Ray Harryhausen, a hugely influential animator and visual effects trailblazer, has passed away at the age of 93, his family announced today. With his pioneering use of stop motion animation, Harryhausen contributed memorable creatures to “Mighty Joe Young,” “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” and, perhaps, most famously, for “Jason and the Argonauts,” where Harryhausen created a platoon of animated skeletons for the titular demigod to battle. Almost every modern filmmaker, whether or not they work in the fantasy or horror genres, seems either indebted or in awe of Harryhausen’s fantastical works – among them, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, John Landis, Tim Burton, Sam Raimi, Stephen Sommers and James Cameron.
Harryhausen was first inspired by the world of stop motion animation when he saw “King Kong,” which featured truly jaw-dropping work from Willis O’Brien. O’Brien would take Harryhausen under his wing on another giant ape movie, “Mighty Joe Young.” It was later, though, that Harryhausen would establish himself as a maker of more fantastical monsters – everything from the giant monstrosities in “Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” and “It Came From Beneath the Sea” to the menacing UFOs in “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” to the squadron of mythological creatures in “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” “The Three Worlds of Gulliver,” “Jason and the Argonauts,” and “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.” Harryhausen was also a master of dinosaurs – in things like “One Million Years B.C.” and the truly underrated cowboys-versus-dinosaurs romp “The Valley of Gwangi.” There’s a moment in Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” sequel “The Lost World” when the T. rex scratches itself that is a direct homage to something that Harryhausen would often have his dinosaurs do.
The magic of Harryhausen’s monsters is that he really did fill them with personality and tics – things like that dinosaur scratch – that elevated them from some otherworldly menace to a true character. This is why he was in such demand – his creations had weight and heft, both physical and dramatic. Anyone who watched a Harryhausen creature and then saw some bozo in a suit (or worse yet, some cheap-o stop motion knock-off) knew the difference instantly. There was a charm that Harryhausen managed to get to the screen, even while moving his characters a staggering 24-frames-per-second.
Filmmakers far and wide were inspired and moved by Harryhausen’s work and continue to pay homage to the visual effects wizard. When Spielberg initially launched “Jurassic Park,” he wanted the dinosaurs to be stop-motion, just like in a Ray Harryhausen film (ditto for Tim Burton and “Mars Attacks!”) The skeleton army at the end of Raimi’s “Army of Darkness” is a direct homage to those “Jason and the Argonauts” baddies, and John Landis even took to having Harryhausen play bit parts in a number of his movies. In Pixar masterwork “Monsters, Inc,” when two of the characters want to go out to a fancy romantic dinner, they choose one restaurant – Harryhausen’s.
For better or worse, without Harryhausen and his impressive body of work (which still dazzles to this day), the modern-day blockbuster wouldn’t be so full of monsters, ghouls, and things that go bump in the night. Thankfully, much of his catalog has been lovingly restored in high definition for Blu-ray release (including a great box set that includes “20 Million Miles to Earth,” “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” and “It Came From Beneath the Sea“), which insures, at the very least, that the next few generations will be wowed and awed in the same way we were, as we watched his lovingly crafted creations bound, leap, and tear across the screen. Harryhausen will be missed but never forgotten. Watch the documentary “The Harryhausen Chronicles” below.