Visual Effects Pioneer Ray Harryhausen Dies at 92

Ray Harryhausen
Ray Harryhausen
 

Animation effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, who pioneered many of the stop-motion techniques that have become today's industry standards, has died. He was 92.

Harryhausen died Tuesday in London, it was announced on the Facebook page of the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation.

Revered for his cutting-edge effects work in the 1950s and '60s on such fantasy classics as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Harryhausen developed the technique of projecting footage from the front and rear, one frame at a time. He dubbed the technique “Dynamation” and used it to bring to life mythological figures and prehistorical creatures.

For Jason and the Argonauts, he created a famous skeleton swordfight and came up with the extra-terrestrials for such films as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).

In 1992, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences presented Harryhausen with an honorary Oscar, a tribute to his visual magic. He was presented with the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, an Oscar statuette, given to an individual “whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry.”

“Ray has been a great inspiration to us all in special visual industry,” George Lucas once said in a statement posted on the Harryhausen Facebook page. “The art of his earlier films, which most of us grew up on, inspired us so much. Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars.”

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In those early years, Harryhausen performed his stop-motion techniques on very low-budget projects. His effects created spectacular havoc in such disaster films as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955). He re-created dinosaurs in One Million Years B.C. (1966).

During the '70s and beyond, he created cutting-edge special effects for the films The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) and Clash of the Titans (1981), which starred Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom and Ursula Andress.

“They were considered B pictures because they were made on a budget. But we outlived many of the A pictures made at the same time,” he once noted.

Harryhausen considered his specialty to be creating “fantasy creatures,” where he would insert the monsters believably in the same frame as actual actors. “I don't do monsters, you know. Monsters are associated with horror. I'm not interested in horror … I don't' want to deceive or frighten. I want to create illusions, fantasies, legends,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1981.

Harryhausen inspired a cult following and was the subject of the 1986 documentary, Aliens, Dragons, Monsters and Me, directed by Richard Jones.

Other films included the documentary The Animal World (1956), Mysterious Island (1961), First Men in the Moon (1964) and T he Valley of the Gwangi (1969).

Of today's films and special-effects-propelled plot lines, he was less than enthusiastic: “Now you have to sit through two hours of people dying … Today, everything's so graphic, it's rather unnerving,” he once said.

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Harryhausen was born June 19, 1920, in Los Angeles. As a teenager, he saw 1933's King Kong and was dazzled by its special effects, becoming, he said, a "King Kong addict.” He was inspired by King Kong effects guru Willis O'Brien and paid a visit to O'Brien's home, showing him some amateur creatures he had created. In high school, Harryhausen joined a sci-fi club and met up with two enthusiasts who would become lifelong friends: Ray Bradbury and Forrest J. Ackerman.

He was an avid photographer and attended Los Angeles City College, where he studied photography and sculpture. He went on to USC, he where studied drama and art direction. After graduation, he worked on George Pal's series of animated Puppetooons films and entered the service during World War II.

After being discharged, Harryhausen began his movie career in 1949 with Mighty Joe Young, where his boyhood hero, O'Brien, was chief technician. In 1953, he was hired by Warner Bros. to be in charge of special effects for Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, where he implemented his split-screen technique to insert dinosaurs and other awesome creatures into the story backgrounds.

He next worked on three science-fiction films at Columbia, including The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and a documentary that was highlighted by his monsters interacting with the stars and buttressed by Bernard Herrmann's tempestuous score.

In 1981, Harryhausen was honored with an exhibition and retrospective covering an entire month by New York's Museum of Modern Art. He was later paid tribute by the American Cinematheque. In 2006, Harryhausen was the subject of a retrospective at the historic Byrd Theater in Richmond, Va.

The Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation, a charitable trust set up by the visual effects maven in April 1986, is devoted to the protection of Harryhausen’s name and body of work as well as archiving, preserving and restoring his extensive collection. The Harryhausens married in 1963; Diana survives him.

 

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