Ray Harryhausen, 92, master of special effects

Mr. Harryhausen posed with some of his prop creations in 2010 at the London Film Museum.
Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images
Mr. Harryhausen posed with some of his prop creations in 2010 at the London Film Museum.

LONDON — When Ray Harryhausen was 13, he was so overwhelmed by ‘‘King Kong’’ that he vowed he would create otherworldly creatures on film. He fulfilled his desire as an adult, thrilling audiences with skeletons in a sword fight, a gigantic octopus destroying the Golden Gate Bridge, and a six-armed dancing goddess.

On Tuesday, Mr. Harryhausen died at London’s Hammersmith Hospital, where he had been receiving treatment for about a week. He was 92.

Biographer and longtime friend Tony Dalton confirmed the special-effects titan’s death, saying it was too soon to tell the exact cause. He described Mr. Harryhausen’s passing as ‘‘very gentle and very quiet.’’


‘‘Ray did so much and influenced so many people,’’ Dalton said. He recalled his friend’s ‘‘brilliant sense of humor’’ and love of Laurel and Hardy, adding that ‘‘his creatures were extra­ordinary, and his imagination was boundless.’’

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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, commented: ‘‘I had seen some other fantasy films before, but none of them had the kind of awe that Ray Harryhausen’s movies had.’’

Author Ray Bradbury, a longtime friend and admirer, remarked: ‘‘Harryhausen stands alone as a technician, as an artist, and as a dreamer. . . . He breathed life into mythological creatures he constructed.’’

Mr. Harryhausen’s method was as old as the motion picture itself: stop motion. He sculpted characters from 3 inches to 15 inches tall and photographed them one frame at a time, creating the illusion of motion.


He 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. Stop motion, to me, gives that added value of a dream world,’’ he said.

A great-grandson of explorer David Livingstone, Ray Frederick Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles. As a boy, he saw the 1925 silent film ‘‘The Lost World,’’ about dinosaurs in a South American jungle.

‘‘I always remember the dinosaur falling off the cliff,’’ he remarked at a Vancouver, Canada, animation and effects convention in 2001. 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 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 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. Mr. Harryhausen then embarked on a solo career.

Mr. 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.

‘‘Jason and the Argonauts’’ (1963) had three live actors dueling seven skeletons. It took four months to produce a few minutes on the screen.