Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Kong's Debt to Charles R. Knight


Kong-blogging, essay 6 of 15 blog entries on
Skull Island in King Kong (1933)

Part One, A Charles R. Knight Dinosaur Gallery

Tyrannosaurus confronts a family of Triceratops
by Charles R. Knight, circa 1919.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Trachodons by Charles R. Knight, circa 1905.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nesting Protoceratops from Charles R. Knight's murals for the
Field Museum of Natural History, circa 1925.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jurassic scene with Archaeopteryx, Compsognathus,
and Rhamphorynchus from Charles R. Knight's murals for the
Field Museum of Natural History.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Allosaurus eating a Brontosaurus by Charles R. Knight, circa 1904.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Part Two, Knight Paintings in Motion

At this point, we reach an artist whose work had a profound impact upon King Kong (1933) and whom I view with awe.  Charles R. Knight’s dinosaurs look like real animals, fully alive in the moment and informed by individual personalities.  Many great paleoartists have followed the path blazed by Knight, but this isn’t a case where they could see further for standing on the shoulders of a giant.  In certain important respects, Knight remains the unsurpassed master.

As a boy, Charles R. Knight (1874-1953) had special access through his father to the backrooms of the American Museum of Natural History where he had the privilege of watching the taxidermists and exhibition preparators at their work.  He learned animals inside and out, observing their muscular construction and skeletal structure.  He obsessively studied nature and drew the animals he saw with a rare talent—and it wasn't long before his special skills were noticed.

In 1894 when Knight was still a very young man, a friend at the American Museum of Natural History recommended him for an assignment to depict an Elotherium, an extinct pig-like animal.  Knight’s painting was exactly what the museum wanted.  It was scientifically accurate and artistically exciting.  Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the museum, took Knight under his wing, convinced that his artwork could communicate the wonder of prehistoric life to the museum’s public.

By the time that Willis O’Brien and Marcel Delgado teamed up in 1924 to create the dinosaur models for the movie of The Lost World, Charles R. Knight had achieved a high reputation for his depictions of prehistoric life both at the American Museum of Natural History and in published illustrations.  O’Brien and Delgado elected to use Knight’s work as their guide in creating approximately 50 dinosaur models for the movie.

There was an interesting symmetry in the complementary work of Knight and Delgado.  When working on a figure, Knight would often begin by determining the skeletal and muscular form of the animal and then he would sculpt a three-dimensional model.  He said this was important to see how shadows would naturally fall.  Only after gaining a thorough understanding of the sculpture would Knight embark on his painting.  Now… reversing this process, Delgado began with Knight's paintings, studying them to identify what the skeletal and muscular forms must have been.  In a way, Delgado's three-dimensional models returned the paintings back to their sculptural beginnings.

In the eight years between The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933), Knight received one of his greatest commissions, enabling him to paint a spectacular series of murals for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.  As O’Brien and Delgado worked on the (ultimately abandoned) Creation project and then King Kong, Knight’s evolving artwork continued to be their primary inspiration in creating their dinosaur models.

Many decades later, Willis O’Brien’s protégé Ray Harryhausen (who went on to become the greatest stop-motion animator of his generation) expressed his own feelings about Knight’s legacy.  “His dinosaur and prehistoric animal paintings and sculptures had more than just a realistic surface quality; they also possessed scientific reality and natural beauty.  He was the first to reconstruct prehistoric life in a romantic form and the first to work in close collaboration with paleontologists to attempt to achieve scientifically accurate anatomy.  His long experience in drawing and painting live animals in zoos, together with his romantic and vivid imagination, helped to instill his prehistoric reconstructions with a ‘charisma’ only found in living creatures...”

Equally miraculous, Marcel Delgado and Willis O’Brien somehow caught that ‘charisma’ and transferred it to film, creating magical images of Knight’s dinosaurs in motion.

Part Three, Comparisons

Charles R. Knight's 1897 painting of an Agathaumus (based on
bones later identified as Triceratops).
Source: Wikimedia Commons

A dinosaur cut from the final release of King Kong.
A Styracosaurus, looking very similar to Knight's Agathaumus,
chases sailors onto the log.

A detail of Charles R. Knight's Tyrannosaurus painting
from the gallery above, showing the family of Triceratops.

Marcel Delgado's models of a parent and baby Triceratops
from The Lost World (1925).

Charles R. Knight with his working model of a Stegosaurus.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Willis O'Brien with Marcel Delgado's model of a Styracosaurus
(ultimately not seen in the final cut) for King Kong.

Reference Sources
The Making of King Kong by Orville Goldner and George E. Turner
Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper by Mark Cotta Vaz
Willis O'Brien: Special Effects Genius by Steve Archer
Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume 1, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume 2, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time by Richard Milner
All in the Bones: A Biography of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins by Valerie Bramwell and Robert M. Peck
Special features on the two-disc special edition, King Kong (1933) by Warner Home Video Inc.
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

Watch King Kong...
Purchase a King Kong DVD or Blu-Ray set at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent King Kong at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2012 Lee Price



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