Obituary: Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013

Ray Harryhausen—no, make that The Great Ray Harryhausen— one of the most wondrous craftsmen and peerless special effects artists in the history of cinema, died on Tuesday, May 7, in London, where he had lived for years. He was 92 years old.

Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013

Though Ray Harryhausen utilized all kinds of DIY effects over the years in such films as Mighty Joe Young (1941), The Beast from 20th Fathoms (1953), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), One Million Years B.C. (1966), Clash of the Titans (1981) and a bunch of others (if you’re not familiar with at least a couple of these, you’re from another planet), he was best known for his work in the field of stop-motion animation.

Out of deep respect for Mr. Harryhausen and the stop-motion artistry of which he was the undisputed king, let me quickly explain what it all was; Stop-motion animation is the painstaking process of taking well-constructed, three-dimensional models, photographing them one frame at a time, moving and adjusting the models, photographing another frame, re-adjusting and re-photographing, and so on. The resulting film depicts the models moving with a fluid motion. Tell me “painstaking’ isn’t the right word to describe the process?! Oh, and Ray created all the models, as well.

Wanna see stop-motion animation at its best? Check out the climactic scene from Jason and The Argonauts, wherein the Greek hero Jason and his buds clash with seven sword-wielding skeletons. The 2 ½ minute sequence, crafted entirely by Ray Harryhausen, reportedly took seven months to film.

I can only say that the time Ray invested was worth it. I mean, just look at it! Nobody breathed life into skeletons, dinosaurs, flying saucers, Greek myths, alien creatures, aquatic monsters and even flying saucers like Ray Harryhausen. Hell, he even created a gigantic walrus in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger in 1977 that knocked the critics on their asses!

Laurence meets The Man, Ray Harryhausen, and the Hindu goddess Kali, at the 1991 VSDA Convention in Las Vegas

In 1991, while I was working as the Sales Director for the venerable Kino International’s newly minted video division, I was fortunate enough to meet Ray Harryhausen at the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) annual convention in Las Vegas. Mr. H was there with RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video for the purpose of promoting his films, which were in the midst of being issued on VHS for the very first time. He was also on the scene to talk about up the release of the 1991 special interest docu Aliens, Dragons, Monsters & Me: The Fantasy Film World of Ray Harryhausen.

In the half-hour or so that I spent with Mr. Harryhausen, he proved to be a charming and erudite gentleman, eager to talk about his work and that of his contemporaries and predecessors. The most gratifying result of our encounter was the opportunity to discuss with him the 1919 Fritz Lang adventure film The Spiders, a forerunner to the Indiana Jones series. He told me that he had the pleasure of meeting Fritz Lang many years earlier, but was unfamiliar with The Spiders, which was being issued on VHS by Kino that year. Securing Ray’s Los Angeles address, I mailed him a copy of The Spiders upon returning home, along with another Kino title–a newly restored edition of Italian filmmaker Giovanni Pastrone’s adventure epic Cabiria.

Hundu goddess Kali

Kali prepares to make mincemeat of John Phillip Law in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

A week later, I received a beautiful letter from Ray (which I still have!) wherein he thanked me heartily for the gifts, which he happily announced would join him and his family as they prepared to relocate to London later that year.

That said, I simply had to include this picture of Ray Harryhausen and myself taken at the RCA/Columbia booth at the VSDA show in the summer of 1991. As you can see, Ray had brought a collection of original stop-motion models from his films to display at the show, much to my joy! And so, right there in front of me, were all my favorite movie monsters myths. Right there in front of me! I still smile warmly as I remember it. You can note in the picture the model of the multi-armed Hindu goddess Kali, who gave Sinbad the Sailor and his crew a whole lot of trouble in the 1973 flick The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. I’ve also included a grab from the film itself so you can see Ms. Kali in action!

The movie was so-so, but Ray’s creations in the film were—and still are—amazing!

Ray Harryhausen’s innovations and decades-long career were honored in 1992 with a career Academy Award for technical achievements. Tom Hanks, who awarded Harryhausen with the special Oscar, memorably remarked that, “Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane… I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made.”

Damn straight.

About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.