This is true too of ancient Roman structures, bridges and aqueducts that still stand. Engineers do not shake their heads in pity at the achievements of these primitives.
No architect or builder enters Notre Dame cathedral and thinks that it’s such a shame that those poor fools in the past did such a poor job of it without the use of computer models.
No, when modern-day builders, engineers, and architects see these wonders, they are amazed that these geniuses of the past could do so much with so little.
So why do today’s students of film dismiss the past so quickly?
The fact that early filmmakers did not have such things as sound, color, wide-screen, steady-cams, non-linear editing systems, surround sound, small digital cameras with ultra-high resolution, or CGI, or whatever, is seen only as a limitation by many of the students I talk to.
They do not marvel at what the pioneers were able to do without our modern advantages; the early work is somehow inferior because technology has improved. But those early filmmakers, with so much less, were still able to produce classics.
Several years ago, I was giving a lecture at a university where most of the attendees were interested in animation and computer-generated effects. At one point I mentioned that they should watch the original 1933 version of King Kong and before I could get out another word they all laughed. It was, they thought, a ridiculous piece of advice.
All these years later their laughter reverberates in my memory. How could they laugh at King Kong? I was stunned.
Sometimes I feel very lucky to have been born when I was because I got to live in an analog world. Stop-motion animation was still very much in use in the world of special effects and had changed very little since the very beginning of film. So what looks crude to younger eyes, because they have been weaned on computer-generated effects, does not look quite so crude to me.
I saw King Kong on television when I was five or so and it was magic. It was one of the things that got me interested in film. At that time, the film was nearly 40 years old and the effects worked as well on me as I’m sure they did on the 1933 audiences.
In fact, the King Kong animation of Willis O’Brien inspired a couple of generations of children to grow up and become filmmakers. One of those kids was Ray Harryhausen, who became a special effects icon. He was so popular that when people refer to his films they are “Ray Harryhausen films”: not the actor’s film, or director, or screenwriter, but the effects guy. No other effects artist can make that claim.
Peter Jackson says that King Kong is the film that made him want to make films. This is by no measure a rare claim for filmmakers, artists, animators, and effects people.
It is no coincidence that when comic book artist Art Adams created his series, starring an intelligent gorilla and his beautiful partner, that he called it Monkey Man and O’Brien after King Kong animator Willis O’Brien.
For me, and for the others who were inspired by Kong, he was a living, breathing creature. If stop-motion animation was “done,” just how Kong could seem so alive?
When I was a teenager and the technology would allow, I began to watch the animation one frame at a time to study just what O’Brien was doing. I learned a few things by doing that. When you watch Kong move, his fur seems to dance around and change erratically. Seen a frame at a time it is clear to see that the hair changes from frame to frame because this is where O’Brien put his fingers to manipulate the model.
In fact, my friend Todd Masters and I spotted one or two surface gauges left in shots. Surface gauges are devices (a kind of pointer) used to keep track of a model’s position but are meant to removed before each frame is snapped. Even so, these “mistakes” did not take anything away from the illusion of life that O’Brien was able to imbue Kong with.
One day, I was watching the fight scene between Kong and a Tyrannosaurus Rex – at the end of the fight Kong breaks the jaw of the dinosaur. What I noticed after studying the fight was that Kong gets the idea to snap the jaw early in the fight – in fact he tries more than once to get a hold of his opponent’s jaw before he succeeds in his plan.
What O’Brien did was give Kong a plan – Kong was thinking. Even though on the surface the animation may seem crude by today’s standards, what worked about the animation is timeless. I have seen more than a few modern computer-generated creatures that have less going on internally. These creatures are slick and polished on the outside, but vacant on the inside. They do not think. They do not feel. But King Kong did.
There is something to be learned from those who came before. They were able to do such much with the computing power of their own brains, imagination, and feelings.
To be fair to animators, many of them, more than most young filmmakers I have met, tend to know and respect the history of their craft. For them innovation and history walk hand in hand. (That said, I have met students who say they want to be character animators and have never heard of the legends in their field.)
It baffles me that in this, the Information Age, so many people don’t bother to take advantage of the vast knowledge at their fingertips. YouTube and Netflix are just sitting there, with all the treasures of the films of the past – and their lessons to be learned. The problem is that things that were once so bright and shiny that they lit up the world become dull and tarnished with the dust of time. Time has a way of making old things look useless, but look deeper.
Recently, audiences were amazed as a ghostly image of Tupac Shakur appeared on stage to work with living performers. This “hologram’ was initially hailed as a modern marvel – but though there was some modern technology involved, the basic technique is a 150-year-old theater trick for creating ghost effects on stage. Someone involved in this task knew and respected history.
If you can learn to brush off the dust of time and look beneath the surface you may get a glimpse of genius. At the very least, you’ll learn not to laugh at the hard work of pioneers.