Chris Hicks: Pioneer filmmaker Ray Harryhausen paved the way for your favorite sci-fi, fantasy movies

Published: Wednesday, May 8 2013 12:55 p.m. MDT

In this Saturday, May 15, 2004 file photo, filmmaker Ray Harryhausen visits the Empire State Building in New York. Harryhausen passed away Tuesday.

Mike Appleton, AP

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One of the things that goes along with being a full-time movie critic is occasionally interviewing motion picture icons, including those who labor behind the camera as well as those in front of it.

From the late 1970s through the 1990s when I had that job at the Deseret News, I was fortunate enough to speak, however briefly, with an array of movie stars — but also with filmmaker Steven Spielberg, composer Elmer Bernstein, author Ray Bradbury and many other backstage folk whose anecdotes were often the most interesting.

And every once in a while, a show-biz legend I had long admired came along, challenging my professionalism as the fanboy inside me threatened to leap out and do a happy dance — as when I met Hal Roach, the filmmaker who teamed Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy, and telephone interviews with Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, and playwright/screenwriter Horton Foote, who won Oscars for “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies.”

One filmmaker I was very excited to meet was Ray Harryhausen, the great stop-motion animation artist whose many film works brought realistic dinosaurs and a variety of other gigantic, threatening creatures to the big screen, many of them wreaking havoc on American shores, during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, as well as one last extravaganza in the early 1980s.

Remember the image of Washington, D.C., monuments being blown apart in the trailers for “Independence Day”? Look up the trailer for Harryhausen’s “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” on YouTube and note the D.C. damage done by flying saucers. That’s right. Harryhausen did it first.

And he did it on a minuscule budget, as he did all of his work, by building miniature models and slightly adjusting them to be filmed frame by frame, offering the illusion of movement, then blending them with live-action sequences. Harryhausen’s flights of imagination were hugely successful and audiences loved them.

Hearing of his death Tuesday at the age of 92 brought back memories of my visit with Harryhausen in the 1980s after he gave a presentation at Brigham Young University. He was charming and funny and very friendly, and quite forthcoming for the interview. In other words, everything you hope your childhood heroes will be. (That doesn’t always happen.)

Harryhausen began his professional career working on the original “Mighty Joe Young” (1949), which earned him an Oscar as part of the special effects team and allowed him to work with his hero Willis O’Brien, the man behind “King Kong,” the movie that inspired Harryhausen as a child.

Later, Harryhausen achieved great success on his own, first with “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” (1953), inspired by a story written by his friend Bradbury about a hibernating dinosaur awakened by an A-bomb test. The “Beast” causes mayhem along the East Coast before rising up to attack New York, a la “King Kong,” and the finale is a memorable sequence set in Coney Island.

“Beast” came out the year before “Godzilla,” so it’s fair to say that Harryhausen led the way for the creature-feature explosion of the next decade, and from that first effort he also began to build a fan base that only grew from film to film.

He made good on the promise of “Beast” with “It Came From Beneath the Sea” (1955), about a giant octopus that rises out of the Pacific Ocean in the Bay Area, and, most famously, goes after the Golden Gate Bridge. Then came two more black-and-white efforts, the aforementioned “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” (1956) and “20 Million Miles to Earth” (1957), about a dinosaur-like creature inadvertently brought to Earth from Venus, which stomps around Rome and eventually does serious damage to the Colosseum

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