Willis O’Brien and Stop Motion Animation

06 Aug

Willis_H._O'Brien (1)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.


“A Short History of Stop Motion Animation”

“Puppetry in King Kong, 1933”

Willis O’Brien: Special Effects Genius – Steve Archer

The Men Who Made the Monsters – Paul M. Jenson

This post was written for the Classic Movie History Project, hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings, and Once Upon a Screen. Be sure to check out the rest of the fascinating posts, here.



Posted by on August 6, 2016 in Movies


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23 responses to “Willis O’Brien and Stop Motion Animation

  1. The Animation Commendation

    August 6, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    He was actually the subject of a question from my last season of my Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-Animation Edition games.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 6, 2016 at 4:23 pm

      How awesome! Was the questioned answered correctly?


      • The Animation Commendation

        August 6, 2016 at 6:22 pm

        The person walked away at that question. It was which film did Willis H. O’Brien win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          August 6, 2016 at 9:44 pm

          That’s a tough question! I think I only know the answer because I just read it last night in a book about Willis O’Brien (was it Mighty Joe Young?). It’s hard to believe O’Brien didn’t win anything for King Kong!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Simoa

    August 6, 2016 at 3:34 pm

    I find stop motion to be fascinating for the same reasons you mentioned. Thanks for such an informative post on an obscure (at least to me) pioneer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 6, 2016 at 4:36 pm

      It is incredible how much wonder stop motion can still incite, isn’t it! I know what you mean about Willis O’Brien. I had never heard of him until I watched a documentary about the making of King Kong. It’s ironic how his creation – King Kong – has so outlived him.


  3. Silver Screenings

    August 6, 2016 at 6:50 pm

    You make an excellent point – and one I never really thought of before – about the stop motion creature reflecting the animator’s emotion.

    I need to see King Kong again and pay closer attention to the richness of the jungle you described. Painting the glass is very clever – one of the many reasons why folks like that are Professionals.

    Also, such a tragedy with Willis’ first wife. Even though it took place decades ago, I was quite sad to read about it.

    Thank you for joining the Classic Movie History Project, and sharing an important piece of film animation history with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 6, 2016 at 10:22 pm

      And thank you for hosting!

      Yes, I know what you mean about how sad it is…even now. It’s amazing how resilient he was in the face of such a devastating, nearly unimaginable, tragedy and I can see why he never wanted to talk about making Son of Kong during that time.

      King Kong does seem like one of those films that gets better the more I see it or learn about how it was made. There seem to be so many layers – it’s kind of addictive to watch. It would be fascinating to know what you think when you see it again! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    August 7, 2016 at 8:01 am

    Mr. O’Brien was an incredibly creative man and to have Kong still impact audiences so many years later is a fitting tribute to him.

    I suppose the stop-motion in the films produced by Laika Studios is one of the few of today to truly carry on that great legacy. I feel it will never fade away completely as it provides so much satisfaction for animators.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 7, 2016 at 12:48 pm

      Yes, I think you are right – that’s a great point. It’s hard to imagine it ever going away completely for that very reason you give. I hope it never does.


  5. Michaela

    August 8, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    What a fantastic piece, Christina! I’m not very familiar with O’Brien’s work, having only seen King Kong so far, but I musy say that that movie really freaked me out. The personalities he gave his creatures and the way they looked was startingly real — I wasn’t expecting that! I will certainly keep my eye out for more of Mr. O’Brien.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 8, 2016 at 9:04 pm

      Thank you! It is amazing how tense and real it still feels after over 80 years, isn’t it!

      Mighty Joe Young is another really great example of his animation…and Lost World. Son of Kong feels a bit hasty, but it’s still worth seeing for his (admittedly brief) animation. It’s kind of sad he was not able to do as much work as he could have done – the studios never seemed to fully appreciate him. But at least we have what we do have!


  6. Eric Binford

    August 9, 2016 at 1:22 pm

    Call me a nostalgist, but I actually prefer stop motion animation to CGI. Realism doesn’t necessarily mean better. CGI tends to have a lava-lamp-like quality that I don’t like. Stop motion animation is more appealing to my eye — it’s sharp and three-dimensional.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 9, 2016 at 5:13 pm

      Yes, on the whole I have to agree. With films like King Kong I feel like I’m looking deep into the film, rather than most CGI effects that appear more like a vast painting rolling out before me. Movies are beginning to look to much like video games.

      I’ve especially been finding myself irritated recently with the use of CGI as background, too. I was watching The Imitation Game and the bombed out portion of London looked like CGI and it felt flat. Though I don’t know why that should bother me more than those matte painting used in films like Gone With the Wind.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric Binford

        August 12, 2016 at 3:12 pm

        Matte is literally “painting on glass,” and I just love the process and look of creating backgrounds this way. I have great admiration for matte artists like William Cameron Menzies and Albert Whitlock. CGI can’t duplicate it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          August 12, 2016 at 4:35 pm

          Yes, matte painting are really rather lovely! I love their use in films like Mary Poppins and 20,000 Leagues Under Sea. Maybe it’s because matte paintings don’t pretend to be “realistic,” whereas CGI is supposed to look like “the real thing,” even though it doesn’t. And it has no real aesthetic value to compensate. It looks manufactured rather than like a work of art.

          Or maybe it’s because matte paintings have more texture than CGI.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. August 13, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    I’ve been very impressed with both The Lost World and King Kong. Now that’s nice to put a name on the guy who did this magic! I must say that, if King Kong is still an entertaining, surprising and moving film, more than 80 years after the release, we have to thank Willis.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 14, 2016 at 1:54 pm

      He is an amazing talent – you’re right, it’s largely owing to him! I wonder if he knew how long his work would last. 🙂


  8. Elizabeth

    August 14, 2016 at 2:26 am

    This was a fascinating read. I never realized just how much went into making The Lost World and King Kong. Only 5 seconds of film in a day! I can’t imagine how long it must’ve taken. You truly have to admire the work done on these films.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 14, 2016 at 1:59 pm

      Thanks! I know what you mean…it’s mind-boggling the patience they must have had. And somehow to hold it in their minds what it will look like in motion, despite the piece by piece process. It’s pretty awe-inspiring!

      Liked by 1 person


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