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Beauty and the Beast: Kong, with Wray in hand, in a publicity still.

The King of Kong

At twenty-four feet in height he was one of the biggest leading men, or more accurately primates, of all time. Even today most people can't see the Empire State Building without having the image of him, perched on its top, flash into their minds. The motion picture that bares his name is arguably the most well-known monster picture in the world: King Kong.

Released in the spring of 1933 Kong, the story of an oversized ape captured on a remote island in the Pacific and accidentally released on New York City, was an immediate hit. The quality of special effects exceeded all previous pictures and audiences sat amazed as the giant gorilla chased actress Fay Wray through the jungles of Skull Island, and later the concrete canyons of New York City.

The idea for the picture came from Merian Cooper. It had formed in his mind as he was talking with W. Douglas Burden, a noted naturalist and explorer with the American Museum of Natural History. Burden had just returned from a tiny island in Far East bringing with him the largest living reptiles ever found: the Komodo Dragon. Cooper rewrote the Burden expedition in his mind changing the lizard to an ape. Later, along with his partner Ernest B. Schoedsack, he produced the picture which he referred to as "the ultimate in adventure."

A back projected miniature model of a tyrannosaurus tires to swallow Wray who is perched atop a full-sized dead tree.

Kong was actually an 18 inch high, poseable model, covered with rabbit hair, that was filmed one frame at a time by stop-motion photography artist Willis O'Brien and his crew (Despite some stories no man in an ape suit was ever employed) on miniature sets of the jungle and New York City. While the stop-motion technique had been around for over a decade, O'Brien and other special effect technicians were able to combine it with other techniques, such as rear projection and miniature projection, to place the actors in the shots with Kong in a way not seen before.

In rear projection previously shot footage is projected onto a translucent screen from the rear while additional action is photographed in front of the screen. This allows a model Tyrannosaurus Rex to menace Fay Wray as she sits in a full, sized tree in front of the screen.

Rear projection had been done before, but this was the first time a cellulose-aceate screen was used. Earlier efforts had used sand-blasted glass to achieve the effect, but this limited the size of the surface of the screen. The glass screen also had a noticeable "hot spot" in the center of the projection and was a danger should it break during production. The cellulose screen was flexible and stretched over a frame like canvas. It also reduced the "hot spot" by 50 percent while giving better white highlights and intense blacks. Sidney Saunders, who invented the new screen, earned a special award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the scenes shot in Kong with this process.

Kong terrorizes a miniature projected Cabot hiding in a cave under the cliff's edge.

Miniature projection reversed the rear projection technique allowing full-sized actors to appear on the miniature set. In one memorable sequence Bruce Cabot, the male lead, hides in a cave just below the top of a cliff. The Kong model reaches over the edge of the cliff to grope for him in the cave. Cabot was actually filmed earlier in a full sized cave, then projected from the rear onto a small screen just beyond the mouth of the cave on the miniature set. As the modelers photographed each frame of Kong's actions they moved the film of Cabot ahead one frame also, giving the illusion of a small man hiding from an enormous ape.

In addition, to rear and miniature projection, an improved form of optical processing, using a blue screen behind actors to allow them to be matted into other footage, was used with Kong. Variations on these techniques were used in almost every monster film until the advent of computerized image processing in the 1990's.

Also a number of full-sized props were used including an articulated eight foot long ape hand in which Fay Wray was photographed and a gigantic head and chest which was used to show actors being crunched in Kong's jaws. The latter footage was so graphic that it was removed from the picture before release in 1933 and was only restored recently to video copies.

The success of Kong was not purely based on technique, though. The motion picture's story was just as strong as it's special effects. O'Brien was able to give the mechanical puppet a personality with which audiences were able to identify. The giant ape's gentle fascination with Fay Wray's character provides the centerpiece to the picture: a tragic, at least for Kong, retelling of Beauty and the Beast. As one character at the end of the film relates, as he stands next to the body of the creature which has just been blasted from the top of the Empire State Building, "It wasn't the planes that got him, it was Beauty killed the Beast."

More about King Kong from Boyd Campbell's site.

Copyright 1996 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.