Revisiting Cinefex (7): Willis O’Brien

Cinefex Issue 7 - Willis O'BrienIn one of the most iconic dramatic encounters of the 20th century, the giant ape King Kong looms over the helpless Ann Darrow. This is the cover of Cinefex #7, an issue devoted entirely to Willis O’Brien, the man who brought Kong to life. Inside is a generous introduction from animator and film-maker Ray Harryhausen, followed by a single article spanning the issue’s 72 pages.

  • Willis O’Brien – Creator of the Impossible (article by Don Shay)

Willis O’Brien lived an extraordinary life, and made extraordinary films. He invented – yes, invented – the concept of stop-motion animation and devised many other visual effects techniques to boot. But, despite all his achievements, if you look for a definitive biography of this remarkable man in any bookstore, real or virtual, there’s none to be found.

Oh, wait a minute, yes there is. It’s just that it’s thinly disguised as another issue of that popular visual effects journal Cinefex.

Willis O’Brien

This issue of Cinefex was clearly something of a labour of love for publisher Don Shay. In his afterword, he calls O’Brien ‘a man whose work … profoundly influenced my formative years.’ After learning of O’Brien’s death in 1962, Shay went on a mission, making contact with O’Brien’s widow Darlyne and a number of his friends and associates, including Merian C. Cooper, Marcel Delgado and Ray Harryhausen. The resulting article was published in the Autumn 1973 edition of Focus on Film. This issue of Cinefex comprises a revised and expanded version of that article.

rc07kkThe depth of Shay’s research is evident from the get-go. His account of O’Brien’s early years is packed with anecdotes, and paints a picture of a young man with a strong will and a thirst for adventure. As a youth, O’Brien ran away from home and found work, amongst other things, as a cowboy. Whatever he was doing, his artistic talents always came to the surface. When he switched to fur trapping in southern Oregon, for example, he spent his spare time ‘drawing horses on the canvas of the chuck wagon.’ Later still, training as a draftsman led to a job working for the head architect of the 1913 San Francisco World Fair. According to Shay, ‘It was at the shop of the designer that Willis O’Brien fabricated the clay prizefighter which gave him the inspiration for stop-motion animation.’

After his initial experiments with clay figures, O’Brien progressed to building puppets with articulated metal skeletons and rubber skin. He produced a series of animated prehistoric shorts at Edison Studios, only to have the plug pulled when in 1917 the Supreme Court struck Edison a blow by ruling that the company’s attempts to control cinema by the aggressive wielding of patents constituted a monopoly. Later on, O’Brien got tangled up in a lawsuit when Herbert M. Dawley, with whom he’d made the highly successful The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, filed a patent for the entire stop-motion process, claiming to invented it himself! Thankfully, O’Brien managed to pull together enough sworn testimony to force Dawley to settle out of court.

The anecdotes are fascinating in themselves, but it’s by putting O’Brien’s story into context that Shay really brings it to life. He reminds us that these were the years when New York and Hollywood were still competing for domination of the emerging motion picture industry. This was frontier country – an appropriate environment for a one-time cowboy and fur trapper.

Slumber Mountain led to The Lost World, which led in turn – via the abandoned projects Atlantis and Creation – to King Kong. Shay delivers detailed synopses of all O’Brien’s early films, even the unrealised ones – a valuable record of forgotten gems. He drops in some historical trivia too, like the fact that in 1926 The Lost World became the first in-flight movie when it ‘delighted a plane-full of German dignitaries over Berlin.’

What can you say about King Kong? Like so many other fans and film makers of my generation, I was hugely inspired by Skull Island and its simian overlord. When it comes to Shay’s account of the film’s visual effects, there’s a real sense that O’Brien was pulling together all the new technologies of the day: glass painting, rear projection, travelling mattes in the form of either the Dunning or Williams processes … and of course his beloved stop-motion animation. It’s incredible to think that these fundamental techniques were all devised in a relatively short space of time, and survived largely unchanged to the end of the century.

Shay describes these various processes in detail, integrating them into his analyses of each of O’Brien’s films. Always, O’Brien’s unfettered creativity shines through. Shay remarks how he ‘refused to let expedience interfere with … the end results … adding extra touches to perfect his illusions.’ In King Kong, these extra touches included things like animated birds, flowing streams and steaming fissures.

This attention to detail characterised O’Brien’s work from the outset. Take a look at The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, for example (yes, it’s on YouTube). Check out the way the prehistoric animals display naturalistic quirks of behaviour like scratching and grooming. From the The Lost World on, thanks to inflatable bladders inside the puppets, O’Brien’s puppets even breathe. I find it incredible that, in an era when just getting the damn things to move at all was magic of the highest order, O’Brien understood exactly what he needed to do to make them move convincingly – and cared enough to make sure it was done. When Jurassic Park was released in 1993, we all marvelled at the way the dinosaurs were presented not as monsters but living, breathing animals. Well, I’ve got news for you: Willis O’Brien was ahead of the game. Way ahead.

O’Brien experienced hard times throughout his life. For every masterpiece he produced, there are twice as many projects that never got off the ground. His abandoned films include Creation, War Eagles and Gwangi. After some lean times during which he was ‘reduced to mechanically changing heads and legs on [George] Pal’s wooden replacement puppets’ (working for a few weeks alongside a young Ray Harryhausen), he finally made Mighty Joe Young, for which in 1950 he received an Oscar.

O’Brien’s insistence on quality caused him some anguish later in his career. As Shay puts it, the split-screen technique devised by none other than Ray Harryhausen ‘suddenly placed stop-motion work within the realm of the low-budget filmmaker.’ In short, O’Brien found himself sidelined by an industry interested only in churning out ‘radioactive-monster-on-the-loose’ films shot on a shoestring. After slumming it on the disastrous The Giant Behemoth, his career came to an effective end. Not that he stopped trying. Shay’s coverage includes yet more O’Brien projects that never came to fruition, including A Tale of a Yeti, Last of the Labrynthodons and The Elephant Rustler.

O’Brien’s personal life was as turbulent as his professional career. Shay’s text includes sensitive accounts of the various tragedies that befell him; it’s this that elevates this from being a straightforward article about O’Brien’s career to being a genuine biography of the man. His account of the day when O’Brien’s troubled first wife shot first their two sons, then herself, is heartbreaking. There were financial troubles too, some of which read like scenes from a movie: on one occasion, during a studio artist’s strike, O’Brien made money by producing matte paintings that his second wife Darlyne ‘loaded in her car and smuggled past the picket lines at RKO’s main gate.’

The pictures

I usually wrap up these retrospectives with a list of the most memorable pictures from the issue at hand. In this case, the image that stood out for me (by a country mile) also happened to sum up everything I’d just read: it’s the portrait of Willis O’Brien on page 40. It’s a shot of the man animating a prehistoric monoclonius. The photo has clearly been ripped apart and restored, the reason for which is made apparent in Shay’s caption: ‘Taken shortly after the death of his sons, this photo was torn in half by O’Brien who despaired at the anguish reflected in his features.’ It’s a single image that encapsulates the magic and sadness of O’Brien’s entire life.

When I’d finished rereading this seventh issue of Cinefex, I went to my bookshelves and took out my copy of Goldner and Turner’s The Making of King Kong (if you don’t have a copy, see if you can’t track one down – it’s an essential addition to any VFX geek’s collection). The two publications make good companion pieces, and made me think it’s a shame Don Shay’s biography of Willis O’Brien is confined to the pages of Cinefex. That’s no slight on Cinefex, by the way. It’s just that I’d rather like to see this particular text of Shay’s all glossed up and wrapped in hard covers on my coffee table.

You know what, I’d also rather like to see someone make a film of O’Brien’s life. Cowboys and dinosaurs, triumph and tragedy, all set against the rollercoaster backdrop of the twentieth century. Hmm, I sense a screenplay coming on …

Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.

11 thoughts on “Revisiting Cinefex (7): Willis O’Brien

  1. Hi Graham —

    Another fine review. Cinefex 7 is one of my personal favorites, not only because it was my childhood obsession with “King Kong” that inspired me, years later, to do what I’m doing today, but because I think it’s one of my true genuine contributions to the history of visual effects. Most of the people who entrusted me with their recollections about Willis O’Brien passed away before the final manuscript appeared in Cinefex, and had I not interviewed them when I did, those pivotal memories would have been lost forever.

    In the early years of Cinefex, George Turner (who was really responsible for most of the Goldman/Turner book) was the editor of American Cinematographer, and I got to know him well. George was a great guy, and a treasure-trove of cinematic history. Happily, much of his encyclopedic knowledge has been preserved in his several books and his many historical articles in American Cinematographer. We worked on our respective O’Brien/Kong projects independently, and often commented, after the fact, how interesting it was that his sources and mine were almost completely different. We had managed to track down different O’Brien collaborators. So, in many way, the two works are, indeed, companion pieces, with little duplication.

    Tony Dalton, who “co-wrote” Ray Harryhausen’s three coffee-table books incorporated (with permission) much of my research into his chapter on O’Brien in Ray’s third volume, including excerpts from letters and interviews I conducted with Darlyne O’Brien, Marcel Delgado and others. Unlike most Cinefex articles, I used no interview quotes at all in my O’Brien biography, opting to keep everything in the third person. So that quoted material, to the extent that it was used, appears nowhere else but in Ray’s book.

    I agree that O’Brien’s life would make a splendid film. Some years ago, John Bruno (an Oscar-winning vfx supervisor and director who works often with James Cameron) expressed interest in mounting such a project, and asked if I’d be willing to option my biography as the primary basis for it. Alas, nothing came of that. So, if anyone out there …


    1. Thanks once more, Don, for adding your recollections, and especially for letting us in on the background to the article. I had an inkling your path might have crossed with Turner and/or Goldman, as I think their book was published just a couple of years after your article first appeared. As you say, there’s no real duplication, making them both essential resources for cinema historians. I hadn’t realised your material found its way into a Harryhausen book; I was fascinated also to hear about John Bruno’s interest in an O’Brien movie. I still think it’s a great idea, and there’s no doubt your biography would be the perfect starting point. Come on, Hollywood, you know it makes sense!

  2. Graham,

    I haven’t read Cinefex #7 in a very long time. Enjoyed reading your revisit during lunchtime. Thanks.


  3. Cinefex 7 on Willis O’Brien is, in my view, the greatest piece of literature [and most stimulating from an FX viewpoint] ever written….I bought my copy in 1983 and I still have it.

  4. Hi Graham and Don,
    Loved this article, and am very grateful for it pointing me toward Cinefex #7. I’m working on a biography of Willis O’Brien, and would love to contact either (preferably both) of you for input. Please feel free to email me at Thanks!

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