The Phantasmagorical World Of Ray Harryhausen (1920 – 2013)
When Ray Harryhausen died in London on May 7 at the age of 92, it felt as if a foundling father had passed away. Its difficult to imagine a world without his creative genius even though he left a legacy of visual images steeped in the collective consciousness.
He was credited mostly as a visual effects artist, but what he accomplished was so much more. Many of the creatures he brought to life had a quality of humanity as part of their nature, often displayed in their expressions of humor and pain, unfamiliar with the world they found themselves in. Who can forget Mighty Joe Young, Harryhausen’s first major film project.
Whether they came from outer space, greek mythology, beneath the sea or on some mysterious island, he gave life to phantasmagorical images that elicited sympathy from the audience when they were killed. They were the stars of his films more then the actors. The action sequences became the heart of his stories.
His creatures were hand made and painstakingly shot anticipating every movement in a process called stop motion animation also known as Dynamation. His inspiration started when he was thirteen and taken by his parents to see King Kong (1933). He was so overwhelmed by the film that he dedicated his life to exploring how all the effects were done. He met and became a student of Willis H. O’Brien who was the special effects genius who created and animated King Kong when he pioneered the process now known as stop motion animation. O’Brien encouraged the young Harryhausen to study anatomy and drawing so that he could transform his ideas into images and then sculpt models to photograph for the action sequences.
During his apprenticeship with O’Brien he met his life long friend science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who said of his friend, “Harryhausen stands alone as a technician, as an artist and as a dreamer who constructed his creatures with his own hands.”
When Tom Hanks presented him with a special Oscar for lifetime achievement he said: “To some, their favorite film is Casablanca or Citizen Kane, but for me it is Jason And The Argonauts. ” I agree with Hanks that the battle of Jason with the skeleton army remains one of the most memorable battles in movie history of that era.
Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles and lived the last half of his life in London. He died peacefully surrounded by his friends and family and the models of the creatures he created. My personal favorite is the Cyclops in The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad.
Harryhausen’s genius inspired and influenced many filmmakers including Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, Sam Raimi, Joss Whedon, Tim Burton, Guillermo del Toro, Jon Landis, Peter Jackson and millions of his fans. His films will long be remembered by future generations.