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Willis Harold O'Brien (March 2, 1886 – November 8, 1962) was an Irish American pioneering motion picture special effects artist who perfected and specialized in stop-motion animation. He was affectionately known to his family and close friends as "Obie".



Willis O'Brien was born in Oakland, California. He was a cartoonist for the San Francisco Daily News, and a professional marble sculptor before he began working in film. O'Brien was married to Hazel Ruth Collette in 1925 and divorced by 1930. He had two sons from the marriage, but, in 1933, Hazel shot and killed the two boys and turned the gun on herself. She survived but died soon after suffering from cancer and tuberculosis.

O'Brien died in Los Angeles. He was survived by his second wife, Darlyne. During his lifetime, O'Brien was never interviewed in depth about his career or methods. In 1997, he was posthumously awarded the Winsor McCay Award by ASIFA-Hollywood, the United States chapter of the International Animated Film Society ASIFA (Association internationale du film d'animation). The award is in recognition of lifetime or career contributions to the art of animation. His interment was located at Chapel of the Pines Crematory.


O'Brien was hired by the Edison Company to produce several short films with a prehistoric theme, most notably The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy (1915) and the nineteen minute long The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918), the later of which helping to secure his position on The Lost World. For his early, short films O'Brien created his own characters out of clay, although for much of his feature career he would employ Richard and Marcel Delgado to create much more detailed stop-motion models (based on O'Brien's designs) with rubber skin built up over complex, articulated metal armatures.

O'Brien's first Hollywood feature was The Lost World (1925). Although his 1931 film Creation was never completed, it led to his most famous work, animating the dinosaurs and the famous giant ape in King Kong (1933), and its sequel Son of Kong (1933). He was chief technician for the epic The Last Days of Pompeii (1935). The film Mighty Joe Young (1949), on which O'Brien is credited as Technical Creator, won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1950. Credit for the award went to the films producers, RKO Productions, but O'Brien was also awarded a statue. O'Brien's protege (and successor), Ray Harryhausen, worked alongside O'Brien on this film, and by some accounts Harryhausen did the majority of the animation.

Later movies with special effects by Willis O'Brien included The Animal World (US 1956, in collaboration with Harryhausen), The Black Scorpion (US 1957) and Behemoth, the Sea Monster (UK 1959, US release entitled The Giant Behemoth). Although O'Brien is widely hailed as an animation pioneer, in his later years he struggled to find work. Shortly before his death, he animated a brief scene in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), featuring some characters dangling from a fire escape and was one of the writers for Ishiro Honda's King Kong vs. Godzilla.

The 1969 film The Valley of Gwangi, completed by Harryhausen seven years after O'Brien's death, was based on an idea he'd spent years trying to bring to the screen. O'Brien's wrote the script for an earlier version of this story, a film released as The Beast of Hollow Mountain (US 1956) but O'Brien did not handle the effects.

Lost projects

  • Atlantis - developed by O'Brien and Harry Hoyt after the success of The Lost World.
  • Frankenstein
  • Creation (1931 film)
  • War Eagles - about a race of Vikings riding on prehistoric eagles who fought dinosaurs. Cancelled by World War II.
  • Emilio and Guloso - about a boy and his pet bull who save their town from a dinosaur called "Lagarto Grande.""
  • Valley of the Mists - further elaboration of "Emilio."
  • Gwangi - eventually made into The Valley of Gwangi.
  • Last of the Labyrinthodons - modern-day sea monsters from prehistoric times attacking ships
  • The Vines of Ceres - vines from outer space engulf San Francisco
  • The Last of the Oso Si-Papu - about a giant creature resembling a bear with gila monster skin roaming Arizona
  • Baboon-A Tale about a Yeti - story set in the Himalayas
  • The Bubbles - bubble-like creatures in Baja California start eating up anything in their path.
  • The Eagle - about a giant eagle who kills a dinosaur
  • Umbah - treatment by O'Brien about two giant Indians spawned by a doctor's experiment

External links



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