Two Hours With a Legend

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I wrote after my visit with Ray Harryhausen a couple of years ago.


It was March 1, 2011. London, England.

I arrived about fifteen minutes earlier than the scheduled time, so I waited outside for a bit, taking in the atmosphere of the Kensington neighborhood. It’s a quiet, upscale location, reeking of history and reminding me very much of Boston, the city in which I grew up. I wanted to savor the moment, to get myself mentally prepared to spend some time with one of my true heroes and inspirations. I stared at the black case that housed the Mighty Joe Young armature, wondering if it would bring Ray as much pleasure as it would bring to me by giving it to him. Part of the fun was that Ray had no idea why I was there, so being able to surprise him with it made the visit even more exciting.

As a Director of Photography for various television productions, I’m surrounded by A-list stars every day. I’m never star-struck or nervous.....I quickly outgrew that emotion many, many years ago. But on this day, I was actually nervous. Very nervous. Ray’s influence on my art and my life is significant….no number of Nicholsons, DeNiros, or Scorceses have as much meaning for me. I sat there thinking about all the magical moments of celluloid history that had been created by the gentleman who lived just over the hedges that I was lurking behind. I was awestruck. THIS IS REALLY GOING TO HAPPEN.

The proper time was suddenly at hand, so I walked up the stairs to the doorway and was greeted by the smiling face of Tony Dalton, co-author with Ray of their many books released in the last few years. “Ray will be down in a few minutes,“ Tony told me. He glanced at the black case that held the armature. He smiled, knowing exactly what was inside. He had helped to orchestrate the master plan to surprise Ray. No sooner did I step through the doorway than Ray himself suddenly appeared. He now walks with a cane, but he has the twinkle in his eye of a man who is still young at heart. He happily shook my hand, which now seemed dwarfed by his giant mitt, which felt like it still had the strength to crush mine like a bug. I tried to look around, to take in every inch of the classy Victorian style home adorned with brass framed works of art everywhere, but I really couldn’t take my eyes off of Ray for very long. He’s so charismatic and charming that you feel guilty not paying him 100% attention every second. He quickly pointed out a new bronze sculpture that he had recently completed, and we then entered a sitting room of sorts. Ray sat on chair by the window and I sat on a nearby couch. I watched his eyes drop to the black case I was carrying, and then he looked up at me curiously.

“Jeff has something to show you Ray, but we can chat a bit first,” Tony said.
“It’s something I’ve been working on for a long time,” I said. “I think it’s something you might be interested in,” I added. Ray leaned back and raised an eyebrow. Now he was very curious. He stared at me as if he was trying to get a read on what this stranger in his home was up to.

I don’t think any conversation with Ray could be considered “small talk,” but we chatted a bit about things that did not relate to his work. He asked about my work, and when he heard that I was from Las Vegas, he had a sly grin on his face. “We used to take secret trips to Las Vegas when I lived in California.” When I asked about what actually occurred during those trips, he replied, “Well, if I told you they wouldn’t be secret any more now would they?” We talked about CGI effects, the fast pace of editing in current films, the fact he had not seen the remake of “Clash of the Titans,” and he told me that Willis O’Brien was a very jolly man. His daughter Vanessa soon joined us and she was just as warm and charismatic as her father.

Finally, Tony announced that I had something to show Ray. I opened the black case so that Ray could not see what was inside. I lifted out the Joe armature, still blocked from his view. Tony and Vanessa, however, could see it, and both gasped. I stood up and handed the armature to Ray, who happily sat it on his lap. Tony began snapping photos. “It’s Joe!” Ray exclaimed. He immediately started manipulating the various joints, and I told him how true we had been to the original materials and measurements. “No hitches in THESE joints!” he said. He continued to pose and repose it, and finally settled on a pose in which the hands were resting on the hips. “I don’t like that pose,” Vanessa said. “Looks like he’s waitin’ for a bus. Put him in a real Joe pose.” Ray ignored her…..obviously no one, not even his daughter, could tell him what to do with an animation puppet.

He continued to closely analyze the armature. “I thought we had wire toes? These are jointed.” I told him that the design was based on the original armature that Bob Burns owns and that those toes were indeed jointed. “Oh really,” he replied as he nodded his acceptance. “We had stops in the body hinges to limit movement,” he added. Well, he had me there. I intentionally left off the tiny pins that were later added to control the animation of the spine. I explained that there was no documentation on the blueprints for accurate placement and since this armature was for display, it looked and felt better without them. Again he nodded his approval. I was stunned that he would remember such a minor detail… indication that Ray was still as sharp as ever.

I shot a bit of video, Tony snapped a few more photos, and then Ray handed the armature back to me. “Excellent work. Even better than the originals. It would be a shame to ever cover it up,” he said. I told Ray not to hand it back to me. “That armature is yours Ray,” I said. He looked at me incredulously. “I didn’t fly 6000 miles just to show it to you.” Again, he looked at me like I was nuts.
“Jeff made this for you, Ray,” Tony said. “Read the inscription on the base.” The inscription read:

Presented to Mr. Ray Harryhausen, March 1, 2011 in memory of Jennifer

He smiled after reading it aloud. “I loved Jennifer Jones. They were making ‘Duel in the Sun’ at the same time nearby. That’s why I called my favorite model Jennifer.” Of course we all knew that, but it was great hearing Ray tell us again.
I explained to Ray that many years ago when I first met him at a convention (while he was holding Bob Burns’ Joe armature), he told me that everybody had a Mighty Joe Young armature but him. That comment had stuck with me and I had always planned to recreate a perfect replica for him. It took 15 years but it finally happened. “I’m rarely speechless,” he said. “Thank you. Thank you.” He stared at me with his piercing blue eyes, which now were a bit watery. “It’s my honor, Ray.”

We set Joe on the coffee table and headed upstairs to the most magical office on the planet. It’s three flights up, and Ray now rides a chairlift that takes him up to the top. “You two go on ahead. I’ll be up in exactly eight minutes. I’ve timed it,” Ray said.
Tony and I ascended the stairs, and as soon as I entered the office it seemed very familiar to me. I’d seen it hundreds of times over the years in magazines and books. I studied those photos over and over, hoping to get tiny bits of information about Ray’s models. How big were they? How were they constructed? Now…..suddenly….I WAS HERE…… surrounded by the images that consumed my youth, all right at my fingertips. The next half-hour was a blur to me…..a surreal experience to say the least. Everywhere I looked were legendary creatures: Gwangi, Trog, Medusa…….my brain was on overload.

Ray finally strolled in. “Eight minutes exactly,” he said smiling. I wish I could remember everything we talked about but I simply cannot. I was just too distracted by the treasures around me to make very many mental notes. Here’s what I recall: Most of the models show some evidence of decay, but they are all still in surprisingly good shape considering their age. They cannot be re-posed, however, since the foam has now hardened and would crumble if bent. One exception is the skeletons. Tony handed me one and it moved beautifully. I also rotated the body of one of the smaller flying saucers. Ray’s dad had machined these on a lathe in various sizes, and it was as smooth as silk….amazing. Ray has one special glass case that is filled to the brim with tributes from his fans, mostly sculptures of his famous creatures. It’s clear that he does not take the devotion of his fans lightly. It would appear that he saves everything.

Ray sat down at his desk and Tony told me an interesting story: a talented fan had recently sent Ray a beautiful resin version of the Cyclops; probably the best interpretation of Ray’s creature that anyone has yet done. When it arrived, it had been badly damaged in transit. A week later, Tony saw it on Ray’s desk with absolutely no sign that it had ever been broken into several pieces. Ray had simply taken it into his workshop and fixed it. I examined it closely and sure enough, it was flawless. I looked at Ray and he gave me an expression as if to say: “No big deal.”
It had been about two hours and I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, so it was time to go. Back down on the first floor, I again shook Ray’s powerful hand and gave him a hug goodbye. His daughter Vanessa also gave me a hug and they all expressed their gratitude for the gift. I glanced at the Joe armature, still in the “waitin’ for a bus” pose, and I was finally relaxed enough to contemplate the fact that it was now in its rightful place: in the home of the man who brought its twin brother to life.

I remember little of the flight home from London to Las Vegas. Whatever occurred in those hours took a back seat to reliving my time with Ray over and over in my head. I was honored to be allowed to give back something special to someone who has given so much inspiration to countless generations of filmmakers and fans.

Now this is purely my fantasy, but I often envision Ray sitting at his desk after everyone has gone to bed…..endlessly putting Joe through many of the old and perhaps even a few new poses. The now immobile foam puppets look on as Ray’s masterful hands continue to work their magic into the wee hours of the morning…….

Ray and Joe.jpg
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