The most important person in Ray Harryhausen's life was a monkey with a thyroid problem.
The year was 1933, the monkey was named Kong, and the effect on 13-year-old Ray was profound -- and fortunate for a generation of filmgoers who grew up on the films "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms," "One Million Years B.C." and "Jason and the Argonauts," whose common link was the stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen.
The special effects he created were truly wondrous: the sword-wielding skeletons of "Jason," the snake-haired Medusa of "Clash of the Titans," the bridge-devouring octopus of "It Came From Beneath the Sea" (although budget restrictions limited the film's star to six arms), the lumbering mechanical Minaton of "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger," the eight-armed (and eight-sworded) Kali of "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad."
All those films, and more, are showcased in "The Harryhausen Chronicles," a documentary premiering at 9 tonight on AMC.
The films were never monster hits, but kids loved them, adults enjoyed them (except those who found them silly, but then, they missed the point), and a whole generation of future filmmakers found them inspirational.
"Some people say 'Casablanca' or 'Citizen Kane,' " Tom Hanks said after Harryhausen was handed a special Oscar in 1992, "but I say 'Jason and the Argonauts' is the greatest film ever made."
And it all started with an afternoon at the movies.
"My mother, my aunt and I visited Graumann's Chinese Theater to see a strange film called 'King Kong,' " recalls Harryhausen, now 77 and living in London, "and when I came out I haven't been the same since. There's no doubt about it, that film changed my life.
"I didn't know how it was done at the time," he recalls. "I had no idea about stop-motion. I was just intrigued with the fantasy that you can put these things on the screen and make them look so real -- a giant ape carrying a woman around in his hand; what could be more absurd? And yet it looked so convincing."
Harryhausen would spend the rest of his career building on the legacy of Kong creator Willis O'Brien. Together and separately, the work of these two pioneers in combining live-action film with stop-motion animation -- in which small models are filmed, moved ever so slightly, then filmed again, to produce the illusion of continuous movement -- would one day make possible such films as "Jurassic Park" and "Star Wars."
"I experimented in my garage, building miniature sets," Harryhausen says. "I got a little 16 mm camera, and just as a hobby after school, I would shoot these little scenes with dinosaurs, because dinosaurs were my first love."
In 1949, O'Brien won an Oscar for "Mighty Joe Young," a film in which about 85 percent of the animation work was done by his young assistant, Harryhausen. But as happened after Kong, O'Brien had trouble finding more work. So an impatient Harryhausen struck out on his own. His first film was "Beast," the story of a dinosaur, brought to life by an atomic blast, that wreaks havoc on New York. Released by Warner Bros., the film was a hit and brought Harryhausen to the attention of Charles Schneer, a producer at Columbia who thought he was just the man for this giant-octopus movie he had in mind.
"It Came From Beneath the Sea," released in 1955, was the first film in a partnership between Harryhausen and Schneer that would last almost 30 years. Next came "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" (1956), which featured alien ships crashing into the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument, and "20 Million Miles to Earth" (1957), the story of a creature from Venus trapped on a hostile planet.
Deciding "I wanted to get away from the monster-on-the-loose films," Harryhausen trolled for story possibilities that would still lend themselves to stop-motion. He found a wealth of ideas in the tales of Greek and Roman mythology, beginning with "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" in 1958.
Harryhausen's acknowledged masterpiece, "Jason and the Argonauts," hit theaters in 1963. Based on the Greek myth of Prince Jason and his search for the Golden Fleece, the film includes many of his best-remembered pieces. Working alone as always ("To think it takes 80 people to do what I did by myself," he says today), he brought to life a seven-headed Hydra; a huge, ill-tempered bronze statue; and -- perhaps best of all -- a sword-fight between seven skeletons and seven sailors.
Work on the skeleton scene, as well as the Hydra, was so intricate that it took months to complete; often, an entire day in his shop only yielded a few seconds of work. But the results were spectacular.
Since retiring after the release of "Clash of the Titans" in 1981, Harryhausen has followed the development of computer animation closely. He applauds its obvious craftsmanship and is amazed at its tremendous box-office appeal. Still, he wonders if something isn't lost when technical wizardry overtakes human ingenuity.
"I think it's quite remarkable how they can create a three-dimensional image so convincingly," he says. "But our pictures were always fairy tales, dream-like things, and stop-motion adds to that, I think. It adds that quality of unrealness, like a dream. Even though you try to make it look real -- many times, people thought the baboon in 'Eye of the Tiger' was a real baboon, and in 'One Million Years B.C.,' people thought the turtle was real If you try to make a fantasy too real, you bring it down to the mundane level. I've never felt that was the final aim, to make everything too real in a fantasy film. It's a dream."
'The Harryhausen Chronicles'
What: Documentary on stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen
When: 9-10 tonight
Pub Date: 1/27/98