By Steve Archer
After one years hard writing Wills O’Brien: Special Effects Genius is about to hit the shops. By strange coincidence both O’Brien and myself like things western, and much of O’Brien’s work contained western themes: Gwang, Mighty Joe Young, The Westernettes and The Last of the Oso Si-Papu, but more about that later. First, who the hell am I and how do I fit into all of this?
Back in the days before computers when when the term “model animation” referred to animated puppets, I saw King Kong and Jason and the Argonauts both of which inspired me to want to create my own animations. It was Ray Harryhausen, the creator of special effects on Jason who had started his career in film animation under Willis O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young – about cowboys who rope a gorilla – in 1949. Harryhausen had been inspired by Kong which led to him making a series of puppet animation fairy tales and his first professional job with O’Brien. Eventually Harryhausen left “Obie” (as O’Brien was known by his associates) and went on to make a series of fantasy films with producer Charles H. Schneer. For many (and myself included) the high point was Jason and the Argonauts. My mother took me to see this film and about the same time I saw King Kong on Television. The animation bug bit me, but it wasn’t until I was fifteen that I was in a position to do something about my interest and buy a super 8mm camera and try my hand at animation. This was in 1974, and magazines on home movie making “on film” (as opposed to today’s video home movies) were being published. Two magazines – long defunct – called Movie Maker and Film Making both ran competitions for budding film makers. I had made a ten minute film called Game of Death using Plasticine models, plaster of Paris sets and household lamps. Plasticine is wonderful for making models cheaply but has the drawback of losing it’s shape under the hot lights during animation. The whole budget for my first effort was about £50 including film stock. I entered my film, and although it didn’t win, the publishers gave their comments on all the work that was submitted. This was very helpful and aided me in correcting my mistakes and trying again the next year with my second 8mm film, The Dark Kingdom, a tale about dinosaurs inspired by Ray Harryhausen’s One Million Years B.C. The film got into the finals which encouraged me to make two more efforts – The Evil Wzard and Jack and the Beanstalk – the latter being shot on 16mm.
In 1976, I met Steve Pickard who just happened to be visiting Ray Harryhausen. Ray is an American and I assumed that he lived back in the states. I was surprised to find that he had been living and working in this country since the late 1950s. I asked to go with Steve and meet Ray at his home in Kensington and took along my Game of Death film and a Plasticine model that I had made of his ‘Ymir” of 20 Million Miles to Earth. The meeting with Ray Harryhausen inspired me try and get a job in the special effects business.
At the time, there was very little published on how to create animation. Puppet Animation in the Cinema by Brace Holman was a help. Ray Harryhausen’s Film Fantasy Scrapbook was a constant source of inspiration as was Willis O’Brien: Creator of the Impossible – a “Focus On Film” article which went into great detail, all of which helped me enormously. To my knowledge there were no courses to join in which to learn the craft and seemingly no companies to approach asking for work or training. Steve suggested I contact Cliff Culley, a specialist in matte paintings at Pinewood studios. He had worked on several Bond films and was then creating many matte paintings for The Pink Panther Strikes Again. I contacted him and he very kindly offered me work as an assistant which entailed doing a variety of jobs such as painting the reverse sides of main titles on glass, occasional touching up of matte paintings and painting nearly two hundred cels for the disappearance of the UN building in The Pink Panther Strikes Again. This latter job could be called my first professional animation assignment.