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'King Kong': Part 2 — Building a New Skull Island and Old New York

Bill Desowitz continues his reporting on King Kong with Weta Digitals divide and conquer strategy for creating environments. QuickTime clips included!

This is the second of two installments in VFXWorlds Creatures and Environments of King Kong.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view production clips by simply clicking the image.


Part set, part CG the retro New York in King Kong creates a nostalgic painting of the gothic city. All images © 2005 Universal Studios.span

In re-imagining King Kong as a period piece with new technology, director Peter Jackson and the Weta Digital crew of more than 450 artists sought to be faithful to the spirit of the 33 original in every way possible. Skull Island was like a jungle from hell: heavily stylized, with twisted, tortured terrain, retaining the beautiful artifice of the original concept art. In fact, the heavy reliance on digital environment (including trees and other foliage) allowed Jackson to provide a connection to the original movie the tabletop model with multi-plane paintings and the depth that hazes off into a milky, low-contrast deep background jungle, as the director describes.

Senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri suggests that they wanted to create the feeling that were on the same island an ecology thats both real and otherworldly, with foreground miniatures composited in the mid-ground with digital mattes. Massive 2.0 3D animation software was utilized for bugs, birds and crowd scenes involving the natives.

By contrast, digital wizardry was applied to recreating New York of the1930s. The biggest challenge was figuring out what New York looked like back then and what buildings still exist so they could seamlessly and efficiently mix and match the old with the contemporary.

Yet no single technique was used to solve every problem. It is an elegant mix of live action, miniatures photography, stage fx elements, 3D computer graphics and 2D compositing, summarizes visual effects supervisor George Murphy, who was recruited in August with Scott E. Anderson to assist in managing the nearly 2,600 shots to be delivered.

In a divide and conquer strategy, Letteri focused on the overall consistency of the movie and was the keeper of Kong; vfx supervisor Ben Snow handled the majority of Skull Island and New York scenes, with Murphy and Anderson tackling the rest.

The strategy was to have Scott focus on the New York Rampage scenes while I would jump into several Skull Island sequences, Murphy explains. At one point, before crew shuffles and omits, I had nearly 500 shots that I was directly responsible for, across six sequences. Needless to say, it was a daunting prospect to face with only three months to go. With each sequence having its own team and dailies slot, dailies reviews became an all-day affair, punctuated only by reviews with Peter, the animators and the miniatures unit. In working with Joe, I found that I had a great deal of autonomy on my sequences and in how I approached the work with the crews to pull these shots together.

The Weta Machine Tackles Skull Island

Murphy was responsible for Anns Sacrifice, The Killing Grounds, The Log Chasm and Kongs Capture along with a variety of Village shots. He also did some initial groundwork on the Temple Ruins sequence, in which Kong first gets to know Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), and a deleted ceratops encounter with the Venture crew.

One of the challenges when jumping onto a moving train as big as King Kong is determining how much of the groundwork has already been laid out and what the outstanding issues are, Murphy continues. The last thing anyone is looking for at this point in a show is some hotshot trying to change the course of things that dont need changing there just isnt time for that, but it is of great importance to determine what needs to be done and to push hard to make it happen. I was pleased to find that, despite the monumental tasks that remained, everyone was committed to making each shot as great as it could be. There was a willingness to push the details at every level, from animation to miniatures to compositing, and that was very exciting.


Now to say that every element was ideal, in a movie where all of the principal live action was done with multi-camera set-ups and where more than a half-dozen miniature units were often shooting at the same time, some up to just a couple of weeks before delivery, would be glossing over the technical challenge. You cant, generally, light a bluescreen for three camera angles at once. What made the Weta machine work was that it has, over time, developed a capacity to deal with live action that is often shot with a great deal of freedom. This allows Peter to focus on his storytelling and camera work what every director dreams of. My challenge was guiding how these pieces would come together.

Live-action sets in Kong were almost always only a starting point for a much more compelling environment. Most of the live action for my sequences, such as Anns Sacrifice, were a single component to be augmented by dozens of lighting passes on miniatures sets, that they required extensions based on modeling CG geometry and textures. Often, trees and vegetation, especially where there was interaction needed, would be modeled and rendered in CG to finish fleshing out a set. Complex, sweeping camera moves, precluded many of the traditional 2D solutions for enhancing atmospherics in my sequences. Simulations for fire and smoke were at the core of the Anns Sacrifice sequence. Based on this foundation, libraries of 2D smoke and fire elements were used to add a higher level of complexity. The key was using a mix of real and synthetic elements that most efficiently achieved the tactile sense of atmosphere I was striving for in these shots.

The Sacrifice begins with a long, classic Jackson fly-in shot over the rowboats and up past the native village to reveal the village wall, with Ann being moved into position for sacrificing to Kong. More than 50 miniature passes had to be stitched together in this shot with CG water and environmental effects, CG fire and smoke simulations, CG set extensions and dozens of digital doubles, including the Venture crew rowing the boats over the CG ocean (courtesy of new software simulation) scores of natives and the digital Ann revealed at the end of the shot. Its the kind of shot that Murphy wouldve allotted three months for on any other move, but managed to pull together in little more than three weeks at Weta.

Particle and digital effects combine to bring a real feeling of drama.

Particle and digital effects combine to bring a real feeling of drama.

It seemed like almost every shot in the Sacrifice was a grand shot involving 2D or 3D extensions of the miniature wall, custom renders of CG fire and smoke matched into big sweeping motion control moves, and endless layers of live-action smoke, Murphy continues. Smoke is one of those things that very easily flattens out a scene. We worked very hard to use it instead to define depth and scale, and to add color complexity to the scenes essentially to flesh out and connect the space between the wall and the jungle that would otherwise have looked like Ann pasted against a background. It was a very delicate balance.

Murphy, meanwhile, worked with the Killing Grounds team to weave light, shadow and contrast to reinforce the surreal nature of the sequence. They used selective focus on the close up shots to help with the nighttime feel. The wider shots placed Kong in a miniature set piece. It was a complete cheat, but they used the idea of the trees on the upper cliff of the set to justify a heavily shadowed lighting style for Kong. Scene extensions were based on photographed tiles from a separate miniature augmented with both real and CG waterfall elements and matte painting work to complete the extensions.

This last shot is a fantastic blend of a miniature set piece, CG trees and vegetation that Kong smashes and interacts with, CG Ann and CG Kong. What underscores the shot is the dramatic read on Kongs expression at the end. Since the camera made such as sweeping change of direction, we animated between two different lighting setups to help define Kongs features at the end of the shot.

Despite having our assigned sequences on Kong, each mornings dailies was a chance for all of the supervisors to review the work together with Joe and approve shots for submission to Peter as potential finals. While we each respected the others management of certain shots, the environment was such that we all lent our eye to the work as a whole and contributed, as we felt compelled. This had the potential of striking fear into the average td and compositor, who could rightly dread four sets of eyes looking for perfection.


As it were, we were generally very much aligned in our direction and these group reviews allowed us to keep the crew moving forward in a rotating shift of late night rounds that would sometimes have each of us reviewing work on shots for one of the other supervisors sequences. The Weta experience was very unique for me. I could not have imagined finishing this daunting volume of work in the time frame that we did, certainly not with the continued level of quality and commitment to perfection that I got to experience with my crews and the Weta production office. Only a few weeks before delivery, I and many others, were sure that despite our best efforts, we would reach a point where we would have to put things on film just so there werent any blank moments in the movie, but that proved to be a false concern. Sure it helps to have 4,500 processors and over 150 terabytes of disk space (which was still not enough!), but the level of technical and artistic expertise that was assembled for this project was unprecedented, at least in my own experience, and it is the real reason the effects in this movie succeeded in being accomplished as they were.

Rebuilding New York with CityBot

Unlike the totally invented environment of Skull Island, Weta literally had to rebuild a New York that no longer exists from original blueprints. We built a section of New York [on the Wellington backlot] that was four blocks by three blocks, Letteri recalls. Times Square doubled for Herald Square and we used side streets to double for different neighborhoods where the movie was set, and then dropped that into the middle of virtual New York.

Existing aerial and ground-view photos from the period provided key reference. These shots were then cross-referenced with a low-res digital dataset of present day New York. All buildings constructed post-33 were stripped out, leaving huge amounts of structures to be replaced with accurate data for the period.

Maya-based software from Chris White dubbed CityBot rebuilt the city, floor-by-floor, section-by-section, block-by-block, adding intricate and period-accurate detail to the low-res dataset. In all, more than 90,000 buildings were created, which were constructed using 22 million component/cells, including 32,839 buildings for Queens, Brooklyn and New Jersey, and 51 landmark buildings (such as the Empire State Building), covering an area stretching more than 26 miles.


Youre building complicated rule sets and in some ways you dont want to separate the paint from the application you just want to get in there and write it, Letteri continues. We did a lot of things that were intelligent but it didnt have to be a self-learning system like Massive. Because all the old reference photos were in black-and-white, to figure out what the old buildings were we took modern photos and matched them up to what we had to figure out what the colors were. Then we wrote some software to match the tones and from that we could infer the colors of the buildings around it. Once the software derived these things, it could push it right into the model.

The software allowed an artist to take a camera and fly anywhere within this virtual environment, particularly over rooftops, which were completely redone, including the climactic sequence when Kong scales the Empire State Building.

Weta Digital also developed unique weathering software designed to digitally cover the whole of Manhattan in rain or snow. The city was intended to function in daytime or nighttime; when lights are turned on inside one of the buildings, full virtual interiors are visible. When superimposed on top of one another, the virtual skyline and the 33 photos align almost identically.

Massive was used for the New York crowd scenes to generate cars, buses, boats, trains, pedestrians and circa-1930s traffic patterns. The latest version allows much closer interaction, with people on the streets reacting, falling down and running.

For Anderson, working on The Rampage was a creative adventure. It included Kongs appearance in the Civic Theater, his escape and rampage through New York City, the ice pond sequence and eventual climb and sitting atop the Empire State Building. I really focused creatively and, in particular, on the lighting and moods of street-level New York. Unlike many other scenes, where much was defined onset or by miniatures, New York existed primarily within our digital tool set. Even the principal photography didnt really define the city; it was wide open to us.

As Rampage was the least defined, and one of the first scenes produced with Kong at night, we were really allowed to re-define the look for these scenes and come up with our own creative rules and approaches for lighting Kong and New York.

King Kongs rampage of New York City ends with him atop the Empire State Building with his object of love.

King Kongs rampage of New York City ends with him atop the Empire State Building with his object of love.

Technically, I describe the experience as walking into Weta and being given a Formula 1 car to drive and being told to drive fast! So much of the technology existed for me to use but like a tuned racecar, it was tuned for other tracks. We had to re-tune, revise and sometimes rebuild it all for what we were doing in the Rampage. Where the scenes atop the Empire State Building used the CityBot, we used the Bot buildings heavily and uniquely sometimes pushing them beyond their initial design capabilities. We also had an unusually high number of completely digital shots, which tested every digital departments limits but especially our car, building and Bot teams. Challenges literally appeared around every corner, as each new building brought additional challenges. Rampage also had unique challenges, like snow and ice that didnt really appear elsewhere in the film.

Lighting wise, I approached the street level city based on [the black-and-white] photographs of New York. We had the majority of light at street level and had it fall off as the buildings reached the sky. Upper level lighting was primarily motivated by what would be practicals (windows, streetlights, signs, etc) but we did tend to use the digital equivalent of muscos to scrape the distant building tops. Conceptually, I tried to get all the digital artists to use less light overall and to use a practical sense to the lighting I pushed for strong falloff on our lights, lighting to key performance moments for Kong, and then let Kong, our buildings and our digital doubles (actors), cars and other assets live in that world.

Another enjoyable scene for Anderson was in the lighting design and approach for the stage show in the Civic Theater. Again, production had left much open to their interpretation. The theater was created both with practical plates and full digital recreations. The actors in the stage show were all shot separately, to be comped into the theater by Weta. Kong was, of course, ours, but tying it all together, defining the lighting cues were all us. Peter really wanted to play out the emotion of the scene through Kongs performance; we worked at highlighting Kongs performance while overall keeping to a show as Denham [Jack Black] would create it theatrical by definition and designed to echo the Skull Island experience.

Technically, we were truly pushing the limits of visual effects and the schedule, but its the creative impact that the Rampage team was able to achieve that Ill remember most we approached our work like traditional filmmaking and hopefully helped make the storytelling stronger: it is after all, all about Kong and Ann!

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.