A legacy of fantasy.
Filmmaker George Lucas probably said it best: "Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no 'Star Wars.' " He was referring to the man generally credited with popularizing stop-motion photography in the 1950s and 1970s in films such as "Mighty Joe Young," "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" and "Jason and the Argonauts." Harryhausen died last week in London at the age of 92.
Harryhausen was a protg of Willis O'Brien, a pioneer in stop-motion animation who was the visual effects supervisor for 1933's "King Kong," generally regarded as a milestone in motion picture animation, in large part because it melded the animated ape's actions with those of human actors. The two men last worked together on the 1956 documentary "The Animal World" but their best-known collaboration was 1949's "Mighty Joe Young," which bore more than a few resemblances to "King Kong." Once he was on his own, Harryhausen specialized in monster movies and fantasy films, with his last notable success 1981's "Clash of the Titans."
Anyone who's ever watched a stop-motion film being made knows what a painstaking process it is. Before the advent of computers, each small movement of every model or puppet had to be manually adjusted before each frame of film was shot. O'Brien and Harryhausen took that one step further by figuring out how to combine the animation with live action. In most animated films these days it's done digitally, inside a computer.
Harryhausen's contribution was more than technical, however. He helped expand the magic of film to include flights of imagination never before tried. Watching any of his fantasy films will reveal the inspiration for the now-famous holographic checkers match between Chewbacca and R2-D2 in the first "Star Wars" movie, for example. And the pirate skeletons in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies are clearly descendants of the sword-wielding skeleton warriors in Harryhausen's "Jason and the Argonauts."
In 1992 Harryhausen was given a special Oscar for his technical contributions to the film industry, capping a dozen or so fantasy and science fiction awards he'd received over the course of his 40-year career. He'll be best remembered, though, for the delights experienced by two generations of moviegoers who were able to watch his filmmaking genius unfold on the screen in darkened auditoriums.