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Visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen dead at age 92

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Influential visual effects maker and animator Ray Harryhausen, who brought monsters, skeletons and mythological beasts to life for movies like "Jason and the Argonauts" long before computers took over the job, died Tuesday at age 92, his family said.

Harryhausen, who was born in Los Angeles and worked for more than 40 years in the movie industry, died in London, his family said in a statement.

"The Harryhausen family regret to announce the death of Ray Harryhausen, visual effects pioneer and stop-motion model animator.

"Ray's influence on today's film makers was enormous with luminaries; Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, George Lucas, John Landis and the UK's own Nick Park have cited Harryhausen as being the man whose work inspired their own creations," the statement said.

Harryhausen used a laborious, painstaking "stop-motion" animation technique to single-handedly create imaginative effects for 16 films from the 1950s into the 1980s including three "Sinbad" movies, "Clash of the Titans" (1981), "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" (1956) and "One Million Years B.C." (1966).

He received a special Academy Award for career achievement in 1992.

"Some say 'Citizen Kane' is the greatest motion picture of all time, others say it's 'Casablanca,'" actor Tom Hanks said as he presented the special Oscar to Harryhausen. "For me, the greatest picture of all time is 'Jason and the Argonauts.'"

That 1963 movie based on Greek mythology featured scenes of sword-wielding skeletons battling human warriors, a colossal statue coming to life and a seven-headed serpent.

While others officially handled the directing chores in his movies, it was Harryhausen who dreamed up, modeled and shot some of the most memorable moments in film history.

Most of his movies, often made with producer Charles Schneer, were low-budget affairs. He once had to make a giant octopus with just six tentacles to save money. But his movie magic helped inspire future cinema giants.

'DYNAMATION'

Harryhausen perfected the "stop-motion" technique that had been used in a small number of earlier films by others including special effects pioneer Willis O'Brien, who would become his mentor, in "King Kong" (1933).

The process allows miniatures to be turned into monsters. Doll-sized models are photographed one frame at a time in continuous poses to create the illusion of motion in a method Harryhausen dubbed "Dynamation."

The creations are then mixed with footage of people, cities and nature and can be made to appear gigantic or tiny depending on the plot.

Harryhausen's creations invariably cause mayhem. In "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers," his UFOs invade Washington, toppling the Washington Monument and smashing the Capitol dome.

In 1953's "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms," a dinosaur-like creature roused from hibernation by an atomic bomb test rampages through Manhattan before meeting its end amid the wreckage of a Coney Island rollercoaster. Many themes from that movie were repeated in the original 1954 Japanese "Godzilla."

Harryhausen brought dinosaurs to life in 1969's "The Valley of Gwangi," featuring an Allosaurus battling an elephant, and the caveman fantasy "One Million Years B.C.," which is also known for Raquel Welch donning a fur bikini.

The three movies based on the Sinbad tales - "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" (1958), "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" (1973) and "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger" (1977) - feature a one-horned Cyclops battling a fire-breathing dragon and a statue of a six-armed goddess based on the Hindu Kali coming to life to fight Sinbad and his crew.

His last film was 1981's Greek mythology adventure "Clash of the Titans," marking the only time in his career he had a big-name cast, including Laurence Olivier, Burgess Meredith, Maggie Smith and Ursula Andress appearing alongside Harryhausen's winged-horse Pegasus and snake-haired Medusa.

Asked in 2010 which of his creatures was his favorite, Harryhausen told the Star-Ledger newspaper in New Jersey, "Oh, I couldn't tell you that. The rest of them would get jealous."

Harryhausen's career inspiration came when he saw "King Kong" at age 13, with the giant gorilla battling dinosaurs and then running amok in New York. He started to sculpt his own models and film experimental footage and received advice from O'Brien, with whom he worked on another giant ape movie, "Mighty Joe Young" (1949) before making films on his own.

Ray Bradbury, the American science fiction writer who was a lifelong friend, said, "Harryhausen stands alone as a technician, as an artist and a dreamer."

(Reporting By Jill Serjeant and Will Dunham; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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