Willis Harold O’Brien

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Willis Harold O'Brien

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Oakland, California


O’Brien was an innovative special effects animator, most well-known for the landmark production in 1925 of The Lost World, and animated the Gorilla sequences in the famed King Kong film from the 30′s. He also developed the revolutionary animation technique of stop-motion animation in the mid 1900′s. 

Family and early life

Growing up in an illustrious family, O’Brien’s father was in charge of a military school, and his mother worked as the District Attorney assistant in Oakland. He nevertheless left home, first at the age of 11 to work on a cattle ranch, and later again at the age of 13 as an animal trapper, a wilderness guide, and a bartender before becoming a draftsman at the age of 17. He also became interested in paleontologists in the Crater Lake region, and spent his free time illustrating which led to first a job as a draftsman in an architect firm, and later drawing cartoons for the San Francisco Daily News, before attempting a stint as a Professional Boxer. After this period, he worked as well as a commercial marble sculptor, with his work being exhibited at the 1913 San Francisco World Fair. 

Career outline

By 1914, as a result of his devoted interest to the world of animation and cinema, O’Brien began experimenting with photography and special effects, employing miniature clay figurines to create models. He produced a one-minute film featuring a clay dinosaur and a caveman, capturing the attention of Herman Weber, a San Francisco movie exhibitor who not only exhibited O’Brien’s films later on, but advanced him $5000 to further develop the film. The 5-minute stop motion animation was produced in 1914 titled The Dinosaur and the Missing link. 

The New York Edison Company subsequently purchased this film, and signed O’Brien to create a series of Stone Age films from 1916-1917, for the Conquest Programs, and later on for O’Brien’s own company with Edison, Manikim Films. These features included The Birth of  a Flivver (1916), Prehistoric Poultry (1917), Curious Pets of Our Ancestors (1917) and many others. 

After selling off Edison, O’Brien moved back to Oakland to marry Hazel Ruth Collette in 1917, and together they had two sons. In 1918, O’Brien released a much longer film using the famous stop-motion technique he developed, The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, his most successful film to date, grossing returns of more than $100, 000. The depictions of the dinosaurs were the most lifelike ever seen to date. Eight years later, O’Brien collaborated with producer Watterson Rothacker a production for First National Pictures of the immensely popular adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1925). 

With projects falling through, O’Brien decided to join RKO in 1929, and went on to work with famed directors such as Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack to create the animated segments and special effects for the legendary King Kong (1933). O’Brien contributed his special effects skills again to the sequel to this film, though they were largely disappointments. 

In 1933, O’Brien was struck with trauma as his then-estranged wife attempted to commit suicide in the midst of suffering from tuberculosis and cancer, in the process shooting and killing their two sons. Her suicide attempt failed and she died later on November 16th, 1934. O’Brien married his second wife, Dolly Darlyne Prenett, the day after. In addition, throughout the 30′s and 40′s, O’Brien suffered a series of professional developments, as many of the films he was working on were abandoned in preproduction.

In 1949, O’Brien was honored for his acclaimed special effects work in Mighty Joe Young (1949), winning the Oscar in the process. His delayed appreciation within the industry came in the 50′s as he continued his work in masterful special effects, working on fantasy features, and low-budget horror films. O’Brien supervised in 1950 the animation for The Giant Behemoth, and was uncredited for his work in the disappointing The Lost World (1960) remake, as well as the work in his final film, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). He was honored with the Winsor McCay Lifetime Achievement award in 1997 posthumously by ASIFA.   



  • Lenburg, Jeff. Who’s Who in Animated Cartoons: An International Guide to Film & Television’s Award-Winning and Legendary Animators. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2006. Print.

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