Willis Harold O’Brien (March 2, 1886 – November 8, 1962) was an Irish American special effects and stop-motion animation pioneer, who according to ASIFA-Hollywood “was responsible for some of the best-known images in cinema history,” and is best remebered for his work on ‘The Lost World’ (1925), ‘King Kong’ (1933) and ‘Mighty Joe Young’ (1949), for which he won the 1950 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
Willis O’Brien was born in Oakland, California. He first left home at the age of eleven to work on cattle ranches, and again at the age of thirteen when he took on a variety of jobs including farmhand, factory worker, fur trapper, cowboy, and bartender. During this time he also competed in rodeos and developed an interest in dinosaurs while working as a guide to palaeontologists in Crater Lake region. He spent his spare time sculpting and illustrating and his natural talent lead to him being employed first as draftsman in an architect’s office and then as a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Daily News. He subsequently worked for the railroad, first as a brakeman and later a surveyor, as a professional marble sculptor, and was assistant to the head architect of the 1913 San Francisco World’s Fair, where some of his work was displayed. During this time he made models, including a dinosaur and a caveman, which he animated with the assistance of a local newsreel cameraman. San Francisco exhibitor Herman Wobber saw this 90-second test footage and commissioned O’Brien to make his first film, ‘The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy’ (1915) for a budget of $5,000.
Thomas A. Edison was impressed by the film and O’Brien was hired by the Edison Company to animate a series of short films with a prehistoric theme. These films led to a commission from Herbert M. Dawley to write, direct, co-star and produce the effects for another dinosaur film, ‘The Ghost of Slumber Mountain’ (1918), for a budget of $3,000. The collaboration was not a happy one and Dawley would cut the 45-minute film down to 11-minutes and claim credit O’Brien’s pioneering effects work, which combined realistic stop-motion animated prehistoric models with live action. The film grossed over $100,000 and Dawley used the cut effects footage in a sequel Along the Moonbeam Trail (1920) and the documentary Evolution (1923), but O’Brien received little financial reimbursement from this success.
The film however did help to secure his position on Harold H. Hoyt’s ‘The Lost World’. For his early, short films O’Brien created his own characters out of clay, although for much of his feature career he would employ Richard and Marcel Delgado to create much more detailed stop-motion models (based on O’Brien’s designs) with rubber skin built up over complex, articulated metal armatures.
O’Brien worked with Hoyt on a series of cancelled projects included Atlantis for First National studio, Frankenstein, and Creation for RKO Pictures, which was finally cancelled in 1931 with only 20-minutes of effects footage to show for an estimated $120,000 development cost. The studio’s head of production, Merian C. Cooper, had recommended the cancellation of O’Brien’s project as he thought the story was boring but he was impressed by the effects work and saw how it could be used to facilitate the development of his own pet project about a giant gorilla battling. O’Brien and the dinosaur models he had created for the cancelled project were put to work on what was to become his most famous film, ‘King Kong’ (1933).
The success of King Kong led to the studio commissioning a hurried sequel ‘Son of Kong’ (also 1933), which O’Brien described as cheesy. With a limited budget and a short production schedule O’Brien chose to leave the animation work to his assistant and asked the studio not to credit him on the project.
O’Brien continued to work with Merian C. Cooper at RKO on a number of projects including the epic ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ (1935) and ‘The Dancing Pirate’ (1936). He did some special effects work, re-using one of the mattes from Son of Kong, on Orson Welles’ American classic ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941) and George Pal’s Oscar-nominated animated short ‘Tulips Shall Grow’ (1942), as well as developing his own project, Gwangi, about cowboys who encounter a prehistoric animal in a “lost” valley, which he failed to sell to the studio.
The film ‘Mighty Joe Young’ (1949), on which O’Brien is credited as Technical Creator, won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1950. Credit for the award went to the films producers, RKO Productions, but O’Brien was also awarded a statue. O’Brien’s protege (and successor), Ray Harryhausen, worked alongside O’Brien on this film, and by some accounts Harryhausen did the majority of the animation. O’Brien worked with Harryhausen one last time on the acclaimed dinosaur sequence for Irwin Allen’s nature documentary ‘The Animal World’ (1956).
Allen hired O’Brien was hired as the effects technician on his remake of ‘The Lost World’ (1960), but he was given little to do as the producer opted for live lizards instead of stop-motion animation for the dinosaurs.
O’Brien died in Los Angeles in 1962. In 1997, he was posthumously awarded the Windsor McCay Award by ASIFA-Hollywood, the United States chapter of the International Animated Film Society ASIFA (Association internationale du film d’animation). The award is in recognition of lifetime or career contributions to the art of animation.
The 1969 film ‘The Valley of Gwangi’, completed by Harryhausen seven years after O’Brien’s death, was based on an idea he had spent years trying to bring to the screen.