Stop-Motion Master Ray Harryhausen Dies

Ray Harryhausen with several of his models.
Ray Harryhausen with several of his models. Photo Credit: Potatojunkie – cc

Ray Harryhausen, who revolutionized animation and inspired several generations of movie makers, died Tuesday, according to statements on the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation Facebook page.

Harryhausen is best known for sword-fighting skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and for The Clash of the Titans (1981), and the hard-to-forget Medusa.

At my house, Harryhausen’s Sinbad movies provided a sure-fire solution for family arguments about what to watch. We could always agree that Sinbad and swashbuckling skeletons, sweethearts be-spelled and carried around in a flask, and bad-tempered cyclops satisfied the wide viewing tastes of the whole family.

DNA is responsible for the votes. While my kids could watch Sinbad on DVD, I kept an opportunistic eye open to snatch to enjoy every Sinbad reunion on a weekend broadcast in my pre-VCR childhood. What could be further from a midwestern homework miasma than sailing the Mediterranean with Sinbad, rocs, cyclops, krakens, genies, dragons, magicians, and a happy ending?

The Harryhausen Foundation Facebook page reflected comments from luminaries of modern film-making:

Peter Jackson (director of Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit):

The Lord of the Rings is my ‘Ray Harryhausen movie.’ Without his life-long love of his wondrous images and storytelling it would never have been made — not by me at least.

George Lucas (director of Star Wars films):

Ray has been a great inspiration to us all in the 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.

Steven Spielberg (director of Jaws; Lincoln; Indiana Jones films):

Ray, your inspiration goes with us forever.

Harryhausen reported that seeing King Kong in 1933 led him to a fascination with stop-motion effects and a desire to work with Kong’s visual effects master, Willis O’Brien. After working as a gofer and assistant for O’Brien, he worked on shorts for his first commercial job. During World War II, he contributed to the Why We Fight film series with Frank Capra. After the war, he worked with O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young, earning an Academy Award.

Harryhausen developed specific techniques that included doing much of his own work and using his family and a close set of associates for machining, costuming, and producing. He shot the models on the background, screening out the foreground, then reshot the foreground and live action, screening out the background, and combined the pair to create a unified scene. His careful study of lighting and color helped to integrate his effects and live action.

Harryhausen went on to animate such remarkable films as It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960), Mysterious Island (1961), One Million Years BC (1966), and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), plus his landmark films Jason, Sinbad, and the Titans, and others.

I plan to wallow in some prime Harryhausen films. You can get a concentrated sample from this YouTube mashup of the creatures he created:

The famous scene from Jason and the Argonauts when seven skeletons (models about six inches tall) fight three men is also available on YouTube, but it is a sin not to watch the whole movie. Harryhausen reported that the complexity of synchronizing five appendages (legs, arms, head) for seven models against three different targets was a proud accomplishment. Some days he only produced one second of screen time, and the entire sequence required four and a half months to animate.

In the days before computer simulation and CGI, Ray Harryhausen gave us magic, one second per day.

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Kay works with engineers, scientists, and programmers as a writer and editor, which she prefers over working with muggles. When sufficiently caffeinated, she geeks out over words, communication, biology, needlework, and recreational sports. And, of course, chocolate. Her children _may_ have been exposed to D&D at a too-young age, but they continue to play happily to this day.