Ray Harryhausen

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Ray Harryhausen (AP Photo / Mike Appleton)
LONDON (AP) — Ray Harryhausen, a special effects master whose sword-fighting skeletons, six-tentacled octopus, and other fantastical creations were adored by film lovers and admired by industry heavyweights, has died. He was 92.

Biographer and longtime friend Tony Dalton confirmed that Harryhausen died Tuesday at London's Hammersmith Hospital, where the special effects titan had been receiving treatment for about a week. Dalton said it was too soon to tell the exact cause of death, but described Harryhausen's passing as "very gentle and very quiet."

Harryhausen's films included "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms," "Valley of the Gwangi" and "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad."

"Ray did so much and influenced so many people," Dalton said. He recalled his friend's "wonderfully funny, brilliant sense of humor" and said, "His creatures were extraordinary, and his imagination was boundless."

Harryhausen had been so overwhelmed by "King Kong" that at age 13, he vowed he would create unworldly creatures on film.

As an adult, he fulfilled that desire and then some, thrilling audiences with skeletons in a sword fight, a gigantic octopus destroying the Golden Gate Bridge, and a six-armed dancing goddess.

Though his name was little-known by the general public, many directors borrowed Harryhausen's special effects techniques.

"I had seen some other fantasy films before, but none of them had the kind of awe that Ray Harryhausen's movies had," George Lucas, the man behind the "Star Wars" films, once said.

Science fiction author Ray Bradbury, a longtime friend and admirer, once remarked: "Harryhausen stands alone as a technician, as an artist and as a dreamer. ... He breathed life into mythological creatures he constructed with his own hands."

Bradbury, who met Harryhausen in 1938, wrote the story for "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms." "He and I made a pact to grow old but never grow up — to keep the pterodactyl and the tyrannosaurus forever in our hearts," Bradbury said.

Harryhausen's method was as old as the motion picture itself: stop motion. He sculpted characters from 3 to 15 inches tall and photographed them one frame at a time in continuous poses, thus creating the illusion of motion. In today's movies, such effects are achieved digitally on a computer.

Although he admired what could be done with modern digital effects, Harryhausen said he still preferred the look stop-motion animation gave a film.

"I don't think you want to make it quite real. Stop motion, to me, gives that added value of a dream world," he once said.

Modern filmmakers, meanwhile, continued to revere him. In a tongue-in-cheek salute from the makers of the 2001 animated hit "Monsters, Inc.," the monsters gather after work at a nightclub named Harryhausen's.

In contrast to the millions spent on digital effects today, Harryhausen made his magic on a shoestring. His first effort, "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" (1953), cost $250,000 for the entire film. He commented wryly in 1998: "I find it rather amusing to sit through the on-screen credits today, seeing the names of 200 people doing what I once did by myself."

He found ways to economize. For "It Came from Beneath the Sea" (1955), he employed an octopus with six tentacles instead of eight. That saved time.

"Jason and the Argonauts" (1963) demonstrated the intricacy of Harryhausen's tricks. He had three live actors dueling seven skeletons. It took four months to produce a few minutes on the screen.

Harryhausen's last film, "The Clash of the Titans" (1981), was the only one with a big budget and major cast that included Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Burgess Meredith, Harry Hamlin and Claire Bloom. Hamlin as Perseus struggled to tame a white-winged Pegasus and to battle the snake-haired Medusa.

In 1992, Harryhausen received a special award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The great-grandson of African explorer David Livingstone, Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles on June 19, 1920. As a boy, he saw the 1925 silent fantasy "The Lost World," Willis O'Brien's stop-motion movie about dinosaurs in a South American jungle.

"I always remember the dinosaur falling off the cliff," he remarked at a Vancouver, British Columbia, animation and effects convention in 2001. "That stuck in my mind for years."

His future was assured in 1933 when he saw "King Kong" at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

"I used to make little clay models," he recalled. "When I saw 'King Kong,' I saw a way to make those models move."

He borrowed a 16-mm camera, cut up his mother's old fur coat to make a bear model and made a film about himself and his dog being menaced by a bear. His parents were so impressed that he missed a spanking for ruining the coat.

During World War II, Harryhausen joined Frank Capra's film unit, which made the "Why We Fight" series for military indoctrination. After the war, he made stop-motion versions of fairy tales that prompted his idol, O'Brien, to hire him to help create the ape in "Mighty Joe Young," an achievement that won an Academy Award. Harryhausen then embarked on a solo career.

Harryhausen is survived by his wife, Diana, and daughter Vanessa.

BOB THOMAS, Associated Press

Bob Thomas contributed from Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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