When Ray Harryhausen made his last movie The Clash of the Titans in 1981 and Tim Burton produced A Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993, they were creating their worlds using the same technology pioneered by Willis O’Brien in 1925 with The Lost World: stop motion animation. Then, in 1993 with films like Jurassic Park, special effects technology underwent a revolution and CGI became the norm. In many ways, CGI has allowed filmmakers to do things they never dreamed of before.
But part of the allure of stop motion animation is precisely that it never achieved the same ubiquity in film as CGI. There is an aura of arcane knowledge, super-human patience, the personal touch in creation and animation, the magical illusion of an inanimate object coming to life.
Stop motion animation is the process of filming an object by adjusting the object between each frame so that it appears to be moving when the film is run at full speed (according to Steve Archer, who worked with Ray Harryhausen on The Clash of the Titans, five seconds of footage a day is average for an animator). This technique existed nearly from the beginning of film and was employed by George Melies, early animator J. Stuart Blackton and even Edwin S. Porter.
Willis O’Brien, however, seems to have stumbled on stop motion animation on his own. He created a boxer that he wanted to see move, so he made it move…using stop motion animation. He came to his vocation later in life. He was 29 and had already been a boxer, newspaper animator, cowboy, fur trapper, and bartender. He liked to draw and was fascinated by dinosaurs, anatomy and movement.
After making a variety of short films for the Edison Company and a 40 minute adventure/fantasy called The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (of which we now only have 16 minutes), O’Brien finally had a chance to showcase his work in the 1925 The Lost World, based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of the same name.
The Lost World perfectly captures O’Brien’s capacity to imbue his creatures with unique personalities. One can almost follow their line of thought as they interact with each other: the Brontosaurus who sneers at the Allosaurus who dares attack him, the evident chagrin of the Allosaurus when the Brontosaurus falls over the cliff, the way the Allosaurus, clearly miffed, looks at the wound inflicted by the Triceratops and concludes that the Triceratops is more trouble than it’s worth.
However, in 1925, there was no way to directly interface the animated models with the actors and most of the interaction is limited to the people marveling at the dinosaurs. But audiences had never seen anything like it and there was a lot of mystery surrounding how exactly the effects had been achieved (there would be similar head scratching after King Kong). It would help set the template for fantasy/action/adventure films to come.
Willis O’Brien would spend the next few years of his life in a rut that would become very familiar to him throughout his life: creating story ideas that were not turned into film and working on projects that would be axed. However, in 1932 he began work on his greatest achievement. In fact, it can be argued that though there would be many improvements on these techniques and many incomparable films, King Kong represents the apotheosis of the dramatic and emotional potential of stop motion animation. It is Kong – fully integrated into a live-action story – who is the emotional center of the film, who provides the dramatic propulsion of the story filled with live actors.
One of the marvels of King Kong is how Willis O’Brien took an 18 inch figure (actually there were several figures of various sizes – as well as a giant face and a giant hand to hold Fay Wray) and made an immortal colossus out of him. Just a model, an armature with ball and socket joints, covered in rubber, foam and rabbit fur. It’s like magic.
There was a richness to King Kong, as well. O’Brien would paint glass to put between the camera and his models to create a dense, layered jungle. He also used a variety of techniques – rear-screen projection for the actors to react to, exposing part of the frame while filming the actors and then exposing the rest of it while filming the models, as well as rear-screen projection onto miniature shots of Kong. In fact, the animators went out of their way to keep the actors in the images with any of the animated creatures in order to enhance the sense of tension and awareness of the threat posed.
After the success of King Kong, a sequel was rushed into production, Son of Kong, though Willis O’Brien always said he hardly worked on it. It was a tragic time for him personally. His wife shot and killed both their sons and then tried to commit suicide. Eventually, O’Brien found stability in life when he remarried, but he was never to come close to the success he had with King Kong. Partly, according to his second wife, Darlyne O’Brien, he never asserted or promoted himself. He sold stories to people who used his ideas without hiring him to do the animation and he was unwilling to work on B movies (unlike Ray Harryhausen, who used B movies as a launch to greater things), though he eventually was obliged to make a few, simply to earn a living.
His last great film was Mighty Joe Young in 1949, made with largely the same creative team behind King Kong. By all accounts, however, he remained a contented man (if occasionally frustrated) and never let himself be discouraged. He just kept working, creating and generating ideas until the day he died.
One of the things that fascinates me about stop motion animation is that very quality of creating life, as it were, where there is none. It is in contrast to the modern method of motion capture to record an actor and animate a digital character (such as Andy Serkis as Gollum, King Kong and Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). I can sympathize with Serkis’ frequent complaint that motion capture actors are not given their due. The emotion and acting is largely coming from them (which is not to take anything away from the extraordinary skill of animating that emotion digitally). But with stop motion animation, the emotion and personality is coming from the animator.
During the making of King Kong, there was very little detail in the script about how Kong should behave. Much of his humanizing gestures come from O’Brien. The boxing moves King employs against the T-Rex, how he is picking a flower for Fay Wray (just before she is attacked by a giant snake), the way he sniffs her and starts to pull her clothes off, even the way that Kong kills the snake (he was supposed to strangle it, O’Brien had him grab its tail and dash its brains out).
According to Paul M. Jenson, author of The Men Who Made the Monsters, the script merely said that at the end of King Kong, Kong was to “stagger(s), turn(s) slowly, and topple(s) off the roof.” The defiance against the planes, the picking up of Fay Wray’s character to say a kind of goodbye, his expressions, that all came from O’Brien. It is a wonder how fresh and vital his work feels to this day.
Willis O’Brien: Special Effects Genius – Steve Archer
The Men Who Made the Monsters – Paul M. Jenson