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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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Revisiting Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Snow_White_1937_posterThe last time I saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I must have been around eleven years old. I had just watched the 1978 Les Miserables with Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins and, along with my cousin and siblings, found it a stressful experience. None of us knew a thing about the story, so when Javert stood there for what seemed an impossibly long time, pointing a gun at Jean Valjean’s head (with one stressful note of music held for an impossibly long time) we really were concerned. After Les Miserables, we wanted to watch something a little more restful.

But after watching She and reading about how the costumes in that film might have inspired the animators of the Evil Queen in Snow White, I wanted to see it again. Here are my seven main thoughts on the film.

1) It’s like a symphonic poem. I had forgotten how much music is in this film. Not only do characters break into song every five minutes or so, but the musical score (composed by Paul Smith and Leigh Harline) almost never ceases to play. There are multiple examples of “mickey-mousing,” which means using the music to accompany or punctuate a character or animal’s movement or expression. When music is played in time to the steps of the dwarfs, that is mickey-mousing.

But it’s not irritating, but adds considerably to the charm of the film. This is largely because everything in the film seems to be part of the music. The particular sing-song way Snow White talks, the way characters often speak in rhymes, the various noises that animals make, even the noises that characters make (the snoring, the squeaks of shoes, the indelible sound of Doc clearing his throat or Grumpy’s “Humph”), the different timbre of character’s voices. Every sound and every word seems part of one consistent musical whole, making the narrative less important.

I’d also forgotten just how catchy and numerous all the songs are. I spent days singing “With a Smile and a Song” and “I’m Wishing.” Frank Churchill (not Jane Austen’s Frank Churchill) wrote the music for the songs and Larry Morey wrote the lyrics.

Snow-White-and-the-Seven-Dwarfs2) Along with the music, the movements of characters are highly stylized. Nobody walks the way Snow White does; she practically floats. The queen has a way of sweeping her cloak artistically and makes grand gestures with her arms. Hands are particularly fascinating to watch in this film. I’m struggling to find a word to describe it all. Poetic, balletic, operatic? Realism is not the dominant goal of this film. It’s a musical storybook.

3) That forest Snow White runs through at the beginning used to frighten the living daylights out of me. Watching it now, it looks rather German expressionist to me. In fact, I noticed a lot of things this time that never occurred to me previously. Like the cross cutting at the end between the queen offering Snow White the apple and the dwarfs racing to the rescue. I was just reading a book about the silent era that was discussing D.W. Griffith’s famous use of cross cutting in his films, most famously in Birth of a Nation (Diary of a Movie Maniac also makes this observation).

4) Does the magic mirror make house calls? The Evil Queen uses her magic to call him forth and I wonder if there are other homes that he visits.

5) The attitude of Snow White is extremely 1930s. She actually apologizes for being frightened and breaking down in tears. She is a survivor. She just keeps moving forward, bravely ready to face whatever comes next. Snow White is generally considered a rather un-empowered princess, but I think this is partly a product of the Depression. During the Depression, no one was particularly empowered (not even men) and the main thing was to keep moving forward and not complain. Her apology to the animals and then her cheerful “With a Smile and a Song” as she looks for a home in the woods strikes me as typical of the era.

Disney has progressed from “With a Smile and a Song” and keeping on without complaint to “Let It Go,” where Elsa’s practically shaking her fist and shouting, “I’m an individual!” It’s interesting how times change.

Evil_Queen_(Snow_White_and_the_Seven_Dwarfs_1937)As a side note, I was trying to fit the Dwarf’s apparent wealth with a Depression mentality, but if you think about it: their diamonds and rubies don’t actually make them rich. They don’t have any way to sell or use their gems. They even sing a line about how they don’t know why they dig. They lock their gems in a shed with a key hanging right by the door. Their real treasure is Snow White.

6) In The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks, the author mentions in her introduction that Walt Disney wanted his animators to make the prince look like Douglas Fairbanks. As she notes, however, it’s not obvious that they succeeded.

7) Is it just me or does the prince’s castle look like the celestial heavens? Does that make him death? Not sure I like that interpretation.

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2016 in Movies

 

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An appreciation of Maleficent and Eleanor Audley

images[6]With Disney’s upcoming release of the live-action film, Maleficent, with Angelina Jolie in the title role, I thought it would be refreshing to revisit the classic villainess in her original incarnation from the 1959 Sleeping Beauty, as well as to celebrate the woman who gave her voice: Eleanor Audley.

Maleficent is a classic villain, much in the way that Darth Vader is classic: timeless, formidable, iconic – iconic appearance, iconic voice. Everyone loves to love (or hate) a villain that embodies sheer menace and evil (though Darth Vader’s villain-ness kept getting murkier as the movies went along – he eventually wound up as a petulant boy! I suspect a similar dilution of Maleficent’s evilness in the new film).

And perhaps she’s only a cartoon, but what is Darth Vader: part triangular helmet with black cape and suit, part imposing posture, and part awesome voice.

Maleficent

What I loved about Maleficent is that she is a villain that’s female. That sounds a little obvious, but what I mean is that she is a villain first, who happens to be a woman (I guess, technically, a witch). She is not a femme fatale or vamp, sashaying through the story, swinging her hips and breathing down the necks of every man she encounters; she is just a villain. She’s the only one I can think of whose villainy is separate from her femininity. Men get to be villains, who incidentally are men; why not women?

There is no explanation for why she is evil; she just is, and because she is not invited to the celebration of Aurora’s birth, she curses the child. It seems she so embodies evil, that her mission in life is to wreak destruction. It’s a living, I suppose.

To savor her sheer awesomeness, here is a clip of various scenes from Sleeping Beauty with Maleficent in them

Of course, what makes Maleficent truly come alive is her voice (surely the most menacing voice in cartoon history – she could make a laundry list sound frightening). She was voiced by Eleanor Audley, who had, seven years earlier, also provide the voice for Cinderella’s evil stepmother in Disney’s 1950 animated Cinderella (click here for video of her Lady Tremaine).

When they animated Maleficent, Audley was the live-action model – she dressed in the costume and acted the part to provide a reference for the artists – and they modeled much of Maleficent’s facial expressions after her (to watch the video about how they animated the film from live action, click here. The part about Maleficent begins 2 minutes into the video).

Eleanor Audley

Eleanor Audley

Eleanor Audley mostly did radio and TV, as well as providing the voice for several animated films. Sadly, I cannot, for the life of me, find any information about her personally. She started in radio in the 1940s and 50s, and appeared multiple times in “Father Knows Best”and “My Favorite Husband” (as the mother of Lucille Ball’s character’s husband).

In the 1950s and 60s, she seems to have turned up in practically every popular TV show running: from the TV version of Father Knows Best to I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Wagon Train, The Beverly Hillbillies, My Three Sons, Green Acres, and quite a few more. She made the most appearances in Green Acres (14 episodes), as the mother of Eddie Albert’s character, Oliver Wendell Douglas.

Since I grew up hearing her as a voice, it was fun for me to go back and find some of these TV episodes, just to see her in person. Here’s a clip of her in the Beverly Hillbillies. She plays a head schoolmistress dismayed when Jethro tries to enroll in her school.

Notes: Here is the trailer for Maleficent. It looks like a Lord of the Rings, “Wicked,” fairytale mash up, to me (are those creatures escapees from LOTR?), but I’m trying not to be prejudge… too much.

Extra:I found this video a lovely tribute to all the great voices in Disney films; which includes Eleanor Audley, as well as Stanley Holloway (as Kaa, Winnie the Pooh, and the Cheshire Cat) and many others.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2014 in Movies

 

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