Visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen dies

Ray Harryhausen, a pioneer of visual effects and stop-motion animation who influenced a generation of animators, has died. He was 92.

Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans creator dubbed father of modern-day visual effects

Visual effects pioneer

10 years ago
Duration 3:31
Eli Glasner looks back on the career of Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen, a pioneer of visual effects and stop-motion animation who influenced a generation of animators, has died.  He was 92.

His family announced that he died Tuesday at Hammersmith Hospital in London.

Harryhausen worked in both the U.S. and U.K., with his films such as Mighty Joe Young, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts lauded for their creative use of visual effects.

'What we do now digitally with computers, Ray did digitally long before but without computers'— Terry Gilliam

He was honoured with a special Oscar — the Gordon E. Sawyer Award — in 1992, and was presented a special award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts on his 90th birthday.

"What we do now digitally with computers, Ray did digitally long before, but without computers. Only with his digits," director Terry Gilliam tweeted of Harryhausen's work.

Blended animated models with live action

A generation of animators grew up on his films, from 1955's It Came From Beneath the Sea to the 1981's Clash of the Titans. George Lucas, Peter Jackson, Nick Park and James Cameron all studied his techniques, which combined animated models with live action figures.

An illustration for an unidentified Ray Harryhausen film shows a winged dinosaur dragging away a caveman. He combined animated models with live action figures to create fantastical scenes. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"I think all of us who are practitioners in the arts of science fiction and fantasy movies now all feel that we’re standing on the shoulders of a giant," Titanic director Cameron said of Harryhausen.

"If not for Ray’s contribution to the collective dreamscape, we wouldn’t be who we are."

Born June 19, 1920 in Los Angeles, Harryhausen was the great-grandson of African explorer David Livingstone. 

As a 13-year-old, he was awed by Willis H. O'Brien's stop-motion photography in 1933’s King Kong and his film The Lost World, a stop-motion movie about dinosaurs in a South American jungle.

"I always remember the dinosaur falling off the cliff," he remarked at a Vancouver animation and effects convention in 2001.

"That stuck in my mind for years."

His first movie industry job entailed working on George Pal's Puppetoons shorts for Paramount. During the Second World War, he made a series of Puppetoons-inspired shorts for the military, working in Frank Capra's film unit.

After the war, he made stop-motion versions of fairy tales that brought him to O’Brien’s attention. He later collaborated with his hero on 1949's Mighty Joe Young, which won an Academy Award for visual effects.

Innovative filmmaker

Warner Bros. then hired Harryhausen to create the special effects for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, but with a budget so small that he was forced to improvise. He developed a technique called "split-screen" — rear projection on overlapping miniature screens — to insert dinosaurs and other fantastic beasts into real-world backgrounds.

He later created effects for The Mysterious Island and The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, using an innovative mix of split-screen and animated models.

"Ray did so much and influenced so many people," said his friend and biographer Tony Dalton.

Harryhausen had a "wonderfully funny, brilliant sense of humour" and loved Laurel and Hardy, Dalton recalled about the filmmaker.

"His creatures were extraordinary, and his imagination was boundless."

His most popular film is 1963's Jason and the Argonauts, which includes the exciting, famed scene of fighting skeletons, painstakingly created with stop-motion animation and live-action actors Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovack.

Harryhausen's dinosaur movies include the Hammer Films productions One Million Years B.C.  and The Valley of Gwangi. He returned to the story of Sinbad in 1973's The Golden Voyage of Sinbad  and 1977's Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. His final film was Clash of the Titans, featuring Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom.

The Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation, a charitable trust set up by the filmmaker in 1986, is devoted to the protection of his name and body of work, as well as the archiving, preservation and restoration of his extensive collection of models.

With files from the Associated Press