Special F/X Pioneer Ray Harryhausen Dies At 92

Ray Harryhausen Dead

Stop-motion effects revolutionized Hollywood creature features

Special f/x legend and stop-motion animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen died Tuesday morning in London. He was 92.

Decades before the digital vfx revolution, Harryhausen was creating f/x-driven stories that influenced generations of filmmakers and f/x artists, including Peter Jackson, Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, George Lucas, makeup maestro Rick Baker and Pixar guru John Lasseter, who paid tribute to him in “Monsters, Inc.” with an Easter egg shout-out.

“Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no ‘Star Wars’,” said George Lucas on Tuesday.

“His patience, his endurance have inspired so many of us,” said Peter Jackson.

Joe Letteri said, “Watching Ray Harryhausen’s films growing up was a pure joy. He brought legends to life and he became a legend himself. And I am sure that future generations of animators will continue to look to him for inspiration.”

“What we do now digitally with computers, Ray Harryhausen did digitally long be4 but without computers. Only with his digits,” Terry Gilliam tweeted.

Harryhausen advanced the art of special effects to new heights during his career, using innovative techniques to blend his stop-motion creatures with live-action action and actors. “People think of him for his wonderful stop-motion animation but he did so much more than that,” said stop-motion animator and director Henry Selick. “His interaction between creatures and live action was beyond what anyone else was doing at that time. There was nothing like it. Ray brought an intensity and magic to life that no one else did.”

Among Harryhausen’s signature effects were the alien Ymir in “20 Million Miles to Earth,” a skeleton army in “Jason and the Argonauts” and the Medusa in his final feature, the 1981 original “Clash of the Titans.”

His family announced his death via the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation on their Facebook page.

Born in Los Angeles, he began experimenting with animated science-fiction shorts after being inspired by “King Kong” and meeting the film’s animator Willis O’Brien. He began taking classes in sculpture and graphic arts, and after meeting writer Ray Bradbury, joined the Science Fiction League formed by Forrest J. Ackerman that met at Clifton’s Cafeteria in Los Angeles. The trio formed a friendship that lasted until their deaths.

Harryhausen began his career in the mid ’30s with  “Cavebear” and various short films featuring dinosaurs. For the next decade, he worked on short films and various ad campaigns for television and films. His first commercial job was on George Pal’s “Puppetoons” shorts. After serving under Col. Frank Capra during WWII as a camera assistant, he was hired to work as assistant animator with O’Brien on “Mighty Joe Young,” for which O’Brien won the Oscar for special effects for their work.

Harryhausen bought the rights to Bradbury’s “The Foghorn,” about a dinosaur that rises from the ocean,  and used it for his 1953 pic “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.” It was his first solo effort and proved a hit, establishing him as a force in sci-fi and fantasy filmmaking.  He turned from creature features to fantasy pics such as 1958’s “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” 1959’s “The 3 Worlds of Gulliver,” 1963’s “Jason and the Argonauts,” 1966’s “One Million Years B.C.” and 1981’s “Clash of the Titans.”

Harryhausen sculpted and painted models, then constructed highly choreographed action sequences that were performed separately by actors and his puppets. He then used innovative photographic techniques to integrate the puppets with the actors.

“Star Wars” f/x guru Phil Tippett, who later mastered and the stop-motion techniques that Harryhausen used in his pictures, told Variety, “He was the guy that everybody was inspired by to do visual effects work. He was the singular creative person, so he inspired a lot of singular artists. It wasn’t like the head of a studio turning out stuff. He was a singular craftsman who shaped all the movies he worked on from cradle to grave. He was there on the set making sure everything was shot the right way and finished it all up. He was a total filmmaker that had his hands in everything.”

“Nobody else has done anything like that. Or had such an impact.”

But Harryhausen’s pics always had a limited audience, and he always struggled to get his pics made — or to make them the way he wanted to. “He struggled himself for many years to keep going,” Selick said.  “He wanted to make more movies. As I’ve discovered on my own, stop-motion was never huge, it never will be. It comes and goes.” Selick pointed to a Ray Bradbury story inspired by Harryhausen’s travails in the pic biz, “Tyrannosaurus Rex,” in which tyrannical producer insists a stop-motion animator — inspired by Harryhausen — make his monster ever scarier, only satisfied when the animator makes the monster look like the producer.

Selick remembers being frightened as a child by the battling skeletons in “Jason and the Argonauts” but many years later being charmed to find Harryhausen would carry one of them around with him.

“To Ray it was almost like a son, this fairly small skeleton that he’d carry around so lovingly and take out,” remembered Selick. “All the menace that had been on screen was gone when you’d see Ray interact with this puppet. He was a very tender guy, very sweet.”

Tippett said: “The epitaph I would like to leave for him is: “We should all be so lucky.’ He was 93 years old and had a great run. He got do the stuff he imagined as a child all of his life. What’s better than that?”

Harryhausen is survived by his wife, Diana, and daughter Vanessa.

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  1. Steve Begg says:

    I’m surprised in this day and age with films busting with Visual Effects that the monicker ‘Special Effects’ is still being used when he was one of the primary Visual Effects guys occasionally credited as Special Visual Effects Supervisor!
    However he is pretty ‘Special’ one way or another…
    Steve Begg..

  2. You are an inspiration to artists everywhere. Your legacy will live on. Rest in peace. Please check out his online memorial here http://www.thememorium.com/Memorials/RayHarryhausen

  3. daniel clavette says:

    Ray harryhausen is one best motion capture of all time and 1940,50,60,70,80 science fiction,fantasy film of all time and he will be missed r.i.p and i am big fan of him and i will missed him.

  4. Reblogged this on HORROR BOOM and commented:
    Be sure to check out the gallery – it rocks!

  5. I don’t remember an Easter Egg shoot-out in Monsters Inc, but I do remember the restaurant Mike and his girlfriend visit being called Harryhausen’s. What Easter Egg shoot-out?

    • Kento Gebo says:

      The article actually said “shout-out” (with an “ou”). I’d guess the “Easter egg shout-out” that’s referred to is the same restaurant name you mentioned. I met Ray and got his autograph on a few occasions.

      He was a great, hugely influential talent and a really nice guy … and a good, longtime friend of my all-time favorite writer, Ray Bradbury, who, coincidently, also died within the last year at nearly the same age. Speaking of “shout-outs,” a “Bradbury ray” was mentioned in a “Twilight Zone” episode. :-)

    • Alan Grund says:

      In Total Recall (the first one), there is a shop called Harry’s Haus.

  6. Richard Balducci says:

    Like a true Hollywood Tragedy, a direct link to the great Willis O’Brien has now been severed, in the death of his protege Ray Harryhausen. The original King Kong must be smiling tonight, along with the original Mighty Joe Young, as they welcome this titan of truly special Special Effects to his eternal resting place on Skull Island. It is a shame that 4E (Forrest J. Ackerman) and his great Famous Monsters of Filmland are no longer around to celebrate his career and passing in its former unique style. Ray Harryhausen was the first person in our generation to really make these realistic dinosaurs “come to life” since they originally roamed the earth millions of years ago. Furthermore, Ray Harryhausen was a bridge for many of us in 1966, when we young boys went in to the cinemas to see the incredible dinosaurs in “One Million Years B. C.”, and we came out of the theaters as young men, thanks to the vivacious screen presence of Miss Raquel Welch! Thank you Ray, for your genius, your dedication to art, and your incredible imagination, as well as a childhood full of fantastic memories. Rest In Stop-Motion Peace, dear friend.

  7. Alan Grund says:

    Farewell to a wonderful talent and person. He joins in eternity the other Ray, Ray Bradbury, his long time friend. Jason and the Argonauts – what a thrill when I saw that film so many years ago!

  8. Dave Gregory says:

    While Harryhausen inspired many of us to pursue Visual Effects careers, it should be pointed out that his career alone was one of the most unique occurrences in the history of motion pictures–thanks, mainly, to the fact that producer Charles H. Schneer recognized the commercial value of stop-motion process effects and kept Ray happily productive via his direct backing from Columbia Pictures. That placed Ray and Charles in a very unique position that one doesn’t find in today’s Hollywood.

    Harryhausen’s art firmly planted the word “Special” in the term Special Visual Effects. One can clearly see “the hand of the artist” in his work.

    I still watch his films today with a childlike sense-of-wonder and delight. Yet, my eyes glaze-over at the overkill, sensory overload, and preposterousness of scale in something like a TRANSFORMERS 3. Give me Ray’s tiny allosaurus in ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. any day over a ILM-created CG critter.

    Ray once said that, in animating, one wants to impart an “interpretation”–to deliver a performance–not recreate absolute reality. He was spot on. And this is why his work still excites our imaginations and why many of today’s overblown “visual effects by committee” leave us feeling cold and detached.

  9. Seems like I grew up with Mr. Harryhausen or perhaps, younger in having my imagination teased and inspired through his undeniable fanciful art. Though many of his films were “Really Cool” and “Neat” for for their time, they were also “Tight… Rad… Sick… Cray-cray.” They achieved what few films can do today – they invited us into their worlds by allowing us to participate in their unfolding as opposed to upping the volume and the edit count in many of the films today. His vision will be sorely missed.

  10. D. Riordan says:

    Thank you for this gracious story – Ray Harryhausen certainly blazed trails in special effects and took the art of stop motion animation to the ultimate degree. He will be missed but certainly not forgotten.

  11. Bobbi says:

    Rest In Peace Mr. Ray Harryhausen you were and still are the Greatest of the Greatest.

  12. What dreams he made real for us. He inspired my meager Super8 stop motion efforts and who can ever forget Jason fighting the skeletons. I got to meet him at the Miami Film Festival in the late 80s and he let me see one of those skeletons up-close. He was such a grand and nurturing artist.

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