Back when the first King Kong hit theaters, the creatures were created and animated largely by one man, the stop-motion animation legend Willis O’Brien. Today, big-budget monster movies are the product of hundreds of sharp designers and visual effects artists, and Kong: Skull Island, the latest entry into the great ape cinematic tradition, was no exception.
Zach Berger, a concept artist and designer on recent hits such as Logan and The Jungle Book, served as one of the many artists on Skull Island. On the film, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, he was involved in generating the early designs for some of the most inventive new creatures, as well as some of the island environments and vehicles.
“There was a team of immensely talented people doing creature designs, and then people doing sets and some of the vehicle stuff, so it’s a collaborative thing,” Berger told Inverse. “Jordan would get sketches from some artists in one of the VFX houses and that would spawn an idea, and then I might take some of those ideas and then refine them further, and there’s a lot of back and forth. It’s cool because no one person owns the design, you’re all servicing the project, and it’s really just realizing the director’s vision.”
Berger namechecked a lot of colleagues, including special effects legend Crash McReery, VFX supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum, design colleague Simon Lee, and Kong co-designers Carlos Huante and Gio Nakpil. For all his deference, Berger’s work was undeniably important to the development of the project, and he offered Inverse a look at some of his coolest concept designs, which were inspired in equal parts by the original King Kong, the films of Hayao Mayazaki, and science.
The Beginning of the Journey
“Jordan was unsure if we were going to exaggerate our creatures, or if there was just going to be more animals, or if there were going to be more creature-y creatures,” Berger explained. “Jordan really wanted, in an earlier version of the script, this tiger that meets the group of adventurers, initially on the beach and then stalking them through the jungle. And so we were trying to look for a way to give a tiger a distinct look.”
“Then, the antler version was a request from Jordan. He really wanted his creatures to have this Miyazaki-esque flair to them, so he kept saying, ‘There needs to be this spirituality to the Skull Island creatures, this gracefulness, an something soulful about them.
“He kept referring me to Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, and so he wanted that element in there. So we were playing with, ‘How do we put freakin antlers on tigers?’ It was such an odd request, but it was cool. It looks like it got cut from the film, which is kind of sad, because I think I did 80 versions of it, or something, but it was a cool idea.”
“Fucked Up Stingray with a Bayonet for a Face”
“‘Fucked up stingray with a bayonet for a face.’ That’s a direct quote from Jordan. We just knew that it had to fly, and then it had to have a fucked-up bayonet for a face. I tried to get a stingray in there, but it’s supposed to be a sort of flying creature, and so it was an interesting challenge to try and get this sea animal to read as a land flying animal.”
“I looked up videos of stingrays breaching. They do fly a little bit out of the water, but it was an interesting challenge to try and get that to read like a bird.”
“It looks like it changed a little bit in the final film. That’s probably the closest design that I worked on, that stayed similar to what got into the final film.”
The Main Villain
“For the villain creature, it went through a lot of variation and, initially, Jordan really didn’t know what he wanted for it. He just knew he wanted something distinct and different. His only mandate to me at the time, early on, was, ‘I just don’t want any dinosaurs. They did dinosaurs so well in the Peter Jackson Kong, and I don’t want to try and compete with that, so I don’t want Kong fighting with a dinosaur, but we know we want something cool and different and unique.’”
“He said, ‘Maybe the villain’s not as strong as Kong, but maybe there’s some sort of advantage that he has, either like territorial or he’s craftier in some way.’ So, initially, I was giving him just a lot of really random, weird ideas. The sawtooth guy, that was a pitch from me, saying, ‘Well, let’s just do something really crazy.’”
“He really liked this design from the Korean movie The Host. It’s got this weird, fishy, mutant guy. It’s the main creature in that film, and he really liked that guy and so we were sort of riffing off of like, ‘How do we take elements of what he likes about that?’ I think what he liked about it, really, was the two-legged thing, and that seemed to stick. That became a through line through the design process.”
“He found this creature in the ‘33 version. It’s only onscreen for probably ten or 15 seconds. I had to look it up online. I had not heard of it. It’s a two-legged lizard-y thing that climbs this wall, and that was sort of the spark of an idea for him, and it had the two legs, which he was really gravitating towards, and it’s kind of this long tail. This image is a riff on ‘How do we do a modern version of that?’
“Simon Lee really cracked a lot of really key elements to the villain creature. I can’t say any one person takes ownership for the whole design, but he took that idea of this two-legged lizard thing and what he did, I think, is really close to what the ultimate design ended up being. Then, of course, ILM, the guys and girls in VFX, they take our really loose, crappy sketches and they make amazingly real-life.”
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.