Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Making Monsters #3: King Kong

One of the most iconic movie monsters of all time - a beast known and loved by audiences around the world - was an 18-inch model made of aluminum, foam rubber, latex and rabbit fur (two models, actually). Along with an assist from two large-scale ape hands and a large-scale bust for specific effects shots, those two models were responsible for playing Kong, the eighth wonder of the world. That we believe what was basically a crude action figure was a fearsome creature, yet also a character capable of conveying emotions, is thanks to the meticulous attention and time its creators - directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and effects artist Willis O'Brien - put into bringing Kong to life.

Inspired by Cooper's lifelong fascination with gorillas and love for pulpy adventure stories (their previous collaboration was The Most Dangerous Game), Cooper, Schoedsack hired screenwriter Edgar Wallace to realize Cooper's basic premise - a giant ape is found on a mysterious island, is transported to America and terrorizes New York City. Principal photography lasted for eight months due to the painstaking care taken to get the live-action footage just right for composite shots involving optical effects (basically, to blend the 18-inch "giant ape" believably into each frame, not to mention the dinosaur Kong fights to the death). Cooper shot hundreds of setups for sequences like Kong's rampage through the island natives' village to convincingly pull of each effects gag - he was like the Michael Bay, only way better. Many scenes were reshot later into production in order to make them more convincing. At one point, Fay Wray sat in a tree for almost 24 hours to match her reactions with the stop-motion footage of the Kong/dinosaur footage just right. And O'Brien's work on the film went beyond animating Kong; he brought to life an entire mysterious island by combining live-action backgrounds with matte paintings and animation plates that created movement and depth through the entire background. These guys didn't just create a big ape, they brought an entire world to life.

The actual effects techniques they used were old-school even then - they'd been around since the silent era. But even though King Kong has been remade twice, that 18-inch model remains easily as compelling as state-of-the-art animatronics or motion-capture. We can see the seams and imperfections when we watch King Kong now, but all visual effects look dated eventually. What shines through is the care Kong's makers put into his creation - they believed in the big lug, and so do we. As the 1976 remake's producer Dino De Laurentiis famously put it, "No one cry when Jaws die. But when the monkey die, people gonna cry."

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