When he was 13, Mr. Harryhausen was so overwhelmed by “King Kong” — the 1933 film in which a giant gorilla climbed the Empire State Building — that he vowed he would create otherworldly creatures on film. Later, he became perhaps the most influential animator in Hollywood history, thrilling audiences with skeletons in a sword fight, a gigantic octopus destroying the Golden Gate Bridge and a six-armed dancing goddess.
Though little known by the general public, Mr. Harryhausen made 17 movies that are cherished by devotees of film fantasy.
George Lucas, who borrowed some of Mr. Harryhausen’s techniques for his “Star Wars” films, said, “I had seen some other fantasy films before, but none of them had the kind of awe that Ray Harryhausen’s movies had.”
Mr. 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.
Mr. Harryhausen admired the three-dimensional quality of modern digital effects, but he still preferred the old-fashioned way of creating fantasy.
“I don’t think you want to make it quite real,” he said. “Stop motion, to me, gives that added value of a dream world.”
Ray Frederick 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, B.C., 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 16mm 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 was spared a spanking for ruining the fur coat.
During World War II, Mr. Harryhausen joined Frank Capra’s film unit, which made the “Why We Fight” propaganda series. 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 for special effects in 1950.
Mr. Harryhausen then embarked on a solo career, creating his magic on a shoestring. His first effort, “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953), cost $250,000 for the entire film.
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 Mr. Harryhausen’s tricks. He had three live actors dueling seven skeletons. It took four months to produce a few minutes on the screen.
Other notable achievements included the film “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” (1956), in which aliens slice through the Washington Monument and crash into the U.S. Capitol. He also animated “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958), in which a one-eyed centaur battles a part-lion, part-eagle creature known as a griffin.
In 1966, Mr. Harryhausen created a series of dinosaurs for the film “One Million Years BC,” starring a scantily clad Raquel Welch.
One of Mr. Harryhausen’s final films, “The Clash of the Titans” (1981), was the only one with a big budget and major cast, including Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Burgess Meredith, Harry Hamlin and Claire Bloom.
Mr. Harryhausen and his wife, Diana, had lived in London since the early 1960s. She and a daughter survive him.
In later years, he fashioned bronze replicas of his movie creations and often appeared at fantasy conventions. In 1992, Mr. Harryhausen received a special Academy Award. In 2003, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“Harryhausen stands alone as a technician, as an artist and as a dreamer,” science-fiction author Ray Bradbury, who met Mr. Harryhausen in 1938, said.
“He and I made a pact to grow old but never grow up — to keep the pterodactyl and the tyrannosaurus forever in our hearts.”
— Associated Press