Willis O'brien Animates King Kong

Animation pioneer Willis O'Brien astounded movie audiences with his realistic 50-foot gorilla and battling dinosaurs in King Kong.

Back before the invention of the computer animation, there was Willis O'Brien and his magic hands. O'Brien practically invented three-dimensional animation. By taking jointed dolls, no more than two feet tall, and moving them step-by-step, he created some of the most fearsome monsters ever to roar from the silver screen. Today stop-motion animation is old hat. But in 1933, when King Kong was first unleashed on audiences, it was nothing less than miraculous. Here's how it worked.

A strip of movie film consists of a series of slides showing successive stages of motion -- called frames. When run through a projector, 24 of these slides are projected on a screen each second. If a walking person takes one-half second to make a step, it takes 12 individual photographs to show the motion.

With stop-motion animation, movement must be photographed one frame at a time. A special single frame camera clicks off the frames while the animator moves the legs of his doll a little at a time until the walking cycle is complete. It is laborious and painstaking and can take an hour or more, depending on the complexity of the model, to photograph one second of motion.

Decades ago, when O'Brien first perfected the technique, audiences had never seen anything like it -- especially 50-foot apes and long-extinct dinosaurs cavorting on the screen. In 1926, O'Brien had animated dinosaurs for the First National film The Lost World. Author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had written the original story, was so taken by the realistic animation that he showed a reel of O'Brien's dinosaurs to his friends. He told them that these were real dinosaurs that he had photographed and that his story was actually based on fact. After seeing the film, they believed the hoax.

After the success of The Lost World, O'Brien turned to a pet project that he called "Creation" -- more animated dinosaurs. In the meantime David O. Selznick, the new production chief of (RKO) Radio Pictures, was being pitched by producer Merian C. Cooper to do a "gorilla" picture. Cooper, who with Ernest B. Schoedsack had produced semi-documentaries like Grass and Chang, wanted to go to Africa, capture a gorilla, then take it to the island of Komodo where it would do battle with the giant dragons that lived there. Selznick had a more practical suggestion.

Development costs on Creation had approached $120,000 and nothing more had been accomplished other than five or six minutes of animation. Selznick suggested that Cooper and O'Brien get together. Since Creation wasn't working out, perhaps a new picture would come from the collaboration -- one that would make up the loss and turn a profit. The result was King Kong.

The original model of Kong was only 18 inches high and weighed about 10 pounds. His skeleton was made of steel with articulated joints that could be locked into place. Over that, designer Marcel Delgado fashioned rubber muscles that flexed and contracted realistically. Then the model was covered with pruned rabbit fur.

The stage where the animation took place was closed to anyone who was not directly involved. Not even Selznick was allowed to enter. There, O'Brien and his crew labored 12 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week. It was slow, tedious work. Under the veil of secrecy, anticipation heightened. One Radio Pictures executive loudly declared, "I want to see this picture so bad I can taste it!"

A high point of the film was Kong's battle with an allosaurus -- a vicious, carnivorous reptile that walked on two legs. It was a complicated sequence that required two animators (O'Brien animated Kong and Buzz Gibson animated the allosaur). Cooper, himself, directed the scene by showing the two animators the holds and moves that he knew from his boxing and wrestling experience. The final scene, which lasts about three minutes on the screen, took seven weeks to film.

Other than the miniatures, three full-sized models of Kong were constructed -- his head, his right hand (in scenes where he was to hold actress Fay Wray) and a leg and foot (in scenes when Kong stomped natives of Skull Island into the turf). Delgado made these from steel and wire mesh, covered with bearskins. The head, almost 20 feet tall, had movable mouth, eyes and eyebrows. The hand could clutch, but movement was restricted. Fay Wray had to literally hold onto the hand and, perhaps her terror was real because she was sometimes as much as 20 feet off the sound stage floor.

One of the biggest problems that O'Brien faced was integrating the monsters and human actors in the same frame. At times, he used rear projection -- a ground glass screen in front of the actors with the animated action projected on it (such as during the battle of Carl Denham and his men with the Stegosarus). At other times, he used a tiny rear projection screen built right into his miniature set. The live action was then projected onto the screen, one frame at a time, during the animation. This can be seen to best advantage when Kong battles the snake-like reptile in the cave. In other instances, O'Brien used tiny human dolls which he animated in the same fashion as his monsters.

When the film was finally edited, it came out to thirteen reels. The superstitious Cooper ordered another animated sequence made to bring the film up to fourteen. This was the sequence where Kong, during his rampage through New York, demolishes an elevated railway.

King Kong opened on March 2, 1933, both at Radio City Music Hall and the Roxy Theater in New York -- an unprecedented two-theater opening for the time. The total cost of the picture was $672,000 and the film grossed more than $2 million during its first release. Audiences were thrilled. One year later, in a rush job, Radio Pictures released a sequel -- The Son of Kong -- an inferior product using much of the stock footage shot by O'Brien for Creation.

Kong should have launched a busy career for Willis O'Brien, but it didn't. In fact, Cooper seemed to be the only person in Hollywood who would hire him. Two years after Kong, O'Brien supervised the special effects for The Last Days of Pompeii and it was to be almost two decades before he animated another dinosaur -- this time for the semi-documentary, The Animal World.

A couple of cheap monster films in the late fifties finished his career. He died in 1962, nearly penniless and completely forgotten except for the few who had worked with him.

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