Behind every modern fantasy-flick franchise, be it ''Harry Potter'' or ''Star Wars'' or ''The Lord of the Rings,'' you'll find armies of visual-effects foot soldiers. But once upon a time, fantasy movies weren't a vast industry. They were a backwater. And in that dark time, there was pretty much one visionary you could count on for flights of cinematic fancy: Ray Harryhausen.
If the name isn't familiar, the images should be. Remember the sword fight with seven skeletons in ''Jason and the Argonauts''? That was Harryhausen. The horned, treasure-hoarding Cyclops in ''The 7th Voyage of Sinbad''? Him again. He also gave life to the flesh-chomping dinosaurs in ''The Valley of Gwangi'' and ''One Million Years B.C.'' -- the one with the pteranodon carrying off a fur-bikini-clad Raquel Welch. All told, he masterminded the beastie mayhem on 14 pictures between 1953 and 1981. Now, finally, his unequaled hit parade of terrible, wonderful creatures -- he gets agitated when people call them monsters -- is winning new accolades, thanks to ''Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life,'' a secret-spilling memoir that Harryhausen and Tony Dalton, a British film historian, spent five years putting together. For the first time, the book spells out just how tough it was for Harryhausen to blaze a career trail where none had existed.
''A lot of people still think I had big crews,'' says the rangy, 6-foot-2, 83-year-old craftsman as he relaxes in the living room of his London home, surrounded by photos of wife Diana, daughter Vanessa, and sci-fi author Ray Bradbury, a longtime pal. Harryhausen usually enlisted just two or three crew members on his films (except for his 1981 swan song, ''Clash of the Titans,'' when a schedule crunch forced him to hire a slightly larger support staff). For long production stretches, he had zero helpers. ''To keep costs down, I tried to do everything myself,'' he says matter-of-factly. ''It took me 50 years to learn that modesty is a dirty word in Hollywood.''
This founding father of special effects never got a single Oscar nomination. (An effusive Tom Hanks did hand him a Gordon E. Sawyer honorary Academy Award in 1992.) ''His movies were insignificant to the Academy,'' says eight-time effects-Oscar winner Dennis Muren, who was a teenager when he sought out and befriended Harryhausen in 1960. ''They were just B movies. [But] they constantly fed your imagination. And a large audience that grew up seeing that work wanted to see more like it.''
These days, of course, a new generation of effects-oriented filmmakers, many of whom pay tribute to Harryhausen, have racked up fortunes creating more technologically sophisticated versions of scenarios Harryhausen pioneered (see sidebars for the scoop on some of his most inspired moments). Says ''Jurassic Park'' director Steven Spielberg: ''He and [''King Kong'' effects creator] Willis O'Brien and Walt Disney are the fathers of modern special effects. I think they're our parents.'' For George Lucas, Harryhausen ''kept the art of fantasy cinema alive at the highest level through a lot of very thin years'' -- basically, the years of Lucas' childhood. That's when he watched Harryhausen's creatures stride across outsize theater screens, rather than on TV or video. ''I'm that old,'' says the 60-year-old ''Star Wars'' creator with a rueful chuckle.