Willis H. O'brien - Writer

Special Effects Technician. Nationality: American. Born: Oakland, California, 2 March 1886. Family: Married 1) Hazel Ruth Collette, 1917 (died 1934); two sons; 2) Darlyne Prenett, 1934. Career: Cartoonist for San Francisco Daily News ; commercial sculptor (work exhibited at San Francisco World's Fair, 1913); 1914—began experimenting with special effects in short films; from mid-1920s—worked on special effects for feature films. Died: 8 November 1962.

Films as Director, Writer, Photographer, and Special Effects Technician (Shorts):


The Dinosaur and the Missing Link


The Birth of a Flivver


R.F.D. 10,000 B.C. ; Prehistoric Poultry ; Curious Pets of Our Ancestors ; Mickey's Naughty Nightmares ; Morpheus Mike ; In the Villain's Power ; Mickey and His Goat ; Sam Lloyd's Famous Puzzles ; Nippy's Nightmare


The Ghost of Slumber Mountain

Films as Special Effects Technician (Features):


The Lost World (Hoyt)


King Kong (Cooper and Schoedsack); Son of Kong (Schoedsack)


The Last Days of Pompeii (Schoedsack)


The Dancing Pirate (Corrigan)


Mighty Joe Young (Schoedsack)


This Is Cinerama (Thompson and others) (uncredited)


This Animal World (Allen)


The Black Scorpion (Ludwig)


The Giant Behemoth ( Behemoth, the Sea Monster ) (Lourie)


The Lost World (Allen) (uncredited)


It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Kramer) (uncredited)

Film as Writer:


The Beast of Hollow Mountain (Nassour)


By O'BRIEN: book—

The Lost World of Willis O'Brien: The Original Shooting Script of the 1925 Landmark Special Effects Dinosaur Film , edited by Roy Kinnard, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1993.

On O'BRIEN: books—

Archer, Steve, Willis O'Brien: Special Effects Genius , Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1993.

Jensen, Paul M., The Men Who Made the Monsters , New York, 1996.

On O'BRIEN: articles—

Midi-Minuit Fantastique (Paris), October 1962.

Shay, Don, "Willis O'Brien, Creator of the Impossible," in Focus on Film (London), Autumn 1973.

Classic Film Collector (Indiana, Pennsylvania), Summer 1974.

Cinema Papers (Melbourne), July 1974.

The Saga of Special Effects , by Ron Fry and Pamela Fourzon, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1977.

Vampir (Nuremberg), March 1977.

Ecran Fantastique (Paris), no. 6, 1978.

Starburst (London), no. 28, 1980.

Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1980.

"O'Brien Issue" of Cinefex (Riverside, California), January 1982.

Banc-Titre (Paris), February 1982.

Movie Maker (Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire), February 1985.

Film Dope , no. 48, July 1992.

Cinefantastique , vol. 24, no. 2, 1993.

Boxoffice (Chicago), June 1997.

* * *

While screen monsters will always be with us, it seems likely that the days of the animated monster are gone. The amount of time (and therefore money) tied up in producing a well-crafted live-action feature employing this special effects process has limited its use almost from the beginning. The career of Willis H. O'Brien, the man who pioneered the use of model animation, reflects only too well the inherent problems associated with the technique; yet he is without doubt a major figure, not only in the history of special effects but in the history of the cinema as a whole.

Any discussion of O'Brien's work must centre around King Kong . His major project, the film is probably still the most successful of this particular subgenre. The effects are not allowed to dominate the overall film to its detriment (as has sometimes been the case in the work of O'Brien's successor, Ray Harryhausen), but are properly integrated into the skillfully worked out "beauty and the beast" storyline. Most importantly, Kong is a character rather than an impersonal instrument of destruction. As many critics have pointed out, he expresses emotions (such as his affection for Ann Darrow [Fay Wray], his anger when he loses her, a childlike curiosity as he examines the bodies of creatures he has just vanquished) and motivation. O'Brien's achievement is to make us regard Kong as a living being, not just as a piece of clever effects work. King Kong may have been improved on technically, but never on the level of characterization.

O'Brien's career after King Kong was, unfortunately, very patchy. Despite the film's commercial success, it did not become any easier to launch animation projects. Son of Kong , while impressive in the effects area, falls flat in all other departments. Several titles, such as War Eagle and Gwangi were put into preproduction in the 1930s and 1940s but then abandoned. The films made in the 1950s suffered from low budgets. Some, such as The Black Scorpion , contain good special effects sequences, but O'Brien's involvement with them was to a lesser degree than his earlier work (he supervised the animation for The Giant Behemoth and merely provided the original story for The Beast of Hollow Mountain ).

The one major animation project O'Brien worked on following King Kong was Mighty Joe Young , produced by the same team, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack, for RKO. Joe Young lacks Kong's grandeur but like him comes across as a character and not just a creature. In the most memorable scenes he accidentally demolishes a nightclub while drunk and, at the climax, rescues children from a burning orphanage. Unlike Kong, who ends up riddled with bullets, Joe's act of heroism earns him forgiveness (the police were sent to destroy him after the nightclub episode) and he returns home to Africa.

Aided by a team of assistants that included Marcel Delgado (who built the models for many of the films) and, later, Ray Harryhausen, O'Brien demonstrated with King Kong and Mighty Joe Young how effectively model animation can be employed in live-action films. It is certain that neither of the films could have worked so well had some other method been used (compare the original King Kong with the 1976 remake). Even the relatively crude models employed in The Lost World are infinitely preferable to the genuine reptiles used as dinosaurs in the 1960 version of the same story. Whatever the disappointments of O'Brien's career, he was responsible for some of the best-known images in cinema history.

—Daniel O'Brien

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

Other articles you might like: