Monday, March 4, 2019

Interview with Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation Trustee John Walsh

Skeleton from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
All this month at the Classic Film & TV Cafe, we will be paying tribute to the genius of special effects master Ray Harryhausen. We thought the best place to start was with the Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation, which Ray established in 1986 to archive, preserve, and restore his extensive collection. John Walsh, who serves on the Board of Trustees, recently agreed to participate in an exclusive interview.

Café:  How did you come to know Ray Harryhausen?

Ray Harryhausen and friend
from Clash of the Titans.
John Walsh:  By the late 1980s, I had become a student at the London Film School and was looking for a subject for my first documentary film. I thumbed through a copy of the British Telecom phone book and found a listing for an "R. Harryhausen" at Ilchester Place in West London. Did I dare give him a call? What would I say? This was to be my first pitch and I didn't even know it. As this was the time before mobile phones and the prices of calls were dictated by the time of day and the duration of the call, I had to check with my parents for permission before dialing. Once I had clearance, the call commenced. Ray answered the phone, and I explained what I wanted to do: Make a fifteen minute sixteen-millimetre documentary about his work and techniques. He invited me to his house and I was stunned to meet many of the creatures that had populated Ray's films and my imagination. A few months later, I was showing the final film to both the film school and to audiences at the newly opened Greenwich Cinema. Ray came along and was interviewed on stage by sci fi writer and broadcaster Richard Hollis. Before Ray died, I had the film scanned in high definition and fully restored. My documentary, which was narrated by Tom Baker, is now part of the Foundation’s archive and is shown at public speaking events we hold throughout the world.

Café:  When was the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation established and what are its goals?

Trog from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.
John Walsh:  If you think you know all the films and have seen the creature collection at museums and know the full story, then think again. We have over 50,000 items in the collection, making it the largest of its kind outside of the Disney Studios. Ray set up the Foundation in 1986 and he intended that future generations should enjoy his work and also learn about the craft of filmmaking. I am delighted that audiences want to visit the artifacts on display, but what many fans of Ray's work perhaps do not know is that for every film that made it to the cinema screen, there were two or three from the same period that didn't.

Café:  Who else is on the Board of Trustees with you?

John Walsh:  Ray's daughter Vanessa and the family lawyer Simon Mackintosh make up the small, but efficient, board of trustees. Our solitary, but hard working, member of staff is Connor Heaney, our Collections Manager.

Café:  What are the Foundation’s plans for #Harryhausen100, a celebration of Ray’s centenary in 2020?

John Walsh:  There will be a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland, along with screenings and some major announcements to come later in the year.

A storyboard from Mysterious Island (1961).
Café:  Of the 50,000+ objects in Ray Harryhausen’s collection, what are some of your favorites?

The Kraken from Clash
of the Titans.
John Walsh:  I am fascinated by all the creatures that are, in themselves, real movie stars: The Kraken, Medusa, and the Seven-Headed Hydra. The big stars are the ones that get the attention and the visitor numbers at the exhibitions. Perhaps the ones that I have become fonder of are those smaller intricate figures that sometimes get overlooked. The tiny human creatures that fall into the clutches of Ray's beautiful creatures are being restored. Ray only worked with one person during these delicate and precise conservations, Alan Friswell. Alan’s work has been on display around the world this year. Despite the age of the collection, we are keen for fans to see the characters from the films as they remembered them from their childhoods. Thanks to professional photographer Andy Johnson, we have an extensive catalogue of photography of each piece as a record of their various states of decay. This will inform those who work on the collection in the future.

Café:  Has there been any discussion of building a Ray Harryhausen museum to display his collection?

John Walsh:  I have talked for many years about the possibility of a Harryhausen Museum. The road to this is one paved with a significant cash investment. Last year, I announced a new deal with Morningside Productions to revive the unmade follow-up (although not a direct sequel) to Clash of the Titans entitled Force of the Trojans. We have materials from the archive which show what Ray would have created and a screenplay, which acts as a blueprint for a new screenplay I have started to write. It would take a successful film such as this to create the capital needed for a permanent Harryhausen home. I am both hopeful and confident this can be achieved.

Café:  We’re going to put you on the spot with the next two questions. First, what is your favorite Harryhausen movie and why?

John Walsh:  For me, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is the best use of the technique with a thrilling story. The use of lighting, as well as music, played a significant role in creating an atmospheric black magic approach. Technically, this has some of the best live action and model integration. The film stock used worked well and does not betray the secrets of the technique of interacting live actors with the animations.
The six-armed statue in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.
Café:  What is your favorite stop-motion creature created by Ray Harryhausen?

The Homunculus in Golden Voyage.
John Walsh:  The rebirth of the Homunculus in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is one of my all-time favourite sequences. The delicate animation and interaction with Tom Baker still make this a magical sequence.

Café:  Are there any upcoming Harryhausen-related events that you’d like to share with our readers?

John Walsh:  In September of this year Titan Books will release Harryhausen: The Lost Movies, which I have spent the last two years writing. It has been a fascinating journey into the vast Harryhausen archive. In the last few years with Ray, I asked him why he hadn't recorded commentaries for most of his films. His reply was surprising and blunt. He hadn't been asked. I set about to remedy this and we made digital audio and video recordings of his commentaries in the lounge of his house. This was more comfortable than a sterile sound booth in a post-production house, and as a filmmaker, I knew that the more comfortable a subject can be the more likely we were to get a few gold nuggets from his recollections. We decided to work backwards from Clash of the Titans. We even had some special guests sit in with us, such as director John Landis, who would always take the time to visit with Ray any time he was in London. Sadly, when we got to Ray's first solo film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, he fell ill and died.  Despite his advancing years--Ray was in his early 90s by then--he thoroughly enjoyed the sessions and remembered many details that did not appear in any publications. Audio extract from these can be heard in our award-nominated podcast series, The Ray Harryhausen Podcast on both Soundcloud and iTunes. Surprisingly, up until these last few years, Ray didn't have a presence at ComicCon. I have spoken at both London and last year's San Diego ComicCon. This was filmed and cut together by Connor Heaney and can be viewed on Vimeo.
Ray Harryhausen, John Walsh, and John Landis in 2012.
For more information on The Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation, you can check out its website or follow it on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

5 comments:

  1. Awesome article! How I loved his movies, and enjoy them still!

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  2. Fascinating history and an exciting future. Thank you for presenting this interview. I am excited for the upcoming releases and events.

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  3. Great interview! As you know, Rick, Ray Harryhausen is one of my favorites and was influential to so many other filmmakers. I'm glad Mr. Walsh spotlighted "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" because I always thought that was one of Harryhausen's best, too. I remember reading somewhere that Caroline Munro is also a trustee for the Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation.

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  4. I hope a Harryhausen museum becomes a reality. Also: John Walsh is right when he says Ray Harryhausen's creatures really are movie stars in their own right.

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  5. I was missing the interviews, thank you very much!

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