Friday, March 9, 2012

Willis O'Brien and Marcel Delgado

Kong-blogging, essay 8 of 15 blog entries on
Skull Island in King Kong (1933)

Part One, A Stampede of Dinosaurs

Closeup of the Allosaurus from The Lost World (1925).

The Brontosaurus in The Lost World.

Allosaurus attacks Styracosaurus in The Lost World.

Styracosaurus and Stegosaurus in an out-take from The Lost World.

Baby Allosaurs feast on dinosaur remains in The Lost World.

Part Two, Willis O’Brien and Marcel Delgado

Willis O’Brien wanted to make dinosaur movies.  When film was still in its infancy, O’Brien figured out the mechanics of stop-motion animation, fashioned some clay models, and made a short test reel.  The result was good enough to obtain financing for his first short, The Dinosaur and the Missing Link (1915).

O’Brien held to his vision and leveraged upward, convincing the Edison Company to let him make more prehistoric shorts.  R.F.D. 10,000 B.C. (1917) and Prehistoric Poultry (1917) followed.  Then O’Brien cut a deal with another producer to make a longer and more serious dinosaur movie, The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918).

While O’Brien had a genius for understanding film’s technical potential to capture fantasy, he realized that his sculptural skills fell short of his vision.  He went looking for a collaborator.  In 1923, he found Marcel Delgado, a young Mexican-American student studying at the Otis Art Institute.  O’Brien became convinced that Delgado had the right combination of skills needed to make his dinosaurs.

Allosaurus on the prowl
from The Lost World.
For O’Brien’s upcoming project, a big-budget feature film of The Lost World, Delgado constructed approximately 50 detailed dinosaur models, drawing inspiration from both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s descriptions of dinosaurs on an Amazon plateau and from Charles R. Knight’s acclaimed paintings of prehistoric life.  Unlike O’Brien’s rather crude wood-and-clay models, Delgado’s sophisticated puppets were made with an articulated aluminum armature, ball-and-socket joints, foam rubber musculature, and latex skin.  They averaged 18 inches in length and some of them were fitted with interior rubber bellows to achieve realistic breathing effects.

O’Brien supervised the animation of Delgado’s models, painstaking moving them bit by bit, shooting a frame or two at a time.  When projected at normal speed, the dinosaurs came to life on the screen.

A pterodactyl from
The Lost World.
The Lost World (1925) is a solid adventure film, highlighted by many delightful dinosaur scenes.  However, unlike the later King Kong (1933), The Lost World seems to suffer from some clumsy scripting (although it may be presumptuous to be too critical since 30 minutes of the original two-hour release print are missing in the currently available 90-minute restoration).  King Kong always carefully integrates its dinosaur scenes into the narrative; The Lost World doesn’t.  Its dinosaur scenes sometimes appear to be arbitrarily dropped in and they are often filmed from perspectives not available to any of the characters.  Kong would correct these faults.

After The Lost World, director Harry Hoyt, O’Brien, and Delgado invested considerable time in the development of a follow-up which was to be called Creation.  Delgado sculpted the dinosaur models and O’Brien shot a small amount of footage only to have their production shut down on the recommendation of Merian C. Cooper.  Although fascinated by O’Brien’s special effects, Cooper thought Creation lacked a compelling story.  Cooper decided that O’Brien and Delgado should be working on a giant ape picture instead—a movie that could even use some of those Creation models that Delgado had already completed.  Kong moved into production and even got the Creation hand-me-downs.

Brontosaurus seen through binoculars in
The Lost World.

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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