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(1920-2013) US special-effects supervisor, long based in the UK, associated with many sf and fantasy films and the pioneering use of stop-motion animation. As a boy his main interests were sculpture and palaeontology. The desire to see his own clay figures move on the screen, aroused by King Kong (1933), stimulated his interest in photography and special effects. While Willis H O'Brien, who had animated King Kong, was preparing to make Mighty Joe Young (1949), Harryhausen approached him, showed sample footage of his work on 16mm, and was hired as his assistant on this film and on the subsequent abortive project El Toro Estrella, about a boy, a bull and a Dinosaur. Harryhausen and O'Brien then went their separate ways, though they later teamed up briefly to work on the dinosaur sequences in Irwin Allen's pseudo-documentary Animal World (1956).
Harryhausen supervised the effects in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), which was a success. He then formed a partnership with producer Charles H Schneer that continued through his active career. Their first film together was It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955); it was followed by Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). By then the sf film boom was in decline and they decided that their next project would be a mythic fantasy. In 1958 they made The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, the first animation film of its type in colour. It proved a huge financial success and similar fantasies followed: The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) (see Gulliver), Mysterious Island (1961) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Then there was a shift back to sf with First Men in the Moon (1964), One Million Years B.C. (1966) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969).
In the 1970s and 1980s their output fell and they returned to the format of their best-loved films, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. Their three further films in the same vein were The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) and Clash of the Titans (1981). In the latter (an adaptation of the Perseus legend) they attempted, by using distinguished actors in supporting roles, to counter criticisms that their films had become five-minute dollops of monster-fighting stitched together with 15-minute stretches of pointless running about and bad acting. It remained a relative disappointment, not helped by the inclusion of an insufferable mechanical owl patterned on LucasFilm's R2D2 in Star Wars (1977) – a film which, ironically, was deeply influenced by Harryhausen's earlier fantasies. The alien craft of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and the Ymir of 20 Million Miles to Earth probably stand as Harryhausen's best animation, and Jason and the Argonauts as his best film. While his effects were very influential state-of-the-art stuff in the 1950s and 1960s, he proved reluctant to adapt to the 1980s and 1990s boom in computer-assisted animation; Film Fantasy Scrapbook (1972; rev 1974; further rev 1981) expresses his sense of things. Instead he gracefully retired, sculpting figures from his films and acting as spiritual godfather to his pupils-cum-successors, Jim Danforth, David Allen and Phil Tippett. Further works looking back over his career are The Art of Ray Harryhausen (2005) and Ray Harryhausen's Fantasy Scrapbook: Models, Artwork and Memories from 65 Years of Filmmaking (2011), both with Tony Dalton.
Harryhausen appears, thinly disguised, as "Roy Holdstrom" in A Graveyard for Lunatics (1990) by Ray Bradbury, his friend in Fandom since the late 1930s. He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2005, into the First Fandom Hall of Fame in 2008, and received an Eaton Award for sf life achievement in 2012. [JB/KN/DRL]
see also: John Martin; Worldcon.
born Los Angeles, California: 29 June 1920
died London: 7 May 2013
about the filmmaker
Entry from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2011-current) edited by John Clute and David Langford.
Accessed 16:58 pm on 27 May 2022.