Ray Harryhausen manipulates a figure of a serpent-like monster for stop motion animation, circa 1965. Photo: Getty
Ownership of films is usually the preserve of directors and actors. You will hear of the new Paul Thomas Anderson movie, or the new Tom Cruise vehicle. But such films as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981) are Ray Harryhausen films, regardless of who directed and acted in them. One Million Years BC (1966) isn't even regarded as a Hammer or Raquel Welch movie. No other technician or artist working in film can make such a claim.
''Everyone has their own right way of doing things,'' explains Harryhausen, now aged 92. ''I'd probably call myself a filmmaker rather than just a special effects man. I'd often come up with the story, advise on the script, scout locations, design and sculpt the models. I'd have to be on the set to make sure the effects sequences were shot properly, which was a problem for some directors - that never really got easier. And I'd do all the animation myself. It was just simpler to do all that myself than try to delegate.''
As a result, all Harryhausen films have his personality, and his incredible craftsmanship, showing through them. I meet him in the central London house he and his wife Diana have shared since he moved his base of operations from Hollywood to Europe almost half a century ago. ''I dread to think what it would cost now,'' he says. ''We found out from some neighbours many years later that Michael Powell used to own this house. He had a pair of red shoes hanging in one of the windows.''
A scene from Jason and the Argonauts.
Harryhausen's home has no such external signs of its inhabitant's career. Inside there are few clues among the antique furniture. Until, that is, you take a closer look at the bronze sculptures on display. There is the Hindu goddess Kali, an allosaurus, some sword-wielding skeletons (a dead giveaway), Perseus and Medusa locked in deadly combat. ''That one was used to show to studios when we were getting Clash of the Titans going.''
One of the most dramatic of his self-made ornaments is of a T-rex and King Kong. For Harryhausen it was Kong that started it all, back in 1933. ''I had an aunt who took me to see a new movie she'd heard had gorillas and dinosaurs in, two things I was very much interested in.'' She took the 13-year-old to Grauman's Chinese Theater to see King Kong on its opening week in LA, a night filled with the sort of showmanship typical of the venue's owner Sid Grauman. The foyer was decorated in jungle style, and music and dance acts performed before the curtain went up for the film. Harryhausen left the cinema with no idea how this lost world had been created, but he knew that he had to find out. ''I wasn't even looking to get into movies. I was a diorama kid at school, always making these little prehistoric scenes. Well, here was a way to make my dioramas move. I knew it wasn't a man in a suit. There was a magazine article that even had a picture of a life-size Kong with electrical leads running out of it. Even at that age I knew that couldn't be true. It wasn't like today: information was almost impossible to find.'' He pieced together what few facts he could and started making his own crude attempts with a home-movie camera. He took evening classes to learn and refine the skills he felt he would need, such as sculpture, engineering and photography. ''I took some acting classes, but that wasn't really me, although I did learn about movement and building character.'' Character is the key to why his creations endure: often they give better, or at least more memorable, performances than human actors.
American animator and special effects creator Ray Harryhausen works with a figure of a dinosaur. Photo: Getty
He soon met a producing partner with whom he enjoyed a long working relationship career, Charles H. Schneer. ''Charlie was very important in all this. He made these projects in a way that let me do all these things no other producer would or could,'' Harryhausen says. Their partnership lasted 30 years and 11 films, including 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), Mysterious Island (1961), The Valley of Gwangi (1969) and three Sinbad films. During this time Harryhausen developed his Dynamation technique, involving split-screens and rear-projection, for inserting his models into live-action footage.
The new documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan features contributions from filmmakers such as James Cameron, George Lucas, Terry Gilliam, Henry Selick, Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, John Landis and Nick Park, all with a story of how these films inspired them. Harryhausen's work kept fantasy filmmaking alive through tough times. His legacy is seen in some of the biggest-grossing films of all time, made by people who were just kids when they first saw his work. ''We are all children of the Hydra's teeth,'' as seven-time Oscar-winning make-up artist Rick Baker put it at Harryhausen's 90th birthday bash at the British Film Institute two years ago.
Harryhausen still displays an enthusiasm for the fantasy genre that people a quarter of his age seldom match. Animation is still a tool widely used today. Movies such as Frankenweenie, ParaNorman and The Pirates! charm audiences worldwide.
A model created by visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen from the 1963 movie Jason And The Argonauts. Photo: Getty
With huge networks of fantasy and science fiction fans and massive conventions prevalent today, it is humbling to think where all this started, back in 1940s California: ''In those days it'd just be me, [lifelong friend] Ray Bradbury and Forrest J. Ackerman [later editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine] huddled together in a diner discussing things like space platforms and dinosaurs. We each did, and usually accomplished, what we set out to do. Though people thought we were very strange.''