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Willis O’Brien and Stop Motion Animation

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.

Sources

“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.

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Posted by on August 6, 2016 in Movies

 

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Antonio Banderas in “The Mask of Zorro”

MV5BOTk5MTM0ODI0NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNDc0MTI3._V1_SX640_SY720_When I was growing up, swashbucklers were the men to admire among my circle of family and friends. Especially Errol Flynn and Orlando Bloom. They were the beautiful, athletic, pretty-faced charmers of choice and because I was young and ornery, I remained impervious to their charms and teased mercilessly about it. I was not going to be taken in by a pretty face. I was steadfast. I was proud of it.

But I did have a secret crush. Actually, it wasn’t really that secret, but somehow I managed to underplay it in comparison with everyone else’s crushes.

(Actually, I have always thought Errol Flynn was a man of distinct charm and handsomeness, but it took a movie other than Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood to make me admit it – I didn’t like his longish hair in those two movies.)

I wasn’t even a fan of swashbucklers. I was more of a BBC/Masterpiece Theatre kind of gal (which might point to another not-so-secret crush on Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy). Long miniseries were my thing. Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens. Literary stuff. Talky stuff. Not muscular, roguish, sweaty action heroes.

But I saw The Mask of Zorro and I had to admit that I liked the movie. I seemed to be watching it quite often and I had to admit that Antonio Banderas was a large reason for that. He was awfully handsome, but he was more than that. He had a goofy charm as Alejandro Murrieta. He begins as an uncouth bandit, bumbling, bull-in-the-china-shop, until Anthony Hopkins takes him under his wing and gives him a make-over in a gender-reversed Pygmalion/Cinderella story twist and turns him into a gentlemen. Alejandro even gets to go to a ball of sorts and dance with Catherine Zeta-Jones. By the end, he can out-swashbuckle anyone.

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It’s not a traditional Zorro story. It’s channeling serial tropes and traditions. Revenge, secret identities, make-overs, good-old-fashioned sword fights, romance, children who don’t know who there parents are. Actually, the more I think of it the more it seems clear to me how much this film owes to Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo.

But I like Alejandro so much better than I ever liked the Count, who was often an implacable man in the novel, good at everything and very nearly a demi-god. He’s so perfect and so convinced of the righteousness of his mission that he’s irritating. Not Alejandro.

He’s not infallible, he has his awkward moments, he jumps the gun often, he’s not an aristocrat born to the graces of his position (like Anthony Hopkins’ Zorro). He has some ridiculously maladroit moments. He’s essentially a regular guy being beaten down by the authorities. Becoming Zorro gives him power to fight back. Like the Count of Monte Cristo, he is able to engage his enemy at their level and defeat them at their own game, but he’s doesn’t lose his humanity in the process.

He also looks pretty gorgeous while he does it.

This post was written as part of The Reel Infatuation Blogathon. Be sure to look up the rest of the posts for Days 1, 2, 3 and look out for more updates this week. Many, many thanks to Font & Frock and Silver Screenings for hosting!

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Posted by on June 16, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952)

storyofrobinhoodposterThis movie always makes me very happy. It’s not as lavish or large scale as Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn’s versions of Robin Hood, not as swashbuckling or even as tense. I especially noticed the lack of tension when I watched it this week. But perhaps because I grew up with the film, it has the power to make me feel warm and comfortable and happy, like chicken soup.

Walt Disney’s live action Robin Hood and His Merrie Men was released in 1952, but has since been superseded in memory by Disney’s animated 1973 Robin Hood. It was filmed in England, with an all-English cast, and I believe it is the second live action film that Disney made (with Treasure Island being the first – another childhood favorite).

The scale of the story is far smaller than most Robin Hood incarnations. Robin Hood (Richard Todd) is not an earl, but is simply Robin Fitzooth, the son of the Earl of Huntington’s gamekeeper. The daughter of the Earl of Hungtington is Maid Marian (Joan Rice), who grew up with Robin as playmates and is still something of a tom-boy. But King Richard (Patrick Barr) is leading a crusade and calls all his knights to go with him, including the Earl of Huntington. Marion is placed in the care of Eleanor of Aquitaine (Martita Hunt – an indomitable presence) as a lady in waiting, while Prince John (Hubert Gregg) is left in charge of a large portion of earldoms.

But as soon as Richard has left, John begins setting in motion his plans. He puts in place his own man as the Sheriff of Notthingham (Peter Finch) and they recruit a large posse, “an army,” of bowman to enforce the taxes necessary to maintain the new posse. When Robin’s father publicly speaks out against the Sheriff, he is murdered and Robin ends up an outlaw in Sherwood Forrest and becomes known as Robin Hood, where he attracts a variety of men in sympathy with his cause or who have been oppressed by the Sheriff.

One of the things I always liked about this is the scale. I am not an expert on British history of the time, but one always has the impression in the other films that Richard ruled in an uncomplicated, autocratic way with sole power and that all John needs to do to control England is replace him as that autocrat. However, in the Disney film, power seems to be divided up more diversely. Eleanor of Aquitaine evidently has lands and power of her own. The Archbishop of Canterbury (Anthony Eustrel) also appears to wield a great deal of power and influence and remains highly skeptical of Prince John and his protestations of poverty. In fact, I rather enjoy the Archbishop as a character. With a voice that often drips irony, he looks more like a man who could lead crusade himself. Prince John, on the other hand, is a calculating man who only controls a certain portion of lands and estates.

robinhoodandhismerriemen_240Even Robin Hood doesn’t have a horde of men (as Fairbanks and Flynn do). His merrie men are a mere band of men. There is no civil war or pitched battles. He is simply doing what he can to alleviate the poverty and injustice and to ensure that enough money is collected to ransom King Richard.

Both Richard Todd and Joan Rice seem to have enjoyed a very brief time of stardom in the 1950s, especially Joan Rice. She was thought to be an up-and-coming star, but her career quickly faded for reasons that seem largely unknown (she also starred with Burt Lancaster in His Majesty O’Keefe). The Story of Robin Hood is her most famous film and she is good as a young woman who seems more at home in the woods than as a lady in waiting. Richard Todd must have been something of a matinee idol, but because he spends a surprising amount of the film shirtless. Not as energetic or athletic as Fairbanks (who is?) or dashing as Errol Flynn (who is?), I still like him in the role and he has a twinkle in his eye and sincerity that fits the role well.

I think one of the big reasons that I love this movie so much is the inclusion of singer, actor, and guitarist Elton Hayes as Alan-a-Dale, whose songs bring continuity to the story. He is a traveling minstrel whose songs provide music, entertainment, news and even political commentary. Little John (James Robertson Justice) is particularly fond of listening to Alan-a-Dale sing. I can sympathize. If you like music and you have no radio, the only option is to cajole your local minstrel into singing for you.

Friar Tuck (James Hayter – he played Mr. Pickwick in the 1952 The Pickwick Papers) will always be Friar Tuck in my mind…as much as I enjoy Eugene Pallatte’s incarnation in 1938. He’s certainly belligerent and militant, but also a romantic and likes to sing love songs to himself (there’s a lot of singing in this movie), as well as make matches.

The screenwriters made an effort to make the language old English (with ayes and nays and such) and between the language, the songs, the painted mattes (such as used for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mary Poppins), the smaller and slightly more realistic scale and even the highly pious attitude towards the Crusades (politically incorrect, but historically more plausible) makes for a picturesque and charming film. It’s not as good a film other Robin Hood films, but it is the one I love the most. The sights and sounds, such as the whizzing of the arrows or the horn blowing, the timbre of people’s voice, all kind of form a familiar symphony for me and I can’t help but smile.  

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2016 in Movies

 

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