How 'King Kong' Movies Changed VFX History, Over and Over Again

From the 1933 original to the new 'Skull Island,' the big ape has left his mark.

Nowadays, when we see giant creatures stomping across our screens, it goes without saying that there’s some nifty computer graphics behind the action. And that’s certainly the case in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island, which features incredible visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic.

You can track the history of visual effects through the 80+ years of King Kong movies; creating the massive ape has often pushed the limits of VFX and been the inspiration for new techniques and technologies.

Here’s a look at that history of Kong effects, which includes everything from stop motion animated models, large scale animatronics, rear projection, motion capture, and the latest in digital wizardry.

It Started With Stop Motion

An original 1933 King Kong stop motion armature

The 1933 King Kong is a classic of stop motion, regarded by many as a pioneering achievement of the art form. The Kong stop motion armatures were animated under the supervision of the legendary Willis O’Brien.

Four scale-sized stop motion models were built for animating: three out of aluminum, foam rubber, latex and rabbit fur, and another simpler lead-and-fur model for the famous scene of Kong falling down the Empire State Building. These fragile armatures have not all survived, but Peter Jackson (who directed the 1995 King Kong) owns one.

Miniatures made the other creatures come to life as well, including the T. Rex. O’Brien and his team famously worked on the Kong/T. Rex fight for seven weeks, and it has been a source of inspiration for both stop motion and computer animators ever since.

Selling the Magic

Miniatures made the important movements of Kong and his adversaries possible, but it was the use of old-school compositing techniques that made it appear as if the models were rampaging in real places and against real people.

Nowadays, this might be achieved by filming the miniatures against a green screen and digitally compositing them into backgrounds shot separately. But in the early 20th century, this was done with “in-camera” techniques. One including called for part of the frame to be exposed (i.e., with the Kong stop motion animation), and then the film was run through the camera again to expose a different part of it with a different piece of the action.

When live-action actors had to interact with a stop motion Kong, a special method known as the Dunning process was used to combine two pieces of film together at the same time. Alternately, rear projection was employed, with a screen built into a miniature set, onto which live-action footage was projected frame by frame to match the animation.

Mechanical Kong

Not all the Kong effects over the years have been made on a small scale, however. On a number of films, full-sized Kong animatronics were constructed, in particular for scenes in which the ape had to grab and hold the heroine.

Perhaps the most successful animatronics were made for the 1976 King Kong, which starred Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, and Jessica Lange. Life-size hydraulic gorilla arms — with hands measuring six feet across — would wrap around Lange, although a safety stop built into the hydraulics ensured she wasn’t crushed. By the time Peter Jackson’s King Kong came around in 2005, Naomi Watts played the chief heroine and had green screen-covered “hand” placed around her, with a digital version inserted later.

Still, the 1976 film featured highly impressive visual effects for its time, including a fully realized robotic version of Kong, elaborate miniatures, and even human performers in gorilla suits. In fact, it would go on to win a Best Visual Effects Academy Award.

Jessica Lange as Dwan in 'King Kong' (1976) inside a giant mechanical ape hand.

A Captured Performance

Having shown the world how successful a performance captured character could be with Gollum in their The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson and mocap collaborator Andy Serkis revisited the technology for the 2005 version of King Kong.

Clearly, Kong’s proportions were very different from Serkis’s. But several leaps and bounds had been made by Weta Digital in terms of re-targeting the motion acquired from the actor’s body and facial movements (his face was littered with stuck on tracking markers) to a digital puppet.

Serkis also performed scenes directly opposite Watts, sometimes even decked out in ape proportions, so that the actress wasn’t just looking into a green or blue void. Weta then took raw capture data and the essence of what Serkis produced and fed that directly into their CG Kong.

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 18.0px Helvetica} On the set of 'King Kong' (2005) with director Peter Jackson (left), Naomi Watts and Andy Serkis in a Kong suit. 

Digital Kong Lives On

In the 2005 film, the advent of motion capture and digital visual effects sufficient enough to create a physically plausible King Kong paved the way for just about all future creature features, especially those involving apes.

One of Weta Digital’s principal challenges, apart from ensuring Serkis’s performance came through in their digital Kong, was implementing a photo-real fur system. This they did via a bespoke grooming solution, something that could enable between 30,000 to 40,000 clumps of hair on Kong’s head alone, and also have it collect leaves and mud as he stomped around. The studio has continued to develop its fur system over the years; it’s now called “Barbershop.”

In addition to Kong himself, the powerhouse VFX company orchestrated hordes of creatures, digital jungle environments, and a completely digital New York for the film. The results were certainly a far cry from what had been achieved in 1933, which had also been a game changer for its time. Now, Kong: Skull Island looks to push Kong effects forward once more.

Weta Digital’s completely CG King Kong, a stand-out digital character, and one for which the studio was awarded an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

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