Ray Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles on June 29, 1920. From an early age he was fascinated with dinosaurs and fantasy and as a child, he became adept at drawing. Later, he taught himself to make marionettes, dioramas and other models. It was 1933's King Kong that inspired Harryhausen to work in film. He taught himself the process of stop-motion animation and began a decades-long career as the master of the craft.
Harryhausen's work in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) is often cited as his best. The film uses multiple techniques and the effects appear nearly seamless. Inspired by Sergio Leone's The Colossus of Rhodes, Harryhausen decided to modify the character of Talos to become a titanic, living bronze statue.
Harryhausen's Harpies were an extremely complex effect. He had two of them flying in and out of ancient ruins and attacking an actor. Sometimes on each frame, he would have to re-paint the wires that the characters were suspended from so they would blend into the background.
Harryhausen has said he's received some flack over the years for making Triton a live action actor instead of a stop-motion character. There are a couple of reasons it was done this way. The first is that water does not miniaturize well. If the sequence were done with miniatures, they would have had to have been huge to make it look realistic. As it was, they used a five foot miniature of the Argo for the sequence at the clashing rocks. The second reason was time. Stop-motion animation is extremely time-consuming. This sequence was shot in a week but if it had been animated it could have taken 2-4 months!
One of the most impressive feats of animation in the film is the seven-headed Hydra. Imagine having to keep track of the movements of all seven heads and two tails in each frame without the aid of instant video to check your progress! Harryhausen had to keep meticulous notes and might not realize there was an error until the film was processed and seen in dailies.
Finally, the most famous and most difficult sequence in the film was Jason's battle with the Skeleton Warriors. Harryhausen had already created a single skeleton for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in 1958. Now, he had to create seven more and animate all of them in some shots. Detailed pre-planning for this sequence was essential to make it seem as though the skeletons were truly interacting with the actors.
The actors had to carefully rehearse each movement and remember it exactly. Then, Harryhausen had to analyze the shot film, counting each frame and taking careful note of where sword was to meet sword. It took four months to animate the sequence that appears on screen for less than three minutes!
Ray Harryhausen is a self-taught master of the art of stop-motion. He has inspired more special effects artists and filmmakers than any other single filmmaker. This year, he celebrates his 90th birthday. Check out his official website for more great information.