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O–Q Entries
Simon Oakland
Arch Oboler
Charles Ogle
Willis O'Brien
George Pal
Gregory Peck
Cassandra Peterson
Walter Pidgeon
Jack P. Pierce
Vincent Price
Anthony Quinn
 
O'BRIEN, WILLIS
(1886–1962). American special effects artist.

SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY, AND HORROR FILM CREDITS
Special effects for: The Lost World (silent; with Marcel Delgado) (Harry Hoyt 1925); Creation (unfinished, with Delgado) (no credited director 1931); King Kong (with Delgado) (Ernest B. SCHOEDSACK 1933); Son of Kong (uncredited, with Delgado, uncredited) (Schoedsack 1933); Mighty Joe Young (with Ray HARRYHAUSEN and Delgado, uncredited) (Schoedsack 1949); Beast of Hollow Mountain (Edward Nassour and Ismael Rodiguez 1956); The Animal World (documentary) (Irwin ALLEN 1956); The Black Scorpion (with Pete Peterson) (Edward Ludwig 1957); The Giant Behemoth (with Jack Rabin, Irving Block, Louis DeWitt, and Peterson) (Eugene LOURIE and Douglas Hickok 1958); The Lost World (with L. B. Albert, James B. Gordon, and Emil Kosa, Jr.) (Allen 1960).

Special effects, wrote, and directed short, silent animated films: Morpheus Mike (1915); The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy (1915); R.F.D., 10,000 B.C. (1916); Prehistoric Poultry (1916); Curious Pets of Our Ancestors (1917);  The Birth of a Flivver (1917); The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (wrote with Herbert M. Dawley) (1918); Along the Moonbeam Trail (directed with Dawley) (1920).

Idea for: King Kong vs. Godzilla (Inoshiro HONDA 1963); The Valley of Gwangi (Jim O'Connolly 1969).

 
Here is a paradox to ponder: special-effects artist Ray HARRYHAUSEN was one of the first fourteen luminaries to be profiled in this encyclopedia, yet Willis O'Brien, his long-time mentor and the man who first taught him the craft of stop-motion animation, which he originated, has never been discussed until this date. And over the years, not a single critic or commentator discussing this encyclopedia ever noticed this singular omission.

In a strange way, however, it is only natural to overlook O'Brien. His protégé Harryhausen came of age at a time when science fiction and fantasy films were a recognized genre; he could pitch his ideas to potential backers who understood what he wanted to do and knew that it could be very profitable; and as a result, he was able to obtain regular assignments, gradually gain control over his projects, develop his own distinctive style, and produce a body of work that still commands attention, despite advances in film animation that have made his techniques obsolete. In contrast, O'Brien's best years were at a time when films about giant monsters and fabulous creatures were rare, singular creations that no one envisioned as a genre; more often than not, O'Brien's proposals were rejected by skeptical producers and investors; and as a result, his career was a matter of fits and starts, a few isolated masterpieces bookended by steady, less interesting work at the beginning and end of his career.

Purely by happenstance, O'Brien's early career provided him with the perfect background to initiate the technique of stop-motion animation with special attention to dinosaurs: he had worked as a sculptor, as a newspaper cartoonist, and as a guide for paleontologists in California. It all came together when he realized that he could construct movable dinosaur sculptures, photograph them one frame at a time as he gradually moved them, and create the persuasive illusion of a walking dinosaur. He first perfected the art with a series of short films (we would call them cartoons), mostly about dinosaurs (an Internet search for "Willis O'Brien" will lead you to a website where you can watch a few of them), and after the success of the most ambitious of these, The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, he was hired to work on an entire film about dinosaurs, The Lost World. His years of effort on the film paid off spectacularly, for it remains a rousing adventure and one of the few silent films that can engage audiences to this day despite the absence of dialogue (hardly needed, in any event, for a film which, after a prologue, mostly requires its actors to stand and gaze in awe at O'Brien's magnificent dinosaurs).

The success of The Lost World led to another assignment, Creation, which was eventually abandoned (though some footage from it survives) when O'Brien was asked to work on another project, King Kong. The famed giant ape remains, of course, his greatest triumph, not so much because of its technical polish but because O'Brien succeeded in imbuing him with a distinctive personality that could inspire both fear and pity. None of the later King Kongs, either men in monkey suits or products of sophisticated computer graphics, have ever succeeded in topping the original, testimonial enough to O'Brien's consummate skills. Also meriting some praise is the hastily contrived sequel to the film, Son of Kong; for while the film itself may be disappointing, O'Brien outdid himself to craft and animate a smaller, though still enormous, baby ape which was more adorable than frightening. If King Kong is the most prominent ancestor of the monsters and dinosaurs which would later thunder through scores of lesser films, his son is the progenitor of E.T., the Gremlins, and all of the other insufferably cute creations of recent science fiction films.

Incredibly, the failure of Son of Kong to duplicate the success of his predecessor led producers to conclude that movies about dinosaurs and giant creatures were passé, and O'Brien spent the next sixteen years of his life struggling to get another project off the ground. Finally, Hollywood green-lighted a grand reunion of the producer, director, writer, star, and special-effects artist of King Kong to bring to life a smaller giant ape, Mighty Joe Young, O'Brien's last noteworthy film and the work that finally earned him an Academy Award.

In the 1950s, the emergence of a true genre of science fiction films meant that O'Brien could finally garner regular assignments, but the budgets were small, O'Brien was past his prime, and the results were usually undistinguished, although the enormous The Black Scorpion, with glittering drops of slobber in its mouth, lingers in one's memory while scores of its gargantuan contemporaries are forgotten. It is a shame that he was lured into doing something for Irwin ALLEN's contemptible remake of his early classic, The Lost World, since his name should not be linked to a film that pasted fins on the backs of lizards, called them dinosaurs, and spliced them into footage of purportedly awestruck actors. Better tributes to O'Brien's career were two posthumous projects based on his ideas: the enjoyable King Kong vs. Godzilla, Inoshiro HONDA's adaptation of his plans for a cinematic battle between King Kong and Frankenstein, and The Valley of Gwangi, which inspired Harryhausen (now specializing in fantasy films) to do dinosaurs one more time. More broadly, every single film of the last fifty years which features enormous creatures should be regarded as a homage to Willis O'Brien, even if critics, inexcusably, persist in overlooking this remarkable man and his pioneering work.

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