Long before the computer-generated imagery of Jurassic Park, Avatar, The Avengers, and Iron Man 3, there were special-effects wizard Ray Harryhausen’s painstakingly created stop-motion models, which graced dozens of movies from the late ’40s to the early ’80s. Earlier today, Ray Harryhausen died at age 92 in London, where he had been living since the early ’60s. Among his movie credits are Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years BC, and the original Clash of the Titans.
Born in Los Angeles on June 29, 1920, Harryhausen became interested in cinema’s visual effects after watching Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 blockbuster King Kong, featuring stop-motion effects by Willis H. O’Brien. "I came out of the theater awestruck," Harryhausen would reminisce to the Chicago Tribune in 1999. "It was such a totally different, unusual film. The story line led you from the mundane world into the most outrageous fantasy that’s ever been put on the screen."
Of note: eight years before King Kong held Fay Wray hostage at the top of the Empire State Building, O’Brien had already used stop-motion models — or "model animation" — in the similarly themed The Lost World, based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel and featuring a brontosaurus let loose in London.
Ray Harryhausen and Willis H. O’Brien
While in high school in the mid-’30s, Ray Harryhausen met his icon Willis H. O’Brien, who later acted as a sort of mentor for the fast-evolving visual-effects artist.
In 1940, Harryhausen landed his first professional gig, working for George Pal’s series of Paramount shorts known as "Puppetoons." (Pal is the director of the 1960 classic The Time Machine, winner of that year’s Best Special Effects Academy Award.) Two years after joining Pal’s staff, Harryhausen became a member of the U.S. Army’s Special Service Division, where he collaborated on the Why We Fight documentaries made under the supervision of former Columbia director Frank Capra.
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Following the armistice, Harryhausen resumed his non-professional stop-motion animation work while earning a living by working on TV commercials.
He got his first big break after Willis H. O’Brien hired him to help create the stop-motion visual effects for the RKO feature Mighty Joe Young (1949), directed by King Kong’s Ernest B. Schoedsack, and starring Terry Moore and an overgrown ape obviously inspired by Kong. As the head of the film’s special-effects department, O’Brien won an Oscar for his efforts, though Harryhausen would later claim he created 90 percent of the animated work in the film.
In 1953, the year after King Kong’s American rerelease, Harryhausen worked on his first solo effort: the low-budget horror thriller The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, based on a story by his friend Ray Bradbury, and sharing several elements in common with both King Kong and The Lost World — a dinosaur runs amok in New York City. (Harryhausen had reportedly set his sights on adapting H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, but Byron Haskin directed the 1953 movie, which won a special Academy Award for Best Special Effects.)
It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), in which the Golden Gate Bridge is destroyed by a giant octopus, marked the beginning of Harryhausen’s long-lasting collaboration with producer Charles H. Schneer. Their movie credits, mostly B and "A-" sci-fiers and adventure tales, include Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), in which aliens from outer space (unfortunately) fail to destroy humankind; 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), featuring a nasty, graphic battle between an outer-space monster and an elephant; and the more upscale The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Harryhausen’s first color movie, starring hunk Kerwin Mathews.
Kerwin Mathews would be back for The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960), which Harryhausen followed with Mysterious Island (1961), starring Michael Craig and Joan Greenwood. Next in line was Jason and the Argonauts (1963), featuring the classic skeleton-fighting sequence, and the old-fashioned sci-fier First Men in the Moon (1964), shot in CinemaScope.
Although involved in his films throughout the production process, Harryhausen never received credit as a director — or even co-director — of his features. The credited directors, who usually handled actors and dialogue, were invariably minor (and likely pliable) names, e.g., Cy Endfield, Nathan Juran, Jack Sher, Robert Gordon.
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