Anyone going to watch one of this summer’s effects-laden blockbusters such as ‘Man of Steel‘, Iron Man 3’ or ‘Star Trek Into Darkness‘ should take a moment to remember the visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen who has died in London aged 92.
Harryhausen’s instantly recognisable stop-motion work in films such as ‘Mighty Joe Young‘, ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ and the 1981 version of ‘Clash of the Titans’ inspired a generations of film-makers who, in the 1970s, 80s, and beyond, transformed the landscape of the action and adventure movies that dominate the cinema screens during the summer months. Many of them, including George Lucas, James Cameron and Stephen Spielberg, were among the first to pay tribute to the American animator whose childhood interest in dinosaurs led to a career spent bringing extinct creatures, mythical beasts, and ghostly apparitions to life across seven decades of film making.
Born in 1920, Harryhausen’s nascent desire to bring dinosaurs back to life was fueled by the creations of Willis O’Brien in films such at ‘The Lost World‘ and ‘King Kong’. He ended up working for O’Brien in Hollywood after the war with his mentor picking up an Oscar for 1949’s ‘Mighty Joe Young’ despite the younger man doing most of the work that ended up on-screen. The majority of his most famous work followed in the next 20 years with the ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad‘, ‘One Million Years B.C.’ and ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ remaining classics of their type. The stop-motion animation looks juddery and old-fashioned to us now but it’s still striking, charming, great fun and, at times, terrifying. Witness Harryhausen’s most celebrated sequence – Todd Armstrong’s fight with the skeleton army in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’.
By the time ‘Clash of the Titans‘ was released, the effects produced by Harryhausen looked creaky and outdated. Ironically it was the boundaries pushed by Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic in bringing ‘Star Wars’ to the screen that heavily contributed to methods like stop-motion being abandoned by mainstream movie makers. However the believable alien races in the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy along with Spielberg’s ‘E.T.’ and ‘Jurassic Park‘ owe a huge debt to Harryhausen’s innovation and imagination.