Stop-motion and VFX pioneer Ray Harryhausen passed away Tuesday in London at the age of 92, according to an announcement on the official Facebook page of The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation. The multi-award winner best-known for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Clash of the Titans, became a cultural legend and an inspiration to every filmmaker that has worked in animation and live-action VFX movies for the last half century, (including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Tim Burton, Phil Tippett, Nick Park, and John Lasseter).
Watching Ray Harryhausen’s films growing up was a pure joy, said Weta Digital’s Joe Letteri, who got a VFX Oscar for Peter Jackson’s King Kong. “He brought legends to life and he became a legend himself. And I am sure that future generations of animators will continue to look to him for inspiration.”
Inspired by the ground-breaking stop-motion work of Willis O’Brien on King Kong, which Harryhausen saw at the Chinese in 1933 with his boyhood friend, Ray Bradbury, the aspiring model maker and animator began his nearly 50-year career on Mighty Joe Young with O’Brien in 1949. Later came It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), Mysterious Island (1961), One Million Years B.C. (1966), and The Valley of Gwangi (1969) along with his above-cited masterpieces.
Harryhausen perfected his own dynamic stop-motion technique called Dynamation, which involved photographing and re-photographing with rear projected image on a miniature scale, and then coding an animated model. “That’s the basic principle and through mapping processes and various other [methods] they get on the screen things that are quite amazing or used to be amazing,” Harryhausen told me in 2004.
He cited Mighty Joe Young pushing over the lion cage as one of his favorites: “I think that worked out the way I wanted it to. You always have to compromise because of weather, because of many things. The skeleton sequence came out the way I’d hoped [in Jason], and the Hydra and the Medusa sequences in Clash of the Titans [modeled after Joan Crawford from Mildred Pierce].”
Although Harryhausen appreciated the CG dinosaur breakthrough in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, he cautioned, “It gets to the point when it becomes too real that you lose the fantasy element. That’s always what I strived for…. You have to learn to do it yourself. I had to because there were no books on the subject. Very little information. So I worked alone because it requires enormous concentration and I prefer to work alone. And Clash of the Titans is the only picture I’ve ever had help in the animation.”
My favorite remains Jason, which I remember seeing as a kid at a drive-in. The skeletons still creep me out. While CG has not diminished my fondness for Harryhausen’s craft, my boys have been slow in sharing it because they’ve been spoiled by digital perfection. They’re coming around but I look forward to them catching up.