The New 'Kong': The Secrets Behind Bringing The Big Ape Back to Life

The ILM visual effects artists found inspiration in everything from the classic, 1933 stop-motion creature to 'The Revenant's' famous bear.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Kong, the giant ape, is no stranger to the big screen, having made iconic appearances as a stop-motion "Eighth Wonder of the World" in Willis O’Brien’s 1933 version of the monster to a full-scale CG incarnation in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake (which earned a visual effects Oscar). But that also presented a giant-size challenge for the VFX team as it approached re-animating the creature for the Jordan Vogt-Roberts-directed Kong: Skull Island, from Legendary and Warner Bros., opening today.

“That was the thing that kept us up the most going into this project. How do we arrive at a design that’s unique and new and serves the story, and at the same time is different from the previous iteration that was executed really well for Peter Jackson’s Kong?” admits VFX supervisor Jeff White of lead VFX house Industrial Light & Magic.

“We took a lot of inspiration from the 1933 film,” he says. “Jordan was really adamant about pushing the design back toward this ‘movie monster.’ He took that to every level. Kong’s got gorilla proportions and walks upright, which we were a little worried about. We had to spend a lot of time so it didn’t feel like a guy in a suit. And we changed his color to a reddish-brown rather than a black gorilla. It was about differentiating it from the past and yet paying nods to the 1933 Kong, particularly in the design of the face. It started from a gorilla face. And we pushed the anatomy, [giving] him a signature 1933 massive brow and wide eyes.”

The body performance for the fully CG Kong was based on motion-capture sessions with actor Terry Notary, and facial capture work with Toby Kebbell (who plays Jack Chapman in the film), according to White, who had previously worked with both actors using performance capture on Warcraft: The Beginning.

Those performances were critical, as was the work of the animators, he says, since, “translating any motion to a 100-foot tall character requires a lot of animation to make it look believable.”

For the facial performance, White explains, “one of the biggest worries that we had on the film was Kong’s such a central character and he has a little bit of a story arc, but he can’t talk. So how does he communicate how he feels? It came down to the facial work, in particular the eye animation. We spent a huge amount of time to get that right.”

Kong also had to naturally inhabit 'Skull Island,' which was mostly shot in Vietnam by cinematographer Larry Fong. (The final film also includes some CG environments and some scenes combining live action and CG.) To make Kong a natural resident of the island, ILM put emphasis on the CG lighting. “We really tried to emulate the lighting that we were getting from location; Larry Fong did such a beautiful job,” White says, adding, “we spent the most time on hair development. Our hair development had been pushed far along from where it was with Warcraft and The Revenant [to make the famous bear].

"Another challenge was the scale of Kong. It took much more hair to cover a character that large; we estimated about 19 million hairs covered Kong’s body," he continues. "Also we couldn't get away with the hair being long and simple because then we'd loose some of the scale cues. We had two people working on just the hair for about a year on making the curls change direction, and everything that would make it feel natural and organic. We developed new technology that allowed us to put leaves and sticks and caked-on mud in his hair — we'd assume he’d pick that up in this environment. And we had a swarm of flies around him — any creature this tall would have a little ecosystem. Those little details really helped a CG creature fit in the environment.”

If that wasn’t enough, there was another element that always challenges VFX teams: CG water.

“We developed a system where the animators could do their work and then hand it off to water simulation,” White explains. “Even if we slowed Kong down to account for his scale, his hand or foot would still be hitting the water at 40-50 mph. So the first pass would just be a massive wall of water. We would take measurement of where he had gone underwater and we had a simulation value: how wet is the hair. He could go from dry to having it plunging into water and getting darker, shiner and looser so that it looked like appropriately wet hair.”