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, Harryhausen, 92, died at London's Hammersmith Hospital, where he had been receiving treatment for about a week.
Though little known by the general public, Harryhausen made 17 movies that are cherished by devotees of film fantasy.
George Lucas, who borrowed some of 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."
The late science-fiction author Ray Bradbury, a longtime friend and admirer, once remarked: "Harryhausen stands alone as a technician, as an artist and as a dreamer. . . . He breathed life into mythological creatures he constructed with his own hands."
Harryhausen's method was as old as the motion picture itself: stop motion. He sculpted characters from miniature clay models 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.
Harryhausen admired the three-dimensional quality of modern digital effects, but 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.
The great-grandson of African explorer David Livingstone, 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.
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 16-mm 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, 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. Harryhausen then embarked on a solo career.
In contrast to the millions spent on digital effects today, Harryhausen worked on a shoestring. 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."
"Jason and the Argonauts" (1963) demonstrated the intricacy of Harryhausen's tricks. He had three live actors dueling seven skeletons. It took four months to produce a few minutes on film.