Ray Harryhausen dies at 92; special-effects legend

"I came out of the theater awestruck," Harryhausen elaborated in a 1999 interview with the Chicago Tribune. "It was such a totally different, unusual film. The story line led you from the mundane world into the most outrageous fantasy that's ever been put on the screen."

Inspired by the landmark special effects of stop-motion animation pioneer Willis O'Brien in "King Kong," Harryhausen began creating dinosaur models and making experimental 16-millimeter stop-motion films in the family garage.

In high school, Harryhausen discovered that a classmate's father had worked on a film with O'Brien. The man suggested that Harryhausen call MGM and talk to his idol. He did, and to his surprise, his special-effects hero invited him to the studio.

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After looking at the suitcase full of dinosaur models that Harryhausen had brought with him, O'Brien suggested that he study anatomy. O'Brien later provided further constructive criticism and encouragement after viewing footage of Harryhausen's stop-motion experiments.

While still in high school, Harryhausen enrolled in art and anatomy night classes at Los Angeles City College. To gain more knowledge of motion picture techniques, he took night classes in art direction, photography and editing at USC. The shy teenager even took an acting class.

In 1938, he met another young fantasy buff who became a lifelong friend: Forrest J Ackerman, who later became editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

At Ackerman's suggestion, Harryhausen began attending meetings of the Los Angeles Science Fiction League, where he met another kindred spirit who became a lifelong friend, fledgling science fiction author Ray Bradbury.

The same year, Harryhausen began his most ambitious stop-motion project in the family garage: "Evolution of the World," a history of the world's beginnings through the age of dinosaurs and the appearance of mammals.

He gave up the "Evolution" project in 1940 after seeing the impressive sequence showing dinosaurs and their demise in Disney's animated feature "Fantasia," but he used his footage and models as samples to land his first professional job: Producer-director George Pal hired him, at $16 a week, to help animate the models for the "Puppetoons," Pal's series of shorts for Paramount Pictures.

From 1940 to 1942, Harryhausen worked on the "Puppetoon" shorts. Then, with the world at war, he enlisted in the Army.

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Assigned to the Signal Corps, he was transferred to the Special Service Division, where, among other films, he worked on the "Why We Fight" series supervised by Col. Frank Capra.

Harryhausen, a talented artist and sculptor, also was asked by Maj. Ted Geisel, who later became famous as Dr. Seuss, to sculpt a model of the comic character Pvt. Snafu to be used as a guide for artists in the animation studio for the Army's "Snafu" series.

After the war, Harryhausen began making a series of stop-motion animation shorts based on nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and his parents pitched in. His father helped construct the sets and made the metal armatures for the models; his mother created all the costumes and draperies for the sets.

The first four fairy tales were linked together under the title of "The Mother Goose Stories" (1946). A handful of shorts, including "The Story of Little Red Riding Hood" (1950) and "The Story of Hansel and Gretel" (1951), followed.

To earn a living while making his shorts after the war, Harryhausen took on commissions filming inserts and making TV commercials for companies and organizations.

His big break came when his mentor, O'Brien, gave him his first feature-film assignment -- to work with him on stop-motion animation effects for a film featuring another giant ape: "Mighty Joe Young."

Harryhausen later said he animated more than 90% of the 1949 classic, whose numerous stop-motion highlights include a tug-of-war sequence between Joe and eight strongmen. The movie won technical creator O'Brien an Academy Award for special effects.

Striking out on his own, Harryhausen's first solo stop-motion effort was the low-budget 1953 film "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms."