LOOK DEEP into Kong’s eyes, and you can glimpse the genius of Willis O’Brien.
As “Kong: Skull Island” opens today, it is easy to view Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s film and get swept up in the spectacle of state-of-the-art CGI. But a century after O’Brien began pioneering techniques for stop-motion animation, perhaps the most awe-inspiring impression the title character leaves is not that he’s an icon, but that Kong remains a canvas.
Each team of filmmakers that takes on the great cinematic ape paints with the tools of the times. Yet Kong endures like a pilgrimage site precisely because O’Brien imbued the character, in 1933’s “King Kong,” with the craftsman’s own heartfelt fascination with performance that transcends mere puppetry.
“King Kong” reflected the pinnacle of O’Brien’s powers. And to understand Kong, it helps to have insight into O’Brien.
He was born in the Bay Area right before the dawn of cinema, as the Lumieres and Melies began to project their illusions across the Atlantic. He worked as a newspaper sports cartoonist, which fostered his study of bodies in motion. He was briefly a boxer, and so understood in his very bones how two beasts in the ring might jab and hook and bob and bleed. And he traveled with paleontologists to Crater Lake, looking for the fossils of immense creatures that fired the imagination.
O’Brien began working in clay, fashioning pugilist figures and shooting seconds of animation, one painstaking frame at a time. His stop-motion studies led to 1925’s “The Lost World,” and attracted the keen attention of Thomas Edison and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
O’Brien’s years of efforts would culminate with Merian C. Cooper’s “King Kong,” for which he reunited with sculptor extraordinaire Marcel Delgado. These tech wizards were building ever-more-artful metal skeletons covered in plastic and animal fur, all housing rubber bladders that could mimic the flexed sinew of movement.
And it wasn’t just model primates, of course, but dinosaurs and massive arachnids — in extended scenes that pushed these visionaries to be ever more inventive.
Then there was the art of combining these creatures with live actors in the same scene. O’Brien forged ahead with increasingly sophisticated techniques involving mattes and mirrors and rear-screen projection.
Monster effects legend Ray Harryhausen — who would be mentored by O’Brien on 1949’s Oscar-winning “Mighty Joe Young” — grew to appreciate how his teacher mixed many fresh techniques of size and motion and layering within “King Kong,” never letting the viewer get bored with just one.
And always, O’Brien would return to Kong’s eyes, in close-up. Because you can’t have a beauty-and-the-beast love story with sinew but without soul.
And so, when you see “Skull Island,” you might gaze at the gorilla’s snarling countenance and still, deep in that connective cinematic tissue, glimpse the great creative spirit of Willis O’Brien.