Ray Harryhausen, the special effects genius who used stop-motion effects to enchant a generation of film-goers, has passed away. According to The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation Facebook page, Harryhausen died in London today, May 7 (less than two months short of what would have been his 93rd birthday).
Harryhausen caught the filmmaking bug after watching a screening of the original, black-and-white version of KING KONG (1933), which used wire-armature models, photographed one frame at a time, to bring the giant ape and his prehistoric reptilian adversaries to cinematic life. For each frame of film, a miniature model of Kong, a T-Rex or some other dinosaur would be positioned, then photographed; then O’Brien would reposition the model, and shoot another frame. After several hours of this process, there would be enough frames to portray a few seconds of a Kong pounding his chest, attacking an opponent, or climbing the Empire State building.
As a child, Harryhausen experimented with the technique at home (at one point, famously scavenging his mother’s fur coat to provide a skin for a wolly mammoth). His early efforts earned the approval of Willis O’Brien, the stop-motion pioneer whose work on KING KONG had inspired Harryhausen. O’Brien hired Harryhausen to provide animation for MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1948), a sort of kinder, gentler verion of KING KONG. If anything, Harryhausen was an example of the student surpassing the master. O’Brien had a genius for engineering how special effects could be achieved, but Harryhausen had a deft touch as an animator, imbuing Mighty Joe Young with a touching personality. This characteristic would carry over into later films when Harryhausen branched out on his own.
In 1953, producers Jack Dietz and Hal E. Chester needed someone to bring THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS to life. Harryhausen adapted O’Brien’s old and somewhat expensive technique for low-budget filmmaking, using split screen effects to mix the monster with live-action footage, instead of crafting numerous miniature sets and matte paintings.
The film was a hit, which led to Harryhausen joining forces with producer Charles Schneer, a partnership that led to the subsequent films IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956), and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957).
In 1958, Harryhausen and Schneer switched from black-and-white science fiction to color fantasy with THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, a colorful adventure film filled with amazing visual delights: a snake-woman; a one-eyed cyclops or two; a fire-breathing dragon; and, perhaps most famously, a skeleton that comes to life and engages in a sword-fight with Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews). With its childlike, almost naive tone, the film is perfect entertainment for children and families – one of the best in Harryhausen’s career.
Later collaborations between Harryhausen and Schneer included THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960), MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964), and THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969), the later of which was based on an idea by Harryhausen’s mentor, Willis O’Brien. There were two Sinbad sequels, THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973), which is possibly even better than the first, and SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER (1977). Harryhausen also provided dinosaur effects for Hammer Films’ remaking of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966).
The last Sinbad film was a bit disappointing. In the new era of science fiction films, inaugurated by STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, Harryhausen’s style was starting to seem a bit quaint, both in terms of effects and story. Harryhausen’s films typically were showcases for his effects process, which he dubbed “Dynamation” (short for “Dimensional Animation,” because he was animating three-dimensional puppets, not two-dimensional drawings).
In spite of the occasional dramatic deficiencies, several of his films do stand up as solid movies, in particular MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. But regardless of whether they were sophisticated cinema, Harryhausen’s films could always enchant, engendering a wide-eyed sense of wonder that could last a lifetime (typified by Tom Hanks, declaration, upon presenting a lifetime Oscar to Harryhausen, that “JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is the greatest movie ever made”).
Harryhausen wrapped up his film career with CLASH OF THE TITANS (1980), which featured a bigger budget and a more stellar cast than his previous movies. Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, and others presided as the gods over Mount Olympus, while Harry Hamlin provided the human heroics as Perseus. The film captured an appropriate sense of grandeur in its early sequences, but the later portion is marred by some ill-conceived pandering to the kiddie market (in the form of Bubo, the mechanical owl, who sounds like R2D2). Nevertheless, CLASH OF THE TITANS featured what may be Harryhausen’s greatest set-piece, the length and quite suspenseful cat-and-mouse encounter between Perseus and Medusa, set in the terrifying Gorgon’s shadowy lair.
In his retirement, Harryhausen kept his legacy alive through DVD releases of his old titles, sometimes in new colorized editions and through authoring and/or collaborating on such books as RAY HARRYHAUSEN’S FANTASY SCRAPBOOK and THE ART OF RAY HARRYHAUSEN.
As a technical matter, the stop-motion process required precision and patience. Harryhausen possessed both patience and precision, but also something else – the soul of an artist. As much an actor as a technician, he did not not simply execute special effects; he crafted performances. In a figurative sense, he “animated” his creatures according to the original definition of “animate” – breathing life into them.
With today’s more sophisticated computer-generated effects, stop-motion has fallen somewhat out of fashion, but many of Harryhausen’s old fans work in the industry, and some keep the technique alive. Recent examples of stop-motion films include Tim Burton’s FRANKENWEENIE, Henry Selick’s CORALINE, and Nick Park’s WALLACE AND GROMIT: CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT.
The Facebook post announcing Harryhausen’s death is filled with tributes from George Lucas, Peter Jackson, Nick Park, Randy Cook, Phil Tippett, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron. However, Terry Gilliam says it best:
“What we do now digitally with computers, Ray did digitally long before but without computers. Only with his digits.”