On Thursday 24 June BFI members will get a chance to see Ray Harryhausen at the National Film Theatre, introducing Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack’s 1933 film King Kong as part of the Screen Epiphanies series.
This choice of ‘Screen Epiphany’ is pleasingly apt. King Kong brings its giant prehistoric ape to vivid life through the pioneering stop-motion techniques of Willis O’Brien, who later became the mentor Harryhausen affectionately called ‘Obie.’ Harryhausen has often expressed the life-changing impact of seeing King Kong for the first time, the way it drove the 13-year-old Ray to try to discover, and then recreate, the methods behind the animation, and so begin his own career. Harryhausen subsequently succeeded ‘Obie’ to become the foremost stop-motion animator in popular US cinema, animating a plethora of mythical creatures in films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981); this after a fascinating early career working on George Pal’s Puppetoons, Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series and Dr Seuss’s Private Snafu films during World War II, as well as his own 16mm animation experiments (see Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection DVD). A thoughtful man, Harryhausen is always happy to share his experiences and insights with an interested public, and, in the context of ongoing interest in special effects technologies (and a current cycle of fantasy films that includes a remake of Clash of the Titans), this is certainly reason enough for an evening in the animator’s company.
But this Screen Epiphanies evening is also a timely opportunity to revisit, in the company of a knowledgeable and articulate host, Willis O’Brien’s own artistry. There is now plenty of information on the techniques O’Brien used in King Kong, from Goldner and Turner’s wonderful The Making of King Kong (1975) to Richard Rickitt’s informative Special Effects: The History and Technique (2006). However, the mechanics of the animation process are only half the story. O’Brien’s stop-motion animation did not share the overriding aspiration towards photorealism that characterises much contemporary deployment of CGI. Look closely and you might see fingerprints on the Kong model, or spot the hairs on Kong’s head defying the laws of physics as they move in opposing directions of their own volition.
Although always alert to the conditions required to enable suspension of disbelief, O’Brien was much more concerned to create fantastical beings that possessed dynamism and presence. Alongside imaginative staging that brought ape and human together in the same fictional space, O’Brien and his model maker Marcel Delgado invested their Kong with a complex array of movement elements, generating a keen sense that we were witnessing a sentient being in front of the camera. At different moments intricately animated postural and gestural shifts reveal a range of more complex emotional responses in this so-called ‘beast’, such as contemplation, protectiveness, hesitation, and self-consciousness.
As a consequence, alongside the broad-brush depiction of the rampaging Kong, another Kong comes into view. This Kong complicates attempts (within and outside the film) to position him as monster, qualifies our sympathy for the hysterical Ann Darrow (with whom Kong has fallen in love), and goes some way to undermining the film’s racist elements. It is this Kong that continues to captivate audiences, and this Kong that is testament not simply to the technical skill of O’Brien and Delgado, but to their creative vision. Do take the opportunity to (re)discover this Kong for yourself.
Side notes: If you cannot make the Harryhausen introduction, the 1933 King Kong is available on DVD and a newly digitally remastered version will be released by Warner Home Video on Blu-Ray in September 2010. An exhibition of Harryhausen’s works, Ray Harryhausen: Myths and Legends, will open on 29 June 2010 at the London Film Museum, and Mighty Joe Young, a film he worked on alongside Willis O’Brien (and in some ways a ‘sequel’ to King Kong), is showing at the NFT on 26 and 27 June.