Ray Harryhausen. Was your own introduction to his films through 7 Voyages of Sinbad

John Landis: Ray had a powerful impact on me when I was 8 years old. I’ve told this story ad infinitum, but it’s true – I grew up in Los Angeles and I went to the Crest Theatre on Westwood Blvd in 1958 and saw The 7 Voyages of Sinbad. It was a completely successful film in that it created suspension of disbelief and a true sense of wonder. I fuckin’ loved it!

It was an amazing experience and I still remember it. It did for 8 year old me what any work of art or a painting, a sculpture, a book, a play, whatever is supposed to – to capture the viewer, to transport you. 

My wife is a costume designer and professor [ed. Deborah Nadoolman, designer of among other masterpieces the costumes in Raiders of the Lost Ark]. She said a funny thing to me the other day  “John, you’re not in the movie business, you’re in the transportation business.” That’s what Harryhausen and Nathan H. Juran [the film’s director] succeeded in doing in that film – to take me somewhere else, with characters and situations that were far out of my normal reality.

I went home and asked my mom, “who does that? who makes movies?” My mother, and I’m still kind of amazed by because she’s not that sophisticated a lady, said the director makes the movie. So from the time I was 8, that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up, a movie director.

DS: But in retrospect was your response to the general Duran’s direction, or was it specifically the dinosaurs animated by Harryhausen? 

JL: It was to the film, and a film is a collaborative thing. But if you were going to name an auteur of that movie, it would have to be Ray. I mean, Harryhausen holds a unique position as essentially what’s known as a stop-motion animator. He really was the auteur of his body of work, following Mighty Joe Young where he assisted his mentor Willis O’Brien [animator of the original Kong]. Ray would conceive the films, he would think of a storyline, the world, a theme, and then he would do these wonderful sketches to sell the story. Very much what O’Brien did with King Kong – The Directors Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack had Willis draw wonderful concept drawings. That’s what sold producer David O. Selznick and RKO to make Kong.

Ray would do that, and he eventually found a wonderful partner in producer Charles Schneer. You know, it was Ray’s idea to do the story of Jason and the Greek myths. He was the one who came up with doing the Sinbad story. After Mighty Joe Young and the George Pal Puppetoons the only work for hire Ray ever did was 1 Million Years B.C., that remake Hammer studios did with Raquel Welch where Harryhausen was hired to do the dinosaurs. But even there, if you look at Ray’s sketches and look at his storyboards, you’ll see that the art director, everyone, just followed his lead. It’s quite something and it’s very unique in the business.

DS: I think a lot of people have a certain nostalgia for stop-motion now, they look at it and they see it as more tactile, literally more hands on and so it’s appreciated more as a craft. But if you could bring me back to when you’re 8 years old, and you’re seeing these dinosaurs not as the manipulation of a person, but as actual creation. 

JL: People don’t understand – stop-motion, or CGI,  practical effects or whatever you want to call them, these are all tools. These are just tools. The only question is – is it successful? Does it work? I don’t mean financially, but does the effect work in the movie the way the filmmaker intends, or doesn’t it? 

All of these theoretical discussions about this technique or that technique and this is better than that, it’s all bullshit. It just comes down to, does it work? 

What’s unique with stop-motion is that it is literally hand crafted in a way. When you use the word tactile, yeah, I mean, it’s their fingers giving the performance. Now, traditional animation, drawn animation, painted animation, is very similar, although it’s done by an assembly line. But it’s still similar in that it’s hand work. What people misunderstand about CGI is people don’t realize how labour intensive it is. You look at the end credits of these movies and you see a thousand names. In fact, it’s more difficult and more costly than traditional animation. 

What’s extraordinary about stop-motion is the individuality of the puppets. To use the word tactile again, it’s hand on. The performance is through the guy’s hands. It’s puppetry of a very sophisticated and high level. It’s quite something and it’s unique. I’m reacting this way because I felt you were going down this path that I find so boring. 

DS: I’m going probably a slightly different path than you’re expecting, if I may. It’s the question of whether or not Ray was interested in the imagery or if he was interested in the technology to present that imagery. In other words, was Ray was a filmmaker first, a stop-motion animator second? I personally don’t think he would eschew contemporary technologies that would allow him to either advance the stop-motion craft in order to create the image that he sees in his head that he wants to present. In other words, in all his works he’s not a purist about the form of stop-motion animation, he’s a filmmaker trying to craft an image using the best tool available. I’m seeing whether you’d agree with that.

JL: Well, I would use the word storyteller as opposed to filmmaker, but yes. I think that has a lot of truth to it. He was amazed by CGI. Peter Jackson flew him down to New Zealand to visit Weta Workshop and he was blown away. He came to visit Phil Tippett and the guys on Jurassic Park and he was blown away. He said it’s amazing. He didn’t understand some of the “electronics”, as he called it, but he was awed by it.

He just was hoping that they use it to tell good stories. 

John Landis, the critically-acclaimed writer and director of “An American Werewolf in London” visited Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 23 on Friday, September 20, 2013 to enjoy the elaborate haunted house that brought his classic horror f

DS: Phil Tippett’s a very interesting guy because he was hired to do stop-motion on Jurassic Park and then they switched from Stop-Motion to CGI after a test. But Phil Tippett still used a tactile dino contraption the shape of a T-Rex to hand animate the creature. Once again you have the tactile nature integrated with the computer, all used  as tools for storytelling. 

JL: Well, Phil Tippet is a great artist. I have overwhelming respect for Phil, I think he’s really brilliant. In fact, those guys – Dennis Muren, Tippett,  John Berg, all of those early guys who worked on Star Wars and sort of became ILM, they were all stop-motion animators, that’s how they started. It’s very much like painters and sculptors starting with just drawing classes. They’re learning movement. 

It really is an extraordinary craft and that’s what I think people in general don’t understand craftsmanship. How do I explain this? Ok, if you give seven carpenters the same materials and the same tools and you say build me a chair. All seven will build you a chair. And you can sit in the chair, there’s a chair. But one of those guys might be a Chippendale, or an Eames. One of those guys might be an extraordinary craftsman which lifts the chair from a functional piece of equipment to a work of art.

They always say “the art of filmmaking” – I don’t think it’s an art. I think it can be an art, and I think it’s amazing how many times it’s become art, but it’s generally a craft. It’s a collaboration of a bunch of skilled people and you have to hope that it works. 

That’s why Joe Dante and I are the only ones I know who refuse a possessory credit – you know, like “a film by…”, or “a John Landis film”- because you can’t get a better credit than director. That should be the person responsible for telling the story. All of the collaborators – your costume designers, your set designers, your cameramen, your editors – everyone you’re working with are there to help you realize the vision of the screenplay. 

It’s a collaborative form, yet sometimes when you see movies, you can see the personalities of the individual craftsmen so strongly. It’s just like production designers like William Cameron Menzies or a costume designer, Travis Banton. It really is extraordinary, in stop-motion, the impact that Willis O’Brien and Ray had. They made distinct motion pictures. I mean, Schoedsack and Cooper made King Kong, but it would not have been King Kong without Willis O’Brien. 

DS: If film is collaboration, and if as a director creating the mise en scene, setting the things in place, there’s probably no more pure form of cinema than the stop-motion animator. There’s a purity of the image of Ray Harryhausen in his garage doing a skeleton fight, animating for weeks per shot. It’s a man, a camera, his actors, his skeletons, and images indelibly captured on celluloid that he cuts out the middle man.

I wouldn’t say it’s the purest form of cinema, but I would say it’s an extraordinary accomplishment and in terms of the skeletons. The skeleton fight in Jason, when was the last time you saw it? 

DS: About 2 days ago.

JL: Well, the skeleton fight in Jason took him months to animate. Henry Selick, Nick Parks and all of the guys, they work with digital equipment. We have video playback and they can see where they are. Ray would move these little things by his fingers in coordination, varying the setups. They look simple, but first, staging the live action stuff, where all of those guys had to learn how to fight invisible opponents and react. It was all choreographed by a famous Italian fencing master. That sequence was all shot with the live action, then Ray gets these skeleton, the puppets – Think of the coordination! You’ve got 9 skeletons or something fighting 9 guys and they have to be in the right place at the right time. He’s moving them frame by frame and oops, it’s lunch, or now we’re going home to bed, and you come back the next day. It’s just all in his head, that’s what I think is so fucking amazing. 

DS: And that what makes it in many ways an art because his stuff, his sequences weren’t just technically masterful, they were artistically masterful. 

JL: Oh yeah, no his stuff, there are certain things that are intangible. Take for instance Talos in Jason – how does a giant man of bronze move? It’s extraordinary because the way that thing moves, the sounds and everything about it, to get the illusion of tremendous size. I just love that thing! I just think Telos is extraordinary, he has no lines, he makes no expression, yet you know everything. The way he gasps for breath, the way he grabs at his throat, it’s really quite an amazing piece of work.

They talked about game changers, you know, technology. The big game changer was not Jurassic Park, it was Terminator 2, but both of them did something that was new. It wasn’t the CGI animation, which was was brilliant stuff, but the game changer was digital compositing. Even with Star Wars you were making films that had images on top of images. There’s the traditional shitty monster pictures where there’s like a blue line around the monster or no matter how well it’s done, it always seems like the actors and the giant beast or whatever it is are on two different planes. It just doesn’t match, there’s something superimposed or there’s something wrong.

It’s because on an optical printer every pass is a new generation. The giant breakthrough that Dennis Muren and ILM did was digital compositing which meant that the animated figure was not on the frame, it’s literally in the frame. You can do a thousand passes, add two thousand elements, it’s all first generation. That was the advantage Ray didn’t have. If Ray could have used his same puppets and his same animation but then digitally composite instead of sodium composite or the optical printing composite that would have been extraordinary. 

In 20 Million Miles to Earth, there’s a scene with a little monster on a table, when it’s little, before it gets big and the older Italian guy’s poking it. I think that’s one of the best composited scenes I’ve ever seen, it’s just extraordinary that’s done on an optical printer, the way that was planned, it’s flawless. 


DS: You got to go from being an eight year old fan to actually knowing the man… 

JL: I wrote Ray a fan letter when I was 11 and I sent it care of Famous Monsters magazine. The address was New York even though Forrest Ackerman was in Hollywood! The letter eventually got to Forry and he sent it to Ray who was living in London. And I got in the mailan 8×10 photograph of Ray animating the dragon from Sinbad. I remember being so thrilled – I still have it, it’s on the wall of my library. In ball point pen he wrote on it “For John Landis, best wishes for your success, Ray Harryhausen.” 

That’s why it’s hard for me to refuse autographs, even though, you know, fucking people go and sell them. It’s just because I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to get that. 

I met Ray the first time when I was 15 or 16, at Forry Ackerman’s house, and then I met him again, gosh, I guess in the early 70s. By that time I was doing ok, and for many years, Ray and Diana, his wife, whenever they were in L.A., they would stay with me in our guest house. So we had a long relationship. 

Whenever I was in London, which was at least twice a year, we’d see one another. He used to write me very funny letters. What’s nice is, in some ways it’s odd but wonderful, is that when Ray retired this whole generation of people like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and Peter Jackson and me, the Jim Camerons, the guys who deal mostly in fantasy and sci-fi and horror, this whole generation that Ray had such an impact on, were able help Ray be fetted. 

He spent 15 years traveling the world being lionized and I have to say, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. You can go online and find it, the BFI, at the South Bank Theatre for Ray’s 90th birthday, hosted this evening, that really was extraordinary as a surprise for Ray. Peter Jackson flew from NZ just to be there. Everybody, if they couldn’t be there, they’d filmed something, it was a wonderful thing. When it was finished, it was very emotional for Ray and he said to me, gosh, I feel kind of bad that I’m not dead! 

How extraordinary is that, to be able to thank someone. 

DS: Let me take a moment to thank you, then, for many films that have meant a lot to me from your output. Kentucky Fried Movie was a very early film for me and still quite hilarious, and I’m an enormous fan of The Blue Brothers. Then of course there’s Spies Like Us, and because of that I remain a a big fan of “Soul Finger”. So thank you indeed for ever thing you’ve done for my own cinematic journey.

JL: So much of a movie experience is how old you are or who you’re with or how you see it. 

DS: I was 5 when I saw Star Wars. It was a good time to see it, just as 7th Voyage was for you at around that age

JL: Well, Star Wars has that influence on so many people. It’s fascinating – if you ask people what’s your favourite movie, you can ask how did you see it? They’ll be able to tell you, usually, who they saw it with, where they saw it, it’s revealing. 

Anyway, this is an extraordinary series they’re doing at TIFF, they’re showing many great films of stop-motion animation. The ones not to miss, I’ve gotta tell you, are the Czech ones by Jan Švankmajer. Those are incredible movies and it’s an amazing opportunity to see them on a big screen. 

TIFF’s Magic Motion: The Art of Stop-Motion Animation runs from November 27 – January 3 This massive, genre-crossing retrospective explores the evolution of stop-motion animation from King Kong to Tim Burton, Jason and the Argonauts to The Terminator, the adventures of Wallace & Gromit to the mysterious worlds of Jan Svankmajer and the Quay Brothers.