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Michael Lauck is a columnist for iTricks. His work appears on Mondays.

Last week a man was called a “wizard” and “magician” in his obituaries even though he never performed a pocket trick or stage illusion.

The wizard being mourned was Ray Harryhausen. His brand of magic came in the form of amazing stop-motion special effects.

On May 7th, just a few weeks before his 93rd birthday, Ray Harryhausen passed away. One oft repeated Internet headline read “Ray Harryhausen: Movie Stop-Motion Master Crafter Magic,” while publisher Tor’s website proclaimed him “The Monster Magician.” Article after article used words such as magic, wizard and sorcery to describe his artistry. He was a puppeteer and genius, to be sure, but was he a magician? Harryhausen did not perform grand stage magic or card tricks but he certainly created illusions.

When you think about it, motion pictures and magic have a long history and a good deal of crossover between them. How often, for example, have you heard the term “movie magic?” In the early days of the cinema, of course, magic and movies were intimately connected. Magicians such as David Devant, who bought one of the first of Robert W. Paul’s Theatrographs, were quick to incorporate early films into their stage productions. Magicians also made films. Houdini’s forays into the world of the silver screen are legendary among magicians and George Méliès was one of the early pioneers of film. Starting with one of Robert W. Paul’s film projectors, Méliès saw the potential of motion pictures and soon had his own camera constructed which he named the Kinètographe Robert-Houdin. He went on to produce over 500 films, starring in many of them.

Early on the magician simply created silent versions of his own successful stage illusions. After a lucky accident
caused his camera to jam in mid-take, the developed film saw a busload of women turn into a group of men in just a fraction of a second. The technique had been used before, but it introduced Méliès to the idea that an entirely new type of magic could be created. Soon, he was as adept with double exposures as double lifts and creating amazing new films. He even pioneered using bodysuits to simulate nudity for the screen! Among Méliès’ movie illusions were transformations, levitations and animations just as one would find in his stage show.

As the film industry grew, there was a great need for short films to be shown along with longer features. For a brief time, short films exposing the secrets of stage illusions were popular although efforts by the Society of American Magicians and a successful lawsuit filed by Horace Goldin against a company exposing his Sawing A Lady In Half illusion saw this genre ultimately fail. There is even evidence that indicates that early directors and producers saw the methods behind their special effects to be important trade secrets, just as SAM’s members viewed their methodology. Only a few years after the decision by motion picture producers and directors to condemn exposure of special effects methods came Hollywood’s most ambitious and enduring visual effects movie: King Kong.

Ray Harryhausen does not seem to have ever harbored an interest in being a magician. After seeing King Kong (some stories mention that he saw the movie with Ray Bradbury; although they were good friends later The Harryhausen Foundation website states he saw it with his mother and aunt) he became fascinated by the illusions presented by the movie. He tried to understand the mechanisms used to make it seem as though a giant ape actually existed in a very real and recognizable world. The seeds to this fascination had been sown years before when he saw the 1925 film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which featured fighting dinosaurs. Harryhausen created marionette versions of some of his favorite creatures to recreate King Kong’s exploits and dinosaur battles, but he knew they were not what had been used to create the amazing Hollywood spectacles. Continued research into the film eventually led him to discover stop-motion animation, a
process he set out to master.

Soon young Ray Harryhausen was creating his own films with a borrowed camera, then one of his own that actually allowed the frame by frame shooting required for stop-motion effects. He experimented, he learned of more techniques and made grander films. Eventually he made contact with Willis O’Brien, the genius who had brought life to not only King Kong but the earlier beasts of the Lost World. This meeting led Harryhausen to take art and filmmaking classes which in turn led to a position with George Pal, who was just beginning work on his Puppetoon series. Willis O’Brien also briefly worked for Pal, but disliked working on his style of animation (an opinion Harryhausen seemed to have shared but he needed the experience and stayed). After a stint making films for the US Army during World War II in Frank Capra’s Special Service Division, Harryhausen created his own Mother Goose stop-motion film which he sold to schools. His career as an independent producer was cut short by a call from Willis O’Brien, though, who invited Harryhausen to join his staff for the film Mighty Joe Young (1949). Although the film’s star was smaller than Kong, the animation was still a painstaking and expensive process. The movie’s extraordinary $2.5 million budget paid off, though, with box office success and an Oscar for its special effects.

Harryhausen was now established as a legitimate Hollywood special effects producer. He did a series of fairy tale inspired shorts before being offered the chance to direct the special effects for 1952’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. The story of a dinosaur bashing its way through the modern world was not only the first of many such films, including the Godzilla and Gamera movies, but also the first to combine split-screen shots with stop-motion animation (a technique which would later be christened Dynamation). Next up was It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), which featured a gigantic octopus on a destructive rampage. After working on one last film with O’Brien (The Animal World, 1956) Harryhausen tackled the classic science fiction invasion film Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956). In the film he recreated the flying saucers that had been being reported all over the country for almost a decade and each saucer actually visibly spins as it flies! Even if
you have not seen the entire film you are probably at least familiar with the scene featuring a damaged saucer crashing into the Washington Monument, which partially crumbles upon impact. During the collision individual bricks are knocked out of the Monument and tumble to the ground below; it is truly an amazing piece of special effect filmmaking.

After 1957’s 20 Million Miles To Earth, which saw a giant space monster smashing picturesque Italian scenery, Harryhausen entered a golden age. First, Arabian Nights stories met with stop-motion effects in the 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) which was followed up with The 3 Worlds of Gulliver and Mysterious Island (1959 and 1960). Next came the film that is perhaps Harryhausen’s best remembered work: Jason and the Argonauts (1963). The ancient Grecian hero not only had a masthead (in the rear of his ship) that came alive but battled with a gigantic bronze man, the legendary hydra and a pack of skeletons that were spawned from the hydra’s teeth. Although the film was not a box office success, television made it a cult classic. First Men in the Moon (1964), based on the Jules Verne novel, the dinosaur epic One Million Years BC (1966) and Valley of the Gwangi (1969) rounded out the 1960s. In the 1970s Harryhausen returned to the Arabian Night inspired tales of
Sinbad with 1973’s Golden Voyage of Sinbad and 1977’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Harryhausen’s last big screen epic is perhaps the only rival to Jason and the Argonauts for the title of his greatest film. It is the original Clash of the Titans (1981) which pitted Harry Hamlin against Medusa and the mighty Kraken, with the assistance of Burgess Meredith, an anachronistic robotic owl and, of course, the mighty Zeus as portrayed by Lawrence Olivier.

In over a dozen feature films Ray Harryhausen was able to create fantastic scenes that combined real actors and realistic scenes with impossible monsters. Before computers, digital editing and the myriad of new techniques today’s studios use to create effects, Harryhausen was creating incredibly effective film illusions. His works have inspired a whole new generation of filmmakers, including John Landis and the animators at Pixar (who named a fancy eatery in Monsters Inc after him). Ray Harryhausen never did a coin trick or hit the stage with a lovely assistant but he created real wonder and amazing illusions for decades; isn’t that a kind of magic?