O is for Willis O'Brien!
Back in the day as a kid I was blown away watching the original King Kong (1933). That is a definitive example of movie magic – and it had the same effect on a lot of kids at the time. The wondrous special effects – depicting dinosaurs and a 50 foot tall ape interacting with a crew of documentary filmmakers on a legendary island in a far flung corner of the world – are some of the most visually interesting and charming visuals I’d seen up to that time (admittedly not a lot of time as I was still in single digits when I took in my first viewing). But I needed to know – even at that young age – just how these special effects were achieved. I was then boggled to learn that Kong was an 18 INCH tall metal armature covered in rabbit fur – and that his movement was a trick using persistence of vision – a term for the effect that when your eye is presented with two pictures with slight differences of position projected at 24 frames (or pictures) a second – your brain will process the two pictures as movement. This is called stop motion animation. In the film production phase small models are positioned on miniature sets. One single frame of film is exposed. Then the model is manipulated slightly into a new position, and another frame of film is clicked off. Repeat until you have an entire sequence that when projected seems to show the model moving in uninterrupted – if slightly jerky – motion. My imagination was captured by this method of bringing giant beasts to life in movies. In my reading, I discovered that the man who had created those effects for King Kong was Willis O’Brien, known as Obie to his friends.
|The basics of how stop motion animation is achieved.|
Willis O’Brien was born in Oakland California, and held many odd jobs in his young adulthood. He had always been interested in dinosaurs, and made some models as a hobby. He started doing crude animation of the models on film around 1913. Based on the 90 seconds of test footage he was hired by San Francisco film exhibitor Herman Wobber to make a short for him called The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy. (I think the title was longer than the movie, by the way). On the basis of this stop motion short O’Brien was hired on at the Thomas Edison studios where he worked on a series of stop motion shorts – all with a prehistoric theme – and started conceiving of ways to combine the animated models with live action actors. While working at Edison Studios Obie was hired by another exhibitor – Herbert Dawley – to star in, write, direct, and create the effects for a 45 minute short feature – The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918). The production did not go well and Dawley – who owned the film outright – cut it from 45 minutes to 11 – then claimed that he had done the special effects! Later, the jackwagon used the unused footage to produce a sequel – Along the Moonbeam Trail (1920) - as well as a documentary feature called Evolution.
Commenter Tim Smyth corrected me on this last little bit about the contention between Willis O'Brien and Herbert Dawley - here is what he had to say:
"Actually the entire film "Along the Moonbeam Trail" is new, there was no reused footage, and Dawley appears to have done the animation, and puppets, which are quite good by the way, by himself. That story of using the cut footsge from "Ghost", was just an assumption made when the film was presumed lost. Footage from both films were also used in the films "Mystery of Life", and "Are We Civilized", selling ones footage to other movies is not a crime. "Along the Moonbeam Trail" was also the first film to my knowledge to combine live actors and stop motion creatures in the same shot."
And no, selling film footage to others as stock footage is certainly not a crime. Having it taken (legally) and used against your wishes isn't either - but it should be - when it happens. Thanks Tim!
The one positive to come from his work with Dawley was that from it Obie was hired to work on the feature The Lost World, released in 1925. Throughout the rest of the 20’s O’Brien worked in development on several projects – but none came to fruition. (see below for a list of the many projects O’Brien worked on developing that never came to fruition – these projects were sometimes in development for years – and they were dotted throughout his career from the silents through the 1950’s.)
|King Kong (1933)|
The next big feature for Willis O’Brien was King Kong – which became a huge hit on its release in 1933. The studio rushed Son of Kong into production immediately – but the experience was not a happy one for O’Brien – who was pressured to produce his stop motion at a much accelerated pace – which hampered the quality. Over the next fifteen years O’Brien contributed special effects work to several productions – a matte painting on Citizen Kane; miniature work on The Last Days of Pompeii were two of them – and continued trying to bring his pet projects – especially War Eagles – to fruition, but to no avail. In the late 40’s O’Brien was hired for his third stop motion animated giant gorilla movie – Mighty Joe Young (1949) – on which he was assisted by a young man named Ray Harryhausen. That film won an Oscar for Visual Effects – but in those days the award went to the film’s producers – though O’Brien did receive a statuette.
|Willis O'Brien animating Mighty Joe Young (1949).|
In the 50’s the familiar frustrations plagued O’Brien as he worked on developing more of his pet projects – but by this time, some of them did develop into films – just not with the veteran animator on board. His idea Gwangi – which would pit cowboys against a dinosaur – was developed into the feature The Beast of Hollow Mountain – but Obie wasn’t hired for the effects work and the resulting film is not up to his standards. He did do some stop motion for The Black Scorpion and Behemoth, the Sea Monster (aka The Giant Behemoth).
|The Black Scorpion (1959).|
In the early 60’s Willis O’Brien worked on It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World for a firetruck and fire ladder sequence - with stop motion being used for some of the more strenuous sequences in place of stuntmen – it turned out to be his final film work as he passed away before the film was even released in 1962.
Ray Harryhausen went on to succeed Obie as cinema’s master stop motion animator – and he and producer Charles H. Schneer made The Valley of Gwangi – using Obie’s original story as its basis – in 1969 – in Willis O’Brien’s honor.
I love Obie’s stop motion and effects work – and I’ve always been disheartened that he wasn’t allowed to bring more of his own unique ideas to the screen – the world of cinema would have been richer if he’d been able to.
|One fan's tribute to Willis O'Brien - a life size sculpture of Obie|
animating King Kong in 1933.
Willis O’Brien’s uncompleted or unmade projects (in alphabetical order) – courtesy Wikipedia
Atlantis – Developed by O'Brien and Harry Hoyt after the success of 1925's The Lost World.
Baboon: A Tale About a Yeti - To be set in the Himalayas.
The Bubbles - Bubble-like creatures in Baja, California start eating up anything in their path.
Creation - Convinced Merian C. Cooper to hire O'Brien for King Kong.
The Eagle – About a giant eagle who kills a dinosaur.
Emilio and Guloso – About a boy and his pet bull who save their town from a dinosaur called Lagarto Grande (the Great Lizard).
Frankenstein - From the classic Mary Shelley horror novel.
Gwangi – Eventually made into The Valley of Gwangi by O'Brien's successor Ray Harryhausen.
King Kong vs. Frankenstein - Eventually turned into King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) by Toho Co., Ltd.
Last of the Labyrinthodons – Modern-day sea monsters from prehistoric times attack ships.
The Last of the Oso Si-Papu – About a giant creature resembling a bear with skin like a Gila monster roaming Arizona.
Umbah – Treatment by O'Brien about two giant Indians spawned by a doctor's experiment.
Valley of the Mists – Further elaboration of Emilio and Guloso.
The Vines of Ceres – Vines from outer space engulf San Francisco.
War Eagles – About a race of Vikings riding on prehistoric eagles who fought dinosaurs.
Until our next Post – more than Probably after less than 24 hours have Passed – you Can Poke Me With A Fork, Cause I Am Outta Here!