Interview: Ray Harryhausen, special effects master

Ray Harryhausen with the his model for the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth.

Here’s a vintage piece I found that you might dig: a brief phone interview I conducted with the great stop-motion effects master Ray Harryhausen in the fall of 2007 on the occasion of Sony’s release of 50th Anniversary Blu-ray and DVD editions of the1957 sci-fi flick 20 Millions Miles to Earth, featuring one of Ray’s greatest creations, the scaly alien Ymir. Harryhausen died on May 7 this year at the age of 92.

A misunderstood but ferociously destructive accidental tourist, 20 Millions Miles Ymir crash lands into Earth’s Aegean Sea from Venus and wreaks some serious havoc as he makes his way across Italy to Rome. (He manages to create even more ruins at The Coliseum.) The discs feature a remastered edition of the original black & white film, as well as a newly colorized version supervised by Ray himself.

Disc Dish: We spoke a few years back about your early black-and-white films and I remember you telling us specifically that 20 Million Miles to Earth was the one you wish you could have made in color.

Ray Harryhausen: Very much so, but our budget wouldn’t allow for that. The studios were so strict on low-budget science fiction films, which weren’t all that popular at that time.

DD: And you supervised the colorization process on the film?

20 Million Miles to EarthRH: Yes. Last year we colorized the Merian Cooper production of She (1935) and it was beautiful. Now Sony is moving on to 20 Million Miles to Earth and the tests I’ve seen look fantastic.

DD: What scenes in this newly colorized version stand out in particular?

RH: Well, the colorizing improves the whole film. It’s hard to pick one particular scene, but I will tell you that Rome and The Coliseum have never looked more beautiful!

DD: And it looks like you’re also getting colorized–don’t you have a quick walk-on in the film as an elephant herder at the Rome Zoo where the Ymir is being held?

RH: Yes, that’s me, I’m told. We broke for lunch during the shooting of that scene and the man who was supposed to be there didn’t come back. So I took off my sweater and ran in there and started feeding the elephant peanuts while the camera was running. I’ve actually never seen myself, but people keep telling me I’m there.

DD: Where does the Ymir rank in your pantheon of monsters? Is he one of your favorites?

RH: Oh yes. He went through a lot of changes from the original concept to what you see on the screen. I tried to make something that was very different but still believable. And I was the one who originally brought the 20,000 Miles to Earth story in to the producers, but I gave all the credit to [writer] Charlotte Knight. I was very modest in those days.

DD: Modesty and Hollywood don’t seem to mix.

RH: No, they don’t. “Modesty” is a dirty word.

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About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.