“Here’s a Job for You, Marcel,” Part 1
Here is the first part of my interview with Marcel Delgado, August 16, 1970:
JL: Your first job was on The Lost World, wasn’t it? So many things I’ve heard about you and I can’t even remember where I heard them. You met Willis O’Brien when you were how old, 19?
MD: I was about 19, yes.
JL: And you were in engineering school?
MD: No, I was going to art school at the time.
JL: How did you meet him?
MD: Well, Mr. O’Brien and I were going to school at night. He was taking the class, learning to model. I met him there. Then a little while after I met him he asked me if I wanted to go to work for him. I told him I already had a job. I used to have a job that I was working in the morning.
JL: Part time work?
MD: Yeah. So I told him I already had a job, I turned him down. Finally, after so many times, why, he said, “What are you doing tomorrow, Saturday?” “Well, I don’t have to work.” “Why don’t you come to see me at the studio?” Well, I’d never been to a motion picture studio, I thought it would be a good chance for me to go in, take a peek. Well, that day he took me to a nice little place he had all fixed up for me, and he says, “How do you like your studio?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, this is your studio if you like it, if you want it, it’s yours.” Well, that’s what I’d always dreamed about. I said, “Thanks.” So he said, “When are you going to start work?” I says, “Right now.”
JL: So it was just seeing your own studio that you finally decided to?
MD: Yeah, I turned him down I don’t know how many times; it didn’t interest me at all. He didn’t know what I could do then, he’d just met me. Every day he saw me he said, “You want to come work for me?” I says, “No, I already have a job.” I turned him down several times until he mentioned the studio. That was the beginning of it. I started right there.
JL: He never invited you for one particular project, it was just to come and work with him.
MD: No, he just wanted me to come work with him.
JL: All that time he had been getting the place ready for you?
MD: Yeah. And I thought it was a very nice thing for me to be there. I mean, I always dreamed about having a good studio, with drawings and pictures and statues and all kinds of things, you know.
JL: This was at First National Studios?
JL: How long did it take you — you said when you went to work there you didn’t know what you were going to do in particular?
MD: I didn’t know what I was going to do.
JL: How long did it take you to find your niche, to find out what your facet of the work was going to be?
MD: Well, I just started. He just showed me the place, the things that he wanted done, “There are the materials, here.” He didn’t show me how, he just said, there it is, that’s it. That’s all, I had to work it out on my own. I never did anything like that in all my life.
JL: And you started in building the models for The Lost World.
MD: I started working with the models right there and then. I didn’t know just where to begin, I just started.
JL: Did you have to do much research on that, on dinosaurs?
MD: Well, I referred to — By that time he had the pictures of Charles Knight, you know, the artist over there at the museum in New York. And he had drawings, photographs of the drawings of Charles Knight. I liked those and I referred to those all the time. I made a copy of them. So it happened that what I didn’t know I studied, I mean right there and then; I tried this and if it didn’t work I tried something else.
JL: The reason I wondered about that is, films like King Kong and The Lost World have done a great deal to popularize dinosaurs; any child knows a great deal of dinosaurs now. They probably weren’t all that current a study at the time.
MD: No, there was nothing like that. In fact, that was the first picture of its kind, the combination of miniatures with life. Everything was undercover, you know, everthing was closed. It was a secret for all the time we were working there, and nobody knew what we were doing. Nobody was allowed to come in to where we were, it was more or less private. Because they didn’t know what it was going to be, you see.
JL: Did you work very closely with Mr. O’Brien on the animation itself?
MD: Well, I did some animation, and on The Lost World also, but my job was to make these animals, and fix them and take care of them. And I made something like, oh, pretty close to fifty of them. I mean, I had quite a menagerie.
JL: Average about twelve, fourteen inches?
MD: They ran about an inch to the foot.
JL: So some of them would be as many as twenty, thirty inches long?
MD: Well, I mean that from the tail, the end of the tail to the nose, one end to the other. I think that was the scale, about an inch to the foot. They weren’t too big.
On Mighty Joe Young I made a little gorilla which only was four inches tall. You know where he played the tug-o’-war with the wrestlers? He’s only four inches. I designed that in one afternoon and I made the little skeleton. I didn’t make it, I just designed it and I had it done in the machine shop. And then I made, for the closeups he wanted a one-and-a-half inch [to the foot – jl] model, which they never used, for the closeups. Because the little one was so well made, it worked like a watch. Everything was so perfect, how it moved, it took all the closeups. As small as it was, it took all the closeups.
JL: That’s amazing.
MD: So they didn’t bother using the one for the closeups.
JL: In the beginning, on Lost World, what was your biggest single obstacle in building these models?
MD: Well, it was the first thing. I never knew anything about it, about what I was going to do. He never taught me how. He used to make these animals himself, but when I started I didn’t even ask him, he didn’t even bother to tell me about it. In fact, I think he was just trying me out to see what I could do. And I started from the very beginning, I didn’t know nothing about it. So I started to experiment with this, and before I knew it I was building them. Which I think — I feel I did pretty good for a beginner.
I was watching it about a year ago, watching The Lost World, and I had a kid that was watching the picture, and he was just all in. And I said, “That was my first job in pictures.” And he turned around, he says, “My God, if I could only do this in twenty more years I’ll be satisfied.”
JL: I’ve read several histories of the movies that have pictures of the dinosaurs and describe them as “clay models.” Does it ever bother you that the things you worked so carefully on are passed off as clay?
MD: Well, Mr. O’Brien had made some clay models, but they weren’t altogether finished. I had my idea about how the skin would look, the texture and all that sort of thing, I had to work it out myself. By the drawings of Charles Knight I could tell more or less, but you have to imagine quite a few things yourself in order to get reality. In fact, I developed several things during the time that I worked with those things, how to make those muscles. See, my animals, I make them with muscles just like the human body has. They’re not “casted,” they’re fabricated. Every model that I made, they had muscles just like the human body, but they were an animal. Once the muscles were in, they’re pulling in the way they should work. That’s why my animals look alive on the screen. That’s what the kids tell me, and I have a bunch of kids that tell me that same thing.
JL: As a matter of fact, the first time I came in contact with your name was in a review of the new version of One Million Years B.C. in the magazine Films in Review. The reviewer, William K. Everson, said that the animation was good but the models weren’t as realistic or live-looking as Willis O’Brien’s models. After that, somebody else wrote in and said to give credit where it was due: the models were the work of Marcel Delgado.
MD: Well, in fact, nobody knew who made the models. They thought Mr. O’Brien made them. Well, he used to make his own models. But when they start talking about King Kong and Lost World, they didn’t know who made them. They used to give him credit for them and I never bothered about it because it was his job, his work.
JL: Have you ever seen any of his earlier films?
MD: Yes, I’ve seen one or two of them. They were little short things, fifteen, twenty minutes.
JL: How did they compare in sophistication with The Lost World?
MD: Well, you can’t compare them very much. At that time, they were so early, the idea at that time was just to see them move, you know. But The Lost World was more or less a professional film, whereas the first pictures that he made, they were just tryouts, I guess. So they didn’t care, as long as they moved it was something different anyway, so it was all right.
JL: On The Lost World were there ever times when you were rushed for time or money? There are times in the film where it seems that the animation is a little more hurried.
MD: I suppose that sometimes — You know, the motion picture business is very funny. They try to make a scene and say, well, we have to start next Monday, and we’ve got to finish it up by a certain time. Doesn’t give you enough time to do anything. See, I’ve worked on pictures where I tell them, they ask me how long it will take to make a model, I say it will take me about a month. And then when I get there they start putting dates on me, they say we’ll shoot this next Wednesday. You can’t do it next Wednesday, but you can’t do nothing about it. I can fashion up anything, you know, in two or three days, but I mean, the quality isn’t there. It’ll probably look all right to look at it, but it doesn’t have the effect, the muscles don’t flex, they don’t work.
Like that picture Dinosaurus! (1960 – jl). See, I told them it would take me a month to make one of those models. Well, the first week I was there, they said, “We’re gonna shoot this next Wednesday.” I said, “You must be crazy!” They said, “No we aren’t.” “All right, if you want to shoot it next Wednesday, it’s next Wednesday.” I finished, it looked all right, but — it wasn’t finished.
JL: Did it get easier to turn out the models fast? After a while did you get to where you could turn out the quality you wanted in the time they wanted?
MD: No, you can’t get the quality, it’s impossible. It’s impossible because — I mean, I can get a model, just whittle it out just like carving a piece of wood, but it has no quality. It has no quality, the muscles don’t show, I mean it doesn’t show any reality. They get out of shape, it has no shape, and a few little moves, why, the shape is gone.
JL: Do any of the models you used in Lost World or King Kong still survive, or have they deteriorated?
MD: Oh, they are long deteriorated. See, they’re made out of rubber, and the rubber sulphurizes with the ozone, see, and the air hits it, that’s it. It starts to go. It starts to go from the first day.
JL: How long could a model be expected to last in shooting?
MD: Well, the model doesn’t last very long; it’s the maintenance that keeps it up. Like I say, you make a model and leave it out where the air hits it, it starts to go right away.
JL: Then you had to give it regular daily care?
MD: Every day. Every day. Many of those models, I tore ’em down to the bone, then I start all over again, build ’em up again. And by the time I got finished they had to look like the other model. I had to do it all by my memory.
JL: You had to remember what the model looked like?
MD: And it’s pretty hard to — Many times I used to — Many times, I built King Kong three or four times. More than that. Of course, I had two Kongs. When one was at work, the other one was in repair.
JL: You only used two models for Kong?
MD: Just two models.
JL: I heard different stories; I heard as many as 27 were used.
MD: (smiling) No.
In fact, this publisher of Playboy Magazine, what’s his name? Hefner? He called me up from New York one night. He talked to me, and he told me who he was, and he says, “I want to talk to you about something. I heard so many stories about King Kong, some people say he’s 40 feet high, others say 14, others say 24. How tall is he supposed to have been?” I said, “Well, I really don’t know, but I think it’s about 18 feet or so.” I really didn’t know. Eighteen feet is not so big. I mean, it’s big, but it isn’t so — (Delgado was evidently working on the premise that his models for Kong were 18 inches high; in fact, Kong’s apparent size varies throughout the picture. – jl]) You see, King Kong was 18 inches high, and Mighty Joe was only 16, two inches shorter. Then I discovered that even that little model I had made, you could get all kinds of action and it isn’t so heavy to manipulate. I could make them that small and still take all the closeups.
JL: So you had two models of Kong for the whole shooting, I suppose almost constantly rebuilt?
MD: Oh yes, I had to work almost every day and at night, every night, get them ready for the morning’s shots. Sometimes it only lasted a few hours of the day, and then it broke, I had to take it out again and get the other one in.
JL: I heard that sometimes you would work ten hours and get 25 feet of usable film.
MD: I tell you, in that kind of work if you get ten feet of good film a day you’re doing wonderful. You’re doing a good job.
JL: Did you ever have to just close down shop because a model broke down under the lights?
MD: Well, they didn’t exactly close, they just didn’t animate. The animators just waited until I got through.
JL: What did you and Mr. O’Brien do between The Lost World and King Kong? There were eight years in there.
MD: Mr. O’Brien wasn’t very much of a businessman. He was a good artist and all that sort of thing. Like (Ray) Harryhausen, Harryhausen took advantage of everything that he could get hold of. See, Harryhausen’s first job was with Mighty Joe, and that was his first beginning. But Harryhausen did probably five times better than O’Brien ever did because O’Brien wasn’t a businessman. He was just a good fine artist and he knew what he was doing, and that was it. But as far as having business ability, he didn’t have it.
I realize how late I'm coming to this but I've only just discovered your blog. I just wanted to say that this is the first fresh and interesting thing I've read about Delgado in ages. Thanks!