'Kong: Skull Island' and designing a movie monster with depth

20 Mar 2017 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

8 mins
Kong: Skull Island
Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island is a spectacular action-adventure that sees the return of one of the most iconic and influential cinematic monsters of all time - King Kong. Set in 1973, the film tells the story of a group of scientists and soldiers who unite to explore a mythical, unchartered island in the Pacific. Little do they know, they are entering the domain of the mighty Kong, and their mission of discovery soon turns into one of survival.

King Kong's first appearance on cinema screens took place more than eighty years ago, in 1933. The brainchild of film directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, the giant creature - which resembled an enormous gorilla - was an enormous hit with audiences at the height of the Great Depression. He was the original movie monster in one of the first effects-driven blockbusters, paving the way for the likes of GodzillaJawsJurassic Park and Cloverfield. It was one of the first films to transport audiences to mythical new worlds - in this case the mysterious Skull Island, which Kong calls home along with a menagerie of dinosaurs and other giant predators.

Kong stands out for his humanity and vulnerability, unforgettably demonstrated in the original climax on top of the Empire State Building. His bond with the character of Ann Darrow revealed him as an emotional, protective, and tragic figure, turning the story into a Beauty and the Beast-style tale, and producing one of cinema's most famous closing lines. Kong has reappeared on screens a number of times, most notably in a 2005 remake from Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, but for this new version, the filmmakers were keen to do things a little differently, whilst still remaining truthful to what audiences love about the character.

An early decision made by director Jordan Vogt-Roberts was to set the film in the 1970s. In 1973, the hugely divisive Vietnam War was just drawing to a close, and the United States was preparing to withdraw from a jungle terrain that had seen widespread devastation over the preceding years. It was also a period in which global satellites had not been introduced, meaning the idea of a mysterious unknown island remained just about plausible. These two factors came together to form the primary rationale for setting the film in this period; a move that also influenced the film's aesthetics, characterisation and mood.

Filming took place on three different continents around the world, a move very unusual for a film of this size, which are traditionally largely shot using green-screen technology. Filming took place in Hawaii, on the Gold Coast in Australia, and in Vietnam itself, becoming the first major Hollywood film to shoot in the area, and capturing footage of locations never before seen on film. Shooting in such a remote spot involved hundreds of crew being brought into a relatively isolated province. Their task included building roads, where none previously existed, and fully restoring the areas' sometimes fragile economy after wrapping at each location.

There are references to classic films throughout the narrative. Audiences will notice a number of direct and indirect references to Apocalypse Now (as well as other Vietnam movies); nods to the films of legendary Japanese director Hiyao Miyasaki; and, of course, shades of other classic monster movies like Alien and the original 1933 King KongJurassic Park is another key influence on the film, and fans should keep their ears open for a direct quote from that film from Samuel L. Jackson!

Drawing heavily on the look of the 1933 creature, a huge team of visual effects artists, animators, concept artists, designers, sound artists and technicians worked for over 18 months on creating Kong himself. Because of his enormous size, the filmmakers created much of the character through traditional keyframe animation instead of using performance capture, as is utilised in similar films such as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. In addition, a facial capture session was held with actor Toby Kebbell (who also plays Major Chapman in the film), as well as a motion capture session with acclaimed movement coach Terry Notary.

Some of the biggest challenges came in creating more every-day elements. For Kong's mane, an entire year was spent on hand-grooming, shaping and sculpting the beast's astounding 19 million hairs! The challenges of water simulation were also escalated because of the grand scale. With Kong being so enormous and moving so quickly, his hand hits the (digital) water at over 40 miles per hour, shooting the water so high in the air that the audience would not be able to see Kong. The filmmakers had to slightly cheat to make sure his face remained visible, while still making it seem like the water was obeying the laws of physics.

Another huge challenge was capturing the sound of Kong - in particular his terrifying roar. The sound artists also took inspiration from the 1933 production, emulating Cooper and Schoedsack by recording and using the sound of lions in a zoo. This was then blended with gorilla and monkey sounds before being rigged to a special speaker system through which Kong's roar was amplified to reach the appropriate decibels.

However, none of the technical achievements would count for much if the audience didn't come to care about Kong and see him as a creature of complexity, rather than merely a monster. This depth is revealed gradually throughout, and it's through the humans' initial (mis)treatment of Kong that the film's more serious messages about how we treat things we don't understand, and man's tendency to want to destroy things we might perceive as threatening are brought to the fore.

Like many Vietnam films, Kong: Skull Island incorporates rock music from the era into its storytelling. Legendary artists such as David Bowie, Jefferson Airplane, Black Sabbath and The Stooges all make an appearance on the soundtrack, complementing the film's mood and tone. This also tells us about the characters themselves. The filmmakers allow for diegetic music (in which sound heard on screen comes from a direct source within the film) by placing a record player on the boat that our heroes travel in, allowing for the characters to directly interact with the music.

And on this occasion, the story does not end once audiences have left Skull Island. The film is the second part of a planned 'Monsterverse', in which Kong will be brought together with Godzilla and a vast, shared universe of other movie monsters, known as MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) to do battle with one another, and the world around them. And with the 100ft Kong in this film only an adolescent - still not fully-grown - it's fair to say that things are going to get even bigger next time around!

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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