|When I decided to launch the first ever World's Greatest Critic's Dead Man of the Year Award, there were a lot of candidates to go through. Quite naturally my first thought was, is and ought to be William Shakespeare. However, that goes for every year, so let's back up. There are a lot of legacies to salute this year (and since remakes and sequels have been the norm in the last few years, there are many more that won't make the list but probably equally deserve to). Looking upon this great year in film and television, there have been so many big movies and so many great movies (so often these things don't go hand in hand), yet there has been only one that is truly the 800 pound Gorilla in the room. That's one King Kong!
The original 1933 King Kong is arguably the film that has had more long lasting impact on the world of special effects than any other until Star Wars. This is the film that inspired Ray Harryhausen to get into stop-motion animation. This is the film that led to the latter-day successes of Godzilla. This is the film that convinced Peter Jackson to become a film maker. This is the film that has inspired more canonical iconography of American film than any other. The fact that this stunning film emerged in 1933 is all the more incredible. So... I was quite sure that the Dead Man of the Year this year quite naturally had to be Merian C. Cooper, or possibly his adventure and creative partner Ernest B. Shoedsack. Both excellent choices.
However, as great as both men were (and continue to be in their legacy) and as great as the story and directing of King Kong both were, one doesn't finish watching this epic and fail to mention the special effects. This brings me back to our 2005 Dead Man of the Year... That's one Willis H. O'Brien, arguably the true "Father of King Kong". This is by no means intended to lessen the great creative powers of Shoedsack or Cooper, as the idea of the giant ape was theirs originally. But would we be talking about (or watching a 2005 remake of) King Kong today without the incredible work of O'Brien? Might I say, no we wouldn't? Might I add... well Duh! Hence the undeniable influence on 2005 falls firmly at the footprints of a man who was such a wizard for his day that he's less Obie O'Brien, Visual Effects Supervisor, than our own version of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Jedi Knight.
Willis H. O'Brien was born in Oakland, California on March 2, 1886 and achieved his first successes in 1915 with ultra-short short films like Morpheus Mike and The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy! "Obie", as his friends and students called him, was certainly not the inventor of "Stop Motion Animation", however, he did invent and develop his own techniques as a way to give life to statues. It wasn't long before someone you might have heard of caught wind of his talent and commissioned a series of stop motion animated shorts featuring the vaguely Kong-like "Missing Link". That someone was the inventor of the light bulb and, yes, the motion picture camera: Mr. Thomas Edison!
O'Brien hit the proverbial big time with his adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. The dinosaurs in this film stunned audiences and the amazing rampage sequences are fantastic even by today's standards. O'Brien's follow-up was to be called Creation and was the story of a newly discovered island ruled by dinosaurs and gigantic savage beasts. Sound familiar? It should. It wasn't long after this that Merian C. Cooper (an adventurer and documentary film maker) was brought on board at RKO Radio Pictures to review the bigger budgeted flicks that could have sunk the studio back in the great depression. Cooper's first action was to cancel Creation and replace it with his own planned production, then called The Beast. While Obie fought hard to prove that he and his team should be the ones assigned to Cooper's new project, he neednĺt have bothered. Cooper not only never planned to make his film without Obie, it was, in fact, the four minutes of footage filmed for Creation that finally proved to Cooper that his dream project could be made.
O'Brien's contributions to King Kong can't be minimized and are undeniably much deeper than merely special effects supervision. Much of Obie's script for Creation was used in King Kong, from the epic dinosaur battles, to the sole surviving sailor risking his life to save his maiden fair, to even the famous "log scene" of Kong. Cooper and Shoedstack contributed by putting their giant ape into the script as well as themselves (Cooper's alter ego being Carl Denham and Shoedsack's being Jack Driscoll) and the story took off from there. O'Brien's footprints still run as deep as Kong's in this script though! Kong's NYC Rampage even in many ways resembles that of the Brontosaurus in The Lost World.
Obie's work with Kong and the dinosaurs was incredible and remains as a benchmark in special effects. So convincing were these that even the imperfections (such as the movement of Kong's fur with hand-posed new move) were considered part of the plan (many critics assumed this was intended to be the wind blowing his fur about). The use of front and rear projection (screened frame for frame to match with the pose-by-pose puppets) were as convincing in the '30's as Yoda and Gollum are to us today. RKO famously released a Popular Mechanics article about how O'Brien and crew pulled off the remarkable effects. This article, complete with diagrams, detailed the way that they had built a working full-sized robot Kong. Naturally, this was actually giant bull (the Kong Puppet was less that two feet tall), but the scale and composites O'Brien used worked so well that readers believed this for years upon years.
Though probably best known for King Kong, O'Brien wasn't done for almost thirty more years, braving both great success and terrible tragedy in his life. That's not even to mention his excellent work on Son of Kong, his supervision of Harryhausen on the incredible Mighty Joe Young and even a repeat of his own creations on Irwin Allen's remake of The Lost World... amongst many, many other things! Surprisingly, Japan's King Kong versus Godzilla was based on Obie's script King Kong vs. Prometheus!
On November 8 of 1962, Willis H. O'Brien died of a heart attack in the city of so many of his creations, Los Angeles, California. He was just a few months shy of King Kong's 30th anniversary, as well as the debut of his final project, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World! He was seventy-six years old. Tragically, Obie outlived his sons by three decades, but his legacy is still being felt today.
These days the mysteries are gone and CGI can be done much faster and cheaper than Stop Motion Animation. With internet spoilers and the magic of movies being accessible to anyone with a "menu" key on their DVD players, there's no way in all of Creation (or Skull Island for that matter) that we'd buy a giant robot, Pop Mech or not. However, Willis H. O'Brien's legacy is felt even today and most especially in 2005, with so many of Peter Jackson's homages hitting Obie's bullseye time after time.
Willis O'Brien had been a jockey, a cowboy, a farmer, a boxer (whose moves show up in both Kong and Joe's movements), a bartender, a sculptor and a cartoonist. His sculptures and drawings are the stuff of Hollywood treasure today, as is, quite naturally, his incredible special effects work. In life he rubbed elbows with the likes of Merian C. Cooper, Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Edison! Without Obie there would be no King Kong (at least, not in the form we have him now), no Kong remakes, no Mighty Joe Young. And considering his influence, it's arguable that there would have never been a Jurassic Park or the incredible animation works of Ray Harryhausen (such as Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans)!
Film, particularly film in 2005, would look a lot different without old Obie. It's fitting that Willis H. O'Brien receives the first ever Dead Man of the Year Award. And it's fitting that my first new review of 2006 will be O'Brien's own The Lost World. Think of him fondly but don't say goodbye. Before you allow someone to look back upon his works and call them "Cheesy", remind them of the impact Obie has had (and still has) and remind them of what technology he had to work with, what he had to create on his own, and what he was able to do with it. Rest in Peace puppetmaster...
Willis H. O'Brien (1886 - 1962):
|More work from and inspired by Willis O'Brien is available here!|
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