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Creating a More Human Kong in ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’

Weta Digital animates key emotional sequences that capture the battling primate’s older, wiser, and more humanoid side; studio also delivers 13 hero environments including Hollow Earth and a military base in Antarctica.

As one of the visual effects houses lending its expertise on Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ hit monster bash, Godzilla vs. Kong, Weta Digital got the chance to focus some of its efforts on character development of the show’s iconic primate protagonist; in addition to animating key emotional Kong sequences, the studio created 13 hero environments as part of the 280 visual effects shots it delivered. Project highlights included Skull Island, Hollow Earth, and a military hanger in Antarctica. 

Sitting in the director’s chair for the latest MonsterVerse pic was Adam Wingard (Death Note), who partnered with VFX supervisor John ‘DJ’ Des Jardin (Man of Steel) to bring the latest colossal conflict between the two iconic monsters to the big screen. “The brief from the client was this is not the Vietnam War anymore,” states Weta Digital VFX supervisor Kevin Smith.  “Kong had to be recognizable as the same character in Kong: Skull Island, but older and wiser. So, he’s a little greyer in the face.” Kong’s character has been humanized by his ability to walk on two legs when needed. “We were more minimalistic with his movements, a bit more efficient, stiffer, and grumpier!” laughs Weta Digital animation supervisor David Clayton. “We offered up a hybrid approach in animation.  Kong was down on all fours to prevent himself from slipping on the ice which allowed us to bring him down to the level where he could interact with the human characters, like Jia [Kaylee Hottle].  Any moment he was engaging his new environment in a calmer way, or when he enters the temple itself, the guys were keen to have him bipedal at that time. That was quite good because it introduced elements of both worlds where he is this enormous animal but also has this human side that you can relate to.” 

Motion-capture was provided by frequent collaborator Allan Henry for Kong as well as the non-humanoid creatures. “Allan would act out some of the scenes in a mocap suit,” explains Clayton.  “We could take that resulting motion, slow it down, and pose it differently to get more of a silhouette value while retaining all of the richness and nuances that plug into your mind as being real when you watch it.  We were able to use the best of both worlds there.”  Most of the shots required Kong to act rather than fight.  “In Antarctica, we needed him to be a character, so we didn’t have to worry too much about having water, mud or dirt on him,” remarks Smith.  “The only part we were concerned about was putting snow on him in Antarctica.  We have a setup that allows us to embed stuff in the groom and have it track along. It was the same technology that we used on Planet of the Apes to get leaves or grass or twigs stuck in the apes.  For the still moments in the temple or even in Antarctica, we had the camera up on his face like you would any actor.  It was always a balancing act in trying to get him not to feel too still and to get that ambient motion in the fur without making him feel too small.  We tried to boil it down to one knob [for low, medium or high] to get that ambient motion on his fur.”   

In the film’s opening scenes, Kong goes about his daily morning routine. “That was quite fun because it was a late addition which meant there was no previs,” Clayton recalls. “There might have been a couple of storyboards. It’s a montage of him waking up, yawning, getting started with his day, and having a bit of a wash off in a waterfall. It not only introduces our character Kong but sets the tone for the movie as well.”  The first animation pass became the previs.  “It was fun because we tried a bunch of different stuff, like butt scratches!” Smith chuckles.  “We totally leaned into humanizing him by asking ourselves, ‘What do you do when you get out of bed?’”

The inverted landscape of Hollow Earth, the Titan’s homeland situated at the planet’s core, required a complex environment build. “They wanted it to be not of this Earth, so we had different prehistoric looking plants and weird landscapes,” Smith says. “That stuff is easy, but then it’s what do you see when you look up? Is there going to be more earth?  Hollow Earth is like this pancake where you’ve got terrain here and there, but the gravity at the bottom goes down and the gravity on the top goes up.  The hardest part for us was making it look right.  We had to make a map for all the sequences.” 

“The closer to the ground they got in either of the directions, the more gravity would pick up, and when they’re right in that middle zone they can free float,” Clayton explains.  “There is a cool scene where Kong makes a leap of faith, and jumps through that inversion layer and lands on the other side.”  Liberties had to be taken with light sources.  “You’re basically in a cave, but if your monkey is running through jungle, the audience has a certain expectation of what that kind of thing looks like,” Smith adds.  “The more that you go away from that, the more it is going to draw you out and hurt your suspension of disbelief.  We tended to light the bottom and top separately and then composite them together.”

Creatures inhabiting Hollow Earth include the Yoshuma and Nozuki. “All of it starts with art from the client,” states Smith. “You never quite get exactly what you think when you try to turn a piece of two-dimensional art into this living, breathing character. Some of their design didn’t biomechanically work, so you’re always changing things around.  An animal with four legs moves like a lot of other animals with four legs no matter how specialized they are.” 

The inverted gravity came in handy for animated their movement.  “The winged lizard [known as the Nozuki] biomechanically could never ever support itself flying, but with the inverted gravity, we thought, ‘Lets make it feel like its gliding, flapping, and owning its environment,’” Clayton remarks. “If it looks cool and imposing then people will buy it. We referenced batwings, a cobra striking, and an anaconda squeezing the life out of some prey.  At one point, the Nozuki puts its leathery wing across Kong’s face and tries to suffocate him. It was a nice escalation of fight beats that all worked together.”  The Yoshuma is an eight-foot tall, half owl - half bat.  “For Hollow Earth, where everything is Titan-sized, they are like gnats or mosquitoes,” he continues. “But for our intrepid heroes, if one of these things land in front of them, they’re going to get eaten.”   

In a key segment of the film, Kong visits the temple of his ancestors. “It’s like 15 kilometres tall, because Kong has to walk up to the door of this imposing structure,” Smith reveals. “The inside is four or five kilometres from the door to the throne.  It’s so big that it’s ridiculous.  Building the temple in a way that sells the scale was hard because you don’t want to make Kong feel small.” As he explores the cavernous temple, Kong finds a giant axe embedded in the skull of a creature, which he pulls out and uses as a new and quite formidable weapon. “When we first started working on the temple sequence, there was an axe.  Then it snowballed into more axes because they liked the idea.  It was a good way to visually tell the backstory; there used to be a lot more monkeys and Godzillas and they had a war at some point. It got to a point where we had all the different weapons made of Godzilla scales visible in the floor. Then you get that shot where we go up high and it all glows in the shape of a Godzilla.”  

Humans can only reach Hollow Earth using futuristic vehicles known as HEAV’s (Hollow Earth Anti-Gravity Vehicle), that can withstand the forces of gravity as they travel through a vortex accessible from a base in Antarctica. “Because the vehicles are antigravity, you don’t need to sense too much of their air turbulence,” Clayton explains.  “I did a motion study of one tucking in its engines and lifting off.  I made it so the HEAV had a sense of weight, and Adam responded well, so we used that as a guideline. I loved animating them because they’re always leaving behind these two hyper trails for a good 50 metres.  There were three HEAVs, so we could have them work together to create these cool visual images.” 

As for the vortex itself, inspiration for its design came from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  According to Smith, “The conceit is this is the way the Titans have been getting from point A to point B faster. David, Kevin Sherwood [producer at Weta Digital], and I went out to meet and greet DJ and Tamara Watts Kent [VFX Producer].  We were talking about old school effects and 2001: A Space Odyssey came up, the slit scan that Douglas Trumbull did. When we got home, I looked up how they did the slit scan and did some tests in Nuke.  I rebuilt that, found some of the images that they used for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and used those. We showed three or four different images and they loved it.  We added some stuff on top of it like blue streaks and glows. It came together fast. It’s a nice homage to how they used to do stuff.” 

Google Images proved a great resource for constructing Antarctica.  “You’re not trying to make something out of whole cloth, and it’s always easier when it’s a thing the viewer has a reasonable expectation of understanding,” Smith notes. “They know not only from real life but from movies, like The Thing, that there is a ‘look’ which at least gives you guiderails. It’s not constrained.  You want it to be individual for your movie in the sense that the director has his vision, but you can’t go too crazy because it must feel like Antarctica.  You need blowing snow and mountains in the background.  A thing that we fought a lot was how big Kong is. It’s like, ‘Can we get snow falling through the frame?’  You can but Kong’s head is 50 feet across. If that was real you wouldn’t see any snow because he’s gigantic.  Is each hair like this or billions of actual hairs?  All of these questions come up when you’re suddenly dealing with something out of the realm of being physically possible.” 

Even simple actions became enormous simulations. “I remember when he first picks up some snow and looks at it,” Clayton recalls. “We animated it, so his hand was Kong’s scale when he drops the snow.  In my head I didn’t fully appreciated what it would look like once the effects team dropped a ton of snow!  It was like an avalanche coming down.  Wow!  That looks cool!” Moments where Kong is led to entering the vortex also dealt with scale. “Jia has a touching moment where she is trying to communicate with Kong that he should go into vortex,” he adds. “They were on a prominent structure within the base.  Kong was in quadrupedal mode, so he could walk up and get his face right next to her, which was nice. Then you’re choosing your lenses to stack them up nicely and show the good relationship between them.” 

“One thing worth mentioning on the cameras was that the filmmakers were keen to make sure that when Kong was fighting creatures, or in Antarctica, that he felt like a big creature,” Clayton shares. “However, as soon as Kong found his ancestorial temple, we changed our coverage, so he felt more like a relatable character rather than this big monster.”  A pivotal relationship is the one shared between former Skull Island residents Jia and Kong.  “I am looking forward to the audience seeing the final scene where there is a touching moment between Jia and Kong,” Clayton says. “We pitched a cut to Adam and the note back was, ‘This was great. It made Adam cry.’ I was like, ‘Yes! I’ve achieved a new milestone as an animator.  I’ve made somebody cry.’  Kong is this massive monster but also such a benevolent sweet creature that wants to help his friends and is fiercely loyal.  It was about the more human side of Kong; that is why I was so excited to work on this film.”  Smith is of the same opinion.  “I totally agree.  The great thing about what we did is just letting Kong be a character.  We’ve got great close-ups on his face.  We’ve given that character a range of performance you haven’t gotten to see yet, which was definitely the best thing about this movie.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.