"We began work on "Kong: Skull Island" two years before the film was released. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts was very clear about his vision and stressed the importance that Kong does not feel derivative, particularly of the recent Peter Jackson version. Yet, we were dealing with an iconic monster.
Ultimately, we landed on a version of the 1933 Kong, where he’s no longer just a gorilla but more of his own species, this half-man, half-gorilla that walks upright and is between 100 and 200 feet tall – bigger than any previous vision.
The challenge, of course, would be to make this creature credible on screen, in real environments with live actors. Kong is such an important part of film history and we took this very seriously. There’s no way we’d be the VFX studio that took on recreating an iconic character and then didn’t deliver."
–Jeff White, VFX Supervisor, Industrial Light & Magic
TAKING ON KONG
Jeff White: I got my start at ILM on Van Helsing and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and some smaller projects, before doing work for Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise and the Hulk sequences in The Avengers film. Certainly, those projects gave me valuable experience working with very large characters. The Hulk, in particular, taught us a lot about skin and muscle simulation work.
Another movie that lent itself to the work we did was Duncan Jones’, Warcraft. The Orcs are very human-like, but with exaggerated body proportions, big tusks coming out of their mouths, and complex hairstyles and braids. We knew that getting Kong’s hair right was going to be a big challenge – just making that look believable on a 100-foot-tall character – and so we spent almost a year on that aspect of him alone, putting into practice all the tricks we had learned along the way.
"Kong was a chance for me to do something different, one of my first non-robot largescale characters."
Scott Benza (Animation Supervisor): I got my start in 1998. I’ve worked on all the movies Michael Bay brought to ILM over the course of his career, as well as major properties like Harry Potter, Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean. Kong was a chance for me to do something different, one of my first non-robot large-scale characters.
Jeff White: And though we didn’t work on The Revenant, two of our colleagues, Rich McBride and Jason Smith, did incredible work on a grizzly bear scene, which also helped push our hair pipeline forward and contributed to making us ready to take on a creature as large as Kong.
"I sent a couple of tests to the director and he replied with just one sentence..."
THE HAIRY DETAILS
Scott Benza: I spent the first couple of weeks of pre-production thinking about how to make the most realistic gorilla possible out of Kong, just asking myself how that could be done. I even did animation tests surrounding that idea, where I had Kong acting like a normal gorilla in his native environment, just showing how he would behave, but obviously on a much larger scale. After putting in all this work, I sent a couple of tests to the director, and he replied with just one sentence: "Kong is not a gorilla."
So, Kong was not a gorilla. He’s more of an evolutionary offshoot between a man and a gorilla; he’s bipedal, walks on two legs. It was a bit of a shocker, but it was exciting at the same time, and naturally, we’re very used to adapting to the creative vision of the director.
From there, in the design phase, it took six to eight months just determining what he should look like, then key artwork and motion studies took another three or four months. We had two artists working on just getting his hair right for months at a time.
"We [spent] almost a year focused on [Kong's hair] alone. In the end, we estimated that he had about 18 million hairs."
Jeff White: From the outset, we knew that getting the hair right was going to be a real challenge. We ended up spending almost a year focused on that aspect of Kong alone, making it look believable for a 100-foot character. In the end, we estimated that he had about 18 million hairs.
Scott Benza: To keep track of Kong’s many details, we kept a database to store movie files, notes, categories, and things like that in; we had an 'Accepted' category for ideas, as well as a 'Rejected' one. So, if we had a successful animation test, whether the director liked the whole test or only a particular aspect of it, we would add metadata, like: 'The director liked the way Kong entered the scene, but wasn’t particularly crazy about this aspect, for this reason.' When an animator was about to start work, I’d have them go through that entire collection of movies, along with all the notes, to get their head around where we were going with the character.
On top of that, we held daily meetings where all this information was given out to the animators, and where we discussed the director’s notes in detail.
"As artists, we're trying to take these natural laws and bend them in certain directions, rather than break them."
MAKING KONG (HUGELY) CREDIBLE
Scott Benza: It was interesting, because we had the mandate to create something people have never seen before, this monster, and yet we know audiences will have very strict notions about what’s credible when they see him. I think that’s because of the way we view nature: we’re familiar with the laws of physics, we know evolution has made life work within the confines of the environment. So even if you’ve never seen a 100-foot-tall creature, you have a sense of how he should move, how much energy he generates and needs to absorb. As artists, we’re trying to take these natural laws and bend them in certain directions, rather than break them.
Jeff White: What was most important to me with Kong, and to the animation department, is that the audience feels an emotional connection, on top of just cheering him on during the action sequences. Looking at him, you should be able to get a read on what each moment means for him; it might just take a split-second, but that’s such an important thing. We want you to root for him, absolutely, but we also want audiences to have sympathy for him in the quieter moments, too. And there are a lot of quiet, close-up moments, where you need to feel that connection to him so that there’s something at stake when he’s in a fight.
Because Kong doesn’t talk, everything has to happen through what he communicates with his face, the expressive quality of his eyes. There’s a scene where he's just sitting under the Aurora Borealis, by himself, and the entire scene is predicated on just the movement of his eyes.
"The best tech, the most detailed digital doubles, don't mean much in the end if the audience doesn't feel bad for your character when he's getting beaten up."
Jeff White: So much ultimately comes down to performance, to get the audience to relate to creatures like Kong in the same way they would to a real actor. The best tech, the most detailed digital doubles, don’t mean much in the end if the audience doesn’t feel bad for your character when he’s getting beaten up.
To me, that’s the most interesting work that’s happening right now: making the performance more believable. There’s so much advancement being made regarding simulating natural effects – fire, water, vegetation, the different environments. But the compelling, complicated work is getting those digital creatures to a believable level, where the audience can identify with them.
We were lucky to work with Toby Campbell, who also worked on Warcraft with me, to drill down the performances, but I think, for Kong, in particular, a major part of getting the performance right was just great keyframe animation.
"That's the great thing about Maya: if there's a tool you need, you'll never be told that it's impossible, you'll never be completely shut down."
TOOLS AND TECHNOLOGY
Jeff White: A lot of the challenge with Kong was the complexity of his rig, and making sure we didn’t have to go into all the shots to constantly correct anatomy problems. Chris Havreberg did the rigging, and he had to use every trick in the book. But there were still challenges, particularly related to scaling. Kong was animated in Maya, but often the director would be unhappy with his size in a given shot. As soon as you have Kong against the backdrop of the mountains of Vietnam, for example, his stature diminishes.
So, we would take tools that we built inside of Maya and then pass them down the pipeline so that our animators could scale him to whatever size they needed. We had gone into the project saying, 'We’re not going to scale Kong,' but the reality is he doesn’t always feel as big as he needed to be, and you can’t just bring him closer to the camera without putting him on top of your characters or throwing off their eye lines.
To me, that speaks to the flexibility of Maya. At ILM, R&D has built us a tool called, Block Party 2, which is the foundation for all our rigging systems, and that’s all done in Maya.
"[Maya is] a set of tools that enable your imagination; you can connect them or repurpose them to create something completely new and different."
Scott Benza: And that’s the great thing about Maya: if there’s a tool that you need, you’ll
never be told that it’s impossible, you’ll never be completely shut down. Because even if it isn’t possible with the built-in tools, you can find someone to script or code exactly what it is you need inside of Maya.
Jeff White: Another Autodesk tool that's a huge part of my job is RV. It’s so deeply integrated into our pipeline, and I love being able to flip between different versions, and load sequences, and play around with cuts inside of there. It was incredibly helpful, during development, to load the EXRs and have the color and different looks all be virtualized, so I could load Kong and then look at him under different conditions and make sure he was holding up okay.
Scott Benza: I’ve had a lot of experience using dynamic simulations to drive character performances. It doesn’t work for a lot of different types of characters, but for things like insects and robots and a few other creatures that don’t have to show a lot of intelligence, it’s very effective. But I still feel like there’s a lot of work that could be done there, a lot more that could be achieved, and I find myself very interested in that.
We have rigid body systems at ILM, and in the past few movies that I’ve worked on, I’ve tried to find ways of creating character performances with tools that aren’t necessarily designed for that specific performance. I think that’s part of the creativity of this job, taking tools that are not necessarily designed for a particular job but making them work. And that’s something we really appreciate about Maya: It's a set of tools that enable your imagination; you can connect them or repurpose them to create something completely new and different.
Jeff White, Scott Benza and the teams at Industrial Light & Magic relied on Maya in a big way for Kong: Skull Island. Learn more about Maya’s huge flexibility and massive possibilities when it comes to creature creation.