Thursday, December 15, 2005

Kong (the original)

Wednesday night they showed both the Original King Kong and the 1970s re-make. I watched the original (surprise). This was the full-uncut version with natives being eaten and Fay Wray's dress torn off. That was the first version I saw of the movie in an art-house showing around 1974. It's only a few seconds of film but it does change the feel of the big ape.

What is interesting to me are the special effects they used.

The primary one is stop-motion animation. Kong and the dinosaurs are models that were moved slightly and photographed frame by frame.

Then they had to mix the animation and live-action. The process of masking a figure and adding it to a different shot was known then. I spotted it in a couple of shots in Kong. It is fairly easy to recognize since the added figure often has a white border (in early TV blue-screen they had blue borders).

This is an expensive and time consuming way to combine shots. Most of the movie took the easy way and used rear-projection. When Denham and company are attacked by a Stegosaurus, they were standing in front of a screen with animated footage projected on it from the rear. Unlike today's green-screen acting, they could see what was going on, at least some of the time.

Other shots were done the opposite way. They filmed Fay Wray being held by a mechanical arm and pulled pieces of her dress off (probably with wires), then projected this onto a small screen with the model of Kong in front of it.

For extra texture, they also used a lot of matte paintings. I think that I heard that Kong was the first movie to make extensive use of mattes.

They did have a full-sized head that could change expression. They also had an arm and a foot. They used tricks like having Kong look through one window using rear projection while the full-sized arm came through a different window.

When Kong picked someone up it would be an animated character just like Kong himself.

While this technique was effective it had some drawbacks. One was that the rear projection adds a flat, washed out look. Also, it meant that the actors and models always stayed on different sides of an invisible wall. One review of the current movie mentioned this without seeming to understand why it was so.

One other technical problem - every time they moved Kong his fur got out-of-place. They tried to comb it back like it had been but they were not always successful. In a couple of places Kong's fur ripples.

A couple of things really stand out about Kong. One is the amount of screen-time the effects got. Later stop-motion movies were shot on a tighter budget and schedule and had to limit the effects.

The other thing is the attention that went into giving Kong a personality. Sometimes he is angry. Sometimes he is curious. After killing the t-rex he picks it up and works the jaw. He seems to be surprised that the snapping jaws are now slack. The same thing happens with the long-necked thing that Kong fights in the cave.

This personality is so effective that, even after he rampages through the city, you still feel bad when they shoot him.

One thing that will be missing from the new version - in 1933 the Empire State Building was only a few years old and biplanes were still new - as new as the smart-bombs used in the first Gulf War are to us today.

The 1970s version tried keeping Kong in the present. It was a mistake. A 25-50 foot tall ape (he changed scale between Skull Island and New York) was a challenge to 1930s police and even to biplanes. There was no question in the 1970s that helicopter gunships could kill him.

By putting Kong back in the 1930s, the world is primitive enough that Kong is a menace but the story becomes a period piece.

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