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R.I.P. Ray

May 7th, 2013

Much of what I have to say about special effects master Ray Harryhausen–who died today at the age of 92–was already covered in this post from 2009, so I’ll wait here ’til you get back.

I can recall one time–I’m guessing that it was sometime around 1978–sitting down with a big sheet of paper on a kitchen table and meticulously drawing a mural that included at least one monster from every one of Harryhausen’s films. I thought that it was pretty good at the time. I wish that I still had it.

Growing up a fan of monster and sci-fi flicks, Harryhausen loomed large. It wasn’t just because of his talent or because of the near monopoly of his chosen profession he enjoyed throughout the ’50s and ’60s. He made quality fantasy films, and he made a lot of them. After apprenticing on 1949’s Mighty Joe Young, he worked on fourteen more, from 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to Clash of the Titans in 1981. Twelve of them were with producer Charles H. Schneer, whose own contributions should not be underestimated. If there was a science-fiction or fantasy spectacle made during the middle of the 20th Century, odds are it either came from producer George Pal–who also started out as a stop-motion animator–or from the team of Harryhausen and Schneer.

Harryhausen wasn’t just the special effects guy for hire, he was the one dreaming up the action set-pieces around which those stories were built. Admittedly, the scenarios tended to be episodic, with dramatic scenes existing mostly to fill the time between monsters. But what monsters! The seven-headed hydra, the cyclopean centaur, the tragic Venusian Ymir, and the vicious dinosaur Gwangi were only a fraction of his large and varied menagerie.

Ray retired after Clash of the Titans, and never returned to filmmaking. I’m sure that he could tell that the days of the lone animator meticulously animating puppets by hand over a period of months would be ending, due in no small part to the incoming generation of people that he had inspired.

These days, there are vast hordes of anonymous effects artists filling out the endless credit rolls of our modern blockbusters. And this is not a knock on them, but none of them can ever be Ray Harryhausen. For a time, he wasn’t just one of a few, he was one of a kind.

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