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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 of all time: 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.

From Lizard to Ape

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 living examples of the largest 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 Kong in bhind 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 to play Kong). The Kong puppet was fimled on miniature sets of the jungle and New York City. The stop-motion technique had been around for over a decade and O'Brien had used in the 1925 film adaption of Arthur Conan Doyle's dinosaur story The Lost World. O'Brien and other special effect technicians, however, were able to combine it with other techniques, such as rear projection and miniature projection, to place the actors in the shots with the miniature Kong in ways not seen before.

Special Effects

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.

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

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 to the crew 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 more 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.

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. From this point on 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. A gigantic chest and head (with 12-inch eyeballs) was built 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.

Kong battles an airplane on top of the miniture model of teh Empire State Building.

Reception

Kong, by any standards was a huge finacial success making approximately $2 million in its initial release in 1933. It s credited by many as saving RKO studios from bankruptcy. Even today, depsite its dated effects, it is considered a masterpiece. In 1991, it was deemed "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

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."

Copyright 1996 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.