It was in 1933 that a 13-year-old Ray Harryhausen, accompanied by his aunt and mother, made a trip to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to see “a movie about a gorilla.” That movie turned out to be King Kong, and it set the wide-eyed Harryhausen on a path to become one of the great visual effects artists of the 20th century.
For Harryhausen, who died in London on May 7 at age 92, that viewing of King Kong (the first of many) introduced him to the process of stop-motion animation, which in turn provided the means for turning his own childhood fantasies into reality. He began making his own stop-motion short films, eventually moving on to work with such industry legends as George Pal, Frank Capra and his idol, stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien, who he assisted on Mighty Joe Young (1949).
By the early ’50s, Harryhausen was supervising the visual effects on his own films, including It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955, for which he famously created a six-tentacled octopus in order to save money), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), Mysterious Island (1961), One Million Years B.C. (1966), The Valley of Gwangi (1969) and the Sinbad films.
He is probably best remembered for his work on Jason and the Argonauts (1963), which featured the legendary skeleton fight that took him three months to animate; and Clash of the Titans (1981), remade in 2010 as a CG-heavy epic, much to Harryhausen’s displeasure. Unlike most genre films, where the complicated visual effects were handled by entire departments of artists and technicians, Harryhausen did it all himself, using his distinctive stop-motion techniques, christened Dynamation by producer/partner Charles H. Schneer. (AT LEFT: Harryhausen working on Medusa for Clash of the Titans)
Clash of the Titans turned out to be the last film before Harryhausen’s retirement in the early ’80s. “It was a gradual thing, not just a sudden decision,” he explained to this writer in a 1992 interview. “I had to spend a year and a half by myself on most of my pictures; you have to devote your whole life to it, and I found that a little distressing once I passed a certain age. How many more haircuts have you got left? I think I preferred to do something else than to be in a darkened room.”
Following his retirement, Harryhausen devoted much of his free time to sharing his legacy with new generations of film lovers. He traveled the world, often accompanied by some of his original models, many of which had become distinctly worse for wear, and he wrote a series of coffee-table books with long-time archivist Tony Dalton. In 1992, he won the Gordon E. Sawyer Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for “technological contributions [which] have brought credit to the industry,” and in 2003, he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (AT RIGHT: Harryhausen with a Medusa head from Clash of the Titans)
Harryhausen’s work will be seen by generations to come, thanks largely to the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, a charitable trust that continues to catalogue and exhibit thousands of items from his personal archives. A new documentary, Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, continues to air at film festivals and screenings. (See the trailer for it below.)
While the legacy of Ray Harryhausen will continue to be felt for many decades to come, perhaps no one can express that debt as well as animator-turned-director Terry Gilliam, who notes in a letter released by the foundation, “What we do now digitally with computers, Ray did digitally long before, but without computers. Only with his digits.”
Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan trailer
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad trailer
Cyclops scene from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad
Jason and the Argonauts trailer