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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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“The Fog Horn” and “The Murderer” – two short stories by Ray Bradbury

Classic_stories_1The Fog Horn

When Ray Harryhausen and his producers were working on the story for The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, they discovered that their story was very similar to Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Fog Horn,” published in 1952There seems to be some confusion about exactly how this happened. Bradbury said they had been inspired by his story, but forgotten that it was his story that inspired them. When he pointed this out, they promptly bought the rights to “The Fog Horn” and marketed the film as being based on his story. However, Ray Harryhausen said that while they were working on the story, they saw an image of a dinosaur attacking a lighthouse and they thought it would be a good idea to incorporate that into their script, and so bought the rights to Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn.”

However it happened, there is only one scene in the movie that is based on the short story, which only consists of one main event. I’m afraid Ray Bradbury’s story sounds a bit silly in a dry retelling, but there is nothing silly in the actual reading. It’s actually rather poignant.

Two men work in a lighthouse, one a younger man, Johnny, new at the job and another old-timer, McDunn, who is given to musing about the mysteries of the deep sea. As the fog horn of their lighthouse mournfully calls out one night, McDunn talks about how ancient the bottom of the ocean is compared to the land.

For all our engines and so-called submarines, it’ll be ten thousand centuries before we set foot on the real bottom of the sunken lands, in the fairy kingdom there, and know real terror. Think of it, it’s still the year 300,000. Before Christ down under there. While we’ve paraded around with trumpets, lopping off each other’s countries and heads, they have been living beneath the sea twelve miles deep and cold in a time as old as the beard if a comet.

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scene from the movie

But in some way, the fog horn has an affinity with that ancient world, with its mournful call and a creature (the last of its kind?) responds by visiting each year and calling back to the lighthouse as if it was its long-lost love.

A cry came across a million years of water and mist. A cry so anguished and alone that it shuddered in my head and my body. The monster cried out at the tower. The Fog Horn blew. The monster roared again. The Fog Horn blew. The monster opened its great toothed mouth and the sound that came from it was the sound of the Fog Horn itself. Lonely and vast and far away. The sound of isolation, a viewless sea, a cold night, apartness. That was the sound.

Not even Harryhausen’s monster was that sad! And when the fog horn is turned off briefly, the monster destroys the lighthouse in a fit of rage. Fortunately, Johnny and McDunn escape alive. But the monster is never seen again.

I’m not sure if I would have made the connection between the movie and the short story if I hadn’t known they were connected. The tone is completely different. The short story admirably calls up a sense of vastness, ancientness and loneliness. This was my first time reading Bradbury and his ability to create an atmosphere that hangs heavy over a mere nine pages is remarkable. I can sometimes have trouble focusing on a book when there is other noise or people around, but even in a waiting room I still felt like I was set amidst that vast loneliness and hearing that monster call – no mean feat.

The Murderer 

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Bradbury

After I read “The Fog Horn,” I was flipping through the collection – Classic Stories 1: From The Golden Apples of the Sun and R Is For Rocket – and read a few more short stories, including one that tickled my fancy. “The Murderer” was written in 1953, but is set in some distant time where radios are ubiquitous, including the wrist radio (used like a cellphone), and tell you what to do (rather like a GPS devise) and music is playing constantly in offices and on buses and houses remind you to wipe your feet. The noise is incessant, but most people hardly notice. They are too busy on their wrist radios, calling others to remind them about something or tell them about every trivial little thing.

Hmm….sounds familiar.

The story encompasses an encounter between a psychiatrist and a man under arrest who is being evaluated. The man, Albert Brock, was arrested for the “murder” of electronic objects…anything that made noise. His first crime was committed against his telephone, which he sent down the “insinkerator.” Next he “shot the television set.” He goes on to pour French chocolate ice cream into the radio transmitter of his car. He then goes to work on his house, which is

one of those talking, singing, humming, weather-reporting, poetry-reading, novel-reciting, jingle-jangling, rockaby-crooning-when-you-go-to-bed houses. A house that screams opera to you in the shower and teaches you Spanish in your sleep…with stoves that say, “I’m apricot pie, and I’m done,’ or ‘I’m prime roast beef, so baste me!”…With beds that rock you to sleep and shake you awake. A house that barely tolerates humans…A front door that barks: ‘You’ve mud on your feet,sir!” And an electronic vacuum hound that snuffle around after you from room to room, inhaling every fingernail or ash you drop.

Brock systematically went through the house and killed everything that made a sound. The trouble is that he was only renting all these things.

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Max Smart demonstrates a wristwatch phone

His reasons for these crimes? He wants to “deliver” man from “conveniences” and the incessant noise. The demands that technology seemingly makes on people. The feeling that because there is a phone, therefore it must be used. The sudden need people feel to share every little thing, so that they can feel “in touch.” How people sit on the bus and give updates on their location. How music plays nonstop.

In touch! There’s a slimy phrase. Touch, hell. Gripped! Pawed, rather. Mauled and massaged and pounded…

It was only 1953 when Bradbury was writing, but he perfectly describes the social media/cellphone revolution.

My brother noticed it especially in 2007, when the iPhone became ubiquitous on the college campus When he first went to university, he had to take a bus and everyone on the bus either read or talked to their neighbor. In 2007, that all changed. Suddenly, everyone on the bus had an iPhone and would sit with head bowed over it. Almost like homage payed to a deity.

By the end of the story, one can’t help but feel that it is the psychiatrist – and everyone else – who is sick and that Brock is the only sane man around. The doctor says Brock “refuses to accept the simplest realities of his environment and work with them,” but perhaps Brock has a point that such things ought to be fought against. Maybe we should all turn into Luddites and run around murdering technology.

Except then I couldn’t blog…

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2016 in Books

 

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The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

downloadMy brother was reminding me that in the 1950s, the Arctic (Ocean) was kind of like the last frontier on earth. It had been visited, but was not well known and it was during the 1950s that nuclear submarines were engaged in mapping the arctic, floating both among and under the ice floes. It was not until the late 1950s that a submarine was able to push through the ice and, in the words of my brother, take a selfie on the North Pole. It was like the closing of a frontier. After the arctic, there was really nothing else to do but take the exploration in films to space and out-right fantasy. No more going to islands and discovering King Kong or the Arctic and finding prehistoric monsters or even aliens.

But this might be why the Arctic features in a few 1950s sci and fantasy films, most prominently in The Thing From Another World and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms begins with a test of a nuclear bomb in the Arctic, which releases a prehistoric monster that had been frozen in the ice for millions of years. A specialist in radioactive isotopes, Dr. Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) sees the monster, but no one will believe him. He contacts the respected paleontologist, Dr. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway), but he finds the idea of a frozen dinosaur come to life incredible. Only his assistant, Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) believes Tom. Together, Tom and Lee track down several fisherman who claim to have lost their boats when attacked by a giant monster.

Eventually, the evidence mounts up so that not only Dr. Elson, but also Tom’s military friend, Col. Evans (Kenneth Tobey) believe him and they try to locate the monster (which they call a Rhedosauros, a fictional dinosaur), except that the monster has other ideas and invades New York City a la Godzilla.

Interestingly, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was released over a year before the Japanese classic Godzilla and served as an inspiration. There are many similarities: the connection between atomic weapons and monsters, the way it attacks boats, the way it comes ashore to destroy a whole city. Ray Harryahusen’s Rhedosaurus probably looks better than the original Godzilla, which is really a man in a suit. However, the Japanese film gave their monster a much deeper significance. Godzilla is not just a rampaging dinosaur, but a direct product and representation of the atomic bomb and it’s deadly effects and trauma.

The-Beast-from-20-000-Fathoms-images-e6efcd1b-fdec-44e1-b9c8-efc46c46273However, despite the lack of an especially deep meaning, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is still a fun movie. It’s not a long movie, only 80 minutes, and incredibly was made for little more than $200,000. It’s a testament to creativity on a shoestring, a creativity that influenced films from Godzilla to Them! and beyond.

The idea came from a short story by Ray Bradbury called “The Fog Horn,” which featured an attack by a giant monster on a light house (a scene which makes it into the film). Ray Harryhausen – who had previously worked with Willis O’Brien on Might Joe Young – was for the first time able to work alone. He said they could only afford one model of the Rhedosaurus, unlike King Kong, where there were multiple models – you can even track the changes through the film. Ultimately, Harryhausen’s Rhedosaurus looks to me like a cross between a T-Rex and a Komodo Dragon.

The director, Eugene Lourie apparently used to tease Harryhausen that he made his monsters die like a tenor in an opera. This made me laugh when I heard it because it’s so true. The pathos Ray Harryhausen manages to wring out of the death of a rampaging creature is impressive. He did the same thing at the end of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, pausing for a truly operatic end for a dragon that really wasn’t in the story that much, but managed to convey more emotion that the entire cast put together.

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Cecil Kellaway, Paul Raymond, Paul Christian

In The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the Rhedosaurus goes out amidst a burning roller-coaster on Coney Island, taken out by a radioactive isotope. He gets all the drama, while the people are along for the ride, though Cecil Kellaway as Dr. Elson is quite good. I am always happy to see him in a film and the character even makes jokes about leprechauns, which I thought was ironic since Cecil Kellaway had played a leprechaun in a movie only a few years before. Another familiar face is Kenneth Tobey as Colonel Evans. He makes a crack about flying saucers, another irony, since he helped discover one in the 1951 movie The Thing From Another World.

The film grossed over $5 Million, an impressive return for a film made for only $200,000. But the creative returns were even more impressive, inspiring Godzilla and Them!, but also launching Ray Harryhausen as solo creator and unique genius.

This post was written as part of the Ray Harryhausen Blogathon. My thanks to Wolffian Classics Movies Digest for hosting! Click here for more posts about Harryhausen’s work.

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Posted by on July 11, 2016 in Movies

 

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