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Hollywood Effects Wizard Ray Harryhausen Dies at 92

2:50 PM, May 7, 2013   |    comments
Ray Harryhausen (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
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Brian Truitt, USA TODAY

Way before movies like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings inspired the imagination of film lovers everywhere, audiences were enraptured by the sword-wielding skeletons of Jason and the Argonauts, the great ape of Mighty Joe Young and the dinosaurs opposite Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.

The man responsible for all those and much more, Hollywood special-effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, died Tuesday in London at the age of 92. His family announced his death via The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation Facebook page.

The legendary effects wizard's influence was felt both in his sci-fi and fantasy movies as well as in the works of later filmmakers such as George Lucas and Peter Jackson. Beginning his career in the 1940s, Harryhausen became well known for using stop-motion model animation and having them interact with actors in a live-action world.

"Harryhausen's genius was in being able to bring his models alive," said a statement on the movie icon's Facebook page. "Whether they were prehistoric dinosaurs or mythological creatures, in Ray's hands they were no longer puppets but became instead characters in their own right, just as important as the actors they played against and in most cases even more so."

Born in Los Angeles, Harryhausen first became inspired as a 13-year-old watching Willis H. O'Brien's large beast of King King come alive via stop-motion photography in 1933. The young Harryhausen would then work with O'Brien as a technician on Mighty Joe Young (1943) before his breakthrough 10 years later with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, where he designed a giant rampaging lizard that attacked New York City.

Monster movies became his forte in the 1950s and '60s, and he unleashed a wide variety of various creatures, including the gigantic irradiated octopus of It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), alien spacecraft in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), a whole island of beasties including the Cyclops in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and a prehistoric mollusk in Mysterious Island (1961).

Harryhausen really put actor Todd Armstrong's Greek hero through the wringer in Jason and the Argonauts, pitting Jason against dangerous harpies, a multi-headed hydra and arguably Harryhausen's most famous creations, an animated army of skeleton warriors. The swordfight between them and live actors took Harryhausen more than four months to complete.
His final special-effects work was as a producer on the original 1981 Clash of the Titans, which featured the memorable sea monster the Kraken (an 18-inch model that Harryhausen used) as well as the snake-headed femme fatale Medusa.

"I'm grateful that we made pictures that have lasted," Harryhausen told USA TODAY in 2010. "We tried, like Greek mythology, to make them in the classic manner."

 When asked to pick a favorite, he was stumped. "I can't. The others get jealous."

Tom Hanks presented Harryhausen with a special Oscar for his lifetime of effects work in 1992. "Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane ... I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made," Hanks said.

Celebrities and others known for their work in the sci-fi and fantasy communities shared their admiration on social media Tuesday.

"I loved every single frame of Ray Harryhausen's work. He was the man who made me believe in monsters. Glad to have met him. A true legend," tweetedShaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright.

Shaun star and Star Trek Into Darkness actor Simon Pegg tweeted: "Ray Harryhausen an inspiration and a legend, even before he left us. His influence cannot be measured and has shaped cinema as we know it."

"If I believed in God, I'd want him to be like Ray Harryhausen -- nudging us one frame at a time toward the sublime & fantastic," tweeted comedian and actor Patton Oswalt.

"RIP Ray Harryhausen. He was a source of inspiration, the master of stop motion, and even a voice actor in Elf. His work still holds up," tweetedIron Man director and actor Jon Favreau.

Those filmmakers who grew up on his movies and later made their own have paid tribute to Harryhausen over the years.

"Ray has been a great inspiration to us all in special visual industry. The art of his earlier films, which most of us grew up on, inspired us so much. Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars," Lucas said.

"The Lord of the Rings is my Ray Harryhausen movie. Without his lifelong love of his wondrous images and storytelling it would never have been made - not by me, at least," Jackson stated.

"I think all of us who are practitioners in the arts of science-fiction and fantasy movies now all feel that we're standing on the shoulders of a giant," said director James Cameron. "If not for Ray's contribution to the collective dreamscape, we wouldn't be who we are."

People have also paid direct homage to Harryhausen in their films, as well. Tim Burton's stop-motion animated film Corpse Bride featured a character playing a Harryhausen piano - instead of a Steinway - and in Pixar's Monsters, Inc., one-eyed Mike Wazowski takes a date to a restaurant called Harryhausen's.

 

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