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Early Work From an Animation Legend

2 Feb, 2005 By: Holly J. Wagner

Ray Harryhausen

Most people think of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts when they think of stop-action animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen.

But before feature films embraced his style, he created short films with puppets in his spare time, including two series he based on nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Those and other works not previously released to consumers will be available Feb. 1 from fledgling label Sparkhill.

“I'm so grateful that they are now going to be available to families and not just the schools,” Harryhausen said. “There are very few things out there that aren't violent, the cat hitting the mouse over the head. They have a certain charm that is vacant in some forms of entertainment today.”

Not that the underlying stories were violence-free, but when he began making the films in 1946 and, although he was making them with TV in mind, he toned down some aspects of the original fairy tales to make them suitable for distribution to schools.

“‘Little Red Riding Hood' had a lot of lascivious things in the original,” Harryhausen said. “I had to change that for the schools. The huntsman still kills the wolf, though the wolf perishes off screen.

One of the projects in the series, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” was an unfinished project completed just for the two-disc DVD set Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection ($29.99).

“I wanted to make six [fairy tales],” he said. “I started in 1952 and finished it in 2000. As a result, DVD consumers will see it for the first time, along with a number of his tests and experiments, on the set. DVD is a remarkable advancement. These fairy tales I have been able to put all in one package, with bits and pieces of stories that were never completed.

“I was heavily involved with [creating the bonus features with DVD producers] Arnold Kunert and Eric Young,” Harryhausen said. “Arnold and I went to my mother's garage and found things I forgot I'd made. It is good for people to see how you have evolved.”

Among the early experiments, proofs-of-concept and jobs are a demonstration ad using Lucky Strike cigarettes and a three-spot promotional campaign Harryhausen did around a character named Kenny Key for the then-planned community of Lakewood, Calif.

“There are a lot of experiments in split-screen and 16 mm, a lot of things that have never been seen even in some of the documentaries,” he noted.

For those who want interviews and personal reminiscences along with the fairy tales, disc two contains a raft of interviews with friends and collaborators like Ray Bradbury and Forrest Ackerman.

“On the second disc, there are a lot of interviews and lost footage,” Harryhausen said. But he hopes the set will reach a new generation as well as fans and students of his work. The fairy tale content and unusual animation style will still appeal to kids today, he thinks.

“There has been so much hype about CGI that I think they try to say everything else should be discarded,” he said. “But Kermit the Frog brought back the hand puppet, which started in Ancient Greece. The type of animation we did, we put a lot of character in it. Each character had a separate personality. I got a lot of letters about them, and I was delighted. Little Red Riding Hood walks differently from Mother Hubbard.… There is a big difference between what I do and The Chicken Run, which is a beautiful film. They are both puppets, but it's different.”

Bonus materials help give fans a look at the creative process, something he was loathe to demystify.

“People don't know how much work it is behind the scenes,” he said. “They are not supposed to, they're just supposed to enjoy the film. I just think it takes away some of the enjoyment of the visual images. You don't have to know all the details. In the early days, I felt if the people know how the magician takes the rabbit out of the hat, they lose interest because they know how it is done now. Today they have articles in magazines telling how everything is done before the movie even comes out.”

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