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

He's the animator responsible for attacking skeletons, marauding aliens and Medussa's ultimate bad hair day. A bank holiday weekend wouldn't be complete without one of his action-packed adventures. Mr Flibble uses the reflection in his shield to stare back at an effects legend in part two of our interview with Ray Harryhausen...

Mr Flibble whispered in Andrew's ear a request to talk about 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957)...

We made the film in Rome; we shot it - much of it before even the director came onto the picture - in order to get the backgrounds. We had a second unit shoot many of the location scenes. It developed into 20 Million Miles to Earth, which was... I guess you'd call it a science-fiction film.

Charles Schneer and I had been making contemporary subjects, and he would like to look in the newspaper. That's how It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955) and Earth Versus the Flying Saucers (1956) came about - little things in the newspaper, articles. In the 50's flying saucers were very prominent, [there were] many sightings. We tried to make a film that was based on news value, all contemporary.

The basic premise was that the American space programme sent a space-ship up to the planet Venus, successfully, and when it returned it brought back a specimen of life.

Due to the difference in atmosphere, the Ymir kept growing, so every night he increased in size. By the end of the picture he was enormous. He ended up on the top of the Coliseum in Rome, and met his doom in a similar way that King Kong did, who was my hero of the 30's.

There's a marvellous battle sequence in 20 Million Miles to Earth towards the end, with an elephant...

I wanted the Ymir to battle something of its own size, so we incorporated the elephant, and he had quite a battle in front of the gallery, and all the important monuments of Rome at the time. Some critics said I made 'new ruins among the old,' which was an interesting idea. But the battle with the elephant was quite exciting. It was more or less a take-off of King Kong.

Did you deliberately give the Ymir HUMANISTIC QUALITIES?

The Ymir was fun to animate because he was a humanoid lizard. We wanted to get a humanoid figure. When you're animating a dinosaur, you can't animate it with human qualities. With the Ymir, you could give it a personality, and I think we succeeded in that. We gave it a semi-humanoid personality - he was half-lizard, half-humanoid, and he had a torso and walked on his hind legs. So you could give him a human quality that, I think, the audience can associate with. And some people even shed a tear when he fell off the Coliseum.

He was a victim of circumstances, he was not aggressive by nature - and we tried to point that out in the script. The first time he felt aggression was when the dog attacked him in the barn. So after that he became aggressive because everybody was after him as a criminal. They didn't understand him, and it was sort of an animal-rights concept in the early days.

Mr Flibble said he always tried to inject a little emotion into his performances. You obviously find it important to make those kind of emotional connections...

I got that mostly from Willis O'Brien, I suppose. Kong had such a sympathy, even though he was a great, big, menacing, villainous creature. He tugged at your heart-strings. My wife hates to look at the climax and see him fall off the Empire State Building. He was misunderstood... sort of [like] Lenny from Of Mice and Men.

We tried to do that with the Cyclops from The 7th Voyage... we tried to do it with Medussa, who had a humanoid torso on a snake's body. I preferred to work with a humanoid image. It is rather exciting, it almost feels - I hope it isn't sacrilegious to say this - like you're Dr Frankenstein, bringing something to life of a synthetic nature, that didn't exist before.

Is that 'creation of life' the reward for the endless man-hours spent making a sequence a frame at a time?

I think the thing that makes you tolerant, [that gives you] all the patience you have to have to do stop-motion, is when you get the rushes back the next day from the laboratory and you see that you captured what you had in your imagination. Because so much of dimensional animation - the type of animation I was associated with - is created on the set.

I make many continuity drawings before we start, but you can't have everything laid out like you do in a cartoon. When you shoot the live action you know they are going to do certain things, but there's no detail at that time. All the detail comes in when you start putting the film together and start animating the character in association with the live actors. And I find that intriguing, even after the many years and the many millions of frames that have gone through my camera. I find that the most exciting part is when you get the rushes back and see if you captured that personality, if you captured what you actually visualised in your mind.

Of course, many times you have the problem that budget restrictions make you have to compromise, and one regrets that. When I've seen the films many years later, I always regret [that] I didn't spend ten minutes more refining this and refining that. But you have to be practical when you're making a commercial motion picture. You have a deadline. If we have 360 shots in the film, if you did one shot a day, that would be a year. So you have to be practical and try to make a schedule that will make the picture practical commercially.

Have you had any real disasters?

Occasionally, yes. Some disasters occur when something goes wrong in the middle of a two day animated scene and the figure falls over and you have to start all over again. (Laughs) But those are things you tend to take in your stride, and we try to keep them at a minimum. We've had no - what I would call - major disasters. Some of our disasters were technical, for example in Clash of the Titans (1981) we found that the film didn't have accurate sprocket holes! That took a month and a half of experiments to track that down. [It's] strange things like that [which] cause upsets.

Let's talk about your work on CLASH OF THE TITANS...

Clash was the last major motion picture that I got involved with. You learn from every film you do. You increase the pattern of your characters, you make them more believable. I've never believed in just doing smooth animation for the sake of smooth animation - I don't see why one would want to try to imitate reality. There have been many processes, tools that have been devised for creating motion blur, blurring each frame of film where you have fast action. That's all very fine, but I don't think that's a necessity. Because you're not trying to deceive people into thinking these creatures were alive - everybody knows that no matter how smooth it's done, a dinosaur doesn't exist today.

So I think there's a licence there. But it's similar to asking an artist to make a photographic copy of a landscape. Why not just go out there and photograph it with a camera? Why bother to paint it? So there's a certain creativity, I think, that is lost in the computer. I still think there's room for hand animation, and good stories that people can follow.

How important is the MUSIC in your films?

Music, to me, has always been a very important part of visual film - and ours are visual films. I remember the music in Kong by Max Steiner was such an integral part of the picture. It heightened the visual image to such an extent that I always insisted we get a good composer. Many times we've had the problem of using canned music in some of our early black and white pictures. And I've always regretted that, because I think it was rather a detriment to the visual image.

When we got Bernard Herrman to do The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, that was [the] delight of my life - because I grew up with Herrman on radio. He used to do the music for the Orson Welles programs, the Mercury Theatre. And was always highly impressed with his imagination and his ability to create a visual image on the radio. His music has been a great advantage to our films, to the visual type of film. And he stands alone in his style of music.

Miklos Rozsa stands alone. I was always impressed with The Thief of Bhagdad that Alexander Korder made in England years ago. That wonderful score is still one of his greatest, I think. It was a great pleasure that he scored our Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Unfortunately he had a much thinner orchestra, but I still think it's a fine score, and fits the film beautifully.

Is there one DREAM FILM still that you'd really like to make?

Yes, there's a number of films. Gustav Dore was a great influence in my early drawing, of putting visual images on paper. He was a French illustrator who did Dante's Inferno. And I always wanted to put Dante's Inferno on the screen. Someone did, some years ago, as a minor part of a feature film, and it was done very well, but I would like to have done it in animation. Put on the screen the images that Dore had in mind.

Then I got to thinking - could an audience sit through an hour and a half of tormented souls? But some of the films you see today, audiences are sitting through an hour and a half of tormented souls who go though Hell and firewater. I always find those type of pictures most depressing.

Finally, did you ever get sick of DINOSAURS?

Oh, you couldn't get sick of dinosaurs! My goodness, they're the stability of the world! I still get excited when I go to the museums and think these things actually lived! I'm still hooked on dinosaurs.

We tried to make all our dinosaurs as accurately as possible. We actually got the pictures of the skeletons when we did a dinosaur picture, and put every joint, the physiology of a real dinosaur, into our films. Except once...

I had a five year old boy come up to me at a convention and he said, 'Mr Harryhausen, you don't know anything about pterodactyls, because they don't have bat wings.' And he was quite right. Pterodactyls do not have bat wings. But I had put them on my particular pterodactyls to give the illusion that they were airborne. The type of wing the pterodactyl had was just a piece of skin, and it never - in animation - gave the impression that it was airborne. It always just looked like it was flapping in the breeze.

When I put bat wings on them, it gave an entirely different impression. So that was the reason - one has to take a licence. We don't make films for professors, we don't not make documentaries. They're fantasy films and you have to take licence and liberties, in order to make the thing good theatre.

Mr Flibble's wings have been described as unrealistic as well! He very much enjoyed talking to Ray Harryhausen, and now that it's over... Mr Flibble very cross.