Science fiction film wizard Ray Harryhausen dies at 92

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Ray Harryhausen stop-motionRay Harryhausen died at 92 in London on May 7, 2013.  He was known as a legend among science fiction filmmakers, having designed and filmed some of the earliest, yet still effective, movie special effects ever seen.

His wide renown comes from his mastery of the art of stop-motion animation. This is a work-intensive and time consuming method of creating the illusion that scaled-down models are moving. It is produced by setting up the figures, shooting one frame, moving the models, and continuing until the scene is completed. A short, 4 minute scene in the final movie could take months of daily work to film.

Ray was exposed to a view of his cinematic future when he saw “King Kong” in 1933. The movie showed the great ape in all his glory via the stop-motion magic of Willis O’Brien. The 13 year old couldn’t rest until he was able to reproduce the film’s effects.

16 years later, Harryhausen was O’Brien’s assistant on a new stop-motion monkey film, “Mighty Joe Young.”harryhausen2

Soon, his Sinbad stories would make Ray a well-known name in science fiction and adventure movies. With “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” his technical mastery and innovation were on display. For the Warner Brothers blockbuster, Ray created tricks with the camera making use of the precursor to today’s digital green screen, masked-out space.

At this point in his career he began to perfect the combination of the stop-motion sequences and live action shots, allowing real actors to interact with Harryhausen’s bizarre creations. This technique reached its zenith in 1963 with “Jason and the Argonauts.” Has anyone seen the skeletons sword-fighting with Jason and not believed in the tale?

Ironically, even though Ray was for most of his career linked to low budget, “B movies,” the producers and directors inspired by his work brought science fiction films to the mainstream and beyond. To the point that it seems most of today’s biggest blockbusters and money-makers are of this genre. Among those film luminaries who regard him as a mentor are James Cameron, with his “Terminator” series, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, who has referred to his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, as his “Harryhausen movie,” and of course, George Lucas.

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