Obituary: Ray Harryhausen, animator, film writer and producer

Ray Harryhausen. Picture: Getty
Ray Harryhausen. Picture: Getty
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Born: 29 June, 1920, in Los Angeles. Died: 7 May, 2013, in London, aged 92

Film can be an ephemeral medium. Often movies come and go without anyone really noticing. But generation after generation of young fans have been enthralled by Ray Harryhausen’s creations in the classic 1963 fantasy film Jason and the Argonauts, whether watching in cinemas now long gone, on television, on VHS and most recently on DVD or over the internet.

Harryhausen’s creatures, including the many-headed Hydra, the skeleton warriors, winged harpies and a gigantic statue which comes to life, remain as impressive and exciting today as they did exactly half a century ago when he created them – several decades before film-makers could call on computers to create monsters.

Harryhausen, born in Los Angeles, but based in England for much of his career, was one of the great pioneers and exponents of stop-motion animation in feature films. The technique, in which models are minutely moved between each frame, is the same technique used for Postman Pat and Wallace and Gromit. And film-makers from Nick Park to George Lucas owe Harryhausen a debt of gratitude, both for his craft and for his vision. Steven Spielberg said that without Harryhausen there would have been no Jurassic Park.

Harryhausen’s series of Sinbad films also remains popular and his 1981 film Clash of the ­Titans was remade a few years ago, using animatronics and literally hundreds of digital visual effects experts.

But Jason and the Argonauts was his masterpiece, a unique visualisation of Greek myth for a 20th century audience. Tom Hanks called it the best film of all time. And a restored version was screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2008 with the veteran animator in attendance, though he was in the second half of his eighties by then.

“The film remains the pinnacle of peplum fantasy genre,” said the festival catalogue. “Harry­hausen depicts life as a terpsichorean death waltz in broad daylight: a Henry Fuseli nightmare choreographed by Hermes Pan.”

An animator who could both delight wide-eyed children and inspire seasoned critics to such heights of pretentiousness was clearly someone very special indeed.

Just as Jason and the Argonauts enraptured and inspired later viewers, the young Raymond Frederick Harryhausen was inspired by King Kong when it was released in 1933, just six years after the arrival of sound. He was 13 when he saw Kong at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

King Kong’s use of a stop-­motion model was a huge step forward from the previous practice of dressing actors in gorilla or monster costumes.

Harryhausen began making and filming his own clay models, moving them just ever so slightly between each frame. He contacted Willis O’Brien, the animator behind Kong, who advised him to study anatomy. He went to night school classes in anatomy, art, photography and editing.

During the Second World War Harryhausen worked with Frank Capra’s propaganda film unit. Subsequently he made The Mother Goose Stories, animated fairy tales, which sold to schools. And in the late 1940s he was hired by O’Brien as his assistant on Mighty Joe Young. Another film about a giant gorilla, which won an Oscar for its creature effects.

Harryhausen continued to work on his animated fairy-tale shorts, but took a major step forward with the 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. This featured a dinosaur that awakes from hibernation and terrorises New York and marked a significant advance in combining stop-motion animation and live action. His new technique was later named Dynamation.

He began a long partnership with the producer Charles H Schneer when they worked together on the low-budget 1955 horror film It Came from Beneath the Sea for Columbia Pictures. Harryhausen was in charge of visual effects and created a giant stop-mo octopus that attacks the Golden Gate Bridge.

Director Robert Gordon was not impressed and tried to fire him and it took Schneer’s intervention to keep Harryhausen on the picture. The film was a hit and over the next 26 years they made another 11 films together.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was their fourth film together. This marked a successful move from science-fiction into fantasy and mythology, made in colour and featuring a skeleton swordsman.

Harryhausen and Schneer relocated to London at the beginning of the 1960s and made Jason and the Argonauts in Europe, with a largely British cast, including the young Scottish actor John Cairney.

But it was the creatures that were the real stars. The Argonauts had to fight not one but an entire troop of skeleton warriors who sprang from the teeth of the slain Hydra, with swords and fancy shields and chilling, featureless bone faces, pursuing their prey as relentlessly as the Terminator in a later decade.

Harryhausen then wielded more clout than most film directors and was co-producing the films with Schneer. He returned to sci-fi with an adaptation of HG Wells’s First Men in the Moon, created the dinosaurs in One Million Years BC, including the pteranodon that flies off with Raquel Welch, and tried to tap into the spaghetti western boom with The Valley of Gwangi, which pitted cowboys against dinosaurs in a lost valley.

He successfully revived Sinbad in the 1970s in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. His final feature was the big-budget Clash of the Titans in 1981, with Laurence Olivier as Zeus and Ursula Andress as Aphrodite. But the Star Wars series was under way and the appetite for stories from Greek mythology had waned, albeit it temporarily.

In 1963 Harryhausen married Diana Livingstone Bruce, a descendant of the explorer David Livingstone – a statue designed and funded by Harryhausen is to be found at Blantyre station, Lanarkshire, marking the home of the David Livingstone Centre.

Harryhausen was never nominated for either an Oscar or a Bafta award, but received the American Academy’s Gordon E Sawyer Award, for technological innovation, in 1992.

He is survived by his wife and their daughter.