In 2010, British visual effects artist Gareth Edwards’ directorial debut “Monsters” took the indie world by the storm by presenting an alien invasion tale containing impressive CGI exclusively produced on Edwards’ laptop. Since then, Edwards has attracted the attention of Hollywood and is currently working on a reboot of “Godzilla” for Warner Bros. However, given Edwards’ DIY approach to visual effects, we thought it was appropriate to ask him for his thoughts on the iconic stop motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen, who died this past week in London at the age of 92. The following is excerpted from a conversation with Eric Kohn.
Ray Harryhausen was a massive inspiration for me. His films used to come on during every bank holiday in the UK when I was a kid. I grew up watching them. Even though you knew what you were seeing wasn’t possible, you couldn’t help but watch it and try to figure out how it was done. I remember buying lots of books. There was a local bookshop with a film section that had some books on special effects, including some with chapters on Harryhausen. That’s how I got into visual effects.
Way before digital came along, the only way to achieve some of the things in your head was to go about it the hard way with stop motion animation. It’s so much harder than what we can do today. I can’t wrap my head around it. He would do scenes like Medusa’s snakes on her head and managed to keep track of every single movement of every snake one frame at a time. It took a level of discipline and genius that we don’t need to do visual effects today. It’s quite remarkable what he did — and I don’t there will be anyone quite like him ever again.
He definitely had an impact on a lot of people in the industry. I was in film school when “Jurassic Park” came out and it was clear that computers were going to be way forward in terms of a lot of visual effects. But his sheer perseverance and his decision to do this stuff at an early age when he was inspired by “King Kong” is amazing. Even when I was trying to learn graphics there were very few books about them, so I can’t imagine how few resources there were back when he was starting up. He was very much self-taught. He just pictured sequences and figured out how to do them. They would work wonderfully.
I was really lucky to meet him. Shortly before Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” came out in 2005, I was working at BBC doing visual effects on a TV show for a producer. She went to work on another documentary about HG Wells. As part of it, she wanted to interview Harryhausen about “War of the Worlds.” I got a text from her one day asking, “Do you want to meet Ray Harryhausen?” I swore in the text back to her, but basically I said, “Yeah!”
So I got to go along with her but I had to pretend to be part of the crew. I got to go to his house. A lot of the people on the actual crew didn’t know much about him because they were from the documentary world so I got to talk to him quite a lot. He was so generous and kind. He let me hold his Oscar. I asked him all about people like [visual effects artist] Phil Tippett. I got the idea that he had spent the last 20 years visiting people around the world he had inspired. He seemed to know everybody. I hope he realized how much he had changed the industry.
The highlight of my encounter came during the actual interview. The crew asked me if I could talk to Ray while they were setting up. I sat down with him in a cafe part of this university we were in. I was just making chit chat, but it happened to be the week that the trailer for “King Kong” came out, so I asked him what he thought about the trailer. He said, “Oh, I haven’t seen it.” I said, “Hang on a minute. I’ve got it on my laptop.”
So I got my laptop out and booted it up. I put headphones on Ray Harryhausen and played him the “King Kong” trailer in the middle of this café. Nobody knew who he was there. Nobody understood that moment. But I couldn’t believe I was showing “King Kong” to Ray Harryhausen. It felt like a really special moment.
When the trailer ended, he was blown away. He was beaming. “It looks fantastic,” he said. I decided if I was ever lucky enough to meet Peter Jackson that I would tell him that story. I did eventually meet Jackson and came out with the story straight away. That was my ice breaker.
When I was doing visual effects on my first feature film “Monsters,” I would watch Harryhausen’s films on loop. Seeing the way he did it back then, with such harder resources, was definitely a motivation for me. I think he’ll always be remembered as one of the greats in cinema history. His name will become more and more valuable. When I was a kid, it was hard to find things out about him. Today, fan boys have taken over the world a bit. His contributions are a lot more common knowledge now. There will never be an era again like his. I think visual effects is always difficult — but it will never be as uniquely challenging as it was then. There won’t be an opportunity for anyone to compete with his legacy.
“Godzilla” is scheduled for release on May 16, 2014.