Written by author, Joe Muszynski
In the history of mainstream American cinema, the practitioners of stop motion animation were few, but the lineage is easily traced. In the words of Ray Harryhausen, “I was inspired by Willis O’Brien. I don’t know who he was inspired by, I think, Michelangelo…” (A Conversation with…, 2006). Harryhausen is the acknowledged, pre-eminent stop motion animator of the late twentieth century, and O’Brien is the pre-eminent stop motion animator of the early twentieth century. As for Michelangelo, the Renaissance man who came to define the term by being artist, sculptor and any number of other professions, the comparison may bring a smile, but is actually very apt. O’Brien and Harryhausen served many roles on their films though often were only credited for effects. However, the effects and the creatures they created are so crucial to these films, that they actually wrote, directed, designed and produced whatever was necessary to complete the effects sequences. John Landis echoes the sentiments of many when he says that O’Brien and Harryhausen are the only two special effects creators that can be called the auteurs of their films (Interview with Ray…, 1995). The relationship between O’Brien and Harryhausen makes their history even more important, as they represent a mentor and student relationship from the days when technical, movie-making knowledge was hard to come by. Harryhausen’s influence is now widely felt, but it all started with O’Brien and how he influenced, reluctantly at first, the young Harryhausen.
Willis O’Brien was twenty-nine years old in 1915 when his first, stop motion film, The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, debuted. Though the animation of the cavemen is slightly awkward, as a debut film it clearly shows O’Brien’s talent. When compared to the other animation practitioners of the day, including Winsor McCay and the Barre and the Bray Studios, O’Brien clearly belongs with that group as a designated pioneer in the animation field. O’Brien produced more shorts until creating one of his first classics, the dinosaur animation of The Lost World. In what was to become a regular theme in the critical reactions to stop motion films, the dinosaurs were seen as being the main reason the film held any interest for audiences, and O’Brien garnered well-earned praise (Archer, 12-13). However, even though he received the accolades, stop motion projects were difficult to get a producer’s acceptance on. Luckily for O’Brien and audiences alike, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack had found O’Brien’s effects perfect for the story they were considering making about a giant ape, which turned into the classic film, King Kong (1933). The success of Kong can be attributed to a solid script, likable characters and high production values for a fantasy film of the early thirties. The iconic legacy of the film can only be attributed to Willis O’Brien and his creation of the character of King Kong.
It is easy to see what stop motion animation can bring to a film simply by watching King Kong. When O’Brien animated Kong, the ape had human-like emotion and character. A good example comes after he kills the Tyrannosaurus Rex and plays with the limp jaw that he has cracked. It may be gruesome, but it injects a macabre playfulness into this ape and shows he thinks about what is happening around him. Another small moment occurs when he kills the snake-like dinosaur in his home cave. O’Brien makes Kong do a very small flex of his muscles. It lasts less than a second of screen time, but makes us smile and identify with the conquering hero. In contrast, we clearly see the opposite effect on the audience when a large-scale model of Kong is used in a number of cutaway shots, almost always with a live actor hanging out of the mouth. This ape is stiff, and, at least for today’s audience, these scenes break the reality that O’Brien’s model makes us believe in. The ability to change the smaller model twenty four times per second is the obvious reason for this difference. The work involved in the painstaking stop motion process clearly pays off in the final results.
King Kong was a hit with mainstream audiences on its release and is still considered a classic today. Its influence is even greater within the fantasy and horror genres, as well as with animators. However, even after the success of Kong, O’Brien had difficulty finding new projects to work on. A sequel, Son of Kong, was released, but its low budget and humor driven animation of a little Kong was not well received. This was almost the end of O’Brien’s work in stop motion. Though he had many ideas for films using creatures and stop motion effects, producers were always wary of making any of these films.
There seem to be two main reasons for this. One, O’Brien did have ideas, but was never the type of person to go out and sell producers on them. Speaking about this facet of her husband’s personality is Darlyne O’Brien: “ ‘Well, from now on, people will come to you with stories,’ so Obie just sat around. He was never a good promoter anyway.” (Archer, 52). Any filmmaker can tell you how difficult it is to get studio approval to make a film, and O’Brien worked in the days before independent films were a common option. The stop motion effects, and the time and money needed to create them, would not have allowed O’Brien to go the independent route anyway. Second, O’Brien had some pretty wild ideas that would be hard to sell even if he was out pushing them. One pet project was War Eagles, about explorers who find an Arctic colony of Norse Vikings and the giant snow eagles they fly. When war and death rays strike New York City, the Vikings fly their eagles in to destroy the enemy (Archer, 35-37). Another of his projects was The Valley of Gwangi, which featured horse-riding cowboys roping dinosaurs. O’Brien had a hard time finding anyone to greenlight his ideas.
O’Brien did have an important fan, however. Upon the release of King Kong in 1933, Ray Harryhausen says “my life was never the same again” (Harryhausen and Dalton, 17). After seeing O’Brien’s animation, Harryhausen’s interest in dinosaurs, drawing and fantasy had found stop motion, the art form that would become his life’s work. He began making his own amateur stop motion sequences, mostly of dinosaurs (Harryhausen and Dalton, 18-19). The history of stop motion took an advantageous turn when Harryhausen received the means to contact O’Brien from a classmate (Harryhausen and Dalton, 23). From that point on, O’Brien became Harryhausen’s mentor, first out of kindness, and then officially, when he realized the talent Harryhausen had. When O’Brien was given the official go-ahead to make the film Mighty Joe Young, the groundwork of advice and friendship that he had offered the younger Harryhausen took its next, natural step. As Archer quotes Darlyne O’Brien again (50-51):
Ray Harryhausen came to see Obie at the studio when he was about 16, and then every so often he would visit Obie and show him what he was doing. So finally, on Mighty Joe Young, Obie said to me, “Do you think I should give this young Harry a chance?” – he never could remember his name and say Harryhausen.
It seems likely O’Brien had gotten the go ahead to make Mighty Joe Young based on its use of another ape character, with producer’s hopes of perhaps recapturing the King Kong glory. A similar reworking of old ideas in the fantasy film genre had been monetarily successful with the 1940’s horror film cycle out of Universal Pictures. As it turned out, Harryhausen had been doing a number of his own works based on fairy tales and, with already well-honed skills, he was searching for a breakthrough moment. That moment came on Mighty Joe Young. The ideas may have been O’Brien’s, but Harryhausen did most of the animation. In his own words, “ It was the opportunity I had waited for – not only to break into features, but also to work with my hero and mentor…” (Harryhausen and Dalton, 33). Harryhausen built on the work O’Brien had done for King Kong by animating another very individualistic ape character. Where Kong was inquisitive and could be violent, Joe Young has a touch of humor and a softer side that the script called out for. Harryhausen gave Joe a personality of his own, including animalistic touches such as pounding the ground when he was angry. The animated sequences also reinforced the human side of Joe that audiences enjoyed seeing, considering that he was really the main character. When Joe is on the back of the truck looking out, raising his fingers and rapidly lowering them one by one in a human gesture often indicative of nerves or waiting, we share in the gorilla’s worries and concerns. The difficulty in stop motion animation, which is one of its great rewards, involves getting a mix of motion appropriate to the creature being animated and also making sure a human element is present, so the audience can believe in the screen reality of the animated model. This is Harryhausen’s genius. He wanted to be an actor at one time, but got butterflies on opening night. Unable to act, he began to act through his models (Interview with Ray…, 1995).
Besides giving Harryhausen the example of his ground breaking animation of King Kong and his personalized encouragement to experiment in order to advance his skills in stop motion, O’Brien’s influence on Harryhausen seems to have stretched to the design side of the stop motion art form and into how ideas for films were devised and presented. Both O’Brien and Harryhausen were excellent draftsman. O’Brien drew full scenes on presentation boards both to sell his ideas and to keep control of the design of the production in case an idea actually sold. Examples for the unsold War Eagles can be seen in Archer, pp. 38-40, and for Mighty Joe Young, Archer, p. 45. O’Brien’s work was not only well drawn and exciting, but it also clearly conveyed the mood he was looking for. Harryhausen continued his own climb to excellence by following O’Brien’s methods. The Harryhausen and Dalton text is literally filled with Harryhausen’s drawings and presentation board artwork, for both films he made and for his own unmade ideas. As with O’Brien, the draftsmanship is excellent and brilliantly executes the ideas he would later achieve on-screen. The development of ideas suited for stop motion and the painstaking, frame by frame execution of those ideas may lead one to believe stop motion is a craft, and of course, it is. But like any craft, the results can also be art. The artwork done to develop the ideas that lead to the motion we see onscreen confirms a designation as art to be applied to stop motion animation. Harryhausen agrees. “It’s always been an artform, but it never got recognition as an artform. They still look upon it as a craft but I think it’s an artform.” (Animation Magazine, 1998). He also adds that he had to learn to sculpt, to cast and to draw, citing Gustav Dore, the great French black and white illustrator, as an influence for his style on these idea drawings. (Animation Magazine, 1998). The influence shows and Harryhausen’s drawings truly are exceptional.
After Mighty Joe Young, Willis O’Brien was pretty much unable to get any projects produced. Harryhausen found work, but throughout the fifties it was the then standard fare of fantasy films: giant monsters and attacking aliens. He created The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which destroys a lighthouse; the octopus in It Came from Beneath The Sea, which destroys the Golden Gate Bridge; flying saucers in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, which destroy almost every government building in Washington D.C.; and the Ymir from Venus, which destroys the Coliseum and much of Italy in 20 Million Miles to Earth. As Harryhausen calls it, this was his “destruction” period (The Harryhausen Chronicles, 1997). He was working in the field he loved; each of these films is a success of the monster menace genre; and his animation, always done on a small budget, was skillful and made his animated creatures the stars of the films. But Harryhausen, like O’Brien before him, had larger ideas of how stop motion could be used. He was ready to produce films based on his own ideas.
Harryhausen felt that stop motion was the perfect vehicle to bring fantasy to the big screen. In his own words: “Fantasy is essentially a dream world, an imaginative world, and I don’t think you want it quite real. You want an interpretation and stop motion to me gives that added value of a dream world that you can’t catch if you make it too real. And that’s the essence of fantasy, isn’t it, transforming reality into the imagination?” (The Harryhausen Chronicles, 1997). In 1958, Harryhausen, in partnership with co-producer Charles Schneer, released The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Though only able to raise a relatively small budget for a film that used special effects to such a great extent, Schneer raised the funds that Harryhausen dictated would be needed to finish the film. By using adventure and mythology, especially Sinbad and the pantheon of Greek gods and mythological creatures, Schneer’s partnership and sales ability led to a long career for Harryhausen making fantasy films featuring his stop motion animation.
At least two generations of film audiences grew up with Harryhausen movies. They were released in theaters from 1958 though 1981. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) furnish more than enough moments illustrating how stop motion animation was used to convey the fantastic from Harryhausen’s imagination to America’s theaters, where it imprinted onto audience members. In Sinbad alone, there are two giant Cyclopes, a snake lady, a mother, and baby, roc, and a dragon. The humanoid Cyclopes work best, but Harryhausen was melding live action with his models and having to do it in color. Overall, the effects work well. One of the famous scenes involves Sinbad fighting a skeleton. The model is exact and brilliant, but there are some lighting issues. The skeleton was obviously lit brighter than the dark cave that the action takes place in. Regardless, it is a solid adventure movie based on the animated creatures.
Harryhausen raised his standards with the next film, Jason and the Argonauts. Similar to the build up in King Kong, we get an adventure story with no effects to begin the film. We get caught up in Greek mythology and are entertained by the script, with the Argonauts and their personalities being the main attractions. When the animated, 300 foot tall iron man Talos appears, the fantasy goes to a new level. Harryhausen’s animation of Talos and his stiff, unbending movement is done with jerky animation that actually utilizes more of Harryhausen’s acting skills. Talos acts appropriately as both an iron man and as enough of a human to gain our sympathy and appreciation. Next come flying Harpies, which Harryhausen seamlessly combines with the live action. He choreographs the actor’s movements exactly, so they will fit his creature’s movements. As well, instead of cutting away to larger scale mock ups, as O’Brien was forced to do in King Kong, Harryhausen begins to use quick cuts that show only the repercussions of his model’s animated actions. When the harpies overturn the banquet table, we see a quick cut of the table upturned, spilling the food for the feast. It is so quick that it works, and there is no need to show a full size harpy hand. The culmination of this fantasy adventure comes as three live actors fight seven animated skeletons. This time, the action takes place outdoors and the skeletons lighting meshes perfectly with the live actors. The fight is again perfectly choreographed, even though the level of complexity has risen dramatically. In a detailed profession of frame-by-frame exposure, this scene remains one of Harryhausen’s triumphs and truly a career highlight.
Ray Harryhausen took the joy and experience that he gained from Willis O’Brien and used it to create his own stunning work, thus fostering a whole new generation of filmmakers wanting to use stop motion and other special effects. Perhaps they will one day give Harryhausen the honor that Harryhausen gave O’Brien in 1969 when he made the film The Valley of Gwangi, completely based on O’Brien’s script about cowboys that lasso a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It is an eclectic and fun fantasy adventure, mixing exquisitely perfected animated dinosaurs with cowboy film music. Perhaps the ultimate tribute to O’Brien comes when the T. Rex is seen through a canyon wall, scratching the side of its head with its little arms. When the T. Rex in King Kong first appeared on screen in 1933, O’Brien’s creature made the same scratching movement. A student’s tribute to his mentor was never so odd, fun, or brilliantly executed.
Animation Magazine. “Animation Magazine Chats With… Ray Harryhausen.” Animation Magazine vol. 12, no. 8 August (1998).
Archer, Steve. Willis O’Brien Special Effects Genius. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1993.
Harryhausen, Ray, and Dalton, Tony. Ray Harryhausen An Animated Life. New York: Billboard Books, 2004.
The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, dir. Willis O’Brien (1915)
King Kong, dir. Merian C. Cooper and Ernset B. Schoedsack (1933)
Mighty Joe Young, dir. Ernest B. Schoedsack (1949)
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, dir. Nathan Juran (1958)
Jason and the Argonauts, dir. Don Chaffey (1963)
The Valley of Gwangi, dir. Jim O’Connolly (1969)
Interview with Ray Harryhausen and John Landis, (1995) Columbia TriStar Home Video
The Harryhausen Chronicles, (1997) Lorac Productions, Inc. & Julian Seddon Films
A Conversation with Ray Harryhausen and the Chiodo Brothers, (2006) Turner Entertainment Co.
 Confirmed after comments made by host Roger Corman in his post-film comments after The Valley of Gwangi was shown on AMC’s MonsterFest, 1999.