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Remembering Willis O'Brien

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Willis O’Brien, who served as technical director on the 1933 Ernest Schoedsack classic King Kong, is considered one of the great pioneers of stop-motion animation. Now in its final phases of production, Creation: The Lost Worlds of Willis O’Brien is a new documentary on the life of O’Brien by Van Nuys filmmaker Steven Austin, who has been a fan of Kong and O’Brien since the early 1960s. The film has been a labor of love. Austin, who had written and shopped a feature script based on the life of O’Brien (known as Obie to his friends), conceived the idea of the documentary as a way to educate people about the great animator. Austin explained that a major breakthrough in his research came when he contacted Don Shea, a writer who had published an article about Kong and O’Brien in Cinefex magazine in the ’70s. “Shea, as a young adult, got in touch with O’Brien’s wife Darlene, and began a running dialog via letters about Obie. He got much insight into who Obie was,” Austin says. “This went on into the ’70s, and as the correspondence became voluminous, he decided to use the research for his article. I read his article and soaked it up, learning for the first time of O’Brien’s tragic life, and his early years, almost at the turn of the century, as a cowboy, fossil hunter, semi-pro boxer and newspaper cartoonist. He had such a rich life even before he started experimenting with stop motion. And I was very curious—how does a guy who was living in the wide open spaces of America at that time get stuck inside a little studio pushing puppets around?”Granted exclusive use of the correspondence between Shea and O’Brien’s wife, Austin has created a documentary that will shed profound insight on the life of one of the greatest, and saddest, forgotten pioneers of cinema.According to Austin, it was during a stint working as a sculptor at the Chicago World’s Fair that O’Brien saw a fellow sculptor making a clay figure of a boxer. He made one himself and challenged his colleague to a fight, moving his figure’s arms. It was this experience that brought him the inspiration for stop-motion animation, and he is credited as one of the inventors and certainly one of the greatest practitioners of the technique. Austin briefly recounts O’Brien’s career. The short films The Dinosaur and the Missing Link and The Ghost of Hollow Mountain, both of which featured animated dinosaurs, led him to Hollywood where he worked on the silent classic The Lost World, the first real visual effects spectacular ever produced. His next project was Creation, a story of ship passengers marooned on an island inhabited by living dinosaurs. Though scrapped by RKO studios, much of the production design for Creation ultimately made its way into King Kong, and it certainly was the test ground for effects innovations that led to the artistry of O’Brien’s work on Kong.Though he continued to work in the industry after Kong, he never found another project of the same magnitude. He contributed matte paintings and effects to many films, and in 1949, again with producer Merian C. Cooper and director Schoedsack, did the effects for Mighty Joe Young, working with young protégé Ray Harryhausen, later famed for his Sinbad classics. Afterwards he made the B pictures The Black Scorpion and The Giant Behemoth. His last work was design for the climax of Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. He died before animation started, this time by another famed protégé, Jim Danforth.Among Kong fans, movie history has no greater lost Holy Grail than the spider pit scene, cut from the film shortly before its 1933 release. This scene, depicting sailors shaken off a log into a ravine, originally ended with the men being devoured by giant spiders, crabs and man-eating plants. As a special bonus to his film, Austin is recreating this scene. To do so he contacted Danforth, who agreed to design and shoot the sequence. The script material no longer exists, so the sequence is based on a 1933 novelization of King Kong, which fully describes the horrific action from the original shooting script.Along the way, tragedy marked O’Brien’s life. His first wife, a woman with a history of mental illness, shot and killed his two sons. But despite the tragedy, his life’s work lives on. A new restored version of the film is coming out from Warner Brothers. And of course there is Peter Jackson’s remake, which is sure to revive interest in the original. This writer once heard Ray Bradbury comment that as a boy he considered it a badge of honor to have seen King Kong 200 times. Perhaps with this revival of interest in his work, Austin’s documentary will bring new perspective on O’Brien’s life and contribution to cinema.

Written by Henry Turner

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