Tuesday March 2, 2021’s Smile of the Day: King Kong
On this Day:
In 1933, “King Kong”, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and starring Fay Wray premiered at Radio City Music Hall and RKO Roxy in New York City.
King Kong is a 1933 American pre-Code monster adventure romance film directed and produced by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. The screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose was developed from an idea conceived by Cooper and Edgar Wallace. It stars Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot and Robert Armstrong, and opened in New York City on March 2, 1933, to rave reviews. It has been ranked by Rotten Tomatoes as the fourth greatest horror film of all time and the forty-sixth greatest film of all time.
The film portrays the story of a huge, gorilla-like creature dubbed Kong who perishes in an attempt to possess a beautiful young woman (Wray). King Kong contains stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien and a music score by Max Steiner. In 1991, it was deemed “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. A sequel, titled Son of Kong, was fast-tracked and released the same year, with several more films made in the following decades, including two remakes which were made in 1976 and 2005 respectively, and a reboot in 2017.
King Kong is well known for its groundbreaking use of special effects, such as stop-motion animation, matte painting, rear projection and miniatures, all of which were conceived decades before the digital age.
The numerous prehistoric creatures inhabiting Skull Island were brought to life through the use of stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien and his assistant animator, Buzz Gibson. The stop-motion animation scenes were painstaking and difficult to achieve and complete after the special effects crew realized that they could not stop, because it would make the movements of the creatures seem inconsistent and the lighting would not have the same intensity over the many days it took to fully animate a finished sequence. A device called the surface gauge was used in order to keep track of the stop-motion animation performance. The iconic fight between Kong and the Tyrannosaurus took seven weeks to be completed. O’Brien’s protégé, Ray Harryhausen, who later worked with him on several films, stated that O’Brien’s second wife noticed that there was so much of her husband in Kong.
The backdrop of Skull Island seen when the Venture crew first arrived was painted on glass by matte painters Henry Hillinck, Mario Larrinaga and Byron C. Crabbé. The scene was then composed with separate bird elements and rear projected behind the ship and the actors. The background of the scenes in the jungle (a miniature set) were also painted on several layers of glass to convey the illusion of deep and dense jungle foliage.
The most difficult task for the special effects crew to achieve was to make live-action footage interact with separately filmed stop-motion animation – to make the interaction between the humans and the creatures of the island seem believable. The most simple of these effects were accomplished by exposing part of the frame, then running the same piece of the film through the camera again by exposing the other part of the frame with a different image. The most complex shots, where the live-action actors interacted with the stop-motion animation, were achieved via two different techniques, the Dunning process and the Williams process, in order to produce the effect of a travelling matte. The Dunning process, invented by cinematographer Carroll H. Dunning, employed the use of blue and yellow lights that were filtered and photographed into black-and-white film. Bi-packing of the camera was used for these types of effects. With it, the special effects crew could combine two strips of different film at the same time, creating the final composite shot in the camera. It was used in the climactic scene where one of the Curtiss Helldiver planes attacking Kong crashes from the top of the Empire State Building, and in the scene where natives are running through the foreground, while Kong is fighting other natives at the wall.
On the other hand, the Williams process, invented by cinematographer Frank D. Williams, did not require a system of colored lights and could be used for wider shots. It was used in the scene where Kong is shaking the sailors off the log, as well as the scene where Kong pushes the gates open. The Williams process did not use bipacking, but rather an optical printer, the first such device that synchronized a projector with a camera, so that several strips of film could be combined into a single composited image. Through the use of the optical printer, the special effects crew could film the foreground, the stop-motion animation, the live-action footage, and the background, and combine all of those elements into one single shot, eliminating the need to create the effects in the camera.
Another technique that was used in combining live actors and stop-motion animation was rear-screen projection. The actor would have a translucent screen behind him where a projector would project footage onto the back of the translucent screen. The translucent screen was developed by Sidney Saunders and Fred Jackman, who received a Special Achievement Oscar. It was used in the famous scene where Kong and the Tyrannosaurus fight while Ann watches from the branches of a nearby tree. The stop-motion animation was filmed first. Fay Wray then spent a twenty-two hour period sitting in a fake tree acting out her observation of the battle, which was projected onto the translucent screen while the camera filmed her witnessing the projected stop-motion battle. She was sore for days after the shoot. The same process was also used for the scene where sailors from the Venture kill a Stegosaurus.
O’Brien and his special effects crew also devised a way to use rear projection in miniature sets. A tiny screen was built into the miniature onto which live-action footage would then be projected. A fan was used to prevent the footage that was projected from melting or catching fire. This miniature rear projection was used in the scene where Kong is trying to grab Driscoll, who is hiding in a cave. The scene where Kong puts Ann on the top of a tree switched from a puppet in Kong’s hand to a projected footage of Ann sitting.
The scene where Kong fights the snake-like reptile in his lair was likely the most significant special effects achievement of the film, due to the way in which all of the elements in the sequence work together at the same time. The scene was accomplished through the use of a miniature set, stop-motion animation for Kong, background matte paintings, real water, foreground rocks with bubbling mud, smoke and two miniature rear screen projections of Driscoll and Ann.
Over the years, some media reports have alleged that in certain scenes Kong was played by an actor wearing a gorilla suit. However, film historians have generally agreed that all scenes involving Kong were achieved with animated models.
The film was a box-office success making about $5 million in worldwide rentals on its initial release, with an opening weekend estimated at $90,000. Receipts fell by up to 50% in the second week of the film’s release because of the national “bank holiday” called in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first days in office. During the film’s first run it made a profit of $650,000. Prior to the 1952 re-release, the film is reported to have worldwide rentals of $2,847,000 including $1,070,000 from the United States and Canada and profits of $1,310,000. After the 1952 re-release, Variety estimated the film had made an additional $1.6 million in the United States and Canada taking its total to $3.9 million in cumulative domestic (United States and Canada) rentals. Profits from the 1952 re-release were estimated by the studio at $2.5 million.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 98% based on 56 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 9/10. The site’s critical consensus reads, “King Kong explores the soul of a monster – making audiences scream and cry throughout the film – in large part due to Kong’s breakthrough special effects.” On Metacritic the film has a weighted average score of 90 out of 100, based on 12 critics, indicating “Universal acclaim”.
Variety thought the film was a powerful adventure. The New York Times gave readers an enthusiastic account of the plot and thought the film a fascinating adventure. John Mosher of The New Yorker called it “ridiculous”, but wrote that there were “many scenes in this picture that are certainly diverting”. The New York World-Telegram said it was “one of the very best of all the screen thrillers, done with all the cinema’s slickest camera tricks”. The Chicago Tribune called it “one of the most original, thrilling and mammoth novelties to emerge from a movie studio.”
On February 3, 2002, Roger Ebert included King Kong in his “Great Movies” list, writing that “In modern times the movie has aged, as critic James Berardinelli observes, and ‘advances in technology and acting have dated aspects of the production.’ Yes, but in the very artificiality of some of the special effects, there is a creepiness that isn’t there in today’s slick, flawless, computer-aided images…. Even allowing for its slow start, wooden acting and wall-to-wall screaming, there is something ageless and primeval about King Kong that still somehow works.”
Kong did not receive any Academy Awards nominations. Selznick wanted to nominate O’Brien and his crew for a special award in visual effects but the Academy declined. Such a category did not exist at the time and would not exist until 1938. Sidney Saunders and Fred Jackman received a special achievement award for the development of the translucent acetate/cellulose rear screen – the only Kong-related award (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
After climbing the Empire State Building in New York City, King Kong traveled to London. Once there he tried to eat Big Ben but found it too time-consuming.
Second, a Song:
A movie like King Kong cries out for a remake. Or sequels. Or both.
King Kong is a 2005 epic monster adventure film co-written, produced, and directed by Peter Jackson. A second remake of the 1933 film of the same title, the film stars Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, and Andy Serkis as the title character, through motion capture. Set in 1933, it follows the story of an ambitious filmmaker who coerces his cast and hired ship crew to travel to the mysterious Skull Island. There, they encounter prehistoric creatures living on the island as well as a legendary giant gorilla known as Kong, whom they capture and take to New York City. Filming for King Kong took place in New Zealand from September 2004 to March 2005. The project’s budget climbed from an initial $150 million to a then-record-breaking $207 million.
It was released on December 14, 2005 in Germany and the United States, and made an opening of $50.1 million. While it performed lower than expected, King Kong made domestic and worldwide grosses that eventually added up to $562 million, becoming the fourth-highest-grossing film in Universal Pictures history at the time and the fifth-highest-grossing film of 2005. It also generated $100 million in DVD sales upon its home video release. King Kong garnered largely positive reviews from critics, and appeared on several top ten lists for 2005. The film was praised for its special effects, performances, sense of spectacle and comparison to the 1933 original, though some criticisms were focused on its 3-hour long run time. It won three Academy Awards: Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects. A tie-in video game was released alongside the film, which also became a commercial and critical success (per Wikipedia).
Here is a music video set to scenes from King Kong 2005. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“No film has captivated my imagination more than ‘King Kong.’ I’m making movies today because I saw this film when I was 9 years old.” – Peter Jackson
Have a great day!
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky