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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A look at the life and career of the late Ray Harryhausen

Illustration for article titled A look at the life and career of the late Ray Harryhausen

Earlier today we learned of the death of Ray Harryhausen, the special-visual-effects specialist whose name practically became a synonym for the art of stop-motion animation. As a young man, Harryhausen was inspired by the work of Hollywood animation pioneer Willis O’Brien, best known for his work on King Kong (1933) and the 1925 silent film The Lost World. Harryhausen began making his first films when he was a teenager, building his own models and sets and teaching himself animation techniques through trial and error. At 18, he began work on his most ambitious early project, the unfinished prehistoric-times film Evolution Of The Earth:

He also started making connections. Harryhausen formed a mutual-appreciation society with the young Ray Bradbury and Forrest J. Ackerman, the budding movie-memorabilia collector and future publisher of the classic fan-nostalgia magazine Famous Monsters Of Filmland. Eventually he even worked up the courage to storm the studio castle and seek out Willis O’Brien at his MGM office. On O’Brien’s advice, Harryhausen enrolled at Los Angeles City College, taking classes to shore up his understanding of art and anatomy. In 1940, he began his professional apprenticeship by working for the producer George Pal on the Puppetoons series of short films. During World War II, Harryhausen enlisted in the Army and was soon assigned to work with Colonel Frank Capra on his series of propaganda films for the U. S. War Office.


After leaving the service, Harryhausen used the rolls of discarded film he’d managed to salvage to hone his skills, making a series of puppet films based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes. He also worked up test footage for his own, quirkier projects that he could never get funded—notably, an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds.

His first big break came in 1947, when O’Brien hired him to work on Mighty Joe Young, a sort of King Kong-lite adventure about a 12-foot gorilla. Although Harryhausen was officially credited as O’Brien’s assistant animator, it’s generally acknowledged that O’Brien had by then grown weary of the business and passed off most of the actual hands-on work to Harryhausen. Mighty Joe Young shows how far Harryhausen had already come in learning how to invest his models with individual personalities. Released in 1949, the film won the Academy Award for Best Special Effects.

The success of Mighty Joe Young and a resurgence in the popularity of giant monster movies resulted in the busiest period of Harryhausen’s career. His first solo assignment wasto create the title character for The Monster From Beneath The Sea—a film that soon became The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, after Ray Bradbury responded to an offer to clean up its screenplay by pointing out that it was awfully similar to a story by that name he’d already published in The Saturday Evening Post. Having mastered the craft of making his models appear lifelike onscreen, Harryhausen now focused on developing a combination of split-screen, rear projection, and careful attention to lighting that would enable them to better blend in with live action. In a few years, the producer Charles H. Schneer would coin the snappy term “Dynamation” to describe Harryhausen’s technique.

After Beast, Harryhausen began his long professional partnership with Schneer on It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955), starring a gigantic—and, for budgetary reasons, six-tentacled—octopus that menaces the Golden Gate Bridge. They collaborated again on the dinosaur picture The Animal World (1956), which gave Harryhausen one more chance to work with Willis O’Brien; Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), highlighted by the iconic images of UFOs strafing Washington, D. C. and crashing into the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building; and 20 Million Miles To Earth (1957).

In 1958, Harryhausen and Schneer took a break from menacing aliens and big marauding critters to achieve a fantasy benchmark with their first color film, The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad. The film, which also marked the first of several collaborations between Harryhausen and the composer Bernard Herrmann, features a sword battle between the hero and a skeleton that may be Harryhausen’s best-known and most influential melding of live action and animation. Characteristically, Harryhausen tried to top himself with a sequence in 1963’s Jason And The Argonauts that featured a whole army of battling, self-regenerating skeletons.

Harryhausen and Schneer also worked together on The Three Worlds Of Gulliver (1960), Mysterious Island (1961), First Men In The Moon (1964), and The Valley Of Gwangi (1969). (Around the same time, Harryhausen also did the effects for the 1966 One Million Years B.C.—a film perhaps best remembered not for Harryhausen’s work, but rather a popular dorm-room poster showcasing Raquel Welch’s décolletage.) The returns on these later movies proved disappointing, so in 1974, they returned to swords-and-seafarers fantasy with The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad.

Golden Voyage did quite well, but while Harryhausen and Schneer may have thought it was the beginning of a comeback, in some ways it was their last gasp. The follow-up, Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger (1977), was released three months after Star Wars—a movie that both reflected and influenced changing tastes in big-screen spectacle. It was also true that, after so many years in the business, Harryhausen’s effects were beginning to seem repetitive, a problem exacerbated in the fondly remembered yet creaky Clash Of The Titans. After the restrained box-office response to Titans, plans for a sequel were canceled, and Harryhausen was unable to get financing for another Sinbad movie. He formally announced his retirement in 1984.

In his later years, Harryhausen published several books (including Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, a career retrospective co-authored with Tony Dalton). He also oversaw the restoration of his films for release on home video, directed the 2002 short The Tortoise And The Hare, and made cameo appearances as an actor in Spies Like Us (1985), Beverly Hills Cop III (1998), and the 1998 remake of Mighty Joe Young (1998). He was given a special Academy Award in 1992 and inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2005, commemorating his many years of contributions to the realms of cinema and beyond.