Obituary: Ray Harryhausen

harryhausenMonster maker

Picturenose is delighted to welcome the return of Cillian Donnelly, who takes a look at the life and work of special effects genius Ray Harryhausen, who passed away on 7 May 2013 aged 93.

Everyone has a favourite movie moment; one that, for them, defines all that is magical about the most magical of art forms. If I had to venture forth with my own suggestion it would be the skeletal army climax to Jason and The Argonauts (1963).

Having sprung forth from the teeth of the Hydra, a phalanx of heavily armed warrior skeletons besiege the titular Argonauts, engaging in a life-or-death scrap of – quite literally – monstrous proportions. It’s as thrilling and visceral a scene as you’re likely to encounter in the post-war canon of American action movies.

The sequence was the brainchild of special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, who pioneered extravagant stop-motion fantasias in films such as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Earth Vs the Flying Saucers (1956) and It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955), and who passed away, aged 93, on 7 May 2013.

Raymond Frederick Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles on 29 June, 1920. After seeing King Kong in 1933, the young Harryhausen was inspired to follow the movie’s effects designer, Willis O’Brien, into the world of stop-motion animation. After watching King Kong again and again, Harryhausen put together some efforts of his own, and eventually secured a job at Paramount.

After the war, he became special effects assistant to his mentor O’Brien on the film Mighty Joe Young (1949), again about a giant ape. The film won an Oscar for its special effects, and the rumour persists to this day that it was actually Harryhausen who did the majority of the work.

Harryhausen’s first solo effort was the classic Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, (very) loosely adapted from a Ray Bradbury short story. The movie featured a rampaging, reanimated dinosaur running amok in modern day San Francisco before being brought down by Lee Van Cleef. It was a major influence on the output of Japanese studio, ToHo.

It Came From Beneath The Sea, starring cult favourite Kenneth Toby (The Thing From Another World (1951)), came next. Like its predecessor, it featured a giant sea creature terrorising the US, this time an overlarge squid. The budget on the film was so tight that the monster could not be completed as planned, and thus has only five tentacles!

More impressive work, such as Earth Vs the Flying Saucers, The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad (1958) and Mysterious Island (1961) followed, but it was in 1963 that Harryhausen completed work on what he considered to be his masterpiece: Jason And The Argonauts.

Based on classical Greek mythology, the movie was an infectious mix of knockabout sword and sorcery, nautical adventure and ever-so-slight camp frolicking, all topped off with a rousing musical score by Bernard Hermann. It contains not only Harryhausen’s most celebrated scene – the aforementioned skeletal swordfight – but also a number of other spectacular set pieces, such as the evasion of the giant bronze statue, Talos.

Following Jason…, Harryhausen animated more dinosaurs for One Million Years B.C. (1966), starring a pneumatic Raquel Welch, and The Valley of Gwangi (1969), about a marauding Allosaurus in 1912 Mexico, which features, undoubtedly, the greatest Pterodactyl-lassoing scene in all movie history.

Two more Sinbad films followed in the 1970s and, in 1981, Ray Harryhausen completed his last movie as special effects creator: Clash Of The Titans, another tale culled from Greek mythology (albeit one that features a sea monster cribbed from Norse legend).

These days, stop-motion animation has all but died out. While the art form is still practiced occasionally, such as with Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Corpse Bride (2005), these tend to be fully animated features, rather than live action films that incorporate stop motion for their effects. Before they became heartless exercises in computerised imagery, the Star Wars films made great use of Harryhausen’s techniques, but such outings are, sadly, rare. Harryhausen’s legacy is simply spectacular, and he will be sadly missed.

Ray Harryhausen: 29 June, 1920 – 7 May, 2013

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