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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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King Kong (1933) – My Childhood Impressions and Adult Reactions

untitledI saw King Kong first when I was a child and through the years I always retained a foggy, general idea of how the story went, but there were four things that I always remembered distinctly: the moment when Fay Wray first sees Kong and screams her head off, Kong stepping on a man and squishing him into the ground, Fay Wray being filmed while on the boat and being told to look into the sky and scream for her life, and Fay Wray screaming while Kong carries her off. The screaming made a big impression on me. And I remember that I watched the film with a number of other children roughly my age and that there were some tears shed at the end.

I don’t remember being sorry when Kong died, but I think it was because he had squished that man into the ground.

Years later, I saw Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong. 2005 is now almost ten years ago and though my memories of the recent film are much clearer, through the years the two movies increasingly merged together in my mind and it was with great interest that last weekend I re-watched the 1933 King Kong and tried to untangle my memories.

My first reaction, unfortunately, was disappointment. Kong looked far more fake than I had ever realized, though I was not mistaken about the amount of screaming. However, once I got over that, I was able to settle in and enjoy the film. And while watching the film, I had a revelation. If a giant mega-gorilla came roaring at me, I’d scream my head off, too. And if that giant mega-gorilla carried me off, swung me high off the ground, put me on a very high tree, put me on a ledge in a cave, took me to various locations were various monsters tried to eat me and then chased me through the streets of New York and finally carried me to the top of a 1,454 ft. building, I might even faint dead away. If you scream on roller coasters, then you would definitely scream with Kong.

The moment when Kong is smitten and Fay Wray is not

King Kong is smitten – though Fay Wray is less so

It’s really a unique film, at least as far as I have ever seen. It draws you in and makes you sympathize with Kong. It is amazing how much sympathy they can generate for a character that is really just a puppet; a puppet in a mostly live action film.

Most people are familiar with the plot of King Kong. Movie director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) has a map and is looking for a legendary creature, the great Kong, who is supposed to be on an island where no European has ever been. He needs a leading lady and picks up hungry Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) from the street and he and his crew go off to Skull Island to shoot his film. Once there, Ann is kidnapped by the natives and sacrificed to Kong.

Kong is smitten, Ann is later rescued and then Kong is captured by Denham and his crew and brought back to New York as a great attraction, billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. But of course Kong escapes and goes after Ann and climbs up to the top of the Empire State Building, where he is shot down by airplanes.

20141028_king-kong-1933_33When he is dead, Denham comments that it was not planes, but beauty that killed the beast. Denham rides this theme for all it’s worth through out the movie. In that respect, King Kong is a monster/adventure retelling of a classic fairytale. Although Kong’s affection does not appear to be reciprocated and he is not changed into anything other than he is. But that’s because there are other themes going on in the film, such as the beast being destroyed by civilization, a sort of high powered, collective, mechanized beast.

And of course the moment when Kong is shot down by the pilot with machine guns is quite a sad one. Here is this powerful, mighty creature being taken down by machines that he can’t possibly understand. I was watching the documentary that came with the second disc of the restored edition of the film, and the commentators (all men) were almost lyrical about the death of Kong. I have to admit, however, that my reaction as an adult was still somewhat similar to what it was when I was a child. I still didn’t quite feel the tragic pathos of his death. It was sad, but he had just killed dozens of people who we are never given time to feel bad for and that always makes me feel more bad for them than for the creature getting killed (I have this problem with all disaster and monster movies – those unnamed, random people dying in droves).

Kong pulling up Fay Wray and her other love interest, Bruce Cabot

Kong pulling up Fay Wray and her other love interest, Bruce Cabot

My theory is that empathizing with Kong to that extent is more of a guy thing. It seems to resonate with them more. One commentator said that Kong had a soul, which is true that he’s more than just a large gorilla, but if that’s the case, than he is morally culpable for all those deaths (perhaps I am over-analyzing the moral aspect of this film). So, though I felt for him, I was not quite rooting for him.

What was really cruel was to capture Kong and bring him to New York, though if you really think about it, by taking him away from the island, they saved the lives of the remaining islanders, who now have no barrier between them and Kong (since he breaks through the gate). But then the Islander’s shouldn’t have kidnapped Ann. Of course, perhaps Denham shouldn’t have been arrogantly barging in in the first place.

Still, part fairy tale, part adventure, part romance, part monster movie – King Kong seems to combine so much that resonates with people in many different ways and I found it oddly compelling. It was a huge hit when it was released in 1933 -which was the height of the American depression when unemployment was 25% – though Kong had stiff competition from top grossing films by Greta Garbo, Mae West and the musical 42nd Street. King Kong must have really stood out, however, in a year that produced Little Women and musicals with Mae West and Ruby Keeler, and Greta Garbo’s Queen Christina.

I think to really appreciate it, you have to watch RKO Production 601: The Making of ‘Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World’, the two and half hour documentary that was produced by Peter Jackson and is included on the second disc of the two disc DVD release of King Kong. The documentary is in eight parts and includes everything from a biography of Merian C. Cooper, the producer and originator of the King Kong story who led an out-sized life, to the development and invention of stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien that made King Kong, and all future movies reliant on special effects, possible.

Bruce Cabot, Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong

Bruce Cabot, Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong

Anyone who has ever watched the copious how-they-made-it discs on Peter Jackson’s extended editions of his Lord of the Rings films knows that he never does anything by halves. There is a discussion of how Max Steiner (composer for movies like Gone With the Wind) revolutionized movie score composition. In fact, if you think about most movies from 1933 and before, there are hardly any original scores and often not even music, except for diegetic music (music that comes from within the movie, a record or a band playing). Steiner’s score for King Kong is almost like a modern score: thematic music for characters, using music to tell the story. In the documentary they argue – and I think it is true – that half the sympathy the film generates for Kong is because of the music. There is also a discussion about how Murray Spivak essentially founded modern sound recording for these kind of films. He was the first to think to combine various animal noises to create new and unique roars and growls.

What I especially enjoyed was the detailed discussion of how stop-motion animation is done and Peter Jackson and a team from WETA go into great detail as they attempt to imagine and film a missing scene from King Kong involving spiders so that it could fit seamlessly into the film, using the same kind of equipment. These guys are obviously major King Kong fanatics, but it was extremely illuminating just how complicated it was to make the film; suddenly Kong didn’t look so cheesy to me when I realized what a staggering achievement it was.

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Posted by on November 12, 2014 in Fantasy, Horror

 

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