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Articles & Profiles: Pete Peterson – Stop Motion’s Forgotten Man - By Philip Smolen
Posted on Friday, January 01, 2010 @ 21:24:42 Mountain Standard Time by Duane

Fantasy film fans honor Ray Harryhausen and rightfully so. Those magical stop motion images he created have entered film lore and continue to delight generations of film lovers. A few years ago I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Ray at one of his signings for his book “An Animated Life.” I proudly introduced my son and told Ray how my son now loves his movies as much as I do. Ray smiled and said how it seems that even though he hadn’t made a movie in more than 20 years, he was still gathering new fans. Later that day I thought about what Ray had said and smiled wistfully. While I was delighted that people were still discovering Ray Harryhausen, I was also disappointed because it seemed that no one was taking the time to discover stop motion’s forgotten man – Pete Peterson.

Looking at their body of work there’s no comparison. Ray completed 16 films during his career with many of them now entrenched as fantasy favorites. He was smart enough to team up with a producer who saw the commercial possibilities in stop motion and tirelessly promoted Ray. Pete only worked on three films and a couple of short projects in his brief stop motion career. For the most part he toiled on low-budget sci-fi movies. Pete died just as Ray was hitting his creative stride. Whereas Ray’s career had a full and lasting bloom, Pete’s career was over in a flash. And the true irony of Pete Peterson was that while he breathed life into some truly wonderful creatures, he suffered terribly in his own life.

*   *   *

Humble Beginnings

Little is known of Pete Peterson so it seems fitting that the life of the man who created some terrific stop motion creatures would remain as shadowy as one of his creations. He came late to his calling in life. He worked as a grip (electrician) in Hollywood and by the 1940s was working at RKO studios where he was assigned to work on the Willis O’Brien project Mighty Joe Young. It’s rumored that he already knew O’Brien and was a crew member on his masterpiece King Kong. But it was on Mighty Joe Young that Peterson’s stop motion career took hold.

Because Mighty Joe Young was a studio picture, Peterson was probably assigned to O’Brien’s group as one of their grips, and he most likely lit the miniature sets that were constructed for the stop motion photography. Here he watched patiently and with great interest as O’Brien and his assistant (a young Ray Harryhausen) worked painstakingly at the frame by frame manipulation of the Joe Young puppets. Since O’Brien was in charge of the effects team, his time was almost certainly taken up by meetings and devising the many complex process shots which left the majority of the animation up to Ray Harryhausen. As the animation fell further and further behind schedule, O’Brien desperately looked for ways to speed up the process. He hired others (including Marcel Delgado and Buzz Gibson [who worked on Son of Kong]) to try their hand at stop motion, but their results were unusable. Peterson was bitten by the bug and in his spare time performed stop motion experiments at home. He placed tape on people’s arms and legs to gauge movement and recorded these experiments to gain an understanding of the process. After a while he finally asked O’Brien if he could try his hand at stop motion. O’Brien gave him a small corner in the effects studio to work from and was delighted to see that Peterson had real talent and a feel for the work.

So Peterson was added as “second technician” and worked on several scenes in Mighty Joe Young. The two scenes that show his emerging talent are the beginning of the nightclub scene and the escape in the truck. In the nightclub scene, Joe is shown hoisting Terry Moore and her piano high overhead on a platform while she performs Joe’s favorite song “Beautiful Dreamer.” The scene has great dramatic impact as Joe is unlit at first, and it seems as though Moore and her piano are floating and turning in the air by themselves. Only when the club lights are fully lit does the audience (both the club and the movie) realize that this incredible beast is behind the magic. And it’s a tribute to Peterson’s emerging skill as an animator that Joe’s power and strength is fully conveyed. Joe stands majestically astride effortlessly holding the crushing weight of the circular platform and the piano. You can see the sinew and sweat on the gorilla as he stares confused at the audience, not sure what to make of these strange new surroundings. This creature has great dignity and power and Pete captures it perfectly.

Later in the film, Joe is condemned to death for the riot in the nightclub. However, O’Hara (Robert Armstrong) schemes to get Joe back to Africa. With the help of Terry Moore and Ben Johnson, they load the great ape into a truck and head to the pier. It’s here that Peterson’s animates Joe as he sits at the back of the truck. Pete has the ape sit there bored, drumming his fingers aimlessly on his leg. It’s a silly scene, but as a boy I loved it. It humanized Joe and involved me in his escape that much more. There are a few other scenes that used some of Peterson’s animation (including the lasso scene), but the above mentioned scenes were his first major animation successes.

It was during this time on Mighty Joe Young that Pete met and married his wife, only to lose her to the hand of death three months later. This tragedy bonded him forever to Willis O’Brien since O’Brien was no stranger to misfortune (in 1933 shortly after King Kong was released, O’Brien’s wife shot and killed their two sons and then turned the gun on herself). The two men were forever linked by their passion for stop motion and the hard luck they endured.

*   *   *

Of Mexico and Monsters

No one knows what Pete Peterson did between 1949 and 1957. He may have continued to work as a grip at a Hollywood studio for a while. It was probably during this time that he contracted multiple sclerosis, that terrible degenerative disease that robs its victims of their muscle control.  Another ironic cruelty; Pete was able to give life and motion to inanimate objects but was unable to enjoy the fullness of motion himself. Almost certainly it cost him his job as a grip which involves a great amount of time standing.

However, opportunity came knocking again when Willis O’Brien was hired to create the effects for the low budget sci-fi film The Black Scorpion. Originally hired by director Eugene Louriè (who directed The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and subsequently left the production before filming began) the film was an attempt to cash in on the sci-fi craze of the 1950s. Once more giant monsters would terrorize the world. For this film, it would be monster scorpions and Mexico would be the location. O’Brien needed an animator for the film (O’Brien had done little actual animation since Mighty Joe Young) and since Ray Harryhausen had fully established himself as a solo act now, O’Brien turned to Peterson.

So down to Mexico the pair went. For some reason, they were despised by the film crew and given meager facilities to perform their tasks. They only stayed three or four months and then came back to California to finish the effects. And while The Black Scorpion may not be as groundbreaking as King Kong or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, O’Brien and Peterson delivered a terrific array of effects for the film. It is one of the few 1950’s sci-fi films where it really does seem as if an army of giant monsters is invading the human world. Peterson captures the movement of the giant arachnids perfectly. They move quickly. He has them holding their tails up always ready to strike. When they see a potential human meal they move with direction and purpose. In short they act like scorpions.

There are three scenes in the film that speak volumes about Peterson’s skill as an animator. The first is when lead scientists Richard Denning and Carlos Rivas descend into the scorpion’s lair. The cave setting is magnificent (clearly the set design was by O’Brien, reminiscent of King Kong) and creates a mood of anticipation for the other worldly creatures that would inhabit such a place. Here Peterson gives the scorpions a sense of invulnerability. They take steady, even steps. They don’t appear agitated at first. However, once the fight with the worm creature occurs, their blood lust is aroused and one of the scorpions greedily tries to move in and steal a morsel from the worm carcass for himself. He’s given a deadly stinging for his efforts.

The next impressive set piece is the train wreck. Here Peterson shows the scorpions swarming over the pile of crashed Pullmans as if they were picking at an exposed termite nest. They grab screaming humans in their claws and selfishly fight over them. In a macabre moment, the camera follows one limping survivor as he struggles to enter a nearby cave for safety. Just as he is about to make it, one of the scorpions grabs him in its pincher and hoists him high in the air to keep the tasty morsel away from the other monsters. Peterson has the tiny human puppet kicking furiously all in a vain attempt to escape his fate.

The film finishes with a bang up animation set piece as the last giant scorpion is lured to a stadium and does battle with the military. It’s done at a break neck pace with helicopters, tanks and trucks rushing out to fight the invader. Peterson adds dramatic touches to the animation such as a lone figure who escapes from a bulldozer that the scorpion has crushed. The figure limps along trying to get away until help arrives in the form of another truck which whisks him away from the battle. Pete also adds little flashes of light to the military vehicles to indicate the fusillade of firepower that is being emptied into the monster. When the deadly electric harpoon is fired into the creature, Peterson captures the shock and rage wonderfully. The scorpion pulls back trying to get away and then tries to use its powerful stinger against its tormentor.  It strains mightily and only after a massive effort does it finally succumb. The final battle lasts for over four minutes on screen. While the overall film is mediocre at best (the drooling scorpion head created by Wah Chang is pretty silly and the infamous “empty matte” scorpion damages the effect’s overall impact), The Black Scorpion has one of the best giant monster movie finales from the 1950s. It is a testament to Pete’s ability as an animator that despite his own physical limitations, he was able to concentrate and deliver a fantastic film climax.

*   *   *

Gambling on a Monster

After The Black Scorpion Pete did some animation tests on his own. His most famous is the Las Vegas Monster footage which he shot using one of the miniature sets from The Black Scorpion.  For this test footage Pete created an ape-like creature with two elongated face tendrils. In the short, the creature strides purposefully onto the set and rips the roof off a building, reaches in, pulls out a struggling human and kills him. A truck then arrives and the monster goes out to investigate. He reaches into the truck and kills the human interloper driving it. The next scene has the monster rampaging through a nearby town while crowds of people flee in the foreground. The beast picks up a vehicle and throws it at the scurrying throng. Then its back to the miniature set as a military helicopter (probably also left over from The Black Scorpion) moves in on the beast. The creature plucks the helicopter from the sky and tumbles to the ground with its catch. It then straightens out its tendrils which were bent backwards in the scuffle. The monster then marches off camera.

The Las Vegas Monster test footage lasts only for two and a half minutes. But in this short test, one can see that Pete has become very confident animating. His monster is unique and just like Mighty Joe Young; he gives it ape-like qualities. The creature is decisive in its movements and is able to express curiosity at first and later, rage. As a sci-fi fan I would very much like to know the background for this footage. Was Pete paid for this? Was this his brainchild? Was it an attempt to interest a producer in his creature? We’ll never know, but The Las Vegas Monster remains a unique exercise in stop motion animation.

*   *   *

Destroying London on a Dime

In 1959 Eugene Louriè called O’Brien and Peterson and asked about their availability to do the special effects for The Giant Behemoth, another city smashing monster movie that he was preparing. O’Brien and Peterson agreed, but the producer of the movie (David Diamond) wasn’t sure that the duo could deliver all the needed effects. Instead he hired Jack Rabin and Irving Block to supervise the visuals. Rabin and Block then sub contracted all of the animation work to O’Brien and Peterson. The total effects budget for the film was $20,000 and the two animators were given considerably less than this to bring the city-destroying dinosaur to life.

But that’s what they did. Now reduced to working out of Peterson’s garage for economy, O’Brien and Peterson created another wonderful monster that thrilled movie goers. The Giant Behemoth remains a terrific creation, mostly for the vitality and serpentine grandeur that Pete instilled in the puppet. Though there are only a precious few minutes of dinosaur stomping in the film, what is there is superb. From the moment the Behemoth rises up and attacks the shipyards of London, you know it means business. First it destroys several cranes as if they were paper mache, then marches into the heart of London, crushing and burning everything in its path. The scene that stands out for me is when the monster is seen approaching from a distance. Its rampage brings it closer and closer to the camera. There’s just a faint hint of light in the sky. You can’t make out too many details of the monster at first as it stomps around. As it gets closer, it approaches some high tension wires. Jolted by the electricity in the lines, it recoils in shock and then moves in sideways and grabs the tower as if it was a primordial opponent. It crushes and shakes the structure and, finally convinced that it can do no further harm, the paleosaurus throws the twisted piece of metal aside and strides purposefully towards the camera. Pete tilts the camera up as the beast approaches, so we can get a complete look at it in all its glory.

But $20,000 can only stretch so far. Pete and O’Brien were not able to animate as many city crushing scenes as they wanted. So footage was reused. The scene of the car getting crushed was used three times. There was no money to create miniature London buildings for the puppet to crush, so enlarged photos of the British capitol were created instead. The prop behemoth head (used to sink the ferry) was designed to arch its neck, open it mouth and move its eyes. But it was damaged by a technician and had to be filmed lifelessly moving from side to side. There were simply too many problems and no money to solve them with. Despite his great success with the animation, the overall effects in The Giant Behemoth are mediocre. It must have been greatly disappointing for Pete to work so hard and yet know that all his efforts were only for a B monster movie.

*   *   *

Final Experiment and Coda

The Giant Behemoth was the beginning of the end for Pete. His MS had advanced to the point where he could not stand for long periods. So all miniature sets for the film were constructed very low to the ground enabling him to sit and animate. Afterwards, no more film projects were forthcoming. So Pete went back to the drawing board and filmed another test reel. He built several creatures now known as “Beetlemen” and filmed a color test of these figures coming over a hill. These creatures were once astronauts who became misshapen when they were trapped for a long time in a pressure chamber.  Barely a minute long, the footage has the creatures marching over a hill, one after the other against a glowering grey sky. Pete was never able to preserve this footage properly, so it degraded badly over time; the degradation in this final test film echoes the degradation in Pete’s own physical abilities. Shortly after working on the Beetlemen footage, Pete was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He died while in surgery in February of 1962.

A few years later, several young animators (including Jim Danforth and Dennis Muren) stumbled across a trunk of Pete’s that was being cared for by the wife of a former neighbor of his. To their delight the trunk contained several of Pete’s models (including a scorpion from The Black Scorpion and the model of The Giant Behemoth) as well as the Las Vegas Monster and Beetlemen footage. The neighbor gave the young men the trunk. They eventually reused some of the armatures in other films that they worked on and bought the unused test footage to light, so that a lot of stop motion fans could see them.

I was six years old when Pete Peterson died and his death meant nothing to me in 1962. But even at age six, I knew when a movie had a “good” creature in it. Now I’d like to think that Pete would be happy to know that there are legions of film fans out there like me who know that in his brief time as an animator, Pete Peterson contributed a great deal to the art of stop motion and created some “good” movie creatures that have withstood the test of time.

*   *   *

Pete Peterson Filmography

1.    Mighty Joe Young – (RKO) 1949
2.    The Black Scorpion – (Warner Brothers) 1957
3.    Las Vegas Monster Test Footage – 1958 (?)*
4.    The Giant Behemoth – (Allied Artists) 1959
5.    Beetlemen Test Footage – 1960 (?)*

*The Las Vegas Monster and Beetlemen footage is available as a special feature on the DVD release of The Black Scorpion. They can also be found online.

*   *   *

Selected References

Archer Steven. Willis O’Brien: Special Effects Genius. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1993.

Berry Mark F. The Dinosaur Filmography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 2002.

Harryhausen Ray and Dalton Tony. An Animated Life. New York, New York: Billboard Books, 2004.

Harryhausen Ray and Dalton Tony. A Century of Stop Motion Animation. New York, New York: Billboard Books, 2008.

Jensen Paul M. The Men who made the Monsters. New York, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

Pettigrew Neil. The Stop-Motion Filmography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1999.

Warren Bill. Keep Watching the Skies (Two Volume Set). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1982 and 1986.

Friday, January 01, 2010 @ 21:24:42 Mountain Standard Time Articles & Profiles |
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