Personal collection of film special effects pioneer Willis O'Brien grabs spotlight at Heritage Auctions

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Personal collection of film special effects pioneer Willis O'Brien grabs spotlight at Heritage Auctions
Willis O'Brien's Personal Collection of (297) Vintage Original Keybook Photos from the Production of King Kong (RKO, 1933).

DALLAS, TX.- King Kong ain't got nothing on Willis O'Brien.

In fact, without O'Brien there would be no King Kong; nor Mighty Joe Young; nor, in fact, the modern blockbuster. In a sense, he is the force behind Jurassic Park long before Arnold and Leah Spielberg had a baby named Steven.

O'Brien is universally recognized as the father of stop motion animation, credited with developing the technology that brought inanimate figures and puppets to life through a series of photos taken in succession, with slight movement in between; when run together, characters came to life in a way that impacted the movie-making industry forever. His credits started with The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy. Later projects included Morpheus Mike, The Lost Mountain, The Black Scorpion and Mighty Joe Young, but the film for which he is known best always will be the timeless King Kong.

"Without Willis O'Brien, there is no King Kong," Heritage Auctions Executive Vice President Joe Maddelena said. "Edgar Wallace's story was already there, but without Willis O'Brien's incredible film work, the film could have been an absolute disaster, or probably would not have been made at all."

King Kong is O'Brien's most famous film, but his impact has lasted long after that classic, and even after his death in 1962. The stop-motion technology he advanced forever changed the scope of how characters could be brought to life on screen, even into generations-later projects like Star Wars.

For his transformation of the way creatures were presented in King Kong, O'Brien was offered a 1933 Academy Award; he declined the Oscar when his request of a statuette for each member of his effects team was denied.

O'Brien was chastised for declining his King Kong Oscar and subsequently, at the time of the Mighty Joe Young Oscar nomination, the rules of the Academy dictated that the producer of the winning film would receive the Oscar for Best Special Effects.

O'Brien did finally receive the honor when a grateful producer, Meriam C. Cooper, presented him with the Oscar for Best Special Effects for Mighty Joe Young (RKO, 1949). He accepted that Oscar (estimate $500,000+), which headlines a trove of 50 O'Brien lots offered in Heritage Auctions' Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Auction July 16-18.

"The job of the special effects department is to stage impossible happenings on the screen," actress Patricia Neal said when presenting O'Brien with his Oscar. "In Mighty Joe Young, they are responsible for converting a pile of lumber, a roll of tar paper and a stack of old toupées into an 80-foot gorilla you'd swear was alive and breathing."

O'Brien's Personal Collection of (297) Vintage Original Keybook Photos from the Production of King Kong (RKO, 1933) is an extraordinary trove of gelatin silver photos on single- and double-weight paper that come from O'Brien's personal keybook of production test and behind-the-scenes photos. The collection (estimate: $80,000+) features cast members like Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot, and images from iconic scenes, including Kong snatching Ann Darrow (Wray) at the ritual sacrifice, Dinosaurs roaming the jungle, Kong's earth-shaking fight with the T-Rex and Kong's rampage in New York City. Of note are incredible images of O'Brien's team in the animation studio posing with the Kong stop motion puppet and working on practical effects like a large animatronic ape's paw, gigantic Pterodactyl feet and engineering and photographing the effect of a crashing model miniature bi-plane. One of those that ultimately brings down the mighty Kong from atop the Empire State Building.

Similarly, his Personal Collection of Photos from Mighty Joe Young (26) (RKO, 1949) includes 26 vintage, original gelatin silver production photos on single-weight paper from the film for which he won his Oscar, and his Personal Collection of (40) Photos from The Giant Behemoth (Allied Artists, 1959) is a vintage original scrapbook assembled by O'Brien, who inscribed the interior first page "The Giant Behemoth Scrap Book, Pete Peterson, Eugene Lurier." Each carries a pre-auction estimate of $8,000+.

"To have primary sourced material like this, from one of the architects of action filmmaking, is incredible," Maddalena said. "Items like this just never come to auction. It's one thing to have images like these, but the fact that they actually belonged in the personal collection of one of the unquestioned pioneers in film history makes them a once-in-a-lifetime find."

Artwork of Joe Lassoed By Cowboys On Horses for Mighty Joe Young (RKO, 1949), signed by O'Brien (estimate: $24,000+) is hand-painted artwork in pencil, ink and gouache on 20-by-15-inch artist's board. The image is signed "W.H. O'Brien - 46-" in the bottom right corner; handwritten on the verso, "Early Drawing for 'Mighty Joe Young' by Willis O'Brien 1946."

Other top lots from the Personal Collection of Willis O'Brien include, but are not limited to:

• Willis O'Brien "Westernettes" TV Concept Artwork (1950s) - estimate: $20,000+

• Willis O'Brien Artwork and Technical Drawings for Theme Park Ride "Reel Ride to the Moon" (1950s) - estimate: $12,000+

• Willis O'Brien King Kong Artwork from King Kong v. Frankenstein (1960) - estimate: $12,000+

• Willis O'Brien's Pre-Production King Kong Plaster Head (RKO, 1933) - estimate: $10,000+

• Willis O'Brien Storyboard Panels for The Last of the Oso Si-Papu (2) (1950) - estimate: $6,000+

• Willis O'Brien Artwork of a Monster Feeding for The Last of the Oso Si-Papu (1950) - estimate: $6,000+

• Willis O'Brien Artwork of Battling Monsters for The Last of the Oso Si-Papu (1950) - estimate: $6,000+

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