The movie was originally called The Beast , then The Eighth Wonder . By the time it opened in New York on March 2, 1933, it was King Kong . A fantastic tale of a huge gorilla from Skull Island that runs amok in New York City, King Kong has come down the years as one of the world’s greatest movies and the precursor of today’s special-effects blockbusters. As The New York Times commented in 1933, it was “a remarkable example of the most up-to-date camera tricks … a series of multiple exposures, process shots, glass shots, miniatures and virtually everything that can be accomplished with a camera in a motionpicture studio.” Those “up-to-date camera tricks” may seem creaky in comparison to today’s digital work, but in its day King Kong set new standards for what could be done onscreen. And, for better or worse, it “pointed the way toward the current era of special effects, science fiction, cataclysmic destruction, and nonstop shocks,” in the words of the film critic Roger Ebert.
Not only did it launch a great tradition of special effects in the movies that has not yet ended, but even more than seven decades after its release, the movie still inspires filmmakers and audiences. “No film has captivated my imagination more than King Kong ,” said Peter Jackson, the director of the Lord of the Rings movies, when he announced that his next film would be a King Kong remake. His version opens in December 2005. “I’m making movies today because I saw this film when I was 9 years old,” he said. “It has been my sustained dream to reinterpret this classic story for a new age.” In June 2004 the British movie magazine Empire picked King Kong as the best movie monster ever. “Other pretenders try to dethrone him, but the lord of Skull Island tramples them all,” the magazine said.
Even before it was made, the original King Kong was becoming a legend. “Because of the highly secret methods of filming used, the picture is being made on a closed stage and admittance is strictly forbidden,” read a notice at RKO Studio in the summer of 1932. The studio’s head of production was David O. Selznick; his assistant, Merian C. Cooper, was running Production 601. “I knew they were making something,” remembered the director George Cukor. “I would see them making it for what seemed like years and years, and we thought, dear old Coop, he’s making this preposterous picture.”
Merian C. Cooper was an adventurer and showman who had been born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1893 and had flown bombers in World War I; he ended the war in a German hospital after his airplane was shot down in flames. He later organized a squadron of American volunteers and flew for Poland in the subsequent Soviet-Polish War. On July 12, 1920, he was shot down again and taken prisoner. The following spring he escaped from prison near Moscow and made his way across 500 miles of Soviet territory to freedom.
Ernest B. Schoedsack, Kong ’s co-director, was an Iowa native who had become a cameraman for the producer Mack Sennett and then joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps in World War I. He met Cooper in Vienna and, like him, sought adventure in Poland. When Soviet forces drove the Poles from Kiev, Schoedsack was the last person to make it across the Dnieper Bridge. “The excited Poles blew it up on my heels, but I did get a chance to turn around and get the thing coming down—with a motion-picture camera,” he said.
Schoedsack was lanky and taciturn while Cooper was short and volatile, yet they recognized each other as kindred spirits and set out to make movies that combined what they called the “3 Ds” —distance, difficulty, and danger. In 1922 they teamed with an American reporter, Marguerite Harrison, to make Grass , a documentary about nomadic herdsmen in Persia. Then they filmed Chang , a story of man-eating tigers and elephant stampedes in Siam. Their first fiction film, The Four Feathers , utilized action footage shot on location in Africa.
David O. Selznick, only 26, handled postproduction work on The Four Feathers , and although Cooper disliked Selznick’s editing, the two men hit it off personally. Cooper quit the movies to devote his considerable energies to commercial aviation, but Selznick lured him back, asking him to be his assistant at RKO. Cooper took the job, mainly because it offered him the chance to realize a dream. “I have a really great idea for making a gorilla picture, and to tell you the truth, that is what I am particularly anxious to do,” he told Selznick.
Inspired by Dragon Lizards of Komodo , his friend W. Douglas Burden’s true account of reptiles on a Pacific island, Cooper wanted to make a movie about a battle between giant lizards and a gorilla, a “giant terror gorilla,” as he put it, “with the strength of a hundred men.” He later revised his story line to have his beast run loose in New York, and one winter afternoon in Manhattan he came up with the capper: The gorilla would climb a skyscraper and be killed by airplanes.
The ending remained consistent even as different writers tackled the script. The British thriller author Edgar Wallace died of pneumonia shortly after starting work. James Creelman then modified the scenario, and Ruth Rose, Ernest Schoedsack’s wife, completed it. The final version told the story of a filmmaker, showman, and adventurer named Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong), who sets sail to find a legendary uncharted Pacific island. He takes along the unemployed actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), expecting her to provide the love interest in a film. At the island, which has a huge wall dividing it in two, tribesmen kidnap Ann and offer her to their god, a mysterious being that dwells behind the wall. The god turns out to be Kong. He carries off Ann into the jungle, and Denham and his men set out in pursuit. Kong and the island’s dinosaurs contrive some nasty deaths for the sailors, except for the taciturn first mate, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), who rescues Ann while Kong fights a pterodactyl. The ape pursues them until Denham knocks him unconscious with gas bombs and concocts a scheme to bring him back to New York as a theatrical attraction. On opening night in New York, Kong escapes, grabs Ann, and climbs the Empire State Building, where warplanes swoop in for the kill. “Well, the airplanes got him,” a cop says to Denham. “No,” Denham replies in the movie’s final line, “it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast!”
Cooper would need movie magic to make something from such an outlandish premise, and he found his magician at RKO. Willis O’Brien, born in 1886 in Oakland, California, had entered the movies by a roundabout route, having worked as a cowboy, prizefighter, cartoonist, and sculptor. In 1914 he had tried moving clay mannequins in tiny increments and filming them one frame at a time. When he projected his film at normal speed, the objects appeared to move. He called the process “animation in depth,” but he hadn’t invented it; it had been used as early as 1895 by, among others, the French film pioneer Georges Méliès. O’Brien did become the leading practitioner of stop-motion animation, as it was usually called. His dinosaurs for the 1925 adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World were so realistic that Sir Arthur borrowed a test reel to amaze professional conjurers, Harry Houdini among them, at a magicians’ convention.
In 1930 RKO hired O’Brien to make Creation , a movie about prehistoric beasts and another lost world. That project had already cost $132,000 by the time Cooper arrived. He saw little potential in Creation , but he discerned that its creator could help him with his gorilla movie. The studio’s board cautiously agreed to allocate $10,000 for a test reel.
Now Cooper had to manufacture, literally, his star. He hated O’Brien’s first concept. “It looks like a cross between a monkey and a man with long hair,” he said. He liked the second attempt no better. He wired the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, for proper gorilla specifications and gave them to O’Brien; O’Brien argued that such a beast would be too terrifying to win audience sympathy. “I’ll have women crying over him before I’m through,” Cooper insisted, “and the more brutal he is the more they’ll cry at the end.” He got his way.
The task of making Kong fell to a modelmaker named Marcel Delgado, a Mexican native who had met O’Brien in 1923 at an art class they both were taking. O’Brien had liked the young man’s work and lured him away from his job at a grocery store to make dinosaurs for The Lost World . Delgado first sculpted models of his beasts from clay, then built articulated metal skeletons that could bend into different positions. He added rubber muscles, covered them with latex skins, and attached surface features: plates, horns, and other appendages. Some models had internal air bladders. Filled and deflated one tiny increment at a time and photographed frame by frame, they made the creatures appear to breathe.
Delgado followed the same basic procedure to build Kong. The model ape was 18 inches tall and made of metal, rubber, and rabbit fur. “The skeleton was made of high tempered Dural [an aluminum alloy] and I gave him muscles that react, which is why Kong looks alive instead of stiff,” Delgado recalled. “I was given pruned rabbit fur to cover him with, and I never was satisfied with that because I knew it would show the fingerprints of the animators.” The Kong model also had mobile facial features. Each raised eyebrow, every snarl, required minute adjustments for every frame of film. Between frames, O’Brien and his assistants clamped the models firmly into position through holes in the bases of their miniature jungle sets.
One scene for the test reel featured a battle between Kong and a Tyrannosaurus rex . Cooper told the film historian Ron Haver that he personally acted out the motions of both combatants for the animators. “I tried to give them both a certain human quality, which was hard,” he said; “the ape wasn’t too bad, I got that down pretty good, but I sure as hell don’t look like a dinosaur.” O’Brien and his team—most notably his first assistant, E. B. “Buz” Gibson—animated their models accordingly.
Silent films had typically been shot at 16 frames per second. Sound films ran at 24, which meant O’Brien had to shoot half again as many frames as for The Lost World . On a good day the animation team shot 25 feet of film, or 20 seconds of screen time. O’Brien’s genius lay in the way he used some of those dearly bought seconds for incidental action. For example, after defeating the tyrannosaurus, Kong toys with the beast’s broken jaw, a simple gesture that helped transform him into something more than a special-effects stunt. He became a character, one who reflected the personalities of his creators. “Cooper acted out some of Kong’s moves for the animators to emulate, and many who knew him said they could see Cooper in Kong’s every move,” wrote the one-time Hollywood special-effects man George E. Turner in his 1975 book The Making of King Kong . “Friends of O’Brien said they could see O’Brien in Kong’s every expression and gesture.”
Impressed by the test reel, rko’s board approved a full production. By this point Schoedsack had joined the project, and the two divided the directing chores, Cooper concentrating on special effects and Schoedsack working with the actors. Because the animation was so time-consuming, Schoedsack was able to simultaneously co-direct The Most Dangerous Game , about a crazed hunter who stalks humans on his private island. The film shared sets and cast members with Kong .
With the production approved, Delgado built a second Kong. The movie needed at least two because the models suffered considerable wear and tear during shooting. “Many times I had to tear them down and build them over again because the rubber and muscles deteriorated from the heat of the lights and the constant movement of the animation,” Delgado later said. As the animators brought Delgado’s models to life, they endured some trials and a few errors. They learned to insert all new light bulbs before starting a sequence, because if one failed partway through and its replacement burned at a slightly different intensity, the change showed on film. A story has it that one time an animator noticed he had left a pair of pliers where it would be just visible in the foreground, and he carefully animated it out of view one frame at a time.
There was nothing they could do about Kong’s fur. Just as Delgado feared, it moved when the animators touched it, and that made Kong appear to bristle onscreen. The animators cringed, but the effect impressed at least one RKO executive. “Hey! Look! Kong’s mad!” he exclaimed when he saw it.
O’Brien also could not avoid jerkiness in his animation, but that was an inherent flaw in the stop-motion technique. A motion-picture camera normally captures objects as they move; each frame includes some blurring. O’Brien took a series of still images. Even though the human eye perceived the projected footage as moving, the animated objects appeared somewhat unnatural because they lacked what is called motion blur. Eventually animators would try to work around the problem. The animators for The Terminator (1984) placed a lightly greased piece of glass between camera and animated models to create a sense of blur, and on Robocop (1987) Phil Tippett jiggled his models very slightly while the camera aperture was open.
As painstaking as it was, animation was not the greatest challenge; putting the live actors and the animation together on film was. A simple double exposure wouldn’t work, for the film elements would then appear superimposed. For some shots on The Lost World O’Brien had used a matte, a process called “negative masking.” He placed a pane of glass in front of the camera. A portion was painted black, leaving unexposed the part of the negative where O’Brien planned to place the live action. He then reversed the matte to block light from falling on the portion of the negative exposed with his animation and filmed the actors on a scale to match the animated creatures. Georges Méliès had also tried out negative masking, using it in 1902 to make a short film called Indian Rubber Head . The technique was reasonably simple, but it worked only when live and animated elements remained within their own portions of the frame, and sometimes the matte line between the two elements became apparent onscreen.
When the elements moved around the frame, Kong ’s filmmakers had to create a “traveling matte.” They used a number of techniques for this. With the Williams process, named after the cameraman who had patented it, they filmed background and foreground elements separately. A copy of the foreground element—perhaps Kong—was then processed to create a black silhouette against a white background. This film was then combined with the background element—maybe the native village—onto a new negative to create an unexposed hole where Kong would fit. This film was finally combined with a normal Kong image.
Another process, the dunning, patented by a precocious 17-year-old named C. Dodge Dunning in 1927, was used in the scene where a brontosaurus attacks sailors on a raft. There the background element, the dinosaur, was filmed, printed, bleached, and dyed orange. The orange-and-white positive film was packed into a special camera with a piece of normal unexposed negative. The crew then shot the foreground action, the sailors, under orange lights, with a blue screen in the background.
Light from the orange-lit scenes passed unimpeded through all parts of the orange-and-white dinosaur image and reached the unexposed negative. But the blue light from the background did not make it through the orange portions of the brontosaurus footage; instead it acted to print the dinosaur image onto the unexposed negative. The sailors, lit by orange light, essentially acted as their own traveling mattes by blocking light from the blue screen and preventing those portions of the dinosaur from reaching the negative. Since the different elements were wedded within the camera, the technicians had to make sure everything was matched perfectly before filming, and they couldn’t see problems until they screened the finished shot. The biggest challenge was for the actors to pretend that the blue background was a rampaging brontosaurus.
Linwood G. Dunn offered a third, easier way to create process shots. Dunn, a former cameraman, built an early version of an optical printer. It was a combination projector and camera. Using a matte to mask a portion of the negative, he could project one element of a composite image directly into the camera part of the optical printer, then reverse the matte and project the second element onto the same negative. Using the optical printer was much simpler than creating complex process shots inside the camera with the Dunning process. “At some point, partway through production, I was able to convince O’bie [O’Brien] that I could save him a whole lot of trouble by working out on the optical printer such compositing problems, where there was much greater control and much lower cost,” Dunn recalled. He won an Academy Award in 1944 for his work with the optical printer.
King Kong also expanded the possibilities of rear projection, with actors performing in front of a backdrop that had film projected onto it from behind. Rear projection wasn’t new, but Kong was the first movie to use a new cellulose-acetate screen developed by RKO’s Sidney Saunders to replace unsatisfactory glass ones. Even so, there were difficulties. The rear projector had to be constructed more like a camera, with a pin system that held each frame steady so the projected image wouldn’t vibrate on the large screen, and the projector and camera had to be perfectly synchronized so the image wouldn’t flicker. And like other screens of the time, Saunders’s—for which RKO received a special Academy Award—tended to display a hot spot in the center, with the image’s intensity fading to the sides. Also, technicians had to make sure the lights illuminating the live action didn’t spill onto the rear screen.
King Kong first used the new screen in the scene where Fay Wray, atop a dead tree, watches Kong battle the tyrannosaurus. The crew worked for 22 hours straight to get it right. “From my position, all I could see was large blurry shadows on the screen,” Wray recalled in her autobiography. “It was like having the worst seat in the house, too close to define what the shadows were. But I kept moving … and would scream when Cooper said, ‘Scream! Scream for your life, Fay!’”
Cooper and O’Brien also developed a similar technique called miniature projection. They filmed the live action first. O’Brien then added a tiny screen of stretched surgical rubber (some accounts say they used condoms) to a miniature set. Using a special miniature projector developed by the technician Harry Cunningham, he projected the live footage onto the screen, advancing it one frame at a time to match his animation. He used miniature projection to show Bruce Cabot hiding inside a cave after Kong has knocked the other sailors off a log into a ravine and to show Cabot and Wray in Kong’s clifftop home.
Every process required painstaking preparation. The different elements of each shot had to match, and that meant keeping track of the lenses, exposures, lighting, and camera angles. Most of that technical preparation was handled by the technicians Carroll Shepphird and Vernon Walker, who made innumerable tests to ensure that the elements meshed. There was a darkroom right on the set so the filmmakers could develop test footage immediately and make any necessary adjustments.
Not all the effects were done in miniature. For Kong’s close-ups, Marcel Delgado and his brother Victor built a life-size bust of the ape’s head, shoulders, and chest. Inside it, three men used compressed air to operate the ears, the eyes, and the rest of the face. The production also used two full-size hands. The paw that tries to snatch Bruce Cabot from his ravine cave was a simple static prop. The other was a more complex device that gripped Fay Wray for close-ups. “The big arm, about six feet long, was attached to a lever so it could be raised or lowered,” Wray recalled. “I would stand on the floor while a grip (and that’s not a pun by intention) would place the flexible fingers around my waist in a grip secure enough to allow me to be raised to a level in line with an elevated camera. There was a wind machine to give motion to my clothes, and I struggled to give the illusion that Kong was a fearsome forty feet tall.” Using rear projection of O’Brien’s animations, the filmmakers made the big arm appear to be part of the whole creature. The production also used a full-size foot for shots of Kong stomping on island natives. (At no point was anyone filmed in a gorilla suit.)
Cooper and O’Brien clashed again when it came time to shoot the scenes of Kong running amok in New York City. Cooper thought that Kong looked puny and unthreatening compared with the buildings around him, and he told O’Brien to make him bigger. O’Brien was appalled at Cooper’s callous disregard for continuity. But once again Cooper won out, and Delgado built another Kong model, this one 24 inches tall.
Cooper was especially worried that the smaller Kong would appear dwarfed atop the Empire State Building in the film’s climax, one of the most famous scenes in movie history. The sequence combined footage of real airplanes with shots of models built in various scales, depending on where they appeared within the frame. The model airplanes moved along piano wires, and Carroll Shepphird had to calculate how far to move each model, depending on its scale and distance from the camera, so they would animate properly. The skyscraper’s upper portion was a model; the real Fay Wray sat on a life-size set; and the breathtaking views of New York behind the animated Kong were glass paintings by Mario Larrinaga and Byron Crabbe. In one shot the cameras appear to zoom toward Kong in a pilot’s-eye view, a movement O’Brien created one frame at a time while matching the camera’s dollying to Kong’s movements. (He created a similar shot for the scene in which Kong destroys an elevated train, to show the trainman’s view as he approaches Kong.) Cooper and Schoedsack cast themselves as the pilot and gunner who finally bring Kong down. “Let’s kill the son of a bitch ourselves,” Cooper is said to have remarked.
Once the filming was completed, a crew under Murray Spivak set to work on the movie’s sound effects. For the sound of Kong’s chest beating, the team first tried a kettledrum. It sounded too hollow. Spivak then tried beating a cane chair with a drum mallet. It didn’t sound “fleshy” enough. He finally found the right combination when he placed a microphone on his assistant Walter Elliot’s back and smacked his chest.
For Kong’s roars, Spivak took a recording of a lion, ran the tape backward, slowed it to drop the sound an octave, isolated the peaks, and spliced those together. It sounded fine but it was too short, so he next created four composite roars and put them together. For the sounds of Kong’s footsteps, he used plungers and a pad covered with gravel. He recorded Kong’s “love grunts” himself through a megaphone and then lowered the pitch.
All of King Kong ’s sounds were recorded on four tracks, two for sound effects and one each for dialogue and music. Spivak worried that the combination of Max Steiner’s score and his effects would overwhelm the audience, so he pitched his effects to match the score. As the film historian Ron Haver wrote, Spivak’s “sensitivity to the demands of the music and the limitations of the recording medium resulted in a sound track that is one of the masterpieces of the early sound era.”
All the effort paid off. King Kong opened on March 2, 1933, in New York and was an immediate smash. On a budget of $672,000 (at least $100,000 of which was nothing but studio overhead, to Cooper’s ire), King Kong made $2,000,000 in 1933 and single-handedly pulled RKO out of receivership. The studio immediately okayed a sequel but budgeted less than half the cost of the original. Cooper, who had taken over as production head when Selznick left for a job at MGM, was going on his honeymoon, so Schoedsack directed the sequel by himself. “When I saw the picture I didn’t like it very much,” Cooper said, “but for $200,000, what can you expect?”
Kong has been revived several times since. Cooper reunited many of the movie’s cast and crew, including O’Brien, for 1949’s similarly themed Mighty Joe Young , which in turn was remade with computer-generated effects in 1998. Japan’s Toho Studios had a man in an ape suit play Kong in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1963)—which actually owed its original conception to a film O’Brien waited to do called King Kong vs. Frankenstein —and in King Kong Escapes . In 1976 the producer Dino de Laurentiis released a King Kong remake that used a combination of a life-size mechanical ape and a man in an ape suit. The 40-foot Kong, designed by Carlo Rambaldi, weighed 6.5 tons; a Hollywood wigmaker covered it with a ton of horsehair from Argentina. It wasn’t completed until filming was almost over, and it provided little more than headaches. Wires snapped, the jaw sagged, and hydraulics leaked down one leg, giving rise to many jokes. In the end it appeared onscreen for mere minutes.
Rambaldi also designed the ape suit, which had five masks, each with a different expression. Seven crew members operated cables attached to the mask that changed the preset expressions further. The suit, made from six bear-skins over a foam-rubber casing, proved to be so brutally hot that Rick Baker found it difficult to remain inside for more than three hours (although once he lasted for four).
De Laurentiis’s Kong appeared to have everything over the original: a huge budget (in the end it cost around $24 million), expensive location filming in Hawaii, and all the advantages of modern filmmaking technology. Yet even though it won an Academy Award for special effects, this new Kong paled in comparison to the original. Its themes about environmental destruction were heavy-handed, and its special effects lacked the original’s magic. It is probably best remembered today for introducing the actress Jessica Lange in the Fay Wray role. (In 1986 de Laurentiis managed to contrive a sequel, King Kong Lives , that made his first Kong film look good.)
For his remake, director peter jackson has used the latest in computer-generated special effects. “We’ve reached the point where King Kong isn’t going to really get watched anymore by young kids,” Jackson has said. “It’s done. And I just feel that it’s a good time to remember it with technology and try to retain the heart of the original film.” Somehow that original film turned a rampaging creature of fantasy into a character with whom audiences sympathized. To rediscover that alchemy, Jackson has turned to the technology his filmmakers used to create Gollum, the tormented, treacherous creature in The Lord of the Rings . The actor Andy Serkis performed that role for the cameras, giving the computer animators reserves of humanity they could draw upon when they began their work. The result was an astonishing three-dimensional characterization.
Whatever Jackson turns out to have made, the creators of 1933’s King Kong won’t be around to voice their opinions. Willis O’Brien died in 1962 while working on It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World . Ernest Schoedsack died in 1979, the year after the death of his wife, Ruth Rose. Merian C. Cooper, the man who originally conceived The Eighth Wonder of the World , died of cancer in 1973, after a career that included pioneering work with Technicolor and Cinerama and the production of the director John Ford’s finest films. To the end he scoffed at interpretations that credited Kong ’s appeal to deep-rooted psychological and symbolic meanings. “ King Kong was escapist entertainment pure and simple,” he said. “I wanted to produce something that I could view with pride and say, ‘ There is the ultimate in adventure.’” In that he succeeded—with the invaluable help of the finest special-effects work of its day.