Ray Harryhausen carved out an all-but-unique niche for himself in movies, from the 1950s through the 1980s. In an era in which actors commanded the lion's share of public attention, with directors taking most of what was left, Harryhausen acquired a worldwide fandom as the creator and designer of some of the most beloved fantasy films of all time. He was usually identified as a special-effects designer and, more specifically, a master of stop-motion animation, but Harryhausen's role went much deeper than that. He was the originator of most of the movies with which he is associated, and his special effects determined the shape, content, and nuances of his movies down to the script level, much more so than the directors of the movies, who often had little more to do than move actors around and run the crew.
Harryhausen began devising his own models and puppets, eventually putting his skills to use working in an army-training film unit during World War II. After the war, he went to work for producer George Pal on a series of stop-motion animated short films called Puppetoons, and eventually went to work for Willis O'Brien. At the time, O'Brien was working on a joint production with Merian C. Cooper (the co-producer of King Kong), making a fantasy film about a giant ape entitled Mighty Joe Young (1949). As it worked out, O'Brien was so heavily involved on the production side that 80 percent of the animation in the movie was Harryhausen's work.
At the start of the 1950s, Harryhausen devised a relatively low-cost method of stop-motion work that permitted the creation of special effects on a smaller budget than had theretofore been the case. The first movie to make use of his new technique was The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Inspired by the short story The Foghorn (written by Harryhausen's longtime friend Ray Bradbury), the movie told the story of a dinosaur awakened from suspended animation by an Arctic nuclear test; the dinosaur escapes official notice at first, wrecking isolated ships and a lighthouse as it follows its ancient spawning instinct down the Atlantic coast until it comes ashore in New York City. That last third of the film remains one of the most spectacular ever seen in movies, Harryhausen's model work and Willis Cooper's miniature sets resulting in stunningly realistic, spellbinding depictions of the gigantic beast and the destruction of the city.
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was soon remade as Gojira, which was later recut for the U.S. and retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters; and later as The Giant Behemoth; with a man in a rubber suit, as Gorgo. He followed this up with It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).
Harryhausen eventually wearied of doing monster-on-the-loose stories, so he turned back to an idea that he'd first conceived after The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms of doing an Arabian Nights fantasy along the lines of the 1940 Alexander Korda-produced Thief of Bagdad. The difference would be that his would show all of the wonders of the ancient-world fantasy onscreen using stop-motion photography. The result was The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). The opening of Harryhausen's great cycle of fantasy films, the movie was a huge box-office hit and a critical favorite.
The next 23 years were something of a golden age for Harryhausen and Schneer, as they generated seven extraordinary fantasy and sci-fi fantasy films: The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1959), Mysterious Island (1961), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The First Men in the Moon (1964), The Valley of Gwangi (1969), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), and Clash of the Titans (1981). He also took a break from his own productions with Schneer to work on Hammer Films' One Million Years B.C. (1966), starring Raquel Welch and John Richardson. The latter featured the best dinosaur animation seen onscreen since King Kong, and The Valley of Gwangi gave Harryhausen a chance to pay tribute to his mentor, adapted as it was from a proposal of O'Brien's. The jewel among his own productions with Schneer, however, was Jason and the Argonauts, which brought the Greek gods, goddesses, demigods, and other mythical creations to life as they had never before been seen onscreen.
Harryhausen's movies of the 1970s were no less dazzling, and it is to his credit that he continued making his fantasy movies. By 1981, Harryhausen and Schneer had reached the top of their game in terms of casting -- Burgess Meredith, Dame Maggie Smith, and Sir Laurence Olivier were all in Clash of the Titans. But Columbia had gone through several management shifts over the years and declined to produce that movie, which ended up in the hands of MGM. It was also the first movie in which Harryhausen had to rely on the work of assistants to help him. He was unable to get further films produced, however, as the generational change in the movie industry, combined with his good taste, his advancing age (as well as his corresponding desire not to be divided from his family for months at a time), and his unwillingness to utilize CGI technology, left Harryhausen seeming out of step with the business.
From the 1980s onward, Harryhausen maintained (and his fans seem to all agree) that his stop-motion technique, though time-consuming, permitted the introduction of a personality into his creations. Those creatures, from Mighty Joe Young to Clash of the Titans, display the illusion of full life, including feeling and, within the limits of what their nature is supposed to be, an inner life. Indeed, one of the highest tributes to Harryhausen's art is the sense of real life behind his Rhedosaurus from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, his Ymir (and the elephant) from 20 Million Miles to Earth, the Cyclops (and most of the rest) from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and all of the creatures from Jason and the Argonauts and The Valley of Gwangi -- they feel so real that it hurts when they hurt . Despite Harryhausen's absence from movies for 11 years, he received an Academy Award in 1992 for his career-length work as a creator and designer of stop-motion animation. A frequent guest at festivals of his films, he has also seen his models and miniatures exhibited in museums. In May of 2004, he published Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, a deluxe oversize hardcover book (co-written with Tony Dalton), featuring a forward by Ray Bradbury. Harryhausen died in 2013 of natural causes at the age of 92.