Friday, 16 September 2016

A Tribute to Willis O'Brien

Pioneering motion picture special effects artist who pioneered the technique of stop motion animation and created "the most startling and intriguing monsters who have ever invaded screenland."

King Kong vs T-Rex

Early Life

Willis O'brien was born on 2 March 1886 in Oakland, California. His father, William O'Brien was self-educated and was a noted etymologist. He also spent 15 years as assistant district attorney for Oakland. Poor investments coupled with some bad luck forced the O’Brien family into poverty when Willis was just 11 years old.

Before he began working in film, Willis O’Brien worked short stints as a cowboy, professional boxer. farmhand, factory worker, fur trapper, bartender, draftsman in an architect's office, railroad brakeman and surveyor. He then went on to become a cartoonist for the San Francisco Daily News, and worked as a professional marble sculptor.


O'Brien was eventually hired by the Edison Company to produce several short films with a prehistoric theme, most notably The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy (1915) and The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918). For his earlier short films, O'Brien created his own characters out of clay,

For later feature-length films, O’Brien would employ Richard and Marcel Delgado to create detailed stop-motion models that were based on O'Brien's designs. These consisted of rubber skin built up over articulated metal armatures.

O'Brien's first Hollywood feature was the film version of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1925). O'Brien's dinosaurs could not only move and fight but they also seemed to be able to "breathe" due to the use of a bladder inside the model that could be inflated and deflated.

His most famous work involved animating the dinosaurs and the iconic giant ape in King Kong (1933), the first "monster movie," and its sequel Son of Kong (1933). O’Brien visited zoos in order to study the behaviour and movements of gorillas. He also attended wrestling matches to get a feel for how Kong would do battle with the dinosaurs of Skull Island. O'Brien’s models were 18-inches high and were constructed on metal skeletons with joints consisting of balls and sockets. The skeletons were padded with foam rubber and cotton and covered with rabbit skin.

When O’Brien viewed the first printed footage of his character, King Kong in motion, he noticed that its fur moved because it was disturbed by his fingers during filming. When showing the footage to the film's producer, O’Brien was worried that this would be noticed and that as a consequence he would be fired. Instead, he was praised for his ability and attention to detail in succeeding to actually make Kong's fur seem to blow about in the wind!

Personal Tragedy 

Married to Hazel Ruth Collette in 1925 Obrien and his wife had a troubled relationship and were divorced by 1930. The couple had two sons. Hazel suffered from tuberculosis and was often heavily sedated. The disease spread to one of their sons, William and blinded him. Tragically, during the production of The Son of Kong (1933), Hazel shot and killed her two sons and then turned the gun on herself. She survived the incident but died from cancer and tuberculosis soon afterward.

Later Film Career

O'Brien was credited as Technical Creator in the film Mighty Joe Young (1949), for which he won the first-ever Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 1950. O'Brien's eventual successor, Ray Harryhausen also worked alongside O'Brien on this film.

In 1956, O'Brien wrote the script but did none of the animation for the first colour film to combine animation and live action photography, The Beast of Hollow Mountain.

In 1957, O'Brien worked on the film, The Black Scorpion, in which he and collaborator Peter Peterson did the special effects. They also both worked together on the film, The Giant Behemoth (1959) about a radioactive sea monster in which O'Brien helped build the sets and the models.

O'Brien did not enjoy great success during his life. In fact, in his later years he struggled to find work. There were numerous false starts and even though O’Brien had plenty of ideas, he could not work out how to get them produced in Hollywood. Promotion was not one of his strong points.

Later Years 

Shortly before his death, O’Brian animated a brief scene in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), which had some characters dangling from a fire escape. He was also one of the writers for Ishiro Honda's King Kong vs. Godzilla.

At the age of 76, O'Brien died in Los Angeles on 8 November 1962, survived by his second wife, Darlyne.

In 1997, he was posthumously awarded the Winsor McCay Award by ASIFA-Hollywood, the United States chapter of the International Animated Film Society ASIFA (Association internationale du film d'animation). The award is in recognition of lifetime or career contributions to the art of animation.


Despite working largely in obscurity, Willis O’Brien has left an amazing legacy in terms of cinematic special effects. Consider the pioneering process he employed of shooting one frame at a time to give his models a sense of realism, movement and personality which audiences were able to identify with.

O’Brien’s ground-breaking method of live action combined with stop motion animation has until recent times been a standard special effects process. It was Willis O'Brien who used for rear projection, a flexible cellulose-acetate screen stretched over a frame.

O’Brien also began using the by now familiar blue screen behind live action actors thereby permitting them to be incorporated into existing footage.

O’Brien’s creations can be best summed up by one reviewer who saw them as being “marvels of ingenuity both in design and in the method of animation” and that their “movements are so supple and natural that it would be easy to believe them to be huge living creatures."

©Chris Christopoulos 2016