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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

His next film, and his first in color, was “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” which was an enormous success and firmly established Harryhausen as the undisputed king of movie monsters and fantasy storytelling, with such unforgettable creatures as a raging giant Cyclops, a huge two-headed bird called a “roc” and, of course, the famous skeleton swordsman. There is also a genie envisioned as a young boy, a beautiful princess who is shrunken and kidnapped, and many other magical elements that were utterly captivating in 1958, all set to one of the most enchanting musical scores of the great composer Bernard Herrmann.

When “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” came out, I was 10, and it was the first movie that I went back to see again and again before it left my friendly neighborhood movie theater. For my parents, once was enough, so I nagged them to let me go back with friends, and we did so over and over until the film eventually moved on.

Watching “Voyage” today, it’s amazing how well it holds up. I’m sure the special effects would seem a bit precious to young audiences. But if there had been no Harryhausen, there would be no Lucas, no Cameron, no Whedon. And Harryhausen was every bit as witty and imaginative as any 21st century filmmakers.

Harryhausen may have reached a peak with that film but he kept on climbing anyway, especially with his next two pictures, “Mysterious Island” (1961) and “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963), the latter upping the ante on “Voyage’s” most famous sequence by pitting Jason against an army of skeletons.

None of the rest of his films were quite up there with those three, but they were still very enjoyable fantasies that also continue to have an audience today and sell well on home video: “First Men in the Moon” (1964), based on the H.G. Wells story; another dinosaur epic, “One Million Years B.C.” (1966), most famous for the image of Raquel Welch in a fur bikini; “The Valley of Gwangi” (1969), an interesting blend of dinosaur thrills and a conventional Western; and two more “Sinbad” epics, “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” (1974) and “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” (1977), the latter co-starring young Jane Seymour.

In 1981, Harryhausen’s final film, “Clash of the Titans,” was released with wonderfully realized Greek mythological creatures, including Pegasus, the winged horse; giant scorpions that attack the film’s hero, Perseus; the snake-haired Medusa; vultures; two-headed dogs; the half-man, half-creature Calibos; and the climactic battle with the Kraken. Unfortunately, the live-action elements were less successful, especially with wooden Harry Hamlin in the lead role, and despite big stars with little to do, including Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom, Burgess Meredith, etc. (The film was remade in 2010, computer graphics-style.)

“Clash” was Harryhausen’s final movie and though his work was as memorable as ever, the film flopped in the wake of “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and other special-effects epics that made stop-motion animation seem quaint to modern early-1980s audiences.

But his legacy was assured; his fan base never diminished; and many modern filmmakers cite him as a major influence in the work they do today.

And all of Harryhausen’s films remain worth watching, many of them every bit as mesmerizing as anything in this modern, high-tech, big-budget, special effects-saturated movie world.

E-MAIL: hicks@desnews.com

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