Stop-motion effects revolutionized Hollywood creature features
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.