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O'Brien, Willis H

Entry updated 23 May 2022. Tagged: Film, People.

(1886-1962) US special-effects supervisor in the Cinema industry. For his own amusement he early began to experiment with stop-motion photography. A one-minute home movie of an animated caveman and Dinosaur, involving 960 separate exposures, led to the producer and exhibitor Herman Wobber (1880-1965) advancing him $5000 to make a more elaborate version of the same subject: The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy (1915) ran for only five minutes but took two months to make. It proved successful and later in the same year O'Brien made a series of similar films for the Edison Company. In 1918 he made the more elaborate The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918), one of the first films to combine footage of live actors with animated models.

O'Brien's first full-length film was The Lost World (1925), whose success led him to start work on a project of epic proportions, «Creation», a variation on the Lost-World theme. It was never completed, but he incorporated much of its material – including improved designs for his models, which by then had metal skeletons with ball-and-socket joints – into King Kong (1933), which proved to be the peak of his career. A sequel, Son of Kong (1933), was hurriedly made, but after that O'Brien found difficulty in getting backing for his increasingly expensive projects. In the late 1930s he began work on «The War Eagles», which was to climax in an aerial battle between Airships and men riding giant eagles over New York City, but the film was abandoned. So was his 1942 project «Gwangi», about cowboys who discover Dinosaurs on a Texas mesa; a version of this appeared as The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956; vt Valley of the Mists) and it was eventually filmed, with stop-motion dinosaurs by Ray Harryhausen, as The Valley of Gwangi (1969).

It was not until 1949 that O'Brien was able to complete another partially animated feature, Mighty Joe Young (an unambitious rerun of the King Kong theme), assisted by his new young protegé, Ray Harryhausen. It was the last film over which he had real control. During the 1950s he worked on Monster Movies for other people but was unable to obtain backing for his own films. He died in 1962 while working on It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) directed by Stanley Kramer. Despite his comparatively small output, he is widely regarded as one of the great pioneers of special effects in fantastic cinema. [JB/DRL]

see also: Along the Moonbeam Trail.

Willis Harold O'Brien

born Oakland, California: 2 March 1886

died Los Angeles, California: 8 November 1962

about the author

Jim Emerson. "The Lost Worlds of Willis O'Brien" in Futures Past: 1927: Dawn of the SF Blockbuster (Indianapolis, Indiana: The Write Answer, 2021) [coll: pp 52-57: pb/]


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