Archive for Willis H O’Brien

Kane Caught in Love Nest with “Dinosaur”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2013 by dcairns

league1Panels from Nemo: Heart of Ice, the latest installment of the adventures of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Ignore the terrible movie with which Sean Connery ended his career, the comic is quite good.

In The League’s universe, all the characters from sensational fiction inhabit the same world and interact, thus there’s a superhero team (though Moore denies they’re that) composed of Captain Nemo, Allan Quartermain, Mina Murray, the Invisible Man and Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde. The movie throws in Dorian Gray too, which was enough to get them sued by none other than Larry Cohen, who had written a screenplay called CAST OF CHARACTERS which brought Gray together with several of the above characters. Moore, who hates the film business (can’t blame him after FROM HELL) was not pleased at being dragged into a movie lawsuit.

The creators somehow evade copyright law and drag in all sorts of famous fictional figures — the newspaper magnate here is clearly Charles Foster Kane, and his Everglades retreat is decorated with a pic of a nude woman on a sled, referencing both versions of the origin of “Rosebud” (an innocent snow vehicle, or William Randolph Hearst’s nickname for Marion Davies’ genitals), the Maltese Falcon, and a stuffed pterodactyl head mounted on the wall.

The latter strikes me as a singularly witty trope. It refers chiefly to the supposed flying lizards in the scene discussed here, which are in fact cel-animated flamingos, we think, and not off-cuts from KING KONG or SON OF KONG as is all too often claimed. Since the Moore comic is set in 1925, the dino also fits neatly with the first movie of THE LOST WORLD released that year, and one remembers that in the Conan Doyle novel, Professor Challenger and his team bring back from the remote South American plateau an egg, which hatches and provokes consternation.

I always felt this was the inspiration for Max Klinger’s print.

However, in the movie of THE LOST WORLD, Willis O’Brien animates a brontosaurus rampaging through London — how the team brought THAT home is as unexplained as Kong’s trip to New York eight years later. So the Moore reference doesn’t make absolute cross-textual sense, but it ties together a number of disparate things in a pleasing if irrational way. Which is just the kind of thing I like.

lost-world-bronto

Moore & O’Neill’s series is enjoyable for this kind of attention to background detail — every image has some in-joke or reference, which is why one likes to have the Annotations to hand when perusing.

Nemo: Heart of Ice

The Lost World [1925] [DVD]

Citizen Kane [Blu-ray] [1941]

The Sunday Intertitle: Poultry in Motion

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 2, 2011 by dcairns

I’d never seen this early (1917!) work by Willis H. O’Brien — a comic short about the ancient ancestor of today’s chicken, the Dinornis, or “great roaring whiffenpoof.”

“The dinornis was the ancestor of our modern chicken. It had long legs and a kind face.”

Crude compared with THE LOST WORLD or KONG, this piece nevertheless has an interesting, slightly creepy design style. Comparing it to Starewicz’s roadkill puppetshows, I wonder if stop motion has an inherently eerie quality, which can only be conquered by careful and tasteful attention to the cuteness factor. There certainly is something a little worrying about the idea of dolls coming to life, which is somehow less disturbing when the animated figures are drawings.

The bolder among you can watch this Nazi-era stop-motion horror, but be warned — it’ll ruin your day. I mean, it actually will make you feel sad and horrible for hours. The ending, where two children are ground into mincemeat, is the most heartwarming moment.

Of course, what’s also shown in PREHISTORIC POULTRY, with its weird, emaciated cave-people figurines, is that “Obie,” unusually for an animator, wasn’t particularly humorous (and his life story would be marked by appalling tragedy) — it’s especially awkward to see him reaching for comedy effects in SON OF KONG. The funny bits of the first KONG — the ape nursing his injured finger, for instance — come naturally out of character, rather than schtick or gags.

Still, if POULTRY isn’t hugely funny, it’s quite charming in spite of its jolting, skeletal effigy stars: the love that’s gone into it transcends the superficially eerie look.

NOT the CITIZEN KANE animated bird!

Son of Kane

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2011 by dcairns

Let’s lay to rest the persistent rumour that CITIZEN KANE re-uses footage from SON OF KONG. (We won’t even bother with Charles Higham’s claim that it re-uses SETS.)

I was hoping to do what I did with Steve the News on the March octopus and locate the actual source for the footage, but after much consideration I’m finally decided that there’s no mystery to solve and the scene in question is all original footage — I’m not 100% sure, but let me talk you through my thinking and we’ll see who agrees.

The topic was first discussed on this site here, with Dan North intrepidly searching for the mythic stock shot after I mentioned it, not at that point questioning its veracity.

The scene, as you may remember, is Kane’s everglades “picnic” for his “singer” wife Susan Alexander. Shot opens on a real singer, who drifts from close-up away into the scene, revealed as an elaborate camp-site in the glades — the first of a brace of dismal swampy picnics in Welles’ work: see LADY FROM SHANGHAI for No. 2 (“It was no more a picnic than he was a man.”)

Flapping creature just above the centre of the frame…

We pick up sinister manservant Paul Stewart as he drifts past through the well-lubricated revelers — several black shapes flit past in the murk of night — we move in on the Kane tent, and dissolve to a blazing row between the Charles Foster Kanes.

As far as I can see, the allegation that this sequence incorporates SON OF KONG footage is entirely down to the black flying things. They’re clearly not real — what they are is cel animation, “on twos” — photographed two frames at a time, which makes them seem rather jerky compared to the live action foreground: like stretching out 12 frames per second to 24. I’m indebted to William Randall William Cook, for the technical analysis throughout this piece. Randy is no stranger to animation… or confusion.

Blow-Up: a KANE bird (centre) photographed off the new BluRay in close-up.

Now, SON OF KONG famously relies on stop motion miniatures rather than cel animation, but at the top of this post you can see some black silhouette birds which do appear in it. They appear to be rotoscoped — matte outlines taken from real birds in real footage. Whoever inserted them into the film (I guess optical wiz Linwood Dunn) apparently couldn’t be bothered pasting in the bird footage, and just left the dark shapes — maybe because the effect was more atmospheric. Skull Island, home of the black gulls.

So there’s a stylistic connection between KONG and KANE, but bear in mind these birds are NOT produced by the exact same technique. The KONG birds are “on ones” and they’re rotoscoped off of real gulls, whereas the KANE birds are simply animated, and using half as many images per second.

Also, the glass-painted jungles of both films are by Mario Larrinaga, so a the style is understandably similar. But SON OF KONG contains no nocturnal jungle scenes, and we can’t suppose there were deleted scenes that KANE might have pilfered, because SON OF was a very quickly-produced rip-off sequel. If there was anything left on the cutting room floor, it wouldn’t be expensively produced special effects shots, it’d be Robert Armstrong yackin’.

The low-flying beasties are the only example of cel animation discernible in KANE, so the assumptions have been (1) they’re not specially shot, they must be from elsewhere (2) they’re kind of distracting, they must be something Welles was forced to accept for budgetary reasons (3) they’re pterodactyls from SON OF KONG. I suspect SON gets nominated rather than the better-known KING because it’s easier to imagine some bit of unfamiliar footage existing in that comparatively little-seen film.

Randy is convinced that the animated flappers are storks, or similar exotic birds and therefore an intended addition to the scene. I wondered if the birds had been added in order to transform an African backdrop into a Floridian one. But lets look at — and think about — that background.

Or indeed, those backgrounds. Randy points out that what we’re seeing is specially-shot KANE foreground action (that’s Paul Stewart, after all) in front of TWO rear-projection screens, separated by a big tent. The second screen is really big, probably the one Fay Wray cowered in front of in KING KONG, so the screen may be from the 1933 ape epic even if the images projected on it aren’t.

Now, we can clearly see that the projected images are matte paintings, except for the animated birds and the rippling water. What we can also see is that they contain tents — decorative tents matching the ones in the live-action foreground, and certainly suggestive of a party rather than a jungle expedition. So dismiss any idea that this is material patched in from a TARZAN movie. Wrong studio, anyway.

Randy is certain the paintings are the work of Mario Larrinaga, employed elsewhere on KANE’s numerous mattes, and also responsible for most of Skull Island’s rotting foliage. So the feeling that the backgrounds are reminiscent of KONG is grounded in truth — like most myths.

So, given that the foreground is pure KANE-Welles-Toland footage, and the tents match, and the whole scene strongly suggests a very specific milieu, a rich man’s party in the Everglades, and even the animated birds fit that hypothesis, the only way to incorporate SON OF KONG material into this scene would be to propose that matte paintings of jungle scenes from a KONG picture had been overpainted with tents in order to compliment this sequence. So there’s no possible question of KANE recycling stock footage from KONG, at most we’re talking about the partial re-use of overpainted mattes… and that doesn’t strike me as any more plausible than the suggestion that they’re original mattes, unless somebody can identify the shots in KONG JNR that those trees are in, which so far nobody has.

All this examination seems triggered by the weirdness of the animated birds (the sole remaining mystery: who actually animated them? remember, they’re cel animation and not Willis H. O’Brien’s beloved stop-motion miniatures) and fueled by the suspicion that this scene is somehow too elaborate, that it must contain a shortcut somewhere…

This shot is a cutaway interpolated into the tent argument.

But the following scene with the Kanes in a tent is so simple and cramped, the sprawling exterior footage is quite necessary to make the sequence feel like it’s a real outing (albeit a 1941 studio picture’s version of an outing). And as every magician knows, one way to fool the audience is to put so much work into a trick that the audience dismisses the most obvious explanation (“Well, he can’t have memorized the position of every card in the deck!”). And Welles was a magician.

That’s what it comes down to, all this painstaking rumination and nerdiness — a single critical insight, that Welles was quite capable of staging an elaborate master shot involving a crowd of extras, two rear-projected matte paintings, one incorporating live action water and the other with animated birds — just as scene-setting.

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