Ray Harryhausen passed away in London where he lived, on May 7th, 2013 at the age of 91. How do you begin to summarize the extent of this brilliant master’s contributions to the world of fantasy and science fiction? His iconic career spans half a century literally bringing to life some of the most memorable creations that inhabit the fantastical realms of cinematic invention. Filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, John Landis, George Lucas, and Peter Jackson all claim to have been influenced by Harryhausen’s legacy.
From early on I can remember how much I was drawn to Harryhausen’s mystical visions, as they seemed to truly possess a certain extraordinary dynamism. I remember being frozen to the chair gripped with excitement when those bloodthirsty, bone-rattling skeletons broke through the crumbling earth and rose up in their fury to battle Jason and his men. How the expressive Ymir evoked such sympathy in me as a kid and how much I trembled when the imposing giant Octopus ‘Kraken’ emerged from the depths of the ocean floor to wreak havoc on the Golden Gate Bridge and oh, how I thought Talos was one of the coolest things I had ever seen. I think it’s these films that inspired my love of skeletons and fear of going over bridges!
From The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)to Clash of the Titans (1981) and all the marvelous monsters, invaders, magnetic characters, and mythic legends in between, Harryhausen has dazzled us with what I feel is something akin to Beethoven or da Vinci in the way he has conjured his uniquely stylish special effects techniques setting off a whole new spectrum of imagination and movie magic.
Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles where as a teenager he met (at a sci-fi club) and became lifelong friends with Ray Bradbury and Forrest J. Ackerman. When he was only 13, watching King Kong in 1933, he became entranced with Willis O’Brien’s work with stop-motion photography.
From an interview in 2000 “I went to see it again and again, I was a King Kong addict! I loved the way the film took you from the mundane world into the surreal.”
He contacted O’Brien showing him a short demo he had created using an allosaurus, which impressed O’Brien enough to put him to work with George Pal (The Time Machine 1960, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao 1964) who was with Paramount. Eventually, he wound up working with O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young (1949) having done most of the animation on the film, yet O’Brien is the one who received the credit.
Harryhausen finally got his chance to shine when Warner Bros. hired him to do the special effects for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
It was in this film that he used split-screen or rear projection on overlapping miniature screens. Placing fantastical beasts in the midst of real-life landscapes and becoming the most influential sci-fi film of the 1950s. Ray Harryhausen started working with producer Charles H. Shneer at Columbia where in 1958 he did his first split-screen motion picture in color The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
Apparently, it could take Harryhausen up to two years to complete a project. He only shot 13 frames a day, which equaled half of a second of elapsed time each day.
His dedication to precision and the diligence and patient execution of detail culminated in memorable scenes like one of my favorites, the skeleton army forged from the teeth of the slain Hydra rising up with their swords to do battle, in Jason and the Argonauts.
Ray Harryhausen also considered Jason and the Argonauts to be his best film work. My all-time favorite films that he imbued with his visual magic are It Came From Beneath the Sea 1955, Earth vs the Flying Saucers 1956, 20 Million Miles to Earth 1957, and Jason and the Argonauts 1963.
In 2002, Seamus Walsh and Mark Caballero the two fabulous animators who created the deliriously delightful ‘Mysterious Mose’ (which always kicks off my Halloween celebration in the month of October), worked with Harryhausen to finally finish his The Story of the Tortoise and the Hare a film which was initially started in 1952.
He was honored for his 90th birthday with a special tribute at The BFI Southbank Theater, where Peter Jackson presented him with a special BAFTA award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
“I’m very happy that so many young fans have told me that my films have changed their lives. That’s a great compliment. It means I did more than just make entertaining films. I actually touched people’s lives, and I hope changed them for the better”-Ray Harryhausen
And indeed Ray Harryhausen did touch my life in a profound and wonderful way that helped pattern my own imagination. I’ll always feel grateful to the man for being part of the fond memories I carry from my childhood, and still honor today. I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for the films he breathed life into or the wonder and awe his work evokes in me, tapping into those bygone years. His contribution is immense, entertaining, and timeless.
Take your place now with all the mythical titans, we’ll miss you- love, MonsterGirl
From Wikipedia: Ray Harryhausen’s Filmography:
- How to Bridge a Gorge (1942) (producer)
- Tulips Shall Grow (1942) (chief animator)
- Mother Goose Stories (1946) (producer)
- The Story of Little Red Riding Hood (1949) (producer, animator)
- Mighty Joe Young (1949) (first technician)
- The Story of Rapunzel (1951) (producer)
- The Story of Hansel and Gretel (1951) (producer)
- The Story of King Midas (1953) (producer)
- The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) (visual effects)
- It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) (visual effects)
- The Animal World (1956) (effects technician)
- Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) (special photographic, animation effects)
- 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) (visual effects)
- The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) (associate producer, visual effects)
- The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) (visual effects)
- Mysterious Island (1961) (special visual effects)
- Jason and the Argonauts (1963) (associate producer, visual effects)
- First Men in the Moon (1964) (associate producer, visual effects)
- One Million Years B.C. (1966) (special visual effects)
- The Valley of Gwangi (1969) (associate producer, visual effects)
- The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) (producer, visual effects)
- Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (producer, visual effects)
- Clash of the Titans (1981) (producer, visual effects)
- The Story of The Tortoise & the Hare (2003) (director, co-producer, animator)