American motion picture special effects and stop-motion animation pioneer, Willis O’Brien was born in Oakland, California on March 2, 1886. When he was eleven he left home to work on cattle ranches, and at thirteen he took on a variety of jobs including farmhand, factory worker, fur trapper, cowboy, and bartender. 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 led to him being employed first as draftsman in an architect’s office and then as a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Daily News. During this time he also became a professional boxer, winning his first nine bouts but retiring after an unsuccessful tenth. 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 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair, where some of his work was displayed. He also 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.
Willis O’Brien was subsequently hired by the Edison Company to animate a series of short films with a prehistoric theme, these included R.F.D. 10,000 B.C. and Prehistoric Poultry. He also worked on Sam Loyd’s The Puzzling Billboard and Nippy’s Nightmare which were the first stop-motion films to combine live actors with stop motion models. 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. However Herbert Dawley claimed credit for O’Brien’s pioneering effects work, which combined realistic stop-motion animated prehistoric models with live action. Dawley used the cut effects footage in a sequel Along the Moonbeam Trail (1920) and the documentary Evolution (1923), but again O’Brien received little financial reimbursement from this success.
Willis O’Brien then worked on Harry O. 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 employed 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. The models contained a bladder inside the skeleton model that could be inflated and deflated to give the illusion of breathing. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, showed a reel of O’Brien’s animation from the film to his friends, claiming it was real footage of living dinosaurs And try to convince them that his story was based on fact.
O’Brien also worked with Hoyt on a number of other projects included Atlantis, Frankenstein, and Creation. However The studio’s head of production, Merian C. Cooper, cancelled O’Brien’s projects, although he was impressed by the effects work and saw great potential in O’brien’s Giant gorilla and dinosaur models which were later used for the film King Kong. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) awarded O’Brien an Oscar for his technical effects on King Kong but Willis insisted that each of his crew receive an Oscar statue also, which the AMPAS refused to do, so O’Brien refused to accept the Oscar award for himself. However This act of refusing his Oscar hurt O’Brien’s reputation in the Hollywood establishment, forever making him a semi-“outsider” in the industry. 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 animation assistant, Buzz Gibson, and asked the studio not to credit him on the project.
In 1925 O’Brien married Hazel Ruth Collette and had two Sons However O’Brien was reportedly forced into and rebelled against with drinking, gambling, and extra-marital affairs. The couple divorced by 1930 and the two boys remained with their mother. Sadly By 1931 Hazel had been diagnosed with cancer and tuberculosis, then O’brien son William also contracted tuberculosis resulting in blindness in one eye and then the other. O’Brien, remained close to his two sons after his separation from his estranged wife, invited Willis Jr. and the now completely blind William with him to handle the Kong and dinosaur models. A few weeks after this visit O’Brien’s ex-wife, Hazel Ruth Collette, shot and killed William and Willis Jr. before turning the gun on herself. The suicide attempt failed and by draining her tubercular lung actually extended her life by another year. A publicity photo of O’Brien taken around this time shows the anguish on his face. Hazel Ruth Collette remained in the Los Angeles General Hospital prison ward until her death in 1934. On November 17 that same year O’Brien married his second wife Darlyne Prenett with whom he would remain until his death.
O’Brien continued to work with Merian C. Cooper at RKO on a number of projects including the epic The Last Days of Pompeii, Dancing Pirate and War Eagles which features a race of Vikings riding on prehistoric eagles fighting with dinosaurs. However this project was cancelled when Cooper re-enlisted as a colonel in the U.S. Army Air Forces at the outset of World War II. O’Brien went on to do some special effects work, re-using one of the mattes from Son of Kong, on Orson Welles’ 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,
O’Brien then worked as Technical Creator, on The film Mighty Joe Young (1949), which won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1950. O’Brien was assisted by his protege (and successor), Ray Harryhausen and Pete Peterson on this film. O’Brien and his wife then unsuccessfully developed Emilio and Guloso (aka, Valley of the Mist), about a Mexican boy and his pet bull who save their town from a dinosaur called “Lagarto Grande”. O’Brien then went to work at the new Cinerama corporation on a remake of King Kong using the new wide-screen techniques but ended up contributing a matte for the travelogue This Is Cinerama (1952) when this project also fell through. O’Brien also worked with Harryhausen on the acclaimed dinosaur sequence for Irwin Allen’s nature documentary The Animal World. O’Brien’s story ideas for Gwangi and Valley of the Mist were developed into Edward Nassour and Ismael Rodríguez’s The Beast of Hollow Mountain, for which O’Brien wrote the script. This combined stop-motion and live-action in a color film. O’Brien also worked with Peterson again on The Black Scorpion (1957) and Behemoth, the Sea Monster (aka “The Giant Behemoth”). Irwin Allen hired O’Brien as the effects technician on his remake of The Lost World, but he was given little to do as the producer opted for live lizards instead of stop-motion animation for the dinosaurs. One of his story ideas King Kong vs. Frankenstein was developed into Ishirō Honda’s King Kong vs. Godzilla but O’Brien was once again not involved in the production. Shortly before his death, he animated a brief scene for Linwood G. Dunn’s “Film Effects of Hollywood” company in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World featuring some characters dangling from a fire escape and ladder.
O’Brien died in Los Angeles on November 8, 1962. He was survived by his second wife, Darlyne. In 1997, he was posthumously awarded the Winsor 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. His interment was located at Chapel of the Pines Crematory.
The 1969 film The Valley of Gwangi, was completed by Ray Harryhausen seven years after O’Brien’s death. O’Brien’s work was celebrated in March 1983 with the appearance of his wife, Darlene at a 50th anniversary event commemorating the day of the first screening of the film at Graumann’s (later Mann’s) Chinese theater on Hollywood Blvd, complete with a screening of a new print of King Kong and a new recreation of the full-scale bust of Kong that appeared 50 years apart at both events in the outdoor lobby of the theater. Ray Harryhausen also continued to keep the memory of O’Brien films and life alive for fantasy-cinema fans around the world until his death in 2013.