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Thursday, December 15, 2005

O'BRIEN, Willis

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Birth: 1886 California
Death: 1962 Los Angeles, California


Cartoonist for San Francisco Daily News; commercial sculptor (work exhibited at San Francisco World's Fair, 1913); 1914 began experimenting with special effects in short films; from mid-1920s—worked on special effects for feature films. annals of cinema history as a true special-effects pioneer. The Ghost of Slumber Mountain and his successes The Lost World, King Kong, and Mighty Joe Young:: orpheus Mike, another 1915:: R.F.D., 10,000

Bio Summary

nickname~ O'Bie
Silent Shorts (1917-1919)
The Dinosaur and the Missing Link (1917)
The Birth of a Flivver (1917)
Morpheus Mike (1917)
Prehistoric Poultry (1917)
Curious Pets of Our Ancestors (1917)
In the Villain's Power (1917)
The Puzzling Billboard (1917)
Mickey's Naughty Nightmares (1917)
R.F.D. 10,000 B.C. (1917)
The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1919)
The Lost World (Hoyt)
King Kong (Cooper and Schoedsack); Son of Kong (Schoedsack)
The Last Days of Pompeii (Schoedsack)
The Dancing Pirate (Corrigan)
Tulips Shall Grow
Mighty Joe Young (Schoedsack)
This Is Cinerama (Thompson and others) (uncredited)
This Animal World (Allen)
The Beast of Hollow Mountian
The Black Scorpion (Ludwig)
The Giant Behemoth (Behemoth, the Sea Monster) (Lourie)
The Animal World
The Lost World (Allen) (uncredited)
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Kramer) (uncredited)

Early Life/Family

Willis O'Brian was Born in Oakland, California, March 2, 1886. His first marriage was to Hazel Ruth Collette, who was 12 years younger than O'Bie. Hazel Ruth was born in 1917 and died 1934. She was reportedly an impetuous one, trapping O'Bie into a marriage that was destined to fail from the start. Feeling trapped O'Bie rebelled with excessive drinking, horse races, and other women. By the time Hazel gave birth to two sons William and Willis, Jr., she was portraying some unbalanced behavior. By the1930's, the couple had effectively gotten a divorce. Although the boys remained with their mother, O'Bie continued to be a good father by taking the boys to events.
Around 1931, the already troubled Hazel contracted both tuberculosis and cancer, and existed in a near-constant narcotic haze. The elder son, William, developed tuberculosis that ajffected one eye and then the other, resulting in complete blindness. In early October, during the difficult sequel production of "The Son of Kong", O'Brien invited his sons to visit the set, allowing sightless William to handle the delicate miniatures. It was undoubtedly quite a day for the boys and a tension reliever for their father. Later that week, a neighbor heard gun shots from the home of Hazel O'Brien. When the police arrived shortly after, they were shocked at what they found. Hazel lay fully conscious on the porch floor, with a gunshot wound to her chest. Next to her was a .38 revolver with five spent cartridges. William at 14 years-old, lay dead in his bed with two bullets in his chest, and 13 year-old Willis, Jr. was found nearby with the same wounds, clinging to life later dying on the way to the hospital.
O'Brien was devastated. Hazel had shot and killed her two sons and turned the gun in an attempt to kill herself. In a cruel twist of fate, Hazel's self-inflicted bullet wound had not only failed to kill her, but had drained her tubercular lung which in turn extended her life. She remained in the Los Angeles General Hospital prison ward until her death from tuberculosis and cancer 1934.
With more than understandable reason, Willis O'Brien never visited Hazel. Willis O'Brien re married on November 17, 1934, to his second wife Darlyne Prenett (1962). His marriage to Darlyne Prenett turned out to be a happy one for O'Bie until his death in 1962.


There is little known about his Education and training. He Invented the multiplane camera, and he appears to be self taught.

Career Outline

In 1914, O'Brien perfected his clay models while working with paleontologists in the Crater Lake region. He realized that he couls make short films by moving these figures and filming them one frame at a time. His love of sculpting and illustrating his prehistoric creatures was reflected in his life's work. O'bie was so certain that the clay creatures would work as a crude film form he created a test reel for producers. The crude film about a fight between a cave man and a dinosaur was full of problems. It was less then a minute and a half long and the movements were quick and jerky. The clay models were also melting under the hot spot lights, but the idea worked. A producer enjoyed the reel so much he gave O'Bie $5000 dollars to create another short film.
Enjoying the idea of dinosaurs and cave men, O'Bie created his first successful film "Dinosaur and the Missing Link "(1915), the comedic story of Neanderthal pre-nuptial dilemmas. Thomas Edison
 bought the rights to it and hired O'Bie to produce more shorts. "Morpheus Mike", another 1915 film, used relatively crude animation to tell the story of a hobo who dreams of himself as a caveman in a prehistoric restaurant. "R.F.D., 10,000 B.C.", is a romantic/comedy about a young caveman who writes a letter to his love to get it switched for a crude one by his rival, the postman. People were so intrigued by this new form of stop animation that the film did very well. "The Ghost of Slumber Mountain" in 1919 was a big success and in turn, Dawley an employee of O'Bie's, tried to take credit for the animation". "The Ghost of Slumber Mountain", a 45 minutes film with live action interacting with the clay stop animation, was cut down to a16 minute film. The film made $100,000 dollars but O'Bie's paycheck remained relatively small. The left over footage from "Slumber Mountain" made its way into "Along the Moonbeam Trail" in 1920 and the documentary "Evolution" in 1923.
Producer Watterson R. Rothacker hired O'Bie to do the animation for the first film adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel "The Lost World". O'Bie's final silent project "Creation" was on the cusp of the sound revolution. After the "The Lost World" RKO Pictures hired O'Bie to make "Volcanic Island", A story of a crew aboard a submarine wanders upon a newly discovered island that just appeared in the Pacific, only to find a thriving dinosaur ecosystem.
After a year of drawings, plans, scripts, and model making, all the project had to show for it self was a several-minute long test reel before the whole project was dropped. Because of O'Bie's pre-sound craft's, the models were more precise, and the interaction of stop-motion with live scenes was becoming better and more daring. In turn The Development costs for "Creation" had approached $120,000 and nothing more had been accomplished other than five or six minutes of animation. Because the development for O'Bie's "Creation" wasn't working out, and Merian C. Cooper's film on gorillas was proving to be costly the two of them collaboration to create a new picture that would combine both films, one that would make up the loss and turn a profit. The result was King Kong. One of the true classics of the talking screen would be the story of a giant ape and the woman he loved. 1930's "King Kong".
Time for Willis O'Brien was rocky after King Kong. In the ensuing years, O'Bie produced only two more films of real public renown, being 1933's "Son of Kong" and the award winning "Mighty Joe Young" in 1949. Mighty Joe Young, was produced by the same team as King Kong, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack, for RKO studios. Some of O'Bie's other work includes 1935's The Last Days of Pompeii, 1936's The Dancing Pirate, 1956's The Animal World, and visual effects work on Citizen Kane.

Comments On Style

he was responsible for some of the best-known images in cinema history.


Thomas Edison:: King Kong was Inspired by Miriam C. Cooper's vision of a gorilla fighting a Komodo Dragon:: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had written the original story for "Lost World":: Lloyd Corrigan The Dancing Pirate Director


From Willis O'Brien history he appers to have cared for his sons and his second wife due to his long term marrege to her.
Anecdotes:: In 1926, O'Brien had animated dinosaurs for the First National film The Lost World. Author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had written the original story, was so taken by the realistic animation that he showed a reel of O'Brien's dinosaurs to his friends. He told them that these were real dinosaurs that he had photographed and that his story was actually based on fact. After seeing the film, they believed the hoax.
Waiting for King Kong, One Radio Pictures executive loudly declared, "I want to see this picture so bad I can taste it!"



Unmade Story Ideas
The Last of the Labyrinthodons
Bellow the Bottom
The Vines of Ceres
The Devil's Slide
Triple Assignment
The Bubbles
The Eagle
Matilda or the Isle of Women
The Last of the Oso Si-Papu
Baboon--a Tale About a Yeti
King Kong Vs. Frankenstein
The Leviathan


Annie Award: Winsor McCay Award 1997

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Kelii Nichols

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