Day 285: Mr. Special Effects

originally published October 11, 2012

Sure, James Cameron’s Avatar is a fine piece of computer graphics show-offery. And somehow, the decades-old Terminator 2 still looks sharp and impressive. What George Lucas did to ‘improve’ the original Star Wars trilogy is up for debate, and I’m sure someday the internet will get around to discussing it, just a little.

I’ve never been one to complain that Lucas crapped all over my childhood by altering the Holy Trilogy. What irks me is that he crapped all over the impressive work his team of effects guys put together, using relatively primitive technology and a bountiful reservoir of imagination. They couldn’t create a digital universe, so instead they did this:

I have an immense respect for the people who walked into the playground of movie-making, set up a brand new toy for the industry and declared, “Here. We can play with this now.”

Which brings me to the star of today’s kilograph, a guy named Willis H. O’Brien.

O’Brien was born in Oakland in 1886, the same year ol’ Johnny Pemberton downed his first Coke Classic and Miss Liberty parked her ass in New York’s harbor. His early resume looks like he was trying to fill the void until the motion picture industry needed him. He was a fur trapper, a farmhand, a pro boxer, a brakeman, a marble sculptor, an architect’s draftsman, a bartender, a cowboy, a professional rodeo competitor, and a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Daily News. O’Brien looks like he was aiming to do every profession in the world. Either that or he was the most indecisive guy ever.

His interest in paleontology and a gig working the 1913 San Francisco World’s Fair led to an invitation to make a movie. The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy was a six-minute piece of stop-motion animation, and with its creation, O’Brien had found his niche.

Back in the 1910’s, Thomas Edison was still a big name in the movie business. The Hollywood studio system was just about to open wide and swallow his position in the industry, but before that happened, Edison brought O’Brien onto his team. O’Brien wasn’t the first person to use stop-motion animation, but he was good at it. Also, he was the first person to combine stop-motion with real actors.

This would have been a pretty cool trick. Back then, cameras were cranked by hand, so my guess is O’Brien used a primitive form of split-screening to pull this off. Point is, he did something no one had done before, in a medium that was ripe for experimentation. By 1925 he was ready for his first big hit.

The Lost World was a 1925 silent dinosaur epic, directed by Harry Hoyt and based on a non-Sherlock-Holmesy novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The story centers on a wacky professor who claims that dinosaurs still walk the earth. O’Brien’s dinosaurs stole the show. Thankfully, the public domain has stolen it back, so we can all enjoy the film for free on Youtube.

The movie was a huge success, and – for better or worse – it helped to establish the effects-driven adventure film as a legitimate genre. It holds a few firsts too: the first full-length feature to rely on stop-motion or clay-mation, the first dinosaur-themed hit movie, and the first film to be shown on an airplane.

O’Brien went through some rocky years after this. His marriage collapsed, and he sunk into a routine of drinking, gambling, and throwing canned fruit at zoo animals, which was a common act of rebellion during the wacky 1920s. A few of his projects never made it out of the development gate, including a pre-Karloff version of Frankenstein and another man-meets-dinosaur epic for RKO Pictures called Creation.

Merian C. Cooper, the head of production at RKO, was the one who dropped the ax on Creation, but he dug O’Brien’s work, and enlisted him to run the effects on the project he really wanted to see hit the big screen. It was a story about a big ape. Yes, that one.

If you haven’t sat through the original 1933 production of King Kong, then you are missing out on one of the shiniest gems from the early-talkie years. The copyright hasn’t slipped into the public sphere yet, but you can check out the iconic final minutes here.

RKO – and the rest of the industry for that matter – wasn’t quite sure how to deal with the massive success of King Kong. Immediate duplication seemed like the answer, so they pushed through a mediocre sequel, Son Of Kong, handing O’Brien a small budget and no time to do the effects the way he wanted to.

Further dampening O’Brien’s Kong buzz was a failed murder-suicide, in which his ex-wife shot both their children, then turned the gun on herself and botched her own demise. Talk about a roller-coaster year.

His career kept motoring along though. He worked on The Last Days of Pompeii in 1935, and a number of other RKO films. Oddly, some of the matte footage he’d made for Son of Kong was re-used in RKO’s Citizen Kane. This is why, during the Everglades picnic scene, you can see a number of pterodactyls flapping their wings behind Orson Welles and his party guests. I suppose Welles had hoped the audience would just think they were birds.

It was another giant monkey film, 1949’s Mighty Joe Young, which earned Willis his first and only Oscar statuette for Best Visual Effects. His last act of cinema magic came with a fire-escape sequence that he animated for It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. O’Brien passed away in Los Angeles in 1962, before that film was released.

Willis O’Brien made movie special effects a bankable draw. He invented a dimension of thrills, and everything that has come since can be traced back to his wizardry. Fans might be interested to hear of some of the ideas he worked on, but which were never made into motion pictures:

  • The Bubbles: A bunch of bubble-like creatures eat things and people.
  • The Eagle: An eagle kills a dinosaur. I’d watch this!
  • The Vines of Ceres: Huge vines from outer space engulf the city of San Francisco. Why hasn’t someone made this movie?
  • King Kong vs. Frankenstein: How cool would this be? Actually, it was eventually made, but as King Kong vs. Godzilla, which is probably a more fair fight.
  • War Eagles: Vikings who ride on the backs of prehistoric eagles and fight dinosaurs. Now I’m just sad, because this movie doesn’t exist.

Willis O’Brien is one of the most important contributors to the history of film. For the sake of his honor, and the ingenuity he inspired, I think Lucas should allow us to own the original Star Wars trilogy as it existed 35 years ago. Leave the other tweaks in a separate edition. Jesus, I’m willing to buy the same movie twice; Lucas is missing out on untold gazillions here.

But one thing still has to go. I never again want to hear Darth Vader scream “Noooooo!!!!” as he saves Luke from Palpatine’s lightning attack. That’s just grotesque.

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