Ray Harryhausen – the special effects designer and director behind some of cinema’s most memorable images – has died at 93. He passed earlier today in a London hospital, where he had been receiving treatment for unspecified symptoms for the better part of a week. Though his cause of death is unknown, it is generally assumed that Harryhausen died of natural causes.
While he hadn’t worked directly in film for over three decades, Harryhausen was one of the indisputable titans of practical visual effects. Known for hand-crafted, painstakingly shot stop-motion sequences, Harryhausen’s effects drew consistent cinema crowds from the 1950s through the late 70s. His influence on later visual effects designers cannot possibly be overstated.
News of Harryhausen’s death was announced today in a lengthy statement posted on the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation’s Facebook page. The statement acknowledges Harryhausen’s passing and contains an outpouring of sympathies from figures from across the globe:
“The Harryhausen family regret to announce the death of Ray Harryhausen, Visual Effects pioneer and stop-motion model animator. He was a multi-award winner which includes a special Oscar and BAFTA. Ray’s influence on today’s film makers was enormous, with luminaries; Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, George Lucas, John Landis and the UK’s own Nick Park have cited Harryhausen as being the man whose work inspired their own creations.”
Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles on June 29th, 1920. His fascination with visual effects began when he was just 13 years old when he saw the mind-blowing stop-motion animation of King Kong. The young Harryhausen began designing and building his own VFX models, going so far as to show them to Kong‘s animator Willis O’Brien for critiques. Later, O’Brien would give Harryhausen his first Hollywood effects gig with 1949’s Mighty Joe Young – which would earn an Oscar for its visuals.
Mighty Joe Young kicked off a career that defined movie fantasies in the 1950s and 60s. Harryhausen’s creations menaced cinemas in It Came from Beneath the Sea, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, One Million B.C., and several Sinbad films.
One of the films Harryhausen was most famous for was 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts. In that film are fantastical effects sequences that still hold up quite well. A towering bronze giant, a duel with a writhing hydra, and (particularly) an awesome final battle sequence against a small army of animated skeletons make the movie a must-see.
The final film to benefit directly from Harryhausen’s talents was 1981’s Clash of the Titans. More or less a showcase for Harryhausen’s late-career mastery, Clash of the Titans remains a well-loved cultural touchstone largely because of its inventive monster designs and still-impressive animation. There is no doubt that the recent remake (and its sequel) would not have placed such emphasis on releasing the kraken if not for the original’s grand, stop-motion-enhanced final sequence.
After Titans, Harryhausen more or less retired to England for more academic pursuits. Citing the up-and-coming effects technology displayed by companies such as Industrial Light and Magic, Harryhausen decided his labor-intensive methods were probably on the wane.
Nonetheless, his legacy was cemented. Many directors – including young mavericks such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas – came to cite Harryhausen in the same tones that he himself once applied to Willis O’Brien. Some of their tributes were collected in the Facebook release:
“‘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… His patience, his endurance have inspired so many of us.”
“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.”
“I think all of us who are practioners in the arts of science fiction and fantasy movies now all feel that we’re standing on the shoulders of a giant. If not for Ray’s contribution to the collective dreamscape, we wouldn’t be who we are.”
Edgar Wright [via Twitter]
“I loved every single frame of Ray Harryhausen’s work. He was the man who made me believe in monsters.”
On a personal note, I can still remember watching Jason and the Argonauts for the first time at about six years old, flooded with a sense of dumbstruck fear and wonder. For a kid, the image of the animate bronze giant Talos stooping down to pluck the Argonauts’ ship from the Aegean Sea was overwhelming in its scale, and the inhuman movements of the skeleton warriors was genuinely unnerving. It wasn’t until years later that I connected Jason to other creature-features my brother and I had grown up watching – all overseen by a singular creative talent. Harryhausen’s work absolutely contributed toward a lifelong fascination with fantasy, horror, and the possibilities of film.
The world lost one of its grandmasters today, and he will be missed.
In Memoriam: Ray Harryhausen – June 29, 1920-May 7, 2013