Considering what a vast legacy he left for generations of special effects artists, it may surprise you to learn that Ray Harryhausen, who died in London May 7 at 91, was only credited for his groundbreaking effects wizardry on 13 feature films: from 1949's Mighty Joe Young to 1981's Clash of the Titans.
Decades before digital painters could create monstrous creatures by pointing and clicking a mouse, Harryhausen got hands on, painstakingly sculpting tentacled beasts, reanimated skeletons, and scaly dinosaurs himself. And even after the initial model-making came the grueling stop-motion animation technique of subtly repositioning the creatures for each of the 24 frames that make up a single second of film. That right there is probably the reason for his quality-over-quantity output.
But even despite the advent of digital tools that have streamlined the creation of visual effects to fit within tight Hollywood blockbuster production schedules, Harryhausen is still the gold standard. Maybe it's because there's just something inherently more real, more tactile about his creatures than anything that can be created by pixels. Here are our picks for Harryhausen's five greatest monsters, interwoven with quotes from his many famous admirers about his profound impact on their careers and on cinema.
5. The Medusa, Clash of the Titans (1981)
“Ray has been a great inspiration to us all in the special visual effects industry. The art of his earlier films, which most of us grew up on, inspired us so much...Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars.” —George Lucas
4. Dinosaurs, One Million Years B.C. (1966)
“The Lord of the Rings is my ‘Ray Harryhausen movie’. Without his life-long love of his wondrous images and storytelling it would never have been made – not by me at least ... His patience, his endurance have inspired so many of us.” —Peter Jackson
3. Sea Monster, It Came From Beneath the Sea, 1955
“What we do now digitally with computers, Ray did digitally long before but without computers. Only with his digits.” —Terry Gilliam
2. The Goddess Kali, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)
"I think all of us who are practioners in the arts of science fiction and fantasy movies now all feel that we’re standing on the shoulders of a giant. If not for Ray’s contribution to the collective dreamscape, we wouldn’t be who we are." —James Cameron
1. The Reanimated Skeletons, Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
"Ray, your inspiration goes with us forever." —Steven Spielberg
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Visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen has died at the age of 92. The filmmaker passed away in London on Tuesday (07May13).
A statement issued by his relatives reads: "The Harryhausen family regret to announce the death of Ray Harryhausen, Visual Effects pioneer and stop-motion model animator.
"Ray's influence on today's film makers was enormous... Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, George Lucas, John Landis and the UK's own Nick Park have cited Harryhausen as being the man whose work inspired their own creations...
"Harryhausen's genius was in being able to bring his models alive. Whether they were prehistoric dinosaurs or mythological creatures, in Ray's hands they were no longer puppets but became instead characters in their own right, just as important as the actors they played against and in most cases even more so."
Inspired by the work of Willis O'Brien in King Kong, Harryhausen embarked on a career in filmmaking in the 1930s with his childhood pal, writer Ray Bradbury.
He had to put his Hollywood dreams on hold temporarily during World War II, during which he served in the U.S. Army's Special Services Division. He landed his first major job as an assistant animator to O'Brien for 1949's Mighty Joe Young, which won the Academy Award for Best Special Effects.
He went on to make his first colour film, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, in 1958, using his own brand of stop-motion model animation, named Dynamation, which revolutionised the industry.
His filmography also included The Three Worlds of Gulliver, Mysterious Island and his final work, Clash of the Titans in 1981, but he will perhaps be best remembered for the animation he created for 1963's Jason and the Argonauts and his work on a key fight scene between three actors and seven 'living' skeletons - a sequence which took Harryhausen a reported four months to complete.
He won a multitude of accolades throughout his lengthy career, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and an honorary Oscar, and he has widely been credited as the inspiration for a slew of top Hollywood filmmakers, including Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who once claimed, "Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars."
Despite what you may have read on the internet Real Steel isn’t nearly as bad as many film snobs would have you believe. Sure the idea of robots replacing pro-fighters in the ring (and only the ring - there’s literally no other purpose for 15-foot gladiators in the film) is far-fetched. The story is as predictable as an underdog tale can be. The dialogue is childish at times and Hugh Jackman’s overtly toughened portrayal of down-on-his-luck former-bruiser-turned-robo-boxing-promoter Charlie Kenton has a wearying effect on the movie. But it’s also a classically uplifting family film that balances story and action well enough to hold your attention in between eye-rolls. With steady direction from Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) and a surprisingly effective performance from young Dakota Goyo I found myself cheering for Atom the Autobot (oops wrong movie) without shame.
A commercial success in spite of critical backlash director Shawn Levy’s futuristic sports flick hits shelves today in a well-produced Blu-ray/DVD combo pack that’s perfect for fans and comes packed with enough bonus content to hopefully change the minds of some of the naysayers. First I should note the pristine hi-def transfer of the film. In all its 1080p glory the 2.35:1 widescreen presentation of the movie is full of so much rich color even the artificial elements of the production are made tangible. The 7.1 DTS master surround sound also comes in handy when those robots start fighting as you can hear steel clash and sparks fly in every direction but I should also note that the more subtle moments of the movie featuring soulful songs from the likes of Alexi Murdoch as well as Danny Elfman’s score are also wonderful to listen to.
Now onto the extras! Since this is a science fiction film its no surprise that its home entertainment release utilizes next-gen technology to help expand the story. "Real Steel Second Screen" is a Blu-ray only feature that allows you to virtually explore exclusive interactive content with your iPad or laptop as you’re watching the movie. As the filmmaker notes in the intro to the feature there’s a wealth of stories and opinions behind every shot in the film and you can tap into them all with Second Screen. I won’t spoil anything for you because this is a bonus that you should uncover yourself but it’s an interesting way to screen a film and may be the choice method of “movie going” in years to come as theatrical presentation becomes less and less the standard to consumers.
As far as traditional bonus features go the disc comes with a few noteworthy items. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is “Countdown to the Fight: The Charlie Kenton Story ” a faux documentary taking place within the reality of the film. It builds on the mythology of the World Robot Boxing league by detailing the downfall of human fighters while simultaneously exploring Jackman’s character and summarizes all of the forced exposition that plagues the film in a less intrusive manner.
A pair of production-oriented featurettes entitled “Making of Metal Valley” and “Building the Bots” transport you to the Detroit set where Levy Jackman and company show the viewer how a key location in the film was designed erected and altered throughout the shoot to meet the filmmakers needs. Anyone who’s ever wondered how green screen factors into a natural setting will enjoy the Metal Valley segment as will those who are interesting in seeing behind-the-scenes footage and discussions about production design. The latter takes you inside the bot-shop for an in-depth look at how the physical construction of the robotic characters (produced by John Rosengrant and the whiz kids at Legacy Effects) informed the visual effects team in their quest to make these steel warriors as realistic as possible. Spielberg himself – an executive producer on the picture – actually shows up in this one and Levy explains that the grandmaster of cinema shared stories of making Jurassic Park and described how useful it was for his team to have actual animatronic dinosaurs built for the actors to interact with. That mindset carried over to the Real Steel crew and that’s why I got to see a 12-foot tall Atom when I visited the set in August 2010.
A third featurette finds Sugar Ray Leonard working with Jackman Levy and stunt coordinator Garrett Warren on plotting the various fight sequences in the film. You might think that the WRB bouts were simply concocted by computer nerds in an air-conditioned tech lab but both Leonard and Jackman (whose father boxed and who got the hang of the sport rather quickly thanks to his athletic training and overall toned physique) had plenty of input into the battle techniques and styles of the various robots.
Numerous extended and deleted scenes (with introductions by Levy and also only available on the Blu-ray disc) a general audio commentary and a blooper reel round out this killer home entertainment release. The entire package enhances the feature film many times over and I believe that it’s a great way to celebrate a solid film.