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Review: The master of special effects

By L.D. Meagher

'Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life'
  • By Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton
  • Billboard Books
  • Autobiography
  • 304 pages
    Ray Harryhausen

    (CNN) -- The next time you settle in for a summer blockbuster movie and prepare to be dazzled by the wizardry of modern cinematic special effects, remember one name: Ray Harryhausen. If it had not been for him, today's moviemakers would have far fewer weapons in their technical arsenal.

    From 1938 to 1981, Harryhausen pushed the art of special effects to new heights, inventing a stop-motion animation process known as Dynamation. He recounts his half-century of creating movie magic in "Ray Harryhausen: an Animated Life," a large-format memoir lavishly illustrated with original drawings, storyboards and movie stills.

    The story begins in Los Angeles, when the teenaged Harryhausen arranged a meeting with his idol, Willis O'Brien, the man who made King Kong move. The veteran special effects man took the youngster under his wing and set him on a path that will lead him to Hollywood immortality. Harryhausen's first major film project even allowed him to work with O'Brien on another gorilla, "Mighty Joe Young."

    The book chronicles each project -- feature, short subject and otherwise -- Harryhausen worked on during the next four decades.

    Much of the writing is technical -- traveling mattes, split screens and the like -- but a glossary at the end of the book adequately explains the jargon. In large part, though, Harryhausen simply tells how each movie project came to be (he conceived many of them himself) and what he did to make the effects as realistic as possible.

    Not all of the films are memorable -- his resume includes "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" and "It Came from Beneath the Sea" as well as "Jason and the Argonauts" and "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" -- but the process of building the effects is always fascinating.

    There are plenty of behind-the-scenes and on-set anecdotes to leaven the narrative. On the movie "Mysterious Island," for example, Harryhausen reveals what happened to four small crabs that were used as stand-ins for the stop-motion models he had constructed. "I have to confess that after we had all the shots in the can," he writes, "we did sit down and have the crustaceans for supper, conscious of the fact that we were eating the stars of the scene. This is, I can assure the reader, the one and only time that I have eaten the actors. Hitchcock would have approved."

    All of Harryhausen's movies are given extensive attention, up through his final masterpiece, "Clash of the Titans." His stories not only catalogue the advances in special effects photography, they also capture the spirit of the times in which he worked.

    "Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life" is a fitting tribute to a Hollywood innovator and visionary, and essential reading for any movie lover.

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