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Farewell, Ray Harryhausen

The master of stop motion passed on at 92

By Richard Whittaker, 1:03PM, Tue. May. 7, 2013

The Medusa from 'Clash of the Titans', one of the memorable creations of visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013
The Medusa from 'Clash of the Titans', one of the memorable creations of visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013
Photo by Richard Whittaker

On a recent trip to the UK, I found myself in the London Film Musuem, face to face with the grim visage of the Medusa from 1981's Clash of the Titans. And now the man responsible for this snake-tailed monstrosity, and many so many more iconic fantastical images, special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, has died, aged 92.

In a brief statement release this morning via Facebook, The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation announced, "The Harryhausen family regret to announce the death of Ray Harryhausen, Visual Effects pioneer and stop-motion model animator."

Harryhausen strode the cinematic world like a colossus. He was one of those rare backroom figures whose name meant more than the leading actor or the director. Movies like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and the great American kaiju flick The Valley of Gwangi will always be his films , no matter that he was simply credited as creator of visual effects. Without his work, and without his ability to make dead-eyed studio puppets breathe and fly and hunt and kill, it is hard to envision a cinematic world where fantasy creatures are so common. As George Lucas wrote, “Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars." Or Lord of the Rings. Or Avatar. He inspired multiple generations of film makers, directors and effects crews and, through them, audiences.

His great contribution to the technology of cinema is arguably that he perfected the art of stop motion pioneered by his childhood hero Willis O'Brien on King Kong. Arguably the pinnacle of his career was the skeleton fight sequence from Jason and the Argonauts. It's not just that the sequence is laden with menace as the silent skinless warriors stalk towards the heroes. It's how they smoothly interact with real actors. That's an effect that, decades later, the best CGI is still mimicking.

In an age of convenient CGI, it's easy to forget that for decades the only way to create a bizarre beast was through laborious tiny motions. Harryhausen and his team would create iconic monsters, like the Selenites from First Men in the Moon, or the Allosaurus that threatens Raquel Welch in the gloriously innacurate One Million Years BC. First they would build an articulated armature, then they would add a rubber skin, eyes, features, paint, and when it was all finished, they would move it a fraction, take a photo. Move it a fraction, take a photo. This was an age of painstaking dedication, of weeks of work to catch one step of a monster. Harryhausen melded artist and artisan, craftsman and creator, and

Harryhausen last visited Austin in 2006, when he was signing copies of The Art of Ray Harryhausen. He spoke with Marc Savlov then.Looking back on his career, he said, "I'm so grateful that people see more than just a simple entertainment up there on the screen. … They were considered B-pictures because of that. And, now here we are, and they've outlasted many so-called A-pictures of that period."

Austin artist Matt Frank paid tribute to Harryhausen today. Now drawing IDW Comics' Godzilla: Ruler of Earth, he met the animation legend during that 2006 trip. Frank recalled, "I handed him a drawing of King Kong taking on the Rhedosaurus, and told him, 'I hope, one day, to be as accomplished as you are.'" Harryhausen replied, "Well, you're certainly on your way!" Today on his Facebook page, Frank wrote, "I'll carry that moment until the day I die. Long live your legacy, Mr. Harryhausen!"

Titans was Harryhausen's last feature film, but he never truly gave up his art. In 2002, he complete The Story of the Tortoise and the Hare, the last in a series of six fairytale shorts he began in 1946 with The Story of Little Red Riding Hood. It was a personal return to his roots for a man that shaped an industry.

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