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Willis O’Brien, Iwerks’ Multiplane Camera and Fleischer’s Stereoptical Process

March 4th, 2008 · No Comments · Special effects, Technology

This post is by way of a posing a possible historical question. In reading Richard Rickitt’s book, Special Effects: The History and Technique, I was brought up short by the following illustration (on page 184) of the miniature rear projection setup created by Willis O’Brien for the original King Kong (1933):

Willis O'Brien's  Miniature Rear Projection Setup for King Kong (1933)

O’Brien created this setup to allow him to add live action footage using rear projection with his stop motion puppets; the latter, as can be seen, performed in what can only be called a multiplane space. I was immediately struck by the resemblance between it and Ub Iwerks’ multiplane camera and the Fleischer Stereoptical Process (aka Setback) created by Max Fleischer and John E. Burks. The resemblance is all the more intriguing given the fact that the Iwerks and Fleischer devices were finalized soon after King Kong premiered. (The Disney multiplane camera would not be ready until 1937.) As such, I wonder what influence, if any, O’Brien’s work had in their development?

Leslie Iwerks and John Kenworthy, in their biography of Ub Iwerks, The Hand Behind the Mouse, note that his multiplane camera had a horizontal orientation, much like O’Brien’s setup, and was first used in the 1934 cartoon, The Headless Horseman. In addition,

Because Ub’s multiplane camera was horizontally oriented, it was well-suited for experiments in stop-motion animation as well as for the studio’s typical cel animation. A stop-motion film entitled The Toy Parade was filmed but never released using the new multiplane technology. (pages 130-131)

When I asked Kenworthy about the Iwerks-O’Brien connection, he wrote that,

… what I gleaned was that Ub had read descriptions of Disney’s prospective Multiplane and understood fully how to use it. Being that they were physically located on the second floor of a building … they could not of course build a vertical one. Having the Fleischers vets there may have [led] them to [a] discussion of what Max was doing there, but no discussion ever came up about O’Brien. … However, and this is what I found really interesting, the tests were done using stop-motion figures. There were rumors that a stop-motion film was made called The Toy Parade, but I could not confirm that. Ralph Somerville remembered animating in stop-motion there, but didn’t recall on what. … So to make a real link, I don’t think so, but there is no reason to think that Ub wasn’t aware of what others were doing. I just never heard Obie mentioned at all.

I’m not sure that necessarily settles the question. Even so, what then about a Fleischer-O’Brien connection? The Stereoptical Process involved did not really involve distinct planes of action, but a 3-dimensional set in back of a platen for the animation cels as illustrated in this detail from the patent drawing:

Fleischer Stereoptical patent detail

Again, like the O’Brien and the initial Iwerks design, Fleischer/Burks used a horizontal orientation. If Iwerks was aware of what Disney was doing, one must assume Max Fleischer was as well. But who influenced who is not that simple.

Reiniger Multiplane Camera

The first known multiplane camera was developed for Lotte Reiniger’s marvelous 1926 silhouette feature, The Adventures of Prince Achmed illustrated on the left. The purpose was not to create a sense of depth per se, but to give the capability of animating different types of action at the same time. For instance, the main characters might be animated on the top level with animated backgrounds done on another level; the latter included some abstract animations by Walter Ruttman,

Berthold Bartosch, who was also part of the film’s small crew, used a similar multiplane setup to add depth to his his 20-minute cutout film L’Idée, whose production began in France in 1930 and was finished in 1932.

In any case, O’Brien’s role in the development of the multiplane animation camesell and the Stereoptical Process remains is an intriguing possibility.


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