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Visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen dies

05/07/2013 03:18 EDT | Updated 07/07/2013 05:12 EDT
Ray Harryhausen, a pioneer of visual effects and stop-motion animation who influenced a generation of animators, has died. He was 92.

His family announced that he died Tuesday in London.

Harryhausen worked in both the U.S. and U.K., with his films such as Mighty Joe Young, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts lauded for their creative use of visual effects.

He was honoured with a special Oscar — the Gordon E. Sawyer Award — in 1992, and was presented a special award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts on his 90th birthday.

“What we do now digitally with computers, Ray did digitally long before, but without computers. Only with his digits,” director Terry Gilliam has said of Harryhausen's work.

Blended animated models with live action

A generation of animators grew up on his films, from 1955's It Came From Beneath the Sea to the 1981's Clash of the Titans. George Lucas, Peter Jackson, Nick Park and James Cameron all studied his techniques, which combined animated models with live action figures.

"I think all of us who are practitioners in the arts of science fiction and fantasy movies now all feel that we’re standing on the shoulders of a giant,” Titanic director Cameron said of Harryhausen.

“If not for Ray’s contribution to the collective dreamscape, we wouldn’t be who we are."

Harryhausen was born June 29, 1920 in Los Angeles. As a 13-year-old, he was awed by Willis H. O'Brien’s stop-motion photography in 1933’s King Kong.

His first movie industry job entailed working on George Pal's Puppetoons shorts for Paramount. During the Second World War, he made a series of Puppetoons-inspired shorts for the military. This work brought him to O’Brien’s attention. He later collaborated with his hero on 1949's Mighty Joe Young, which won an Academy Award for visual effects.

Innovative filmmaker

Warner Bros. then hired Harryhausen to create the special effects for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, but with a budget so small that he was forced to improvise. He developed a technique called "split-screen" — rear projection on overlapping miniature screens — to insert dinosaurs and other fantastic beasts into real-world backgrounds.

He later created effects for The Mysterious Island and The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, using an innovative mix of split-screen and animated models.

His most popular film is 1963's Jason and the Argonauts, which includes the exciting, famed scene of fighting skeletons, painstakingly created with stop-motion animation and live-action actors Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovack.

Harryhausen's dinosaur movies include the Hammer Films productions One Million Years B.C. and The Valley of Gwangi. He returned to the story of Sinbad in 1973's The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and 1977's Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. His final film was Clash of the Titans, featuring Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom.

The Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation, a charitable trust set up by the filmmaker in 1986, is devoted to the protection of his name and body of work, as well as the archiving, preservation and restoration of his extensive collection of models.

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