Ray Harryhausen Was Pioneer Of Stop Motion Animation

Raymond Frederick Harryhausen created one of the earliest successful forms of stop motion animation. He and pioneer Willis O'Brien won an Oscar for their work on the film Mighty Joe Young. Harryhausen also created one of the most famous screen swordfights ever between Jason and a group of skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts. Harryhausen died Tuesday at the age of 92.

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A man who animated the imaginations of moviegoers has died. Ray Harryhausen was a visionary of stop motion animation. He helped create the sword-fighting skeletons of "Jason and the Argonauts" and the ferocious dinosaurs of "One Million Years B.C." Harryhausen died today in London at the age of 92. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, he developed a distinctive technique that still inspires filmmakers.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Filmmakers like George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Wes Anderson, who grew up watching Ray Harryhausen films.

WES ANDERSON: I really loved them as a kid.

ULABY: The kind of kid transfixed by the swaggering goat-legged Cyclops in the 1958 movie "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad," as Anderson told WHYY's FRESH AIR three years ago.

ANDERSON: It's a difficult and painstaking, careful thing to do, stop motion, but you sense that somebody is doing this with their hands. You're a bit aware of how the illusion is being created.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Stop motion has a strange quality, like a dream, like a nightmare.

ULABY: Ray Harryhausen told NPR in 2004 that his life changed after seeing "King Kong." He started building dinosaurs in the garage of his Los Angeles home. As an adult, he got to work with the same special effects man from "King Kong" on another big ape film, "Mighty Joe Young."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MIGHTY JOE YOUNG")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Joe. Joe.

ULABY: A giant gorilla who rampages through Hollywood before rescuing a child from a burning building. The scene is incredibly complicated, involving fire, multiple actors and mixing live and stop motion shots.

HARRYHAUSEN: Well, this little girl on the ledge was only three inches high, and she was beautifully machined with armature inside of her. And it was a pleasure to animate this little child struggling on the ledge, almost about to fall off.

ULABY: The armatures in most of Harryhausen's films were built by his father. His mom sewed the costumes. And Harryhausen himself, much of the time, conceived the stories. In "It Came from Beneath the Sea," a giant octopus attacks the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco City officials were less than pleased.

HARRYHAUSEN: But we overcame that, of course, by putting cameras in a bakery truck. And secretly, we shot the scenes we found necessary to use in the film.

ULABY: Harryhausen rarely got the screen credit he deserved for all of the behind-the-scenes work he did on scores of 1950s monster movies. But he was famously modest, choosing to concentrate on how best to make a tail flicker or an eyeball roll.

HARRYHAUSEN: Well, I do a lot of research when I create a creature. I like to make them logical. That's my theory, is that if you make them too extreme, too exaggerated, you lose your audience because they're just a grotesque piece of whatnot.

ULABY: The gorgon medusa in "Clash of the Titans" from 1981 was about as grotesque as Ray Harryhausen ever got.

HARRYHAUSEN: I had to keep 12 snakes in her hair all animated to be moving in harmony so that - with rest of the body.

ULABY: Harryhausen told NPR he was grateful to have worked in the 1950s, when stuttering special effects still got gasps, before dazzling ones became quotidian.

HARRYHAUSEN: Now, today, you see so many strange things in a 30-second commercial. You see the most amazing things, you know? So there's no longer the amazement of amazing things.

ULABY: And for that, blame - or credit - Ray Harryhausen. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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