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Ray Harryhausen dies at 92; special-effects legend

Ray Harryhausen pioneered stop-motion animation, creating classics such as 'The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms,' and 'The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.' Without his work, 'there never would have been a "Star Wars" or a "Jurassic Park,''' Steven Spielberg said.

May 07, 2013|By Dennis McLellan, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Ray Harryhausen, the stop-motion animation legend whose work on "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms," "Jason and the Argonauts" and other science fiction and fantasy film classics made him a cult figure who inspired later generations of filmmakers and special-effects artists, has died. He was 92.

Harryhausen died Tuesday in London, where he had lived for decades. His death was confirmed by Kenneth Kleinberg, his longtime legal representative in the United States.

In the pre-computer-generated-imagery era in which he worked, Harryhausen used the painstaking process of making slight adjustments to the position of his three-dimensional, ball-and-socket-jointed scale models and then shooting them frame-by-frame to create the illusion of movement. Footage of his exotic beasts and creatures was later often combined with live action.

PHOTOS: Ray Harryhausen -- Career in pictures

Working with modest budgets and typically with only two or three assistants -- if any -- to keep costs down, Harryhausen created innumerable memorable big-screen moments.

In "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" (1953), a dinosaur thawed out by A-bomb testing in the Arctic goes on a Big Apple rampage in which it devours a New York cop before meeting its demise at Coney Island.

In "Jason and the Argonauts" (1963), the mythological hero Jason, played by Todd Armstrong, slays a seven-headed hydra guarding the Golden Fleece, then Jason and two of his men battle seven sword-wielding warrior skeletons that spring from the hydra's scattered teeth.

In "The Valley of Gwangi" (1969), a group of turn-of-the-20th-century cowboys on horseback attempt to lasso the movie title's namesake, a 14-foot Tyrannosaurus rex, to capture it for a Wild West show.

And who can forget the prehistoric flying reptile that scoops up and carries off Raquel Welch, clad in an animal-skin bikini, in "One Million Years BC" (1966)?

The fantasy world of Ray Harryhausen inspired Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron and many other filmmakers, some of whom have paid cinematic homage to the special-effects maestro.

In Pixar's 2001 animated feature "Monsters Inc.," a Monstropolis restaurant is named after Harryhausen.

Director Robert Rodriguez's "Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams" included a Harryhausen-inspired multiple-skeleton swordfight and a closing-credit thank you to Harryhausen.

And Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode 2 -- Attack of the Clones" featured a gladiator-style scene, including two shots set up exactly like ones Harryhausen devised for his 1958 classic "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad."

PHOTOS: Celebrities react to Ray Harryhausen's death

"I had seen some other fantasy films before, but none of them had the sort of awe that the Ray Harryhausen movies had," Lucas said in "The Harryhausen Chronicles," a 1998 documentary written and directed by film critic and historian Richard Schickel.

In 1992, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Harryhausen with the Gordon E. Sawyer Award for technical achievement.

As part of a Hollywood contingent that wrote letters and donated money to get Harryhausen a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003, Spielberg wrote: "Without Harryhausen's effects work over the last five decades, there never would have been a 'Star Wars' or a 'Jurassic Park.' His films continue to set our imagination on fire."

For Harryhausen, it all began with a giant gorilla named Kong.

Born in Los Angeles on June 29, 1920, Harryhausen was 13 when he saw "King Kong" during its run at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

"I haven't been the same since," he is repeatedly quoted as saying over the years.

"I came out of the theater awestruck," Harryhausen elaborated in a 1999 interview with the Chicago Tribune. "It was such a totally different, unusual film. The story line led you from the mundane world into the most outrageous fantasy that's ever been put on the screen."

Inspired by the landmark special effects of stop-motion animation pioneer Willis O'Brien in "King Kong," Harryhausen began creating dinosaur models and making experimental 16-millimeter stop-motion films in the family garage.

In high school, Harryhausen discovered that a classmate's father had worked on a film with O'Brien. The man suggested that Harryhausen call MGM and talk to his idol. He did, and to his surprise, his special-effects hero invited him to the studio.

PHOTOS: Hollywood Backlot moments

After looking at the suitcase full of dinosaur models that Harryhausen had brought with him, O'Brien suggested that he study anatomy. O'Brien later provided further constructive criticism and encouragement after viewing footage of Harryhausen's stop-motion experiments.

While still in high school, Harryhausen enrolled in art and anatomy night classes at Los Angeles City College. To gain more knowledge of motion picture techniques, he took night classes in art direction, photography and editing at USC. The shy teenager even took an acting class.

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