Ray Harryhausen, 1920–2013

The animator who made onscreen magic

Ray Harryhausen gave life to the mythical and the extinct. Mixing real-life actors with stop-motion animation of miniature models, he made skeleton warriors battle ancient Greek heroes in 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, and had a pterodactyl carry off a scantily clad Raquel Welch in 1966’s One Million Years B.C. Those fantastical scenes inspired a generation of filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and James Cameron. “Without Harryhausen’s effects work,” Spielberg said in 2003, “there never would have been a Star Wars or a Jurassic Park.”

The Los Angeles–born Harryhausen found his calling after watching King Kong at age 13, said the Los Angeles Times. “I used to make little clay models,” he recalled. “When I saw King Kong, I saw a way to make those models move.” Harryhausen borrowed a 16 mm camera and cut up his mother’s fur coat to make a bear model for a short animation. “His parents were so impressed that he was spared a spanking for ruining the fur coat,” said the Associated Press. Harryhausen spent World War II animating model tanks for military training films, and after the war created a rampaging gorilla for 1949’s Mighty Joe Young.

He then embarked on a low-budget solo career. His first effort, 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, cost just $250,000. To save money on 1955’s It Came From Beneath the Sea, he built a model octopus with six tentacles rather than eight. “Tired of destroying cities,” he moved into the realm of mythical adventure with 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, said The New York Times. His final feature was 1981’s Clash of the Titans, a retelling of the Perseus myth. But its animated effects looked dated compared with the onscreen wizardry in blockbusters like Star Wars and Superman, andthe film flopped.

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Even in retirement Harryhausen made models. “Some people think it’s childish,” he said in 2004. “But I think it’s wrong when you grow to be an adult to discard your sense of wonder.”

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