Beast Master: KING KONG At 90

How a stop-motion pioneer (and other explorers) brought life to an iconic monster.

By Rich Johnson · @richpieces · April 7, 2023, 10:05 PM EDT
King Kong

"Animation is cinema. Animation is not a genre for kids. It's a medium." ― Guillermo del Toro

Championed at this year's Golden Globes [1], the Mexican maestro's passion for the medium reminded us of its place in the history of filmmaking. It is a rather fitting message that should hit home all the more 90 years after animator Willis H. O'Brien's work on the original King Kong. With his assistant animator, Buzz Gibson, and sculptor Marcel Delgado ― another "Mexican Genius "― they delivered groundbreaking animation and special effects that set a cinematic benchmark and the blueprint for every other giant monster movie that would follow. Not only has this film captured the audience's imagination over the decades but it also inspired generations of filmmakers (and beast masters) from O'Brien's protégé Ray Harryhausen to Phil Tippett, Aardman Animations, and del Toro himself releasing his own 80th tribute with mecha/monster smash Pacific Rim in 2013.

Regarding animated horror, many examples of the medium have traumatized kids over the years. But, despite being a genre film ― full of action, adventure, and horror ― it was never aimed at kids in the first place. Instead, a rather earnest and modern interpretation of "Beauty and the Beast" presented as a bona fide work of cinema that took full advantage of the final years of pre-Code Hollywood. In light of this period, it would be worth touching upon that, despite its technical achievements, there are obviously some problematic issues; wider concerns surrounding colonialism and racism, but also the potential influence of a certain Frémiet sculpture [2] that (if possible) makes the finger sniffing and (banana) peeling of Fay Wray even more uncomfortable to watch. But, despite such relevant subject matter, this piece won't explore those themes any further… and the following should certainly not be read that the technical accomplishments explored here are any excuse for the film's flaws.

This piece is primarily about the craft. King Kong '33 presents (and represents) adventurous filmmakers at play during a crucial age of global discovery. Here is a vintage slice of celluloid that highlights a distinct artistry under the surface of a historic production created by (horrific) talent. FANGORIA has always championed its "monsters" and "bizarre creatures." A revolutionary work, this "Eighth Wonder" took the sheer power of imagination and moved it a single frame at a time while merging all manner of effects… defying what was ever deemed possible during such despondent times.


Lost film, lost worlds


The history of moving images can be traced all the way back to something primal. From the flickering flame-lit contours of a cave wall ― illuminating the hunt ― to all manner of "scopes" and "tropes" that followed ― drawn on paper, photographed, and projected for all the world to see ― eventually… one… single… frame… at a time. Of course, light has always been a vital element in creating such illusions, but in terms of style and technique ― whether acted, hand-drawn, or sculpted ― it is all photographed in motion. The medium of animation is the art of creating life from inanimate objects, lending ultimate control, one of which the creator becomes a (mad) god.

When it comes to stop-motion, in particular, records of the lost film The Humpty Dumpty Circus ― directed by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith ― can be traced back to somewhere between 1897 and 1898. Delving into the macabre, we have Polish animator Ladislas Starevich's Battle of the Stag Beetles in 1910 and The Ant and the Grasshopper from 1911. These influential works employ dead insects with wireframe skeletons acting out dramatic plots. Starevich would go on to direct one of the first fully animated feature films, The Tale of the Fox, with his wife Irene which, although animated over 18 months from 1929 to 1930, post-production problems with the soundtrack stalled the release for years until German funding eventually led to its premiere in 1937.


Around this early period, Willis H. O'Brien ― or "Obie" as he became affectionately known ― was finding his own feet. He was born in 1886 during another inspiring time when the likes of P.T. Barnum and Wild Bill delivered their "Greatest Shows," the "Wizard of Menlo Park," Thomas Edison, at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution; Darwin, evolution… and, of course, those dinosaur digs. Fossils were familiar territory for O'Brien. In those early years, he was a rodeo rider, railroad worker, and professional boxer, but he also worked as a guide to paleontologists. There he spent most of his spare time studying what was found, sculpting, and illustrating before becoming a San Francisco Daily News cartoonist. His sculptures eventually led to his work being displayed at the 1915 San Francisco World's Fair. This, in turn, led to him building models of dinosaurs (and a caveman), using them to experiment with animation techniques. It was then that an exhibitor saw the work and commissioned his first film The Dinosaur, and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy in 1915. Ever on the lookout for pioneering work, Thomas Edison immediately hired him to animate a series of Edison Company educational short films with a prehistoric theme.

Therefore, it is no surprise that O'Brien would end up working again with animated dinosaurs a decade later when, in 1925, Harry O. Hoyt's The Lost World became the first feature-length film to integrate stop-motion animation. Based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's adventure story, the film shares many commonalities with King Kong; both adventure stories (with monsters) reflect the golden ages of exploration and discovery. Animated by O'Brien and sculpted by Delgado, with the help of other technical assistants, around 50 model dinosaurs were created, with O'Brien animating and supervising what would have been the most lifelike dinosaurs seen on the big screen at the time. The film was a major landmark, King Kong its natural successor as cinema transitioned to sound, with the renowned animator beginning to push techniques further toward other special effects. All of this would involve harnessing rear projection ― allowing the actors to react live to the monsters onscreen ― while miniatures, matte painting composites, and optical printing helped create the illusion of a deeply mysterious and suffocating jungle.


It is interesting to see that many technologies today within film and television have reverted to similar approaches, "projecting" environments and light sources to immerse their actors as much as possible for a more authentic performance and setting. This is most notably seen with Industrial Light & Magic's on-set virtual production and visual effects technology StageCraft employing "The Volume." Nothing is truly lost in the history of cinema… technique evolving and, often, returning to traditional methods enhanced by current technologies.


Exploration and creation


A great deal has been spoken about the "mastermind" Merian C. Cooper and his best friend Ernest B. Schoedsack's partnership, both of whom served in the First World War ― Cooper a heroic aviator, Schoedsack a daring cameraman ― adventure and the movies a fitting "direction" for both of them. As maverick filmmakers, explorers, and adventurers, they were driven to recapture the awe of undiscovered countries, tinged with a fear of the unknown. Their documentarian approach took them on further adventures where, in 1927, Cooper and Schoedsack journeyed to Africa to film The Four Feathers, starring a dark-haired Canadian actress, our original scream queen Fay Wray. It was here, having already had a lifelong fascination with gorillas, Cooper was inspired by the idea of a giant ape battling dinosaurs. When he returned to Hollywood, MGM and Paramount turned down his pitch... but eventually discussed it with RKO's David O. Selznick.

The synergy between these men was proven even more once Selznick introduced O'Brien's work. Cooper viewed O'Brien's test footage (of which four minutes survives today) from another proposed epic he was working on ― Creation, inspired by the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs. A film that time forgot, it involves familiar strands; a group stranded on an island populated by prehistoric creatures. Blown away by O'Brien's work, Cooper saw how his giant ape could be brought to life. So, incorporating elements of Creation, he pitched The Beast (as it was initially titled) to Selznick, who immediately put the film into production. Working on the story, Cooper originally employed British writer Edgar Wallace ― known mostly for his crime novels ― to assist with story ideas, Wallace writing the first version of the screenplay before James Creelman wrote another draft, polished by Schoedsack's wife, Ruth Rose, and an uncredited Horace McCoy.


In the final version, Kong moves from beast to lovesick gorilla to tragic hero throughout the story. The initial setup sees director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) approach struggling actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to play the lead in what he hopes to be a "colossal" motion picture. Wishing to film on the mysterious Skull Island, Denham, Darrow, and crew embark on an adventure of a lifetime, while our female lead falls for the ship's first mate John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). Before anyone can shout "cupid", Darrow finds herself kidnapped by natives in their attempt to sacrifice her to the giant ape, Kong, who rules the island.

Originally, Cooper flirted with the mix of man and beast, prompting Delgado to design a potential missing link creature. However, after seeing the initial sculpts, disliked the concept and reverted to a male gorilla. Once the design was decided upon, four models were built; the majority standing 18 inches, with a larger version at 24 inches used during the New York scenes. Notably, much smaller models were used for distance shots where Kong scaled the Empire State Building. Bear in mind that the epic art deco architecture was still a novelty at the time, the film providing the perfect advertisement for a building that had only been open for two years. These models of Kong and Skull Island's other creatures consisted of jointed aluminum armatures ― the metal skeletons that O'Brien had helped pioneer ― covered in foam rubber and latex; Kong himself also dressed in a fabricated rabbit fur pelt. Having upgraded from clay so the models wouldn't melt under the intense studio lights, the armatures hid miniature air pumps to simulate breathing. These processes are still seen today in animation studios, having become the perfect marriage of craft and (intricate) engineering.


As briefly mentioned, another major part of the production was the unique combination of miniature work and matte paintings by artists Mario Larrinaga and Byron Crabbe. Inspired by 19th-century wood-cut illustrations, the layering of glass panelwork and the use of space helped create a classical feel, something impressionistic with its dark framing and innovative compositions of projected imagery that enabled the illusion of character interaction. Everything in the film was being practiced for the first time, developing and building upon what he had mastered in The Lost World. O'Brien's ability as an animator was an essential skill, his crossover into visual and practical effects pushing the sense of scope and scale as far as possible. In contrast to the smaller animations, he instructed his crew to design and construct portions of Kong to scale. This included a 20-foot tall head (you've seen the truck photo, right?), part of the chest, and shoulders that took three individuals to operate. Similarly, the large-scale hand, built to hold Fay Wray, was so heavy it had to be lifted by a crane. This incredible effect served a major function and, therefore, had to be worked on in more detail to hold up to the camera's scrutiny. Those gnarly moments when natives are chomped on and crushed underfoot are made all the more horrific. Miraculously edited, it is still a technical marvel to see the "windows" of animation appear alongside such larger practical effects… and vice versa, as tiny projections of the actors were also placed into the animated scenes.

Finally, let us not forget Max Steiner's score, which was a major influence in the development of music for cinema. Until King Kong scaled up every aspect of filmmaking, scores were originally played live in the auditoriums, less than a decade before. As author George Turner once pointed out, "An Animation picture is different from other pictures in that the music really has to […] closely attend the action. What some composers call a 'Mickey Mouse score' because it's like a score on a cartoon." The result enhanced the action through a propulsive, percussive, and modern sound that has remained the model ever since.


Emotion in motion

O'Brien had the challenging task of bringing a creature to life that was not only a ferocious presence but could also emote something more human; this creature simply yearned for companionship. Kong's presence (as with any good monster movie) is felt even before he appears on screen, Skull Island's natives gripped in fear by their totem. O'Brien would capture similar magic while supervising the animation and effects for Schoedsack's other giant ape movie Mighty Joe Young. This one delivered an even slicker animated gorilla, courtesy of a young Ray Harryhausen who animated most of Joe. Once again working with Delgado's supreme sculpture and model work, O'Brien hired Harryhausen and another assistant Pete Peterson long before the film was commissioned, concept art dating as far back as 1946. He would go on to win the "Best Visual Effects" Oscar at the 1950 Academy Awards for his work on the film, something he was never entirely comfortable with. This dated back to the release of King Kong when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences proposed giving O'Brien an Oscar. After insisting that each member of his crew also receive a statue, they refused, and, therefore, he couldn't bring it upon himself to accept the award. Unfortunately, this rebuke did him no favors in the industry, despite his skills and revolutionary methods.


The skill of stop-motion animation seems to come from somewhere deep down inside. Such films ― whether a full feature or an effect ― are highly collaborative and help hone the director's vision through intricate pieces of the puzzle. Therefore, it is no surprise that the animator's personality often shines through, as they pour their heart and soul into the work. The process requires a lot of patience and focus ― time stands still ― and this intimate connection between the animator and each of their models becomes deeply personal. O'Brien's skill was in the characterization and how much humanity he brought to Kong, not only through dynamic movements and posture but also the more subtle variations ― raising an eyebrow here, directing the eyes over there ― you can almost hear his thoughts, "I was fine before you fucking idiots arrived!"

Kong shows real anger and pain, and as viewers, we feel every spear and bullet. Who could forget the jaw-dropping moment Kong kills the T-Rex? A violent act ― O'Brien flexing his boxing muscles ― that is then used to humanize him as he briefly plays with (almost studies) his kill. The unseen horrors of the "Spider Pit" sequence were cut, the crew devoured once they had fallen into the chasm. In his 2005 remake, Peter Jackson not only created his own horrific pit sequence but also directed a recreation of O'Brien's original.

kingkong trex

A definitive end


After its triumphant New York premiere on March 2nd, 1933 (O'Brien's birthday), King Kong went on general release across the US the following month on April 7th. As a pre-Code film, it arrived during a liminal moment in history, released between world wars and another golden age of discovery, ancient tombs unearthed, the Atlantic crossed, the universe expanding through a telescope to the sound of jazz music playing on the radio. But what would appear to be an age of wonder was also tainted by an economic decline and the rise of fascism (oddly familiar) with Hitler already in power.

This reminds us all the more about the wonders of King Kong. The film's phenomenal success and legacy is not only about how O'Brien harnessed all manner of effects to bring this "beast" of a movie to life but, in turn, how he helped create an incredible cinematic experience that distracted audiences from the anguish and hopelessness of the Great Depression. The capitalist subtext through man's ultimate control over nature becomes more transparent as the film reaches its final act with Kong exploited and victimized, "We're millionaires, boys. I'll share it with all of you!" shouts Denham. There is some irony that the film itself became such a monstrous success, costing just under 700 thousand dollars (while the penniless were dying in the streets), and taking over 1.7 million during its initial run. Kong ― now dubbed "the tallest leading man in Hollywood" by Cooper ― didn't just save Ann Darrow but also ended up saving RKO Studios from bankruptcy, prompting the production of a sequel, Son of Kong, fast-tracked into production and released the same year.


A high bar was set before the studio system began to fall towards the end of the next decade, paving the way for a more cynical new wave of filmmaking. Although we talk about the birth of the Summer blockbuster ― a genuine return to both the Golden Age and B-movies of the '50s ― with Steven Spielberg's Jaws in 1975, it becomes abundantly more evident that every other large-scale effects-driven movie that followed King Kong owes a great deal to such classic (and definitive) work. The sheer ape and awe on display not only continues to inspire generations of monster kids via "Creature Double Features" and memorable Thanksgiving movie slots but also remakes and monster mashes [3], inspiring a modern MonsterVerse, all of which still prove Kong's long-lasting impact on popular culture.

Sure, there are the theatricalities ― "Holy mackerel, what a show!" ― wrapped up in an extravagant fantasy; even crude effects when compared to today's standards, but there is a charm to its imperfections; such as the stilted movements and the rippling of Kong's fur caused by animators' fingers manipulating the puppets. But, lest we forget, King Kong was high art at the time… and should still be considered as such. As "Chief Technician," O'Brien, with the assistance of his technical staff, devised and pioneered special effects through animation, and is the primary reason Kong still stands tall after 90 years. This is a testament to the craftsmanship and ingenuity of the legendary animator and special effects artist that, despite Kong's iconic death [4], the original fantastic beast will live forever in the hearts and minds of generations to come. Not only had Obie left his thumbprints all over his work but, undeniably, a major mark on the history of cinema.

1. His labor of love Pinocchio (2022) also went on to win a Bafta and Oscar for "Best Animated Feature" during this year's awards season.
2. Emmanuel Frémiet's Gorille enlevant une femme (Gorilla carrying off a woman, 1887) is a bronze sculpture showing a gorilla clutching a naked, struggling woman and is in reference to Giabologna's famous The Rape of the Sabine Women, but replaces the Roman citizens of the original with the ferocious ape. Poet Charles Baudelaire once asked: "Why are we not given a crocodile, a tiger, or any other wild animal that might eat a woman? Because this is not about eating, but rape!"
3. Aside from 1962's goofball King Kong vs. Godzilla there is Dino De Laurentiis's modernization in 1976 and Peter Jackson's love letter from 2005.
4. Cooper and Shoedsack play a pilot and gunner during the film's climax. Ironically, this means Kong is killed by his creators.