Special effects guru, Ray Harryhausen, is 91 this week…

In the era before CGI, Ray Harryhausen created amazing special effects on screen. Motion stop animation – which uses miniature models, animated through taking thousands of still images to create the illusion of movement – was used in live action films to create fantastic sequences and was first used on the 1925 film The Lost World and most famously in the 1933 version of King Kong. When Harryhausen saw King Kong at the tender age of 13 his love of special effects was born. He even contacted the creator of the special effects – Wills O’Brien, who would later go on to be his mentor – to show him footage of a dinosaur that he had created. 

Watch – Ray Harryhausen’s creatures

Although he worked on a series of fairy tale shorts, Ray Harryhausen’s first work on a major movie was on Mighty Joe Young in 1949. He was hired as assistant animator to Wills O’Brien but due to technical issues, ended up doing most of the animation on the film. Mighty Joe Young won the Academy Award for Best Special Effects.

From here, Harryhausen used split screen images – for live action and animation – for the first time on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in 1953, and worked on many films throughout the 1950s, to great acclaim. In 1963, Harryhausen created an ambitious fight scene between skeletons and live action actors for Jason and the Argonauts, which is now considered by many – including Tom Hanks and the animator himself – to be Harryhausen’s masterwork. Harryhausen went on to work solidly through the 1960s and 1970s, creating effects that were considered technical triumphs for Hammer Film Productions, Columbia Pictures and Warner Brothers, including the box office smash; One Million Years BC.

Harryhausen has donated some 20,000 pieces to the National Media Museum in the UK and had had a small cameo in the remake of Mighty Joe Young. As well as this, he provided the voice of the polar bear cub in Elf and has had several appearances in John Landis films; most recently, Burke and Hare. Tim Burton paid homage to Harryhausen and his groundbreaking work in Mars Attacks! – the scene where a flying saucer crashes into the Washington Monument was a visual reference to Harryhausen’s work on Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers.

Pop band The Hoosiers also paid tribute to Ray Harryhausen in their song Worried about Ray, the video for which features a reclusive film maker, whose Harryhausen style monster comes to life. The exclusive restaurant in Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. was named after the famous animator and the piano in Tim Burton’s motion stop film, Corpse Bride, has the name Harryhausen engraved on it.

Watch – Worried About Ray

Ray Harryhausen created groundbreaking special effects in the early days of cinema, allowing film makers and audiences to realise their wildest dreams on screen. His work has influenced many artists and film makers, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Tim Burton, Sam Raimi and James Cameron. Harryhausen’s technique of making stop motion on a budget – rear and front projecting footage one frame at time while animating – also called Dynamation, is still in use today.

Movies.ie thanks Ray Harryhausen for his remarkable contribution to film and wishes him a very happy birthday.

Words – Brogen Hayes