He brought to life everything from Mighty Joe Young to the Medusa of Greek mythology and was perhaps best known for animating the seven skeletons that did battle with the legendary Jason in 195-‘s Jason And The Argonauts. But the hands that created those magical movie moments has stilled. Ray Harryhausem, the special effects genius who was the unexcelled master of stop-motion animation techniques, has died today in London at the age of 92.
Through the 1950s and `60s, Harryhausen’s expertiese brought to life many a movie monster through the process known as stop motion animation, the subtle manipulation of models that are photographed film frame-by-film frame. When the film is run at normal speed the illusion is created that the models are actually moving. While there were other stop-motion technicians, none of them approached Harryhausen’s detail-intensive level of realism.
It was as a teenager that Harryhausen’s interest in special effects was ignited when he and lifelong friend, and future science-fiction grand master, Ray Bradbury saw Willis O’Brien’s King Kong. Harryhausen sought out O’Brien, who took the teenager under his wing. Following World War Two, during which he served in Frank Capra’s film unit, Harryhausen was hired by O’Brien to work on the film Mighty Joe Young. The film would earn an Academy Award for its special effects.
While he also worked on the films The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955) and Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), it was the series of mythologically-based fantasy adventure films featuring the likes of Sinbad the Sailor and Jason and the Argonauts that Harryhausen is best known for. In addition to the skeletons of Jason And The Argonauts, he also brought to life the giant two-headed roc of The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (1958), the centaur and the griffin from The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad (1974) and Medusa and the kracken from the original Clash Of The Titans (1981).
But Harryhausen’s work did not just thrill generations of movie buffs. It also served as an inspiration to a number of the biggest names in genre filmmaking today including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and James Cameron. Additionally, modern day effects technicians like Phil Tippet (the original Star Wars trilogy) have sited him as instrumental in their careers.
On a personal note, I am one of the millions of kids who was enthralled with the amazing things that Ray Harryhausen brought to life in his films. I was very lucky to meet him briefly in 2005 when he was doing a book signing for his The Art Of Ray Harryhausen, which was followed by a screening of Jason And The Argonauts. He was every bit the gracious gentleman I had heard he was when I thanked him for all the hours of enjoyment his movies had brought me. And while advances in technology may have made the way he made movies obsolete, the wonder that his work inspires will never go out of fashion.
Here is just a portion of Harryhausen’s most famous effects sequence from Jason And The Argonauts –