The father of "stop-motion" animation, Willis O'Brien (1886-1962) was a Hollywood special effects innovator most famous for his work using miniature models of a gorilla in King Kong. O'Brien'spioneering efforts transformed the possibilities of filmmaking, inventing a new kind of visual language later exploited by others in movies such as Jaws and Alien.
Starting with his models in animated shorts and in the original dinosaur movie, 1925's The Lost World, O'Brien gave American filmmakers new latitude in creating monstrous fantasies. Although he won an Academy Award for the special effects in Mighty Joe Young in 1949, O'Brien labored largely in obscurity, gaining neither fame nor fortune. Many of O'Brien's fantastic, elaborate film ideas were never realized.
Born in Oakland, California, in 1886, Willis Harold O'Brien worked short stints as a cowboy and a boxer before becoming a cartoonist for the San Francisco Daily News. Soon, he grew interested in sculpting, making mostly small human or animal figures. In 1913, his sculptures were displayed at the San Francisco World's Fair. Soon after that, he used wooden figures with moveable joints, molded rubber to them, and began making his sculptures move.
In 1914, O'Brien realized he could make short films by moving his figures and filming them one frame at a time. He began experimenting with his clay models and within a year had produced The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, a "caveman comedy." For Edison's Biograph Company, he made four more shorts, including The Birth of a Flivver, Prehistoric Poultry, and R.F.D. 10,000 B.C., with prehistoric creatures the customary subject and a light comic touch always evident. After leaving Edison, O'Brien wrote, directed, and did special effects for four more films, including The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, released in 1919, which for the first time strove to make prehistoric animals look realistic and combined stop-action animation with live action. O'Brien has a cameo role in the short film.
O'Brien's fascination with prehistoric creatures found an outlet in the 1925 feature film The Lost World, directed by Harry Hoyt. Based on a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the movie stars Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger, who, with a party of adventurers, finds a hideaway where dinosaurs still survive. O'Brien's dinosaurs not only moved and fought in the jungle, they "breathed"—using a bladder inside the skeleton model that could be inflated and deflated. At the film's end, a brontosaurus terrorizes London, constructed as a miniature set by O'Brien, who is credited with "research and technical direction."
The film's real stars were O'Brien's dinosaurs. A reviewer in Bioscope called the prehistoric monsters "marvels of ingenuity both in design and in the method of animation their movements are so supple and natural that it would be easy to believe them to be huge living creatures." The magazine Picturegoer called them "the most startling and intriguing monsters who have ever invaded screenland." Audiences loved the movie, and most viewers never realized that the huge monsters were miniature models. The studios never shared the secret.
O'Brien immediately started work on a project called Atlantis, but it was canceled by First National studio before production began. The same fate befell O'Brien's next project, Frankenstein. O'Brien's run of bad luck continued at RKO, where O'Brien teamed up with Hoyt again to make Creation, another dinosaur film that was a spin-off from The Lost World. O'Brien was listed as "scenarist" and "chief technician and animator." Two reels of film were shot before financial problems and personnel changes at RKO led to the film being scrapped.
By the early 1930s, Hollywood had become fascinated with jungle movies, particularly after the release of Tarzan the Ape Man in 1932. Producer Merian Cooper decided that O'Brien's work should be joined to a good jungle story. Cooper commissioned writers to work on a story idea he had about a giant ape, hired director Edward Schoedsack, and shot a test reel using O'Brien's sets and dinosaurs that had been made for Creation. Eventually the film was named King Kong.
For the new project, O'Brien put a year's worth of effort into his models and sets. He spent days in zoos, studying the behavior and movements of gorillas. He also went to wrestling matches to get ideas of how Kong would battle the dinosaurs of Skull Island. O'Brien used 18-inch-high models constructed on metal skeletons with joints formed of balls and sockets. He padded the skeletons with foam rubber and cotton and covered them with rabbit skin. He also contributed to the story line, adding touches of realism and fantasy as "chief technician."
King Kong caused a sensation. The story about a giant ape who is brought to New York and escapes to terrorize the city was a box-office blockbuster and a cultural phenomenon. It was the first "monster movie." O'Brien and his team constructed elaborate miniature sets that were used in almost all the scenes of Kong in the jungles and the city. He made audiences really feel that New York was under attack. In only a few scenes did he use a life-sized bust of Kong or a life-sized Kong hand or foot. The scene with Kong atop the Empire State Building, holding Fay Wray and being attacked by planes, is one of the most famous in film history.
Despite the crudeness of film techniques of the day, many critics consider O'Brien's work on King Kong to be the greatest use of stop-motion animation in movie history. It certainly was the most successful. The film was re-released 15 years later, unchanged, and again raked in huge amounts of money. Six decades later it remained a staple of television. It inspired countless films. Critics were exuberant over the monsters and baffled by the production techniques. Long after the movie and its sequel Son of Kong were released, details about how the animals were constructed and shot were kept secret. Even into the 1950s, many people believed that Kong was a man in a gorilla suit.
The sequel, Son of Kong, was released the same year (1933) as the original, with a lower budget and a smaller ape, Little Kong. O'Brien thought it was cheesy. "He asked them to not put his name on it and he didn't do any more than put in appearances each day, so he would get his check," recalled his second wife, Darlyne O'Brien, in a 1982 interview. "He did no animation and was a little unhappy with some of the humor." Nonetheless, O'Brien was credited again as "chief technician."
During the filming of Son of Kong, O'Brien experienced a profound personal tragedy. His first wife, Hazel O'Brien, who was separated from him, became anguished after the older of their two sons went blind from a disease. She fatally shot both the boys and then tried to commit suicide; she died from her self-inflicted wounds a year later. In 1935, O'Brien married Darlyne.
O'Brien teamed again with producer Cooper and director Schoedsack to make The Last Days of Pompeii in 1935, a gladiator movie that ends with the spectacular eruption of a volcano. O'Brien's special effects were stunning and would be widely imitated in future disaster movies. O'Brien built a miniature model of the temple at Pompeii, mounted it on a platform with motors beneath it, put rods in the pillars, and made it shake but remain standing.
In 1936, Cooper produced The Dancing Pirate, O'Brien's first film shot in Technicolor. Directed by Lloyd Corrigan, it was a musical romance-adventure for which O'Brien was credited for "photographic effects." He did no animation for the film, which was a flop.
Cooper hired Schoedsack and O'Brien again to do a spectacular new project called War Eagles. The film was to feature modern adventurers rediscovering Vikings. Cooper described the unusual idea as "a super western of the air" involving incredible special effects. O'Brien did many sketches, produced models, and was involved as a test reel was shot. But the story never went into production, and the project was shelved after Cooper left his job to help organize mercenary pilots to fight for Chinese nationalist Chiang Kai-shek. O'Brien had put nearly a year's work into building models, doing sketches and planning scenes.
O'Brien next decided to sell his own film project to RKO. Called Gwangi, it was about cowboys who encounter a prehistoric animal in a "lost" valley. O'Brien was to co-produce the film with his longtime model-builder assistant Marcel Delgado as effects technician. He had glass paintings made and Delgado produced a detailed allosaurus model. But O'Brien couldn't get the studio's full backing. Schoedsack commented: "This was a rodeo with a dinosaur, what the hell."
After years of disappointments, Cooper and John Ford hired O'Brien to help Shoedsack on Mighty Joe Young, another movie about an ape who is wronged by the civilized world. After some false starts, the film was finally shot in black and white. This was a more heartwarming story than King Kong, with a gorilla who was more playful, heroic and expressive. O'Brien's collaborator on the special effects was young animator Ray Harryhausen, who would go on to work on many films. Sequences showing Joe going on a drunken rampage in a nightclub and rescuing children from a burning building were especially impressive.
O'Brien finally got recognition with an Academy Award for special effects for Mighty Joe Young. Ironically, by this stage in his career O'Brien was doing mostly planning and preparation, with animators like Harryhausen supervising the actual shooting. Not even an Oscar got O'Brien's stop-motion career completely into full gear. O'Brien and his wife had a rough outline of a script for a film he called Emilio and Guloso, about a young Mexican cowboy and a bull. Retitled Valley of the Mist, it was optioned by producer Jesse Lasky, and O'Brien and Harryhausen were hired to do special effects. But once again the project fell through.
O'Brien was "never a good promoter," according to his wife Darlyne. Though he had plenty of ideas, he could not figure out how to get them produced in Hollywood. In 1952, Cooper got O'Brien hired at the new Cinerama corporation and talked about a remake of King Kong using the new wide-screen techniques. It was never made; instead, O'Brien played a small, uncredited role in making the film This Is Cinerama, a travelogue-style feature.
In 1956, O'Brien wrote the script but did none of the animation for the first color film to combine animation and live action photography, The Beast of Hollow Mountain. A low-budget independent production, it is about two young Mexican children and their encounter with a prehistoric beast which rises out of a swamp. That same year, O'Brien worked as supervisor for the dinosaur sequence in the acclaimed nature documentary film, The Animal World, with Harryhausen as the animator. In 1957, O'Brien was hired for The Black Scorpion, a low-budget monster movie about giant rampaging scorpions. O'Brien and collaborator Peter Peterson did the special effects. The two also worked together on The Giant Behemoth, a 1959 movie about a radioactive sea monster who terrorizes England. O'Brien helped build the sets and the models.
O'Brien was listed as the effects technician for the 1960 remake of The Lost World, which used live lizards with rubber fins attached rather than animated dinosaurs. Beyond a few storyboards, O'Brien actually contributed little to the project and did no animation. He thought the method was inferior to stop-motion animation, and many critics agreed.
O'Brien spent much of his later career unable to find work or sell ideas such as King Kong vs. Frankenstein, which would pair the two famous movie monsters in a colossal fight. A Japanese film company ended up appropriating the idea and turning it into King Kong vs. Godzilla, in which O'Brien was not involved.
O'Brien was hired as a special consultant and director of animation on the climactic sequence of the adventure-comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, released in 1963. He worked on the scene for several months but died at the age of 76 during the production of the film. His widow told an interviewer: "Well, he was a kid right up to the day he died, still just a boy and a dreamer. He never seemed to grow up."
Archer, Steve, Willis O'Brien: Special Effects Genius, McFarland, 1993.
Halliwell, Leslie, Halliwell's Who's Who in the Movies, Harper, 1999.
Katz, Ephraim, The Film Encyclopedia, Harper, 1998.
Smith, John M., and Tim Cawkwell, The World Encyclopedia of Film, Galahad Books, 1972.
Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Knopf, 1994.
Time, December 28, 1998.
"The Films of Willis O'Brien," http://www2.netdoor.com/~campbab/obie2.html
"Film 100," http://www.film100.com
"Willis O'Brien, Special Effects Genius," Missing Link, http://www.missinglink.free-online.co.uk/archer.htm □