Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Eighth Wonder of the World (3/2/09)

It probably wasn’t very long after the Lumière Brothers invented the motion-picture camera that someone realized if you stopped the camera, you could make objects appear or disappear on screen in the blink of an eye. Certainly pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès realized that by 1899 when he made his film "The Conjuror."

But the year before Méliès made his film, American J. Stuart Blackton figured out if you just repositioned things, instead of moving them on- and off-camera, you could make inanimate objects seem to move on their own.

While Blackton became known as the "Father of American Animation," most of his films were trifles and filled with gimmicks that failed to move the plot forward. As pioneering as his techniques were, decades passed before they truly came to fruition in the work of Willis O’Brien, whose birthday we note today.

O'Brien was originally a sculptor, but in the 1910s was hired by Thomas Edison to create stop-motion short films -- most of which featured dinosaurs. O'Brien began using clay for his creations, but he soon developed models that had articulated metal skeletons covered with plastic or rabbit fur. In 1925, he achieved new heights with his work in the film "The Lost World," which featured a brontosaurus running amok through London. But that film was only a warm-up for O'Brien's masterpiece, "King Kong" (which, coincidentally, also opened on this day in 1933). Working on his largest scale ever, O'Brien was able to actually shape Kong's performance, making the giant ape the most sympathetic character in the film -- never mind that his pathos was combined with bouts of ingesting and crushing people.

O'Brien continued animating until his death in 1962, revisiting giant apes in "Son of Kong" and "Mighty Joe Young," but he never again scaleed the heights he reached in 1933.

O'Brien's work may seem a little primitive to modern eyes, but without it, we’d have no Wallace and Gromit, Gumby, or even Davey and Goliath. Many of today’s CGI animators got their inspiration from watching the original "King Kong." So, on this most animated of days, let's raise a toast -- a banana daiquiri, say -- to the man who created the "Eighth Wonder of the World."

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