Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ “Kong: Skull Island” transports the big screen’s favorite giant gorilla to the Vietnam era (riffing on “Apocalypse Now”) and takes full advantage of the land-out-of-time motif. So it’s fitting that the film also returns to the original 1933 stop-motion design of “King Kong” to animate the beast.
“Kong” creator Willis O’Brien would be pleased. He’d also be amazed at the technological advancement, which even surpasses Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake that won the VFX Oscar for its CG and performance-captured brilliance.
“What’s interesting is that Kong is intentionally not a gorilla in this film,” said ILM’s VFX supervisor Jeff White. “Jordan wanted to go back to the 1933 version where Kong was more of a new species — a hybrid of man and gorilla. And we came back to the idea that he’s a movie monster, so he doesn’t walk on all fours. And being upright is a difficult thing for a normal gorilla to do, so we had to find the right cadence and the right movement style to make it work.”
ILM once again embraced Kong as a wide-eyed creature with long arms, short legs, and a load roar.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture
But, at 100 feet, this represents the biggest and most badass Kong. And although ILM used motion-facial-capture video reference (actor Terry Notary for the body, and actor Toby Kebbell, who has a co-starring role, for the face), the animation was entirely keyframed. ILM’s facial-capture system, honored this year for the Academy’s Sci-Tech Award, advanced the eye work in particular.
“We knew from the beginning that the eyes were going to have to be tricked out to a [new] level,” White said. “And gorillas have fascinating eyes with complex iris color and stained white, so we spent a lot of time getting the details right. In fact, for one of the first times ever, we added displacements, which gave 3D depth to the iris.”
Technically, hair was the greatest challenge. ILM has been perfecting the hair pipeline with “Warcraft” and “The Revenant,” but Kong required a dedicated two-person team for thicker and more-realistic grooming, which also demanded a battle-weary look. ILM worked with a 7-foot gorilla model and then scaled it up to 100 feet or more and filled in the surface area with 19 million hairs. This was complicated by water interaction on the fur, which meant close collaboration with the water simulation team on a variety of looks.
Scale was also important. “Because he’s in natural environments, we needed to scale him up and down,” said White. “We’d drop him into a plate and he’d look too small for what we wanted to communicate, so we’d scale him up bigger to sometimes 200 feet-tall.”
And it all came down to two battles with a 200-foot-long squid and a similarly sized but more menacing Skullcrawler lizard.
“The squid was complicated in animating tentacle arms,” White said. “There was interaction with Kong’s fur and mouth and the water. At one point, he grabs it and realizes it’s formidable, and we had to convey his exhaustion.”
Vogt-Roberts even sent ILM a reference from “Oldboy,” the Korean thriller, to look at its disgusting eating scene in handling the way Kong crunches the tentacles in his mouth.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Enterta
Meanwhile, the Skullcrawler (described as a black-and-white snake with arms and a skull head) was inspired by the look of the creature in the Korean horror fave, “The Host.”
“It was designed to defeat Kong,” White said. “As we were adjusting its size, we posed it so it could wrap its tail significantly around him because it needed to have some ability to take down this giant gorilla in a convincing way.”
All of this means there’s an interesting battle of the apes brewing in the race for the VFX Oscar, when Kong takes on Weta Digital’s Caesar from the upcoming “War for the Planet of the Apes” (July 14). The race could shape up to be a battle royale between keyframe and performance capture (Andy Serkis reprises his role). Technologically, being an ape has never been better.