Willis O'Brien - Creator of Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World
Created | Updated Jun 12, 2017
Willis Harold O'Brien, known as 'Obie', was one of the 20th Century's most important and visionary filmmakers, the pioneer and master of his craft, although he is remembered for only his second feature-length masterpiece. O'Brien was the pioneering, Oscar-winning stop-motion animator who created King Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World. It may have been beauty that killed the beast, but it was O'Brien who gave him life, and inspired filmmakers for generations to come.
Born in Oakland, California, on 2 March, 1886, O'Brien was the fourth of six children to parents William Henry and Minnie Gregg O'Brien. Leaving home at 13, he spent four years in Oregon, where he began his lifelong fascination with horses and mastered the art of rodeo lassoing while working on farms. He also acted as a guide to a scientific expedition from the University of Southern California, who employed him to take them to Crater Lake, where they discovered the remains of a saber-toothed tiger. This began his life-long fascination with fossils and especially dinosaurs.
When O'Brien returned to California in 1903 at the age of 17, he worked as an architect's office boy, and soon became a qualified draughtsman. He used his artistic talents as the San Francisco Daily World's sports cartoonist, with a particular fondness for boxing. This was a sport he was keen on both watching and personally pursuing.
Boxing, horses and the newly-created cinema remained his strongest passions. He tried to find a career first as a jockey and later as a boxer, but despite his passion he did not have the build for either. His father arranged for him to get a steady job with the Southern Pacific Railroad, working his way from brakeman to surveyor before deciding that that life was not for him. He turned his hand to marble sculpting in 1914. With a natural talent for sculpting and model making, he won a competition to design a fireplace for a millionaire, and also assisted the head architect of the 1915 San Francisco World's Fair.
In 1914 while working in the sculptor's he made some model boxers out of clay, and then speculated about how these models could move and fight on film, just as he had seen cel-animated cartoons do. Deciding that animating a dinosaur would be even more novel than a boxer, he built a brontosaurus1 model out of clay, and used wooden struts bolted together inside the model to give it strength and stability. He painted a prehistoric background then hired a 35mm camera and a newsreel cameraman to create a one-minute film of a brontosaurus apparently walking, by using stop-motion animation. Shortly after he showed his experiments to Nickelodeon cinema owner Herman Wobber, who agreed to finance a five-minute film about a dinosaur. The result was called The Dinosaur and the Missing Link (1915), about an apeman 'missing link' who is killed by a dinosaur, both direct ancestors in a chain that would lead to King Kong.
Meanwhile, O'Brien met Hazel Collette, a stunningly beautiful woman 12 years younger than him. O'Brien impulsively proposed, only to realise later that they had little in common.
The film was a success and led to O'Brien being given a job by Thomas Edison, at the time the leading film distributor through his control of the Motion Picture Patents Company, nicknamed the 'Edison Trust'. Put in charge of a division known as 'Conquest Pictures' in New York, in 1915 he was hired to make ten five-minute comedies. He would write the stories, make the sets and models, and photograph the film.
One of his key reasons for accepting the move across the continent was that he hoped it would end his engagement to Hazel. Instead, she and an aunt followed him East. While in New York he made:
- Birth of a Flivver (1915) – about cavemen inventing the wheel, a film that had been in production before O'Brien was hired.
- RFD 10,000 BC (1916) about Henry Saurus, a prehistoric postman
- Prehistoric Poultry (1916)
- Morpheus Mike (1917)
- Curious Pets of Our Ancestors (1917)
- In the Villain's Power (1917)
He also assisted on other projects that Edison's film company were making. Yet Edison's Motion Picture Patents Company had been found to be an illegal monopoly and was terminated in 1918. O'Brien found himself unemployed at a time when his next project had aimed to combine model animation with a live-action boy. O'Brien left New York and returned to Oakland where, under pressure from Hazel's aunt, he married Hazel in 1918. Soon after, he was contacted by another model animator, Major Herbert M Dawley, who offered him a three-month contract in New Jersey and $3,000 to work as writer, designer, modeller, painter, animator, photographer, director and even actor, with Dawley assisting.
They made The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1919), in which he appeared as Mad Dick the Hermit, while Dawley played Jack. O'Brien consulted with Charles Robert Knight, the artist who had been commissioned by New York's American Museum of Natural History to portray dinosaurs as they would have originally looked, in order to make the dinosaurs convincing.
The film made over $100,000 and was seen by over half a million people when on Broadway, but after the New York première, Dawley eliminated O'Brien's name from the film. Dawley was determined to take all the credit, and all the money. Although O'Brien felt angered and betrayed, he felt he could not afford the legal fees to challenge Dawley, and refused to mention this film in later life. Despite his difficult home life, he and his wife had two sons, William, born in 1919, and Willis Junior, born in 1920.
The Lost World
The première of The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, in which O'Brien had been credited, led to his getting the attention of Watterson Rothacker. Rothacker was manager of Billboard magazine, founder of the Industrial Motion Picture Company, as well as the man who owned the rights to film the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This included one of O'Brien's favourite books, The Lost World, which had been published in 1912.
He pitched the idea of making an adaptation to Rothacker, who enthusiastically approached First National Pictures to co-finance the project. The film was made in First National's Studios in Burkbank, California, directed by Harry Hoyt. O'Brien designed the special effects including the effective dinosaur models, working with special effects wizard Fred W Jackson, Ralph Hammeras who did the matte and glass paintings, and Marcel Delgado, who had trained as a sculptor and would work with O'Brien for 25 years.
The stop-motion dinosaurs for The Lost World (1925) were again closely modelled on the work of Charles Knight. O'Brien's experience allowed him to make these dinosaurs to an improved design, and he devised the use of air-bladders so they would appear to breathe, as well as methods to make the models appear to salivate and bleed. For each minute of dinosaur action, 960 frames of film were required to be animated, as the film standard at the time was for 16 frames per second, rather than 24fps as today. Pre-production and model work for the film took two years and was followed by the live-action photography, which O'Brien oversaw to ensure it would match what he had done. The film not only pioneered feature length stop-motion animation, it included breathtaking sequences such as the volcanic eruption during which herds of dinosaurs flee.
Sadly the film was delayed when Herbert Dawley threatened to sue Rothacker, claiming that he had invented stop-motion animation and that O'Brien had stolen his method from him, and furthermore he had patents. Fortunately it was easy to prove that O'Brien had been using stop-motion animation in 1915, and so other than cause an annoying and costly delay, the film was not too seriously affected. Filming was also disrupted by First National's financial problems, which led to them closing their West Coast studios, so O'Brien had to transfer everything to finish filming in New York. The film met with the approval of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, and went on to become a great success when released in 19252.
Home is where the Heart Wasn't
Just as his professional life had reached the pinnacle of success, his home life was reaching a crisis point. Tensions in his marriage increased during the 1920s, especially as working passionately on The Lost World took up so much of his time. Even when the film was finished, O'Brien found he did not get on with his wife, preferring the company of his workmates and, later, other women. This increased Hazel's jealousy and she tried to do everything in her power to keep him closer to home, which had the effect of pushing him away. By 1930 he had had enough and moved out of the family home, though he kept close contact with his sons. He began a relationship with his former housekeeper, Hazel Rutherford.
Creation of King Kong
Following The Lost World, First National were interested in making a sequel or sound remake. They also considered making a film set in Atlantis which would involve sea serpents and prehistoric animals or an adaptation of HG Wells' Food of the Gods, while O'Brien was keen to make an adaptation of Frankenstein in which he would animate the monster. Yet First National's financial crisis continued and other film studios circled, waiting to claim the spoils. In 1930 First National was taken over by Warner Brothers, and so O'Brien left to work for Radio-Keith-Orpheum or RKO Pictures.
O'Brien was developing a project to be entitled Creation, to be directed by The Lost World's director Harry Hoyt. This would have a similar plot to The Land that Time Forgot and would involve a remote Pacific island on which there was a lost civilisation and dinosaurs. After a year of pre-production on this film, in which the dinosaur models were made and two test-sequences filmed at a cost of $120,000, RKO, having financial problems themselves, cancelled the film. This led to severe problems for O'Brien, who was on the brink of declaring bankruptcy.
In September 1931, Merian C Cooper was hired to help prevent RKO's bankruptcy. Cooper, a former US Army Pilot during the Great War before turning adventurer, was a man obsessed with gorillas. He thought that Creation's plot and script were dull but was blown away by the special effects, and decided that O'Brien would be the perfect person to make a film about a giant gorilla. After agreeing to make a test reel, O'Brien filmed the fight between Kong and the Tyrannosaurus rex and the sequence in which Kong shakes sailors off a log. When planning this sequence, O'Brien had been influenced by the work of Gustav Doré. Both these tests made it into the finished film, with O'Brien assisted on the animation by EB 'Buzz' Gibson. The director was Ernest B Schoedsack.
The models for this film included ones of Kong, dinosaurs including brontosaurus, pteranodon, stegosaurus, triceratops and tyrannosaurs, and spiders and lizards for a sequence later removed from the film, as well as people. Key sequences included the dinosaurs and Kong on their native Skull Island, Kong on the loose in New York, attacking the elevated railway, as well as the climax in which Kong climbs, and falls from, the Empire State Building. One of O'Brien's key developments for this film was the use of glass paintings to combine the models and live-action filming in a way that created the perception that they were both real, with an effective illusion of depth.
It Was Beauty That Killed
While King Kong was still being made, O'Brien's homelife continued to deteriorate. In 1931 his wife Hazel and son William both contracted tuberculosis. William was initially left blind in one eye but soon became completely blind. Hazel, however, also developed cancer. It is believed that her medicine severely affected her moods and judgement, effectively leaving her in a narcotic haze. Despite her illness, Hazel continued to look after their sons, though O'Brien remained close and saw them often.
Following the unprecedented success of King Kong, RKO, Cooper and director Ernest Schoedsack demanded a sequel. Although King Kong had taken three years to make, RKO were unwilling to wait that long and wished to rush a sequel into cinemas within a year. O'Brien was keen to try to make a quality film to help cement his reputation, but instead Son of Kong was quickly made within nine months, with only $50,000 allocated to the effects budget. To make up for the lack of drama, the sequel increased the amount of humour and made the baby Kong character cute and cuddly.
While O'Brien was involved in the making of the film, and shortly after he had shown his sons the set and models there, a tragedy occurred in the early hours of 7 October, 1933, a stifling hot night. Apparently under the influence of her intoxicating medicine and feeling unable to cope, his 35-year-old wife shot and murdered their two sons before shooting herself, puncturing her lung. William, 14, died instantly and 13-year-old Willis Junior died before reaching hospital, but Hazel survived. Newspapers the next day, eagerly lapping up the story with headlines such as Beauty Kills Sons! Then Shoots Self, reported that she described her actions with the words:
My husband is not to blame in any way. I just couldn't sleep and there was no-one to leave the kids with.
She remained in the Los Angeles General Hospital prison ward until her death in 1934. Heartbroken, O'Brien never visited her. Soon after the death of his sons, his girlfriend Hazel Rutherford learned that she had breast cancer. She committed suicide by leaping from a hotel's ninth story window on New Year's Eve, 1933.
Following these tragic events, O'Brien distanced himself from his work. He wanted little to do with the film, leaving the model-making to Marcel Delgado and the animation to Buzz. It is believed that one of the few sequences that O'Brien animated was the one in which, after fighting the cave bear, the little Kong hurts his middle finger and subtly sticks it up to the camera. Although he asked that his name be taken off the credits for Son of Kong, RKO refused, believing that O'Brien's name carried credibility.
On 17 November, 1934, O'Brien married Darlyne Prennett, a partner with whom he would form a stable relationship for the rest of his life.
Co-operating with Cooper
After the low point of Son of Kong, O'Brien's career began to look more promising. Cooper had visionary plans that required the use of his talents for a number of film proposals. These included The Last Days of Pompeii, She and even working in colour for The Dancing Pirate. For The Last Days of Pompeii (1935), O'Brien planned a swordfish fighting sequence set in Pompeii's flooded arena, and designed numerous miniature sets. Sadly this was scrapped in order to cut costs, although O'Brien worked on the volcano sequence. Musical The Dancing Pirate (1936) had involved Technicolor, but O'Brien's involvement was limited to optical glass effects to make it look like a ship was at anchor, not model animation. Another proposed project, a loose adaptation of H Rider Haggard's She which would be set in the Arctic and would require animated mammoths, lost the animated mammoths to save money3.
O'Brien's hopes were raised again and again, only to be dashed, but he was not the only one. Producer Merian C Cooper was frustrated that, time after time, cost cutting prevented his visions being filmed. Having considered himself to have rescued a studio from bankruptcy, he felt that his next personal step was to found his own film studio, and he wanted O'Brien to come with him. So on 21 October, 1935, O'Brien was contracted to make films for Cooper's new independent film company Pioneer Pictures. He would be paid $200 a week when developing a project, $400 a week when the project was in production and a bonus of $5,000 when the project was completed. In 1938 he began pre-producing a test reel for a colour film to be entitled War Eagles, in which a Viking civilisation in the Arctic live among dinosaurs and fly on the backs of giant birds. It was while he was working on preparing this film that he met an awe-struck young Ray Harryhausen, who showed O'Brien the dinosaur models he had made. O'Brien gave Harryhausen constructive criticism on how to make the models more lifelike. He also invited Harryhausen to visit Darlyne and himself at their home, which O'Brien later described as 'encouraging my competition'. He advised and mentored Harryhausen, with some speculating that this was because Harryhausen had been born in 1920, around the time that O'Brien's own sons had been born.
In 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland, Cooper felt it was his patriotic duty to re-enrol in the Army Air Corps. All work on War Eagles was abandoned, leaving O'Brien once again unemployed.
Return to RKO
While the war raged he began to develop his own project about a young boy and some cowboys who discover dinosaurs in a secret valley. To be entitled Gwangi, it involved an allosaurus brought back to civilisation as an exhibit, before escaping and running amok. Although many models were constructed by Marcel Delgado, the film was abandoned in 1941 because of RKO's continued financial problems. From 1942 O'Brien made orientation films for the US Navy, and after a very brief spell working on George Pal's Puppetoon4Jasper and the Choo-Choo with Harryhausen, was employed by RKO to make glass matte paintings.
Young at Heart
After the war, Cooper returned and announced that he was interested in resuming their working relationship with another film about a giant gorilla brought from the wild to civilisation, where he escapes. In 1946 this project, Mighty Joe Young, was given a budget of $1½ million, with O'Brien leading the 47-man effects team that included Harryhausen, with models made by Delgado. Some of the ideas for Gwangi were incorporated into the film, including a rodeo scene, but with O'Brien over 60 he was happy to allow Harryhausen to do most of the actual animation, animating only the nightclub and roping scenes himself.
Under pressure to speed up the animation process, O'Brien allowed one of the film's grips, Pete Peterson, the chance to animate. O'Brien preferred Peterson's animation technique to that of Buzz Gibson, who left the project soon after joining it. Peterson, who had multiple sclerosis and wore a leg brace, became another of O'Brien's surrogate sons. He too had lived a tragic life; his wife had died only three months into their marriage.
After 14 months the film was finished and became a modest success. Although not the runaway success that RKO had hoped for, O'Brien was awarded the Best Special Effects Oscar in 1950. Plans for a proposed sequel, Mighty Joe Young Meets Tarzan, were shelved.
In His Sixties in the Fifties
Following Mighty Joe Young, O'Brien needed another project to work on, and tried to interest producers in projects he had written. His key project, inspired by Gwangi, underwent many more title and plot changes, eventually settling as The Valley of the Mist. This involved a Mexican boy, his pet bull, a bullfighter and a valley of dinosaurs. He sold this tale to producers Edward and William Nassour, who held onto the story until it inspired a short animated film, Emilio and His Magical Bull, after O'Brien's death in 1975.
O'Brien's main problem was that he had developed his own highly effective and stunning method for creating stop-motion animation, and at this point in his career, he saw no reason to change it. His method required a large team of technical staff, expensive effects and a large budget. His protégé Harryhausen had realised that the film studios of the 1950s, in their struggle to compete against television, were unwilling to commit large budgets to B-movie films, and so developed his own simplified, and much cheaper, approach in which he was the entire special effects team. Yet after the success of The Lost World and King Kong and the Oscar for Mighty Joe Young, O'Brien felt that making cheap films was beneath him.
In 1952 King Kong was re-released in cinemas and, for a 30-year-old film, was an unprecedented success. Cooper contacted O'Brien with an idea they were both enthusiastic about; a proposed midquel5 to King Kong, to be entitled The New Adventures of King Kong or possibly The Eighth Wonder. The plot would be what Kong got up to between being captured on Skull Island and his arrival in New York. The ship he was imprisoned within, the Venture, would be shipwrecked on a strange island populated by monsters, with Kong initially escaping, saving Fay Wray and being imprisoned again within the ship's hold. This film would be spectacularly filmed in colour in the new Cinerama process. This involved three projectors overlapping three images on the screen to make an extremely wide image. To combine live action with animated convincingly, it required the use of rear-projection involving a complex interlocked motor system. Sadly, the man developing this died of a heart attack, and the project was abandoned.
O'Brien then applied to become an Imagineer, one of Walt Disney's key designers. He submitted a proposal for a theme park ride6 based on a trip to the Moon, but Disney was not interested.
Hoping to get work on projects he would be inspired by, O'Brien again turned to writing film story outlines as a way to generate interest in a project he could animate. Four of these were bought by independent producers the Nassour Brothers, as was one he had co-written with his wife Darlyne, called The Beast of Hollow Mountain. Following the success of Harryhausen's The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), the Nassour brothers were now highly interested. Hoping to clinch the deal, O'Brien sold them a Gwangi model that Delgado had made. Unfortunately, the Nassour brothers chose to hire Jack Rabin and Louis De Witt to animate the film rather than O'Brien. Not only were they unable to use the armatured model to its full extent, they preferred to use a replacement animation method, in which rather than moving a single model slightly, the models are replaced with different ones in different poses, all of which make the dinosaur look like a begging dog. As a consequence The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956) suffered from very poor animation.
Animals and Scorpions
Fortunately following this disappointment, a more positive opportunity arose. Irwin Allen was making a documentary entitled The Animal World (1956) for Warner Bros, and wished to include some dinosaurs. He approached O'Brien, who was happy to design the models, although they were made quickly and cheaply in the Warner workshop. For instance, the only difference between the Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus models are that the Ceratosaurus has a horn on his nose, as the same mould was used twice. The animation needed to be completed in only eight weeks, and to speed up production some sequences were filmed using unconvincing mechanical puppets. O'Brien worked on the film's dinosaur action, supervising Harryhausen doing the actual animation. Now 70, O'Brien was reluctant to do the animation and preferred to leave that to younger men. Harryhausen had leapt at the opportunity to work with his mentor again. The background landscapes were painted by Jack Shaw, with whom they had worked on Mighty Joe Young. The film's dinosaur sequence was singled out for praise by critics.
In 1957 O'Brien was approached by Jack Dietz, who had been a producer on The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, as well as Frank Melford to make the effects for a film entitled The Black Scorpion. To be made at a time when giant bug films were all the rage, it was set in Mexico, a location that had long fascinated him. Despite his reluctance to work on budget films, O'Brien needed the work and so reluctantly agreed, even though the budget could not stretch to his tried and tested approach, requiring cheaper methods similar to those employed by Harryhausen. As Harryhausen was busy making Earth vs The Flying Saucers, O'Brien asked Peterson to assist him on the film, and he was also helped by Ralph Hammeras who had worked with him on The Lost World. The budget wouldn't stretch to working in a film studio, so much of the film was made on the floor in Peterson's garage. Sadly the effects money ran out before filming finished. To get around this, instead of seeing dramatic events, characters describe what the scorpions did next. In one sequence, a black cut-out shape chases people. Another example of cost-cutting was a very unconvincing hand puppet which was used for close-ups of the scorpions' faces. The sequences that were made are outstanding, despite the inferiority of the models.
Return Trips to The Lost World
As small as the budget for The Black Scorpion had been, the next film that O'Brien was offered had an even smaller one. Behemoth, the Sea Monster (1959), known in America as The Giant Behemoth was essentially a British remake of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, co-directed by the earlier film's director, Eugène Lourié. The model was made quickly and cheaply and the effects work again done on Peterson's garage floor within six weeks. To save money, the same animation sequences are shown more than once and the Behemoth itself is rarely seen entirely. The plot, involving a Brontosaurus-like dinosaur rampaging through London, is a virtual remake of the climax to The Lost World made 35 years earlier.
Shortly after finishing this film O'Brien was hired by Irwin Allen and 20th Century Fox to make an actual remake of The Lost World. Allen had been impressed with O'Brien during The Animal World. 20th Century Fox had just released their successful version of Jules Verne's classic Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959), and felt that The Lost World needed to be rushed into cinemas within the year to capitalise on this success. The studio was experiencing serious financial problems at this time and were desperate for sure-fire hits, especially if they could be made cheaply and quickly. As Journey to the Centre of the Earth had been successful and had employed live lizards to represent dinosaurs, they wanted to use the same approach with The Lost World. So despite a vast amount of preparatory work by O'Brien, stop-motion dinosaurs were out and lizards and crocodiles with cut-out shapes glued on their backs shot from low angles were in7.
Anticipating a successful release and in order to make either a sequel or possible spin-off television series, the film finished with Professor Challenger about to return to London with a lizard that audiences were supposed to believe is a baby tyrannosaurus. The Lost World (1960) was not as successful as had been hoped8, yet O'Brien was unable to have his name removed from the credits as the producers felt the film's credibility would benefit.
Whether or not this happened is academic, however. The Lost World (1960) did not enhance O'Brien's reputation. Following the film's release he spent the next two years unemployed. Sadly in February 1962, Pete Peterson, O'Brien's long-time friend and partner, died in hospital while undergoing surgery for kidney cancer.
Frankenstein vs Godzilla? It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Following Peterson's death O'Brien buried himself in work, developing ideas for a project he felt certain would re-establish his reputation and be a challenging film he would feel proud of making. Having been fascinated with the idea of making a film about Frankenstein's monster since the 1920s, O'Brien decided to combine the monster with a film featuring his most famous creation, King Kong. The plot for King Kong vs Frankenstein involved a showman who had captured both Kong and Frankenstein's monster, who is 15m (50ft) tall. Both escape their captivity and run amok in San Francisco, fighting each other in the climax. In order to develop this idea further, O'Brien needed RKO's approval. RKO's attorney, Dan O'Shea, suggested that O'Brien develop his ideas further with producer John Beck, who began writing a script.
While that film was in development, O'Brien was hired by director Stanley Kramer to animate some sequences for his comedy entitled It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. This involved animating the main characters on a fire escape, and was not the challenge that O'Brien longed for. While he was preparing for this film, he learned some shocking news: John Beck had sold the outline for King Kong vs Frankenstein to Japan's Toho Studios. There the film was being made as King Kong vs Godzilla using suitmation - men in rubber suits - rather than stop-motion. O'Brien began considering suing Beck for 'intent to defraud', but the consequences of what would happen if he lost such a lawsuit haunted him.
On 10 November, 1962, O'Brien went home after working on It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and complained of feeling unwell. His wife Darlyne said later:
He laid down for a while and just had milk toast for dinner and left the table and went into the living room to watch television. I was looking at the television when I heard an odd kind of cough from him and looked toward him. He was falling over on his side. He had evidently died sitting up because when I rushed over to him, his eyes had no expression whatever.
...I am positive the tension... and the frustration of the 'King Kong vs Frankenstein' deal had a lot to do with the heart attack that took Obie's life.
O'Brien was cremated, his ashes were then interred at the Chapel of the Pines, Los Angeles. His legacy is one of cinema's most beloved films of all time. Yet O'Brien himself considered King Kong an early step after which he could achieve so much more, and lived his life feeling frustrated that he was never really given the opportunity to surpass his earlier achievement.
In 1969 his protégé Ray Harryhausen filmed O'Brien's project The Valley of Gwangi as a tribute to him.