Sunday, May 28, 2017
For the superb 1949 stop-motion film Mighty Joe Young, Ray Harryhausen and Willis O'Brien designed a stop-motion puppet whose armature was based on the skeleton of a real gorilla. Four 16-inch-high models were made, each with 150 aluminum parts. The designs were turned over to long-time collaborator and machinist Harry Cunningham, but Cunningham delegated the actual work to an unknown associate.
The first armature had hing joints in the shoulders. O'Brian preferred hinge joints: Ball-and-socket joints had a tendencey to lock up, requiring repair. The rubber musculature also had a tendency to pull on the armature as it shrank under the hot lights, which could lock up ball-and-socket joints. Harryhausen also preferred the hinge joint, and named this armature "Jennifer". The three other armatures all had ball-and-socket joints.
Sculptor Marcel Delgado designed and sculpted the exterior. Harryhausen did a bust of Joe based on Bushman, a gorilla at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. But it was Delgado's exterior which was used. Delgado packed cotton around the armature and then layered rubber over it. This gave the impression of muscles moving beneath the skin. For the fur, Delgado got rid of the rabbit fur that had been used since King Kong, and used fetal calfskin. Fetal calfskin had much finer hair, and movement of the fur (as the animators moved the puppet) did not show up nearly as much on the Joe figurines as it had on the Kong models.
Taxidermist George Lofgren treated the hide to make it even more lifelike. The skin was stretched on a frame and the hair combed. The skin was then immersed in hot wax, and the wax allowed to cool. Bettles were then allowed to eat away the skin, leaving only the the roots of the hairs sticking out of the wax. Rubber was then applied to the hair, forming a new "skin". Because the hair was embedded in the rubber at a certain angle, it "bounced back" into its original position -- even if touched.
To further speed up production, five-inch and ten-inch Joe models were also made, which allowed for shooting of scenes which did not require as much detail. A hips-and-up model, 15 inches in height, was also built but never used.
Delgado also constructed three lions, two horses, and a wide range of human armatures. These included an eight-inch-high Jill and a nine-inch-high cowboy. (These were later acquired by stop-motion animator Jim Danforth, and the Jill armature used to animate the Lucille Ball puppet at the beginning of Here's Lucy in 1968.) O'Brien sold the two horse armatures to the production team working on The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956).