Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Farewell, Ray Harryhausen

The great stop-motion animator, creator of dinosaurs and ancient gods, has passed away in London.

Tue, May 7, 2013, 21:09


One of the great innovators of popular cinema has died at the age of 92. If you enjoyed any sort of animated dinosaur or mythological being in films of the 1940s or 1950s then you will have enjoyed the work of stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen. He did his business on films such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts and the original version of Clash of the Titans. Of course, these things can now be done with computers. But there was a craft to Ray’s work that you will never get from an image produced digitally. It’s like the difference between painting and photography. Both are arts, but the older medium says more about the person who produced it. Just consider the terrific skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts.

Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles and managed to see King Kong — still the most influential stop-motion masterpiece — when it first emerged in 1933. When he was just a young fellow, Ray got to meet Willis O’Brien, animator of Kong, and received advice that he cherished throughout his career. He worked on various shorts an eventually secured a major screen credit on O’Brien’s The Mighty Joe Young in 1949. Things really took off with the giant-monster craze in the 1950s. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was one of his. So was It Came from Beneath the Sea. Eventually, he embarked on a lucrative relationship with Columbia Pictures that resulted in hits such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and 20 Million Miles to Earth.

From then until the early 1980s, he was the man to go to for dinosaurs, multi-headed dogs and giant car-eating lizards. “Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars,” George Lucas said this morning in Los Angeles. That’s true enough. But he was balanced enough to acknowledge that his films were not always as well written or competently directed as he might have liked. “I could kick myself when I think of how I didn’t insist on more from the director or the studio,” he once said.

Never mind. He certainly achieved something unique for a special effects man. He is the only person in that line of work who gained a kind of propriety credit over the films he worked on. True, Ray was also a producer on movies such as The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Clash of the Titans. But when fans called them “Ray Harryhausen movies” it was the animation they were pondering, not the cheque-signing.

It would be wrong to say that computers made Harryhausen redundant. His last major film was Clash of the Titans from 1981. It would be over a decade — the Harryhausen-influenced Jurassic Park in 1993 acts as a marker — before the digital Johnnies began to properly take over. But he was already finding it hard to compete with the manpower-heavy approach of special effects houses such as Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. It may have been some comfort to reflect that virtually every person working in ILM would have regarded him as a sort of God. Then again, maybe it wasn’t.

We will never see his like again.