A towering figure in the history and evolution of motion-picture special effects, Ray Harryhausen created some of the most memorable creatures ever to stalk, slither and sail across movie screens in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. A tutelage under effects pioneers George Pal and Willis O'Brien inspired Harryhausen's own stop-motion animation, which gave vivid life to aliens and monsters of myth in such iconic fantasy and science fiction films as "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" (1953), "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" (1958), "One Million Years B.C." (1966) and "Clash of the Titans" (1981). Harryhausen's imaginative work would later serve as inspiration for generations of filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Tim Burton, James Cameron and countless others, all of whom paid tribute to him in their own fantasy film exploits. Before his death in May 2013, he fittingly racked up various honors for his undeniable creativity and vision.
Born Raymond Frederick Harryhausen in Los Angeles on June 29, 1920, he was an avid reader of science fiction as a youth. His fascination with animation grew from a screening of "King Kong" (1933), he could not fathom how the giant ape moved, as he knew it was not a man in a suit and it moved too freely to be a puppet. Harryhausen soon learned that the secret behind the film was stop-motion animation, the process whereby a model is photographed one frame at a time, with minor adjustments between shots; when the footage is projected at normal speed, the model appears to move on its own. Harryhausen was so entranced by the technique and with its pioneer, Willis O'Brien, who almost single-handedly provided the effects for "Kong," that he set out to try it himself. His father encouraged him by building a studio for him in the corner of the garage, and his mother donated a coat to provide fur for a model of a bear. Harryhausen purchased a movie camera and began fooling around. By his late teens, he started taking night courses in motion-picture photography at USC, where he learned about special effects, matte shots and multiple exposures. He also enrolled in art classes, studying sculpture and drawing, in part to ensure he had another career to fall back on.
He need not have worried. Harryhausen combined strong technical expertise with a natural talent for understanding movement and behavior. In 1940, he embarked on a special project; what was to be a full-length film entitled "Evolution," consisting entirely of stop-motion-animated animals. The scope of the project eventually overwhelmed Harryhausen, who was also dissuaded when he saw Walt Disney's "Fantasia" (1940) and determined it was useless to continue. However, he did show some of his work to director George Pal, who hired him right away to work on his "Puppetoons" shorts. During World War II, Harryhausen was drafted into the Army Signal Corp, where he used his animation skills to make training films. After he was discharged at the end of the war, he returned to his home studio, where he made a short film, "Mother Goose Stories" (1946), which he sold to an independent producer for enough money that he could continue on to several additional short fairy tales, including "The Story of Little Red Riding Hood" (1949), "Hansel and Gretel" (1951) and "The Story of King Midas" (1953).
Harryhausen's career then took a big step forward when he contacted his hero O'Brien, with hopes to break in to the business. O'Brien was impressed with his work, hiring him to work as his assistant on another film about a giant ape, called "Mighty Joe Young" (1949). Written and directed by the same creative team as "Kong," the fantasy-drama, about a giant African ape who follows the girl he loves (Terry Moore) to America, featured more complex special effects than "Kong," and O'Brien's role as supervisor was to sort out the various problems that arose with the animation, while Harryhausen executed the majority of the actual effects. Though not regarded with the same level of admiration as "Kong," "Mighty Joe Young" was a box office hit and earned an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
Harryhausen worked sporadically for the next few years, as projects started and stopped, and he returned to his studio to continue working on his fairy tale projects in the interim. He then met producer Charles Schneer, and began a fruitful relationship that would last several decades. The re-release of "Kong" in 1952 kicked off a monster-movie craze in Hollywood, and Schneer and Harryhausen began production on a feature titled "The Monster Beneath the Sea," which borrowed heavily from the plot of "Kong." Upon hearing that Harryhausen's friend, fantasy author Ray Bradbury, had sold a story to The Saturday Evening Post about an aquatic dinosaur that is summoned to the surface by the song of a fog horn, they quickly convinced Warner Bros. to purchase the rights to the story. Bradbury's short tale, "The Fog Horn," became the nucleus of Harryhausen's first effort as a solo animator, Eugene Lourie's "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms." An effective monster movie about a four-legged dinosaur awakened from Arctic hibernation by nuclear tests that runs amok in New York City, the film was a massive success for the studio, and Harryhausen's creature wowed audiences with its lifelike movements. The dinosaur was a test run for his new technique, which combined images by projecting live-action elements onto a miniature set, in front of which models were animated, with still another layer of live action matted onto the foreground, effectively sandwiching the models in the frame. The process, which eliminated the use of an expensive optical print, was later known in his color efforts as "DynaMation."
The success of "Beast" led to more science-fiction work for Harryhausen, and he delivered some of the most indelible images of the genre's boom in the 1950s. For Columbia's "It Came from Beneath the Sea" (1955), Harryhausen created a colossal octopus that terrorized San Francisco, and, in one startling sequence, pulled down the Golden Gate Bridge. Amusingly, the film's budget-conscious producer, Sam Katzman, only allotted enough money to animate six of the creature's arms, resulting in what Harryhausen later dubbed a "hextapus." In "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" (1956), Harryhausen unleashed a fleet of deadly UFOs on Washington D.C., which laid waste to the American military and in a particularly jaw-dropping scene, brought down the Washington Monument. And in "20 Million Miles to Earth" (1957), Harryhausen created a lizard-like alien from Venus - dubbed the Ymir in press materials - that wreaked havoc in the streets of Rome before facing down soldiers in the Coliseum. As in all of Harryhausen's films, the show-stopper in "Earth" is a battle royale, this time around between the Ymir and a rogue elephant, which would set the tone for future monster rallies in his subsequent efforts.
Harryhausen also re-teamed with his mentor, O'Brien, for a sequence in the 1956 feature-length documentary "The Animal World." Producer Irwin Allen had given O'Brien little time to conceive the film's opening, which was set in prehistoric times, and so the veteran called on Harryhausen to help him complete the eight-minute scene, which became the high point of the entire picture. All of Harryhausen's work had been in black and white, and he was reluctant to make the jump to color because of the difficulty in maintaining proper color balances with the DynaMation process. Schneer convinced him otherwise for their next effort, "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" (1958), and the results earned him not only his greatest film success of the 1950s, but a four-year contract with Columbia to produce more epic fantasies. Although somewhat stodgy (from a script and acting standpoint) by modern standards, this Harryhausen work is nothing short of spectacular, and includes some of his best-loved creations, including a fire-breathing dragon, the two-headed monster bird known as the Roc, a snake woman (inspired by a belly dancer he saw in Beirut) and a combative Cyclops who grapples furiously with the dragon. The film was later cited by Dennis Muren, head of George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic, as his inspiration for a career in special effects.
Harryhausen continued to amaze with his subsequent Columbia efforts, including "The Three Worlds of Gulliver" (1960) and the Jules Verne adaptation "The Mysterious Island" (1961), which added a massive crab, an industrious honey bee, a giant mollusk and a prehistoric bird to his menagerie. But it was his next film that elevated Harryhausen to legendary status. "Jason and the Argonauts" (1963) featured some of his most complex and challenging work to date, including the seven-headed serpent the Hydra and Talos, a giant bronze statute that comes to life to battle Jason and his men. However, both paled in comparison to a lengthy sequence in which a band of skeletons rise from the ground to wage a pitched sword battle with Jason. Completed by Harryhausen solo over a four-month period, it was a feat never again attempted by another animator, and rarely surpassed in any special-effects-driven film.
Sadly, neither "Jason" nor his next effort, an adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The First Men in the Moon" (1964) was a box-office success, leaving Harryhausen to freelance for the remainder of the 1960s and early 1970s. England's Hammer Films hired him to contribute some impressive dinosaurs to their remake of "One Million Years B.C." (1966), which scored largely on the strength of its leading lady, Raquel Welch, who appeared a fur bikini throughout the picture. Its success brought Harryhausen back to America for "The Valley of Gwangi" (1969), a personal project storyboarded by O'Brien about a dinosaur discovered in Mexico during the early years of the 20th century. Though Harryhausen's work was typically top-notch, the film was buried by Warner Bros. on the bottom of a double bill and ultimately missed its target audience of young adults.
Harryhausen bounced back in the early '70s when Schneer convinced Columbia to revive Sinbad for a pair of new feature adventures. Shot in Europe for a remarkably low sum of money, "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" (1973) was a worthy successor to "7th Voyage" and offered a dazzling array of creatures, including a club-wielding centaur, a tiny demon created from the blood of the film's chief villain played by Tom Baker, whose performance earned him his celebrated stint as "Doctor Who" (BBC, 1963-1989; 2005- ), and a seven-armed, sword-wielding statue of the Hindu goddess Kali that evoked both Talos and the skeletons from "Jason." Its success was followed by another hit, "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger" (1977), which featured among its monstrous cast a giant walrus, a huge wasp (shades of the bee from "Mysterious Island") and a cave-dwelling troglodyte that fought to the death with a saber-toothed tiger.
But gradually a new generation of visual-effects artists, including stop-motion animators who had entered the business after seeing Harryhausen's work, emerged onto the scene, resulting in less emphasis on the work of a single artist for effects-driven movies. Undaunted, Harryhausen launched into a new film, "Clash of the Titans" (1981), which drew its storyline from the Greek myth of Perseus. Originally a modestly budgeted effort, MGM poured money into the film to hire an all-star cast, which included Burgess Meredith, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress, Claire Bloom and a magnificently bearded and bewigged Laurence Olivier as Zeus. Their presence, however, was eclipsed by Harryhausen's creations, which included the winged horse Pegasus, a snake-headed Medusa and a towering sea creature called the Kraken, which bore a distinct facial resemblance to the Ymir. Although a decent success at the box office, "Titans" convinced studio executives that Harryhausen's stop-motion technique was a costly and time-consuming process, especially when compared to more elaborate work done in recent special-effects-driven films like "Star Wars" (1977). Faced with disinterest by Hollywood as a whole, Harryhausen and Schneer retired from filmmaking in the early 1980s.
However, Harryhausen remained far from inactive in the decades that followed. He released several books devoted to his work, and supervised the release of his films on VHS, laserdisc and DVD. His work was honored with a 1992 Lifetime Achievement Oscar by the countless filmmaking professionals who had been influenced by his films. The award kicked off a renewed interest in his work and Harryhausen toured festivals, museums and colleges with his films and models, leaving a trail of sci-fi/fantasy geeks, both young and old, waiting breathlessly to both meet him and hear him speak. He even returned to filmmaking in a limited capacity. In 2002, several filmmakers collaborated to help him finish "The Story of the Tortoise & the Hare," the fifth and final of his fairy tales, originally begun in 1952. The film won a 2003 Annie Award, and inspired Harryhausen to return to producing with surprising vigor for a man in his eighth decade. In 2005, he not only oversaw the release of a two-DVD set that compiled all of his non-feature efforts, but he also released colorized versions of his black-and-white films and began work on a new series of short movies; this time based on works by Edgar Allan Poe. Harryhausen also worked on a colorized release of "Kong" director Meriam C. Cooper's "She" (1935), and furnished the artwork for a series of comic-book sequels to some of his greatest film efforts. Harryhausen died on May 7, 2013, at the age of 92, and his passing prompted outpourings of adoration throughout the movie industry. In many ways, it signaled the end of an era for cinematic special effects, but one that would be fondly remembered by generations of audiences the world over.