Willis O’Brien pioneered the process of making small models appear lifelike on the screen. He did so by shooting frame by frame while moving the model ever so slightly. Audiences were simply stunned by the results.
Willis O’Brien was born in Oakland, California in 1886. Not much is known about his family or early years, except that from a young age he exhibited tremendous artistic talent.
He eventually parlayed this skill into a job creating clay models for a marble stonecutter. During idle stretches he fiddled with the clay and soon began producing life-like miniature boxers. Somewhere along the line he hit upon the idea of stop-action filming as a way to depict lifelike movement. Assisted by a newsreel photographer, he filmed a one-minute feature of a caveman battling a dinosaur. He shopped the film around Hollywood and garnered $5,000 from a producer to make a more substantial version.
O’Brien used the money to produce a five-minute film in 1915 called “The Dinosaur and the Missing Link” that was subsequently purchased by the Edison Company. This success led to ten more five-minute films by O’Brien for Maniken Films, which, according to his New York Times obituary, “established him as the pioneer in the field of monster movies.”
O’Brien’s first major success came in 1918 with the release of “The Ghost of Slumber Mountain.” It cost just $3,000 to make and grossed more than $100,000. “The Lost World” (1925), based on a novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, was also a smash hit at the box office. Nothing, however, would ever match his success with “King Kong” in 1933.
O’Brien’s Kong model was 18 inches high and made of a metal skeleton, foam rubber, and rabbit skin. Ball and socket joints allowed for easy movement. To perfect the simulation of Kong’s movements, O’Brien spent endless hours in zoos observing apes. In addition, he oversaw the construction of detailed miniature sets of the jungle and New York City and a huge ape hand to hold actress Fay Wray. Kong’s roar was created by combining the roars of a lion and tiger and then playing them backwards.
Even before it opened in March 1933, “King Kong” was causing considerable buzz in Hollywood. RKO studios was offered more than $1 million dollars for the film by MGM, but declined despite the fact that they were on the verge of bankruptcy (as were many studios in the early years of the Depression). It proved a wise decision, as the film pulled in a record $90,000 in its first weekend and more than $1.7 million overall (also a record). Subsequent re-releases in the late-1930s, 1940s and 1950s likewise netted huge profits for the company.
Audiences were astonished by what they saw. O’Brien’s refined stop-action techniques brought to life a 50-foot ape who battled dinosaurs on Skull Island and then rampaged across Manhattan, culminating in the famed scaling of the new Empire State Building. The reviewer in the New York Times ran out of adjectives, characterizing the film as “fantastic,” “terrifying,” and “thrilling.” The film’s producer and director received the most attention, but many articles mentioned Willis O’Brien’s critical role.
The film’s success prompted RKO to immediately begin work on a sequel, “The Son of Kong.” Not surprisingly, Willis O’Brien was again hired to handle the special effects. Sadly, while working on the film in September 1933, his ex-wife shot and killed their two sons and then turned the gun on herself.
Despite the success of the two Kong movies, O’Brien struggled for the rest of his career. He developed many film ideas, but only two made it to the silver screen in the 1930s (“The Last Days of Pompeii” and “The Dancing Pirate”). Nonetheless, he managed to support himself by serving as a Hollywood consultant. In 1949, O’Brien had a brief return to glory for his special effects work on another giant ape film, “Mighty Joe Young.” The following year he received the first ever Academy Award for special effects.
O’Brien worked in eight more films over the next twelve years, including “King Kong vs. Godzilla” (1962). When he died in 1962 at the age of 75, he was lauded as the “father of special effects.”
Sources: Ray Morton, King Kong : The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson; The New York Times, and www.imbd.com. Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm
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