The original King Kong, directed and produced by Merian C.Cooper, was released in 1933. It was a visual spectacle- not like anything anyone had done before, which is why the film has so graciously gone down in film history. The library of congress deemed it “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant”. But why? What about the film could make generations after generations forgive it for it’s blatant sexism and racism? While some would argue the unique storyline, many others would say it was the visual effects. Each shot and scene has a beautiful balance to it- it is visually obvious how much time and effort has gone into the making of this film. When asked what was unique about Kong, Ray Harryhausen, who helped on the film, said “There are many different processes used, you try and keep it so you see more than one technique at once”- and there certainly is a variety. Willis O’Brien, who was responsible for the visual effects of the film, received a patent for his stop motion layering setup and rear projection cameras used in many of the scenes. He cleverly developed a method of projecting stills from the film, slowly, frame by frame onto the stop motion scene so he could move the models at the same time. This setup even worked if the model needed to move in front of the projection using a clever method the animators developed using mirrors as pictured below.
|Taken from a still of the documentary "The Making of King Kong: The Eighth Wonder of the World" (2005)|
Lawrence Noble described Willis O’Brien as being the “grandfather of special effects” who ‘created an armature within a model so it could move in small increments”. This in itself is a difficult task. The stop motion was shot in 24 fps, using not many animators so one can only imagine how long it must take.
The setup used, as pictured below used any number of components including rear projection, Character models (for example in the scene where Kong is removing Ann’s clothes, a clay model is used), Real water, smoke, stop motion and matte painting both in the background and on glass in the foreground.
|Image from " Special Effects: The History and Technique" (Richard Rickitt)|
This is what gives Kong it’s amazing thorough sense of depth- It really feels like you are looking deep into a forest or landscape. Some of these setups could be between 6-12 feet deep. The scene pictured below used all of the conventions mentioned previously and is the scene that keeps even modern animators wondering how it was done.
These special effects work alongside the storyline to create a mystical atmosphere that keeps viewers coming back year after year.