Mr Flibble Talks To... Mighty Joe Flibble
He's the animator responsible for attacking skeletons, marauding aliens and Medussa's ultimate bad hair day. In the first part of our interview with an effects legend, Mr Flibble talks to Ray Harryhausen about Mighty Joe Young, his early days as an animator, and an octopus with missing tentacles.
12 January, 2001
Ray Harryhausen
Mr Flibble's right hand provided by
Andrew Ellard

Mr Flibble took several hours to move his flipper, a frame at a time, before finally asking: How did you get started as an ANIMATOR?

The word 'animator' doesn't, of course, cover the whole range of what I'm expected to do. I got influenced at a very early age, when my parents took me to the silent films at the age of three, four and five. I remember vividly seeing Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926), that left a tremendous impression at a young age; and, of course, Willis O'Brien's The Lost World (1925). Many years later, of course, Willis O'Brien made King Kong (1933) - and that really set me off. I walked into Growman's Chinese Theatre in 1932, I think it was, I saw that film and I haven't been the same since.

It just made such an impression [that] I had to go back and see it again and again. I didn't know how it was done, but I felt there was something mystical about it because it didn't look like a man in a suit. And when I found out about the glories of stop-motion photography, I pursued it toward that end. I studied everything I could possibly absorb of how to make moulds, how to do many different things - engineering feats, how to make the armatures. It all came about over a period of years, of course; and it developed from a hobby into a profession.

So when did you first really decide to become an animator? In your childhood?

I used to make small dioramas of the Labreya tar pits, and of course they were all static. When I saw King Kong I saw a way of making them move. Then I remembered The Lost World - they had displays in the Los Angeles Museum of some of the animals from The Lost World - and I felt that I would like to try to make my animals move, my cave bear and the brontosaurus.

And then I got hooked on a very ambitious project - showing the evolution of the world; which on 16mm would have been a monumental task. But someone once said that you should always reach beyond your capacity, which I think I did - and I finally abandoned it. But my experiments made some good footage to gain me various positions in the animation field.

My first job was with George Pell Puppetoons, he started off in Hungary, then went to England, then he made a number of puppet films for Phillips Radio. Then he moved to America and started a series of Puppetoons for Paramount Pictures. That was my first job. Didn't get much pay, but it was fun and an experience that I'll never forget.

Mr Flibble said he has often been underpaid and sympathises. How long were you with George Pell?

I did about 12 shorts with George, that was about two years, we had to do six ten-minute shorts in a year. And of course finally the bottom fell out of the short market, and nobody wanted to pay for them any more. So George went into features - in the meanwhile the war had come along, and I went into the army.

When I came out I felt I wanted to go on my own and pursue the single figure animation. And I had known Willis O'Brien for quite a while, so I kept in touch with him all through the war, and then he started Mighty Joe Young (1949) and I became his assistant. And that's where I really felt my life began.

Do you see that as your 'BIG BREAK'?

Yes, I suppose it was, because it was my first feature film, and I always longed to make feature films rather than short subjects. One time I thought I wanted to do commercials, but thank heavens I didn't because I would have been ground into the background - a non-entity, shall we say. (Laughs) I made some experiments with commercials right after the war, but I preferred to follow the feature film.

After Mighty Joe Young, Sol Lesser was making Tarzan [Tarzan's Magic Fountain] (1949) at the same studio in Culver City, and the two producers got together - there was a rumour around that we were going to make Mighty Joe Young Meets Tarzan. But that never matured, we never actually photographed any footage, nor was a script developed. But it was an interesting idea.

At this point Mr Flibble attempted to impress Ray by doing a Tarzan yodel into Andrew's ear. Andrew's attempt to replicate the sound was unimpressive, leaving Ray to talk about his time following Mighty Joe...

There was a long period where animation wasn't too popular, because Mighty Joe got the reputation of being quite expensive, and a lot of producers didn't know a lot about three-dimensional animation. So I prepared a number of things on my own while OB [O'Brien] was preparing other stories which we hoped would get off the ground.

I wanted to do War of the Worlds, the way H.G. Wells imagined it in the Victorian period. So I made a lot of sketches and an outline of what I hoped to do, and Jesse Lasky was interested in it for a while, but again nothing happened. OB pursued other things - he prepared something that was later made into King Kong Versus Godzilla (1962). He didn't plan it that way - he wanted King Kong Versus Frankenstein, and he made many sketches for it. But someone side-tracked OB's whole idea.

Have we reached your first feature - THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)?

Yes. The Beast came about quite by accident. A friend of mine had been interested in it, and I met the producer and he had a script called The Monster That Came From Beneath the Sea. It was undeveloped, it was just an outline, and it lacked many things and I felt I could contribute to it. So I started making drawings, continuity drawings and production drawings.

Then finally the producer came in one day and threw [down] a magazine - The Saturday Evening Post, I think it was - [and in it was] a story by Ray Bradbury called 'The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.' [The producer] wanted to incorporate the lighthouse into our script. It was a short story, and it wasn't long enough for a feature film, so we incorporated it into one section of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Then we used the title as well.

Mr Flibble said he remembers the film being very successful...

It was. It was a blockbuster. Everybody was using colour and widescreen and Cinerama and Panorama and whatnot, so the producers got a little panicky I think. They felt they were left with an old-fashioned black and white picture.

So they sold the whole picture outright to Warner Brothers [who] re-scored the film because the first score was dreadful, was done on a shoe-string. And they released it in glorious sepia-tone! (Laughs) Which was a brown tint, in order to compete with Technicolour. And obviously it worked, because the picture was very successful, and it was released as a first-class picture and made a lot of money for Warner Brothers - but not for us!

Have you watched it since?

Oh, yes. It's now on laserdisc. Thank God for laserdisc and video, because they've resurrected all of our films. Many times they would play in cinemas, but very seldom would you get a re-issue of films of that nature. So I was very grateful when video and laserdisc [arrived] - so whole new generations now can see our films.

Can I just pick up on the story I heard from IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA that your octopus only had six arms...

That's correct, yes. We tried to keep it a secret for quite a time. But it came out in a magazine and everybody started looking for a six-armed octopus! (Laughs) But many of the parts of the octopus were kept underwater, so no-one could count them. So I felt [that with] two arms less we could make a big dent in the budget - by [having] less animation to worry about. I was always afraid that if we cut the budget any more we might have had a tripod! (Laughs)

Mr Flibble remembered Red Dwarf having a similarly small budget - he didn't even get a private trailer during filming. He asked if Ray found it similarly frustrating...

Many times it is a frustration, because you see an image that you want to put on, and if you only had the facilities and the technical qualities, you could make a much better film. But we were restricted in that sense, particularly during our black and white period. Charles Schneer [and I] made about 20 pictures together for Columbia, and all of them were very low budget, even the colour ones.

When you plan a picture do you try to put together ONE SPECTACULAR SEQUENCE, one amazing animal? (Mr Flibble asked if he had ever considered a rampaging killer penguin, but had his beak silenced.)

We tried to keep a central character, and that was our forté for most of our films. We used animation as [a way of] keeping one central character, or maybe multiple characters, going throughout the film. Many special or animated effects you see today are just incidents in the picture - whereas King Kong or Mighty Joe Young ran through the picture as characters. And I think that makes all the difference.

Kong had a mystic quality because of the animation technique, and it fit so beautifully into the realm of fantasy because it makes it like a dream. You're not striving for reality in a fantasy film. You're striving for impressionable, spectacular, fairytale concepts. We're not interested in trying to imitate reality.

You could see, for example, the difference between the 1933 King Kong, which was beautifully conceived, and the remake (1976), where they had a man in a gorilla suit - and it was a beautiful gorilla suit. But you were always aware that it was a man in a gorilla suit. And that is eliminated when you use animation. That always struck me as our reason for being, why we had a longevity.

On Jason and the Argonauts (1963) was there a lot of research done to ensure HISTORICAL ACCURACY?

Oh yes, we do enormous research. This medium had always been associated with dinosaurs on the loose, and you can't keep destroying cities. I think I destroyed Washington, I destroyed New York, I destroyed Long Beach California, and Rome. You can't just keep doing that. So I was looking for a new avenue for the medium of dimensional animation, and I came across Sinbad and his adventures.

Sinbad is the personification of adventure, I think. You could believe in a skeleton fighting Sinbad where you wouldn't believe it in a picture of a contemporary nature. So we latched onto the Arabian Nights, where you could get away with magic, you could get away with all these wonderful creatures - like the Cyclops and the two-headed rock.

Then it branched from the Arabian Nights mythology into Greek mythology. We were again looking for a new avenue of dimensional animation, and Greek mythology lent itself so beautifully because all these creatures are written into the original stories. We tried to keep to the original stories as much as possible, but Greek mythology was never written in a continuity way, so we had to manipulate them. Many times we had to steal from one myth to enhance another myth, because they were fragmented and they didn't have a continuity like you expect in a motion picture.

So sometimes we're criticised for manipulating mythology, but it was very necessary in order to make a comprehensible, rational type of film that an audience would sit through for an hour and a half.

In part two of our interview, Ray Harryhausen will be talking about Clash of the Titans, 20 Million Miles to Earth and just why dinosaurs continue to hold such a fascination. If you don't tune in... Mr Flibble will be very cross.