How the ‘Kong: Skull Island’ FX team built a bigger, better King

Ahead of the 90th Academy Awards on Sunday, our Oscar Effects series puts the spotlight on each of the five movies nominated for “Visual Effects,” looking at the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams used to make each of these films stand out as visual spectacles.

The sight of King Kong climbing the Empire State Building is one of Hollywood’s most iconic images, and the 1933 film that delivered that moment went on to inspire countless filmmakers to bring their own movie monsters to the screen.

Included in this group is director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who helmed 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, a prequel tale that follows a group of scientists and soldiers who find themselves tangling with Kong — and other giant creatures — while investigating a mysterious island in the Pacific Ocean. The film featured the largest version of Kong to date, measuring approximately 100 feet tall, and the task of building a bigger, better Kong fell to a team of animators and effects artists from Industrial Light and Magic and other studios, led by veteran visual effects supervisors Stephen Rosenbaum and Jeff White.

The Skull Island team’s efforts were rewarded with a monster that outdoes all its predecessors when it comes to realism, a film that was both a critical and commercial success, and an Academy Award nomination for visual effects. Digital Trends spoke to Rosenbaum and White about their work on Kong: Skull Island and the groundbreaking effects that put it in the running to take home an Oscar this year.

Note: Some light spoilers reside below. If you’ve yet to see the film, proceed at your own risk.

Digital Trends: There’s been some variation in the way King Kong has been presented over the years, from his size to how much he resembles an actual gorilla. What sort of guidance were you given for creating this version of Kong?

Jeff White: When we first started talking about the project, ILM animation supervisor Scott Benza and I started digging up all the gorilla reference we could find, thinking this would be the basis for the character. But as soon as we got talking with Stephen and Jordan, it became clear that they really had a different idea in mind.

Stephen Rosenbaum: For the most part, we were trying to adhere to the iconic image of Kong, which I think most people associate with the original, Willis O’Brien creature. [Editor’s note: O’Brien was the stop-motion animator and visual effects supervisor on the 1933 film.] Over the years, in the ’70s and even in the ’90s with Peter Jackson’s King Kong, they were variations of large gorillas, but O’Brien’s Kong was not so much a gorilla as a different kind of primate. He was a monster.

White: This Kong was definitely a tip of the cap to the original, O’Brien Kong. Not only because he walks upright, but because he also has a facial structure that’s part gorilla, part man — the idea being that it’s a whole new species. That was really important to Jordan and it was fun for us. Rather than recreating a gorilla, we got to explore some new territory.

Rosenbaum: That was the big directive from Jordan. He said he wanted to preserve that silhouette, if you will, that people have of the O’Brien character.

Digital Trends: We typically have motion-capture actors portraying digitally created characters like this, but when the character is 100 feet tall, does that complicate the process of translating  an actor’s performance?

Rosenbaum: It was definitely a huge issue for us. … Just being able to film a 100-foot-tall creature presents some limitations. There are some restrictions you have to consider. How do you compose a 6-foot-tall person against 100-foot-tall character so they can actually connect visually? Also, when you have big action sequences, you have to account for things like Kong’s strides — every step he takes is 35-40 feet. He covers a lot of ground quickly, so how do you photograph that and not lose the action composition? There were definitely some technical issues we had to account for.

White: Just motion-capturing a human and dropping it on the character doesn’t look right.

Rosenbaum: We started by being very clever about how we would stage the action. From that first battle sequence with the [helicopters], we had the camera grounded up inside them or over the shoulders of the soldiers, or we did it from Kong’s point of view. Occasionally we did a ground view to remind ourselves how big he is, but we seldom had a shot floating in mid-air. It’s always physically grounded in some real locale. I think that helped a lot with preserving his scale and understanding spatially where he lives in the environment.

kong skull island John Goodman

What about the process of having live actors interacting with Kong? What sort of technology did you use to connect these normal-sized characters with this other, massive character?

Rosenbaum: One of the helpful tools we had was an augmented reality app created by ILM that we used a lot on set. I could use it on my iPhone or iPad, and it allowed me to look through the device’s lens and see an overlay of Kong at his correct scale in that environment. I could go up with my iPad and stand there with Samuel Jackson or Brie Larson or whoever and show them where Kong is at each moment. I could tell them where they’ll be standing and where their characters would see Kong. It really helped them understand visually and spatially how he would move from point “A” to “B.” I think that was a big help in our photography.

He was chewing on a mouthful of Twizzlers to simulate the tentacles, and from that, the animators drew a lot of inspiration.

Did you rely on much motion-capture performance for Skull Island

White: We did have a day with motion specialist Terry Notary, which was great. He worked through a bunch of different approaches for movement, and did things like giving us 10 different chest-pounds and other ideas.

Rosenbaum: [Notary] has done a lot of work on the Planet of the Apes films and I worked with him on Avatar. He’s a phenomenal actor and understands body mechanics better than most. We brought him in during the early days when we were constructing Kong to help us inform how he might move and his mannerisms — his personality, if you will.

White: Toby Kebbell also did a lot of facial capture for us. That was incredibly useful, because for a lot of the movie Kong is roaring and angry and beating stuff up, but he also has these quiet moments. We did a lot of work with Toby for that scene following Kong’s battle with the octopus, when he settles down to eat his lunch at the end. The whole idea behind the scene is that he’s exhausted and munching on these tentacles. Toby gave a fantastic performance for us. He was chewing on a mouthful of Twizzlers to simulate the tentacles, and from that, the animators drew a lot of inspiration.

Rosenbaum: A little side story on that: In the scene when Kong comes to the lagoon and eats the squid-octopus creature, Toby’s character is there washing himself when Kong makes an appearance. That performance of Kong was also Toby. So when we were motion-capturing Toby, it was fun, because he was basically playing against himself.

Visual effects artists often say that hair and water are the two elements that are the most challenging to create digitally. You had a lot of both elements in Skull Island, so was this a particularly challenging project?

White: Skull Island was a laundry list of the most difficult things to do with visual effects. Not only is he a 100-foot-tall, hairy creature, but he’s in the water most of the movie. And as if that wasn’t enough, then we light the water on fire.

“It was the kitchen sink of complexity for visual effects. …[Kong] had about 20 million individual strands of hair.”

Rosenbaum: It was the kitchen sink of complexity for visual effects. … [Kong] had about 20 million individual strands of hair, and within all of that, we had multiple layers upon layers of unique groom styles that were combined to form his overall hair. What that means is that you shouldn’t just give him a uniform hair length across his entire body — that wouldn’t look right. … Having layers upon layers of different hair integrated across the body really helped a lot, but then that presented the next big predicament: How to simulate them and how to get movement, particularly when he entered the water.

When Kong would step into water and move through it, the hair would need to swell and absorb the water and darken and look like it had some buoyancy in the water itself. It was a tall task, and ILM generated a new hair simulation tool that integrated with the water simulations they created.

White: We had a system that for each shot would measure how long the hair was submerged, and the longer it was underwater, the more fully saturated it would become. Hair becomes loose and flowing underwater, and as the hairs are extracted from the water they start to dry and clump up in tufts, and then they get darker and shinier. So we were able to represent all the phases of hair wetness. We were also able to let the artists save his wetness state in one shot and load it into the next one.

Of course, after Kong was incinerated, he required an entirely new hair groom. So we had two artists working for almost a year to get his hair looking right, and then we lit him on fire.

At that point, we had to sort of melt the hair and singe it, and have it fuse together in certain areas. It was important to do this right, because a lot of the time with CG characters, they take all of this damage, but they don’t carry it forward. But with Kong, he takes the damage and he wears it for the rest of the movie. He’s pretty beat-up by the time he gets into that final battle.

What’s the visual effect in Skull Island that you’re most proud of? Is there an effect that really encapsulates the experience of working on this film for you?

Rosenbaum: I really liked the squid-octopus scene. … We designed that scene as a reflective moment. Kong had just done battle with the helicopters and was wounded. We needed an opportunity to build upon his character and have him connect with the audience, so we had him come in through this body of water and sit down and see his reflection and have a moment. And then the octopus creature makes an appearance.

“We tried to give Kong a sense of character and a story arc, which was a really fun challenge.”

From a technical standpoint, the complexity of doing a cephalopod that has to interact with another CG creature is a very complicated task. When Jordan and I were designing this scene, the movie Oldboy was our inspiration for it. There’s that scene in Oldboy when the main character eats an octopus, and after he stuffs his mouth, you see a few tentacles, half-alive, wrapping around his face. He’s just numb to the whole experience, though. It was an unabashed rip-off from Oldboy, that scene.

White: For me, one was the quiet performance moments for Kong. He didn’t speak, so we really had to rely on his eyes and the subtle movements of his face conveying how he’s feeling. Over the course of the film, we tried to give Kong a sense of character and a story arc, which was a really fun challenge.

And I just love the final battle he had with the mama skullcrawler creature. That was one of those fights where it’s just two giant monsters duking it out in the water. Those are real challenges, but really fun sequences. In that sequence, almost all of the shots that don’t have actors are fully CG, but the fact that we went to Vietnam and the actors came there and got in the swamp, and we had all these shots of them under these creatures, that helped it all feel very grounded and real. Rather than shooting everything on a blue screen, the actors were absolutely willing to jump into this water in a Vietnam lagoon that the rest of us might not have, and the scene is better for it.

Kong: Skull Island premiered March 10, 2017. The 90th Academy Awards ceremony kicks off March 4 at 8:00 PM ET on ABC.

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