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KONG: SKULL ISLAND

The Sound And The Fury
CREATING KONG

For the filmmakers overseeing such a complex production, there was perhaps nothing more challenging or exhilarating than the creation of the title character. They certainly didn't make things easy for themselves. "I always imagined Kong as being his own species and defying any simple characterization or comparison with the creatures of our world," says Thomas Tull.

Tull's perspective was perfectly in sync with the director's, whose iconic monster is like no other. Vogt-Roberts confirms, "In our film, Kong is a throwback to a classic movie monster, not just an ape. I wanted our Kong to be more of a lonely god than ever before. Then I wanted to slowly reveal that he has empathy and pathos and can connect with others on an emotional level. Even though in our film he is god-like, there's humanity to Kong-a heart that I think people will respond to."

The effort to make Kong live and emote onscreen with as much detail and realism as possible involved a broad coalition of creative talents within the visual effects and animation teams, and specialists in concept art, sound and design, all unified through Vogt-Roberts's vision for the character and his directive to think outside the box.

Premier visual effects house Industrial Light & Magic, which has spearheaded VFX for some of the biggest blockbusters in cinema history, helped bring Kong to life on a whole new scale. They were led by senior visual effects supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum and visual effects supervisor Jeff White.

The ILM team numbered almost 300 artists, animators and technicians, based in three separate facilities. ILM's work on Kong took over a year and a half, eight months of which were spent designing the mythic figure. The principal task was to not only create a character with a presence and purpose, but to make him a powerful anti-hero as well. "Our inherent challenge was to have audiences feel an affinity for Kong and to imbue him with that element of humanity," Rosenbaum explains.

Vogt-Roberts kicked off the process by asking the ILM team to evoke the essence of the classic 1933 film "King Kong," preserving its cultural mystique and classic monster feel. It was a demanding mandate but one all the filmmakers took to heart as bringing together the best of both worlds.

This intersection of the epic and the intimate has produced some of the most visceral, original and pulse-pounding scenes in the history of the genre, as well as some unexpected, emotionally charged moments. White admits that some of his favorite scenes were the quieter moments where Kong connects to some members of the expedition team, or ponders Skull Island's infinite beauty. "I particularly enjoyed scenes like when Kong is sitting quietly, gazing at the Aurora Borealis, interacts with Weaver to aid a stricken animal, and connects with Weaver and Conrad on a cliff side. I think those moments are when Kong really comes alive as a character."

The 1933 film also sparked ideas for specific aspects of the new Kong's look. One of the industry's most prominent creature designers, Carlos Huante, referenced posed frames from the earlier work, and then drew muscle and body shape details to create an anatomically updated physique.

ILM continued to develop this design. "We kept pushing it further and further to recapture what has made Kong so impactful," White offers. "We incorporated some of the exaggerated proportions of Kong's muzzle, gave him a small crown and huge brow, as well as a richer, orange-brown coloring, and then lit Kong with strong side lighting to bring out the depth of those features."

But in this new version of Kong, size matters. A lot. At 100-feet tall, he towers over other iterations...and the new visitors to Skull Island. "That's important because that dimension gives Kong weight and a grandiose quality, where a human will look like a speck in the shadow of this colossus, and you see how insignificant we are in his world, where we really don't belong," White elaborates.

Kong's mammoth presence was a key factor that led to Vogt-Roberts's decision to create much of the character's performance through traditional keyframe animation, led by ILM animation supervisor Scott Benza, instead of referencing a performance capture by a specific actor. Keyframe animation would also facilitate the director's ability to work closely with the ILM animators to create the Kong performance he envisioned. Additionally, there was a facial capture session with Toby Kebbell, who also portrays Major Jack Chapman, and a motion capture session with Terry Notary, the acclaimed movement coach on films such as "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and "The Hobbit Trilogy."

Once the animation was finished, ILM built Kong's underlying skeleton and muscle structure, and then simulated the movement of the muscles under his skin, as well as his hair reacting to the skin movement. Again, the 1933 film provided some inspirational performance cues. For example, the ILM animators gave Kong a wide-eyed roar, which Benza says has an inherent monster quality. "You would think he'd scrunch his eyes into a squinty shape when he's angry, but we liked the eye shape from 1933."

ILM's biggest technical challenge involved three things we see every day in the natural world: hair, water and fire. Individually, they are among the most difficult visuals to render via computer graphics. "Kong: Skull Island" has all three elements interacting.

Kong's mane itself was a monumental endeavor, with ILM spending an entire year hand-grooming, shaping and sculpting the beast's 19 million hairs. "There's no way to just generate it," White emphasizes. "You actually have to tell the computer where the hairs should go and what they should look like."

The challenges of water simulation were escalated exponentially because ILM had to create it on a grand scale. "The water is all digital and responds to real physics, but Kong is so enormous and moves so quickly, his hand hits the water at 40 or 50 miles per hour," White continues. "So out of the box the water simulations would shoot so high in the air that you couldn't even see Kong. We had to figure out the right 'cheats' to make sure his face was visible, while still making it seem like the water was obeying the laws of physics."

Sound design was another important element in bringing Kong to life. Long before production commenced, the filmmakers experimented with different techniques to create Kong's chilling, heartrending roar, as well as a whole universe of sounds that would give the action a visceral, theatre-shaking feel.

Kong's thunderous vocalizations were overseen by supervising sound editor / sound designer Al Nelson, who credits Vogt-Roberts with providing important context for Kong's character beats. "Jordan's ideas were more complex and richer than just making Kong sound bigger and louder than previous versions," Nelson asserts. "He wanted Kong to be god-like-to be the absolute ruler of Skull Island. So instead of Kong being an angry, gnarly, gnashing, screaming creature, he is instead this majestic being in charge of this magical world. That kind of guidance really helped."

Nelson's first stops in finding Kong's voice were at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., and Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, where he recorded our world's kings of the jungle: lions. "The reason I recorded and used lions was that Kong was the first movie monster that was 'sound designed,'" Nelson explains. "That was by Murray Spivak for the 1933 film. He used a lion roar and a reverse tiger roar-supposedly recorded at the L.A. Zoo. I wanted to use the lion as a starting point because of this sound tradition." In addition, Nelson used gorilla and monkey sounds, which he mixed and matched to create additional sonic layers for Kong."

Of course, there's nothing in nature matching Kong's island-shaking decibel levels. To fully capture it, the sound team rigged a special playback system at their home base at Skywalker Sound in Northern California. "We set up some speaker systems and did what we call 'worldizing,' where we played Kong's bellows and roars through a 5.1-channel system to achieve a natural reverberation and echo, so we could lay them in a more environmental way," Nelson relates.

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