The 8th Wonder of the World: The Revolutionary Visual Effects of King Kong, and the 2005 Remake

For disclosure, I wrote this for a college film studies class.

Second full disclosure, I made a B+ on it. 

HOWEVER.

There is a new King Kong film out this weekend…

And sensing an opportunity to capitalize….I mean…discuss…yeah that’s it. Sensing an opportunity to discuss other Kong films, I thought I’d share this above average essay I wrote in college that just so happens to center on the big ape. I wouldn’t say it’s all that good per se. If anything, it’s overly simplistic. But given the fact I don’t really foresee posting stuff all that regularly anymore, this gives me a chance to at least get something else out this month. I have something in mind for the near future, but who knows if I’ll actually get to it….but I digress. 

Anyway, I hope at least one person finds this kind of maybe interesting? Maybe that’s being overly generous. I hope at least someone might glance of over it, see it’s too long and just leave. Is that too much to ask?! 

In his 1986 essay, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde,” Tom Gunning coined the term “the cinema of attractions” in relation to early films. Before 1906, films were largely considered novelty attractions much like a roller coaster, or a haunted house. Their audiences were drawn to the new and exciting technology, with the thrill coming from the movement of the camera. In other words, the main draw was not necessarily the narrative because most films at the time did contain any form of traditional narrative, with notable exceptions including the films of Georges Méliès. However, even his films were heavily aided by the visual effects they utilized. As film technology evolved, so did the ability to tell narratives, and the special effects they could showcase.

 A common belief, both then and now, is that general audiences are not going to big-budget, effects driven films for substance. They come for the spectacle. Look to the recent revival of 3-D, for example. For the most part, the effects are dictating the story, not the other way around. However, when compelling material is combined with a team of talented artists with a vision, visual effects can transcend beyond some gimmick to sell tickets. When these effects are used as tool, instead of as a gimmick, a film can become a portal to another world, or house a beloved character that could not exist otherwise. In textual mediums, creating a character like this could be somewhat simple. The audience is asked to use their imagination to create this character in their heads. In film, however, this process can be trickier. You are asking an audience to accept this fictional character as an actuality. A number of factors have to work perfectly in order for general film goers to suspend their perception of reality just long enough to become invested in a character completely created by the use of visual effects. The performance no longer lies on the shoulders of one actor or actress, but a team of people behind the scenes. 

Over the decades there are numerous instances of a character created by visual effects finding mass acceptance by audiences, but there is one such character that has a unique distinction among his contemporaries. The two major film iterations in which he appears are also distinct for the same reason.  That character is King Kong, and the films are the 1933 original, and the 2005 remake.  These films share a plot, but also highlight the massive leap in visual effects technology between their two respective releases.  In her book, Tracking King Kong, Cynthia Erb calls Kong a “cultural icon,” and it’s hard to argue considering that the character has appeared in almost every facet of popular culture since his creation, becoming not only an icon of American cinema, but of the entire medium. The iconography of Kong’s last stand atop the Empire State Building has been etched into the public consciousness.  He is one of the most recognizable icons in movie history, and he could never have existed without the innovation of two different generations of visual effects , and the hard work of the artists that brought him to life.  This success completely legitimizes the use of visual effects in film.

It should be no secret that the original 1933 King Kong was the initial brainchild of one of its directors, Merian C. Cooper, but as with almost every creative process, it came in stages. It should also go without saying that the director’s vision could not have been possible without the assistance of various special effects pioneers. Ray Morton discusses Cooper’s initial idea for his proposed “ape picture,” as a combination of a longtime desire to make a film about gorillas, as well as a description of the newly found Komodo dragon by explorer W. Douglas Burden. Morton writes, “Cooper was intrigued by Burden’s description of the dragons and began imagining exiting scenes in which his gorillas would fight them. He planned to realize these scenes by filming the gorillas in their natural habitat (most likely in the Congo) and the dragons on Komodo and then intercutting the two, with some sort of artificial stand-ins used in joint shots.” Later, Cooper would go on to add various key elements to the narrative that can be seen in the final version of the film, such as the love story, the journey to a primitive island, and the tragic death of his simian hero in New York City.

The issues Cooper would have deal with while pitching Kong Kong would not only be how he intended to bring Kong to life, but also how he would create the world he inhabited. The director would go on to find a solution in a mixture of several innovative visual and audio techniques, not least of which was the stop-motion animation of special effects pioneer, Willis O’ Brien. Stop motion found its beginnings when early filmmakers attempted to make still two dimensional objects “come to life.” As Morton writes, “The motion picture image is an illusion created by photographing a series of individual still picture of a single moving subject one right after another in rapid succession a single strip of film. Each still picture captures an incremental piece of the subject’s overall movement. When the still pictures are projected onto a screen in rapid succession at the same rate of speed at which they were photographed, the human eye blends all of the images into one to create an impression of continuous action.” It was O’Brien that had the idea to apply this process to three-dimensional figures as well. Fueled by a life-long interest in dinosaurs, O’Brien shot a test film of a dinosaur fighting a caveman. In 1915, this test footage became The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, which was eventually picked up by the Edison Company for distribution. It wasn’t until 1925 that O’Brien and his team would first experience wide-spread acclaim for his work on the film adaptation of Arthur Conon Doyle’s The Lost World. This film was a massive worldwide success, and would eventually lead O’Brien to his masterpiece. 

After the success of The Lost World, its director, Harry O. Hoyt, began to work with O’Brian on a new script, titled Creation, for RKO Studios. Hoyt once again signed on O’Brien and his crew to work on the film’s special effects, and began to build models for several sequences for the film. The film’s script and test eventually crossed paths with none other than M.C. Cooper, who had been hired to do a studio inventory at the time. Cooper, who had little interest in the script, instead saw potential in the stop-motion effects that O’Brien and his team had created. Cooper would later say, “When I saw all the prehistoric animals they had lying around this studio, I decided to make my gorilla picture anyway – and make it right here.”  By using O’Brien’s animation, the studio could produce the film completely in-house, with no need for pricey and lengthy location shooting.  Soon, Creation was scrapped, and O’Brien began to work with Cooper on his new proposed feature film, which at the time, did not have a title.  Cooper was able to sell the film to RKO executives completely based off of a test sequence that used O’Brien’s models. Production soon began in earnest, and the film was granted an initial budget of $500,000, thanks to former RKO president, David O. Selznick, the film eventually found its title: King Kong

Cooper would soon share directing duties with long-time collaborator Ernest Schoedsack, who would direct most of the non-effect sequences of the film. As work began on the effects for the film, the two would complete another film for RKO, an adaptation of Richard Connell’s, “The Most Dangerous Game.” This production proved financially beneficial as Cooper and company were able to reuse the film’s jungle sets. On designing the title character, Cooper related,“O’ Brien built a miniature steel framework of a gorilla that had joints that could be locked into position so that you could get smooth movement when you animated.” After completing the framework, Marcel Delgado would go on to add rubber muscles that would bend and stretch realistically. This “skeleton” was then stuffed with cotton to produce an animal shape, and detail. It was then covered in prune rabbit fur. When it was completed, every feature of the miniature was moveable, weighed a little over ten pounds, and stood 18 inches high. In all, there were six miniature Kongs built, as well as full-sized sections of the ape for close-up shots, including a head, arm, and leg. For Kong’s movement, O’Brien and his animators observed gorillas at the Central Park Zoo in New York City, and according to IMDb.com, also drew inspiration from their directors for key sequences in the film. “Both Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack had been wrestlers, and they acted out the fighting moves for the battle between the T-Rex and Kong in the effects studio, before the animators shot the scene,” the site says. O’Brien, who had also been an amateur boxer in his youth, added several boxing moves into the fight scene. Cooper would also go on to act out Kong’s death sequence set on top of the Empire State Building. Cooper would later relate that the scene had to be redone due to Cooper’s initial overacting. Cooper said, “The first time I did it, I was too broad, too hammy, and they did it just like that. Well, it was the funniest damn thing you ever saw, that ape, pop-eyed, rolling, writhing, and clutching. We all had a good laugh and then I did it again for them, this time toning everything down, and this time they got exactly what I wanted.” Work on the animation was a slow process, and an increasingly frustrating one as the production moved into the summer months, making the non-air-conditioned stage comparable only to an oven. At one point, O’Brien’s hand developed gangrene from working with the various chemicals and moldy hides. While recovering, Cooper was forced to do much of the animation himself. 

Over the course of the film’s production, the issue of combing both the animation and the live action in a practical manner arose. Cooper and O’Brien would eventually devise an ingenious technique that would achieve a realistic blend of all the effects used in the film, that Cooper would later call “miniature projection.” As Cooper later explained it, “I would shoot my live actors going the motions of reacting to the beasts or Kong, or whatever, then these scenes would be projected on small-screens that Obie [O’Brien] had in his miniature sets. We would project a frame at a time, and Obie would animate the miniature action to match the live action.”  The technique of rear-screen projection was also utilized, pioneered by director, Georges Méliès, decades earlier. This process would give the actors something to react to other than their imagination and the director’s instruction while filming a scene. On their tireless collaboration, Cooper would later credit much of the film’s visual success to O’Brien. “O’Brien was a genius…Kong is as much his picture as it is mine. There was never anybody in his class as far as special effects went, there never was and there probably never will be.”

After nearly three years of production, King Kong was released on March 3, 1933, and was immediately both a critical and financial success. It would gross $90,000 its opening weekend, the biggest opening ever at the time, and save RKO from bankruptcy, according to IMDb.com. The film also saw numerous financially successful re-releases in 1938, 1942, 1946, and 1952. There were several iterations of the character in other films due to the characters status as public domain, including two from Japanese movie studio, Toho, and a remake produced by Dino De Laurentiis, known for being eccentric.

While not a critical success, the film found an audience, and would become a box office success. It would go on to win an Academy Award for its achievements in the area, something the 1933 original failed to do. The reason key reason it will not be discussed in great detail here, is that I believe it is an example of a film dictated by its visuals, and not the other way around. Both the original, and the 2005 remake, went through lengthy script construction and character development that allowed for collaborations between their filmmakers and their special effects teams during their respective  productions. While not perfect, the 2005 remake still obtains some of that magic the 1933 perfected. The 1976 remake seems to be a cash in, hoping to hook in audiences with its admittedly impressive visuals, but coming short in terms of story and depth. Laurentiis would go on to produce a sequel to the film, King Kong Lives, which had little success, and the character would remain theatrically dormant for another 20 years. 

In the late 1960s, a nine-year-old boy in New Zealand, named Peter Jackson, saw the original 1933 King Kong on television, and was inspired to create his very own films. He would even attempt to recreate the movie on a Super 8 film camera when he was 12. Many years later, Jackson became a world-renowned director, making films that were clearly inspired by the spectacle he had seen as a child, and would eventually be brought on to direct his own version of the story that had sparked in him a life-long love of movies. Jackson is quoted as saying, “No film has captivated my imagination more than King Kong. I’m making movies today because I saw this film when I was 9 years old. It has been my sustained dream to reinterpret this classic story for a new age.” Jackson was eventually brought on by Universal Studios, a company that had had a long gestating plan to release a remake of King Kong, in 1995 to discuss the possibility of directing a remake of 1954 film, The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Jackson turned the offer down, but knowing the director’s obsession with Kong, offered him a chance to write and direct a remake of his favorite film. Initially hesitant, Jackson eventually agreed to the position after he realized the position would just go to someone else and the film would be terrible. Jackson’s original script, that he cowrote with his wife, Fran Walsh, would differ from the 1933 film on several key story aspects, with the ultimate final product resembling the original film to a closer degree. Production was originally intended to begin at some point in 1997. The New Zealand based effects studios, WETA Digital and WETA Workshop, began a six month pre-production period in 1996. However, in February of 1997, Universal pulled the plug on the project after the market became flooded with other ape-related remakes, and Jackson along with WETA, began work on the The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

After the massive world-wide success of that series of films, Universal once again approached Jackson in early 2003 to try and tackle Kong once more. Jackson soon signed on again,  pre-production soon began, and thanks to the innovation of computer-generated imagery, or CGI for short, and the techniques that came along with it, Kong could be brought to life in a way the world had never seen before. 

If the 1933 Kong was a testament to the ingenuity and the of its effects team, cobbling together the limited resources they had at their disposal as well as creating completely new ones, the 2005 remake can be seen as a testament to Hollywood excess, fueled by the life-long fandom of its director. To a degree, this works in the film’s favor. Sporting a massive $207,000,000 budget, it was the most expensive film ever made at the time, and this further allowed Jackson and the effects team at WETA Digital to propel this movie into something bigger than Cooper or O’Brian could have ever thought of during the making of their film. Cooper’s Kong only faced one Tyrannosaurus, while Jackson’s fights three at the same time. Where Cooper had to cut his infamous spider-pit sequence for its graphic content, Jackson and his team lovingly reimagine the scene, and it really makes the viewer’s skin crawl. According to IMDb.com, the movie had the most number of visual special effect shots at the time of its release, at around 2400, along with over 800 miniature shots. The effects of WETA digital allow for almost a photorealistic effect on the creatures. The detail is so minute that one could count each and every one of the individual hairs on Kong’s body. Jackson was the equivalent of the preverbal kid in a candy store, and the director clearly spared no expense when it came to bringing his vision to life. 

In this iteration, the character of Kong is a complete special effect. However, thanks to the innovation of two techniques: motion capture and performance animation, bringing the character to life was no longer exclusively the job of the visual effects team, but also an actual actor. The animators working on the 1933 film had to hope that the movements they were painstakingly constructing were to the director’s satisfaction. Through motion capture, a performance can literally be translated beat for beat into a computer, and an animator can then translate that into the image that will ultimately appear in the final film in a product called performance animation. The two terms are often mistakenly used to represent the same thing, but are actually two different things. Alberto Meanche writes, “In short, motion capture is the collection of data that represents motion, whereas performance animation is the final product of a character driven by a performer.”

To help bring his Kong to life, Jackson cast actor, Andy Serkis, in the role of the titular ape star. The two had worked together in a similar context previously in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which Serkis played the CG character, Gollum. Jackson decided fairly early that he did not want his Kong to act human, so he and the visual effects team at WETA Digital studied hours upon hours of footage of actual gorillas both in captivity and in the wild, much like O’Brian and his team did in the early 1930s. Jackson and his co-writers on the script, once again Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, would even create a quasi-backstory for the character to add a sense of realistic legitimacy and character.

Likewise, Serkis drew much of his performance on studying gorilla behavior firsthand, even going so far as to travel to Rwanda to observe mountain gorillas in the wild, as well as spending hours interacting with captive gorillas at the London Zoo. This animalistic quality was very important to the performance Serkis wanted to provide the animators.  On bringing Kong to life, Serkis would say, “We didn’t want to anthropomorphize him to the point where we were explaining every single little gesture. Gorillas both in captivity and the wild have an enigmatic quality – a sense of disconnect, of otherness.” In other words, the key distinct between O’Brian’s Kong and WETA’s Kong, beyond a technical level, are the performances each gives. Due to the limited knowledge of gorillas in O’Brian’s time, the characteristic gaps are filled with more human qualities, i.e. Kong boxing with the T-rex. By 2005, mass amounts of new information on gorilla behavior had been collected, as well as seemingly infinite sources to gather it all from. The Kong in Jackson’s film is very much the amalgamation of a study of gorilla movements, and expressions on WETA’s part, as well as a study of gorilla behavior on the part of Serkis. After almost ten years on-again, off-again production, the film would eventually be released on December 14, 2005, and would be a finical success, as well as a critical favorite of the year, and would go on to win three Academy Awards in 2006, including Best Visual Effects.

The technological achievements of these two King Kong films are unquestionable, but the question remains: what is so special about them? What sets them apart from the hundreds of effects-driven films that were released after the 1933 original? Is there something beyond sheer spectacle that these films provide? M.C. Cooper maintained that “King Kong was never intended to be anything more than the best damned adventure picture ever made. What it is; and that’s all it is.” Perhaps it is something that simple, that the films are an example of “the right place, at the right time.” Both films certainly work on a purely spectacle level, and their respective directors made sure that their audiences were entertained; however, it is in my opinion that the films’ success all relates back to the character of Kong himself. King Kong is a compelling character. These films demand that their audience relate to a giant ape, and against all odds, both films successful put the viewer firmly on Kong’s side. Most movies monsters exist to frighten their audience, but in Kong, the audience experiences something similar to a kinship. We cheer when Kong triumphantly roars over the slain T-rex at his feet, and we weep when he is gunned down all for the sin of falling in love. When Kong dies, it feels like you’ve lost a friend. I think Dino De Laurentiis, producer of 1976 remake, said it best, albeit crudely, “No one cry when Jaws die, but when the monkey die, people gonna cry.”  This fictional animal became real character to audiences, thanks in large part to a mixture of compelling material, visionary directors, and a teams of incredibly talented visual effects artists working together to make films that stand the test of time. King Kong is an icon because of all of these talented individuals’ work. 

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