Ray Harryhausen was one of the most fascinating and creative personalities to ever work in Hollywood. He died of old age (92) in London, England, on May 7, 2013. Harryhausen is credited with creating “Dynamation”, an advanced form of stop-motion model animation to make the movements of various ‘other-worldly’ creatures seem much more lifelike in films. His work inspired directors like Stephen Spielberg, James Cameron, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and John Landis.
What can now be created on computers (Computer-Generated Imaging (CGI)), Harryhausen did manually, mostly by himself. It was the work of pioneer model animater Willis O’Brien for the version of “King Kong” in 1933 which inspired Harryhausen. He was intrigued by what he’d seen and was introduced to O’Brien who suggested he enroll in classes in graphic arts and sculpting to hone his skills. This Haryhausen did while also developing a friendship with aspiring writer Ray Bradbury.
The 1953 film “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms”, from a story written by Bradbury, was Harryhausen’s first solo feature film, a major hit for Warner Brothers films. It was also the first time he utilized his special technique that split the background and foreground of pre-shot live action footage into two separate images into which he could animate a model, integrating the live action with the models.
The background would be used as a miniature rear-screen with his models animated in front of it, re-photographed with an animation-capable camera to combine the two elements together with the foreground matted out to leave a black space. The film was then rewound with everything except the foreground matted out so that the foreground would now photograph in the previously blacked out area. This created the effect that the animated model was sandwiched between the two live action elements, right into the final live acion scene.
Harryhausen also developed special lighting techniques for a frame-by-frame control of the lighting on the set. This allowed his models to blend seamlessly into the shots. These techniques had to be modified and perfected again when films were shot in color.
His masterpiece was his final film, “Clash of the Titans” in 1981. He was nominated for a Saturn Award for best special effects but not an Oscar because he’d lived and worked in London since 1960.
Harryhausen’s legacy stands as a tribute to his vision, imagination and creativity. He was able to make the unreal seem very real and will always be revered for the advances he achieved.