So we’ve lost Ray Harryhausen. The news probably came as a surprise to those of us who figured he was no longer alive. At 92, Harryhausen was something of a dinosaur, which was apt because it was on-screen dinosaurs that first inspired him to take a lifelong interest in filming exotic and impossible creatures. As a boy in Los Angeles, he was hooked by a 1925 silent fantasy "The Lost World," in whichWillis O'Brien used stop-motion to show a dinosaur tumbling off a South American cliff. Then came King Kong, which mesmerized him when he saw it in 1933 at Graumann’s Chinese Theater. O’Brien’s work on that film so impressed the thirteen-year-old Harryhausen that he borrowed a 16 mm camera, cut up his mother's fur coat to make a bear model, and shot a film about bear menacing himself and his dog. (Fortunately the fur coat was old, and his mother may have figured that wearing furs in L.A. weather was pretty pointless.)
During World War II, Harryhausen served in Frank Capra’s film unit. Afterwards he was lucky enough to be hired by his idol, Willis O’Brien, to help create the giant ape in the Oscar-winning Mighty Joe Young. This was the King Kong-like story of a gorilla’s life in captivity, which I saw multiple times on TV as a child. You might say that a fascination with jungle animals was in his blood: I’m told he was the great-grandson of African explorer David Livingstone (as in “Doctor Livingstone, I presume.”) But he was also a child of Los Angeles, and found inspiration not just at the movies but also at the Los Angeles County Museum (now the Museum of Natural History) where murals depicting the nearby La Brea Tar Pits and the sites of other primeval scenes caught his eye. His official website informs me that at age eighteen he entered a County Museum competition, presenting an elaborate prehistoric diorama that won first prize.
Harryhausen naturally gravitated toward two other Angelenos who loved imagining non-existent worlds: author Ray Bradbury and the inimitable Forrest J. Ackerman, publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland. The three became lifelong friends. And he had a powerful impact on filmmakers who came after him. Harryhausen’s movie fantasy work (perhaps best typified by his dueling skeletons in 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts) has influenced everyone from George Lucas (Star Wars) to the wonderful British animator Nick Park, of Wallace and Gromit fame.
When I worked for Roger Corman, I don’t honestly remember Harryhausen’s name coming up, although Corman’s companies did spawn such effects specialists as Dennis and Robert Skotak, who both later won Oscars for their work on James Cameron extravaganzas. Corman’s own early special effects – always done on the cheap – could be as cheesy as building a creature out of papier mâché and making it “move” with piano wires, or by having an actor crawl inside. (A famous Corman principle, learned while shooting It Conquered the World with Beverly Garland, was “Always make the monster bigger than your leading lady.”) Forry Ackerman once told me that back in 1955 Roger had phoned him while producing The Beast with a Million Eyes. Naturally, he needed a monster. When Ackerman suggested Ray Harryhausen, Roger exclaimed, “Omigod, no, I couldn’t afford him. He charges $1000 a tentacle.” So Ackerman contacted newcomer Paul Blaisdell, who with his wife spent a month creating an elaborate hand puppet. Roger forked over $50 bucks and the cost of materials, and the critter looked . . . well, as though it had cost at least twice that much.