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KING KONG - BUILDING A SHREWDER APE

Peter Jackson created a full back story for Kong as a starting point for remaking cinema’s iconic giant ape and surrogate Kong Andy Serkis tells how much a labour of love it was for him when he befriended Zaire, one of the female gorillas, during months of research: and when his wife came to visit him, Zaire threw a water bottle at her.

Getting to the particular Kong at the centre of Peter Jackson’s remake was of paramount concern to filmmakers, and all involved had very strong ideas about how this Kong would be brought to the screen.

Philippa Boyens explains, “Very early on, right from the word ‘go,’ Peter wanted to make sure that the character of Kong was not a monster and was, in fact, a large silverback gorilla who happens to be 25 feet tall and 8,000 pounds. This Kong was not a monster and was not to be anthropomorphized.”

Jackson describes his central character: “We assumed that Kong is the last surviving member of his species. He had a mother and a father and maybe brothers and sisters, but they’re dead. He’s the last of the huge gorillas that live on Skull Island, and the last one when he goes…there will be no more. He’s a very lonely creature—absolutely solitary. It must be one of the loneliest existences you could ever possibly imagine. Every day, he has to battle for his survival against very formidable dinosaurs on the island, and it’s not easy for him. He’s carrying the scars of many former encounters with dinosaurs. I’m imagining he’s probably 100 to 120 years old by the time our story begins. And he has never felt a single bit of empathy for another living creature in his long life; it has been a brutal life that he’s lived.”

The screenwriters began to fashion a mythology for Kong that dovetailed with the original 1933 concept, but also gave them a wider playing field for their special silverback gorilla. The Skull Islanders have long deified the giant gorilla species, though none can even remember how this came to be. It is simply accepted that at regular intervals throughout the year, a woman is lashed to the sacrificial altar and offered up to the last remaining ape-god; the gorilla is summoned, and he snatches the girl and leaves. Once Kong returns to his killing ground, he quickly tires of the terrified girl and kills her. When the presence of the strangers from the Venture—most notably, Ann—triggers the islanders to offer this intriguing, blond creature during a special ceremony, Kong’s Pavlovian response kicks in; he is summoned and rushes away with the offering.

"a more advanced method of fashioning the Eighth Wonder of the World"

But Ann is different than the other girls and is far from accepting of her lot. She fights, she flees, she challenges her captor—and at the point where it seems that he will soon kill her, she launches into a demonstration of her skill set obtained from her career in vaudeville (a tough crowd is a tough crowd, whether in New York or the jungles of a no-longer-lost island). She fascinates Kong long enough that he starts to view her as something more than prey; his curiosity is piqued. The solitary warrior’s existence is, momentarily, no longer as painful.

Even with this more detailed story of the beginnings of the relationship between Kong and Ann, the filmmakers were adamant that Kong always remain a gorilla—an imposing, frightening, brutal beast governed by the laws of nature and animal behaviour and one whose, once he allows another living creature to soften his predatory nature and introduce vulnerability, eventual downfall is assured.

There was never any question what process would lead to the creation of Kong—he was always meant to be a wholly computer-generated creation. Yet after the groundbreaking, combined use of computer generation and motion capture (mo-cap) that led to The Lord of the Rings character Gollum, Jackson and his team began to explore a more advanced method of fashioning the Eighth Wonder of the World…and it would all begin with the involvement of the same actor who rendered Gollum such a mercurial, compelling and even (at times) sympathetic character: Andy Serkis.

“Certainly Kong himself was beyond anything we’d ever done before—just the huge complexity of what Kong is and what he has to be has been the most complicated thing we’ve ever done,” reflects Jackson. “Just giving him an ability to ‘act’ like an actor…but it’s not human, it’s a gorilla. And he has to do things the way gorillas do them. So, ultimately, you have to render it out as an artificial digital character. We’ve had to build a huge amount of emotion into his face and into his eyes. We’d literally been working on the digital model of Kong for nearly two years before we put him into shots.”

Casting Serkis as Kong gave Jackson and his team not only an actor who could take direction and make the creative process of filming a two-way street (digital creations hardly ever offer thoughts on their motivations or suggestions for a bit of blocking), but also someone physically there for his fellow cast members. Jackson continues, “We cast Andy Serkis as Kong — which in itself may seem strange — but I really wanted a human actor to be making the decisions that a performer would normally make if they were playing the role. I wanted somebody who I could talk to on-set who was Kong. I wanted somebody to be on-set for Naomi to perform with. I didn’t want to get into a situation where, because Kong was a digital character, he was basically invisible—I wanted to make him visible. I wanted to make him tangible. I wanted to be able to discuss the role with an actor. And I ultimately wanted an actor to perform the part of Kong. And so all those things were possible by casting Andy.”

Serkis remembers being invited over to Jackson and Walsh’s house for lunch in April of 2003, during the period when pick-up shots were being executed for The Return of the King. During the visit, the hosts brought out pictures of Snowflake, an albino gorilla from the Barcelona Zoo, and explained to Serkis their intention to build on the advances achieved with the creation of Gollum in creating Kong in a remake of the classic movie. Jackson and Walsh wanted to utilize an actor to make decisions for the character, to provide on-set reference for the other actors and to serve as a motion capture reference for the final CGI creation…and they wanted that actor to be Serkis.

"was going to have character and an emotional arc"

In the following months, work on the final film of Jackson’s Rings trilogy was completed and the film was released. During that time, Serkis considered the meeting that had taken place. He explains, “It sort of dawned on me at that point that Gollum had been well received, and by then we were aware that he had set a benchmark as a CG character that was believable and that had an emotional content. And I knew that because Pete was so passionate about King Kong, it was never going to be a monster movie. The fact that he showed me pictures of Snowflake—who is a very idiosyncratic gorilla—I knew that Kong was going to have character and an emotional arc.”

During the nascent stages of the project, the literary character of Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame (particularly as performed by Charles Laughton in the classic film version), provided some character references to which the filmmakers and Serkis could relate. Serkis also began his own research, constructing a mental model of whom Kong would be. “For this 2005 audience, I felt it was very important that we made him quadrupedal and rooted in gorilla behaviour—we wanted to include, as much as possible, accepted animal behaviour research and the psychological research that had been conducted on gorillas by such people as Dian Fossey. People know a lot more about the gorilla than they did in Cooper’s time. So we made decisions such as he wouldn’t eat the flesh of the dinosaur, because gorillas are vegetarian—people know that.”

Even though the digital and effects masters at Weta had fashioned a breakthrough creation with Gollum, filmmakers accepted that the same techniques would not serve Kong as successfully. Certain limitations had to be overcome. Jackson explains, “The Weta animators were going to have to do a huge amount of work, because in many respects, the animation on Kong is more important than Gollum—a lot of that character was motion captured. But there is a significant number of things that Kong is doing that Andy can’t do: a lot of climbing, running and dinosaur fighting. And there is very little of Andy’s motion capture in there—a lot of that is just traditional key frame animation. So Andy and the animators had to work very closely to create the character.”

And while Gollum’s facial expressions were modelled on human emotional responses (Serkis’ in particular), Kong would be expressing his emotions through the facial structure of a gorilla. So a straightforward motion capture of Serkis’ face during the eventual mo-cap stage of filming would not produce realistic gorilla expressions by simple transference to the CGI Kong.

This was an undertaking that perplexed the animators, but it was vital to Kong appearing lifelike. To resolve the situation, Weta craftsmen built Kong with the correct musculature and skeletal structure of a gorilla and developed software that would translate human expressions into corresponding (though not always similarly appearing) gorilla expressions. With this solution, the mo-cap markers on Serkis’ face could communicate most emotions that Kong would feel. For example, when Jackson wanted the ape to express rage, Serkis’ angry expressions would be transmitted and transferred into the gorilla facial expression that indicates rage.

"a new way of using technology"

Weta Digital’s senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri explains, “The motion capture we did with Kong was a new way of using technology. It’s a combination of things that have been done in the past, but we’ve brought them together in a unique way. We have created a system that’s based on emotional states. It depends on us figuring out all the muscles of the face and understanding the correspondence between a human facial system and a gorilla facial system. What that allows us to do is to look at how muscles work together to create believable expressions. We then extract this muscle-by-muscle technique into something that’s much more emotional. The facial animation system for Kong is the next generation of the facial system we built for Gollum.”
This care and concern was key to the development of Kong, especially in light of all of the behavioural data currently available on gorillas…and all the research Serkis himself conducted into the species. Prior to the start of principal photography, the actor immersed himself in books and videos on gorillas; during that time he became convinced that he needed to study them both in captivity and in the wild to get at the heart of portraying Kong. He first ventured down to Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent (two hours outside of London), where the band of gorillas numbers around 70—making it one of the largest groups (or “shrewdness” of apes) in captivity. He then became a regular at the London Zoo in Regents Park, where he befriended one of the keepers who allowed him to get close to the four gorillas housed in the zoo. That closeness came at a price.

Serkis explains, “There are three females and one poor male named Bob, who was brought up in a circus and therefore had no experience being the alpha male…so the females were constantly giving him a hard time. Over the course of a few months, I’d go in every two or thee days and spend time with them and feed them. And I formed a relationship with one of the females, named Zaire. When my wife came to visit with me, Zaire didn’t like it one bit—she grabbed a water bottle and threw it at my wife.”

Whenever the actor was in a holding pen between the cages, observing Bob and Zaire, Bob would hurl himself at the cage, punching the bars nearest to Serkis. Another time, when the actor was videoing the apes, Bob pitched a handful of stones at the camera, scratching the lens and startling Serkis.

Just prior to filming, Serkis traveled with a leading primatologist to observe the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, visiting the same group that Fossey herself had studied. It was during this visit that he gained invaluable, firsthand insight into the animal’s vocalizations, behavioural patterns and hierarchy, and methods of non-verbal communication.

Serkis sums up, “I suppose the most important thing that I learned from observing at the London Zoo and in Rwanda was that when you talk about studying gorillas, it’s like saying ‘studying human beings,’ because there are individual, idiosyncratic differences. You will have a very moody gorilla, a very loving gorilla, a very uptight gorilla, a very relaxed gorilla. And so, apart from learning stock gorilla behavior in terms of physicality and things like that, I was able to begin to make individual character choices. In a way, I guess it was frightening—so who is Kong after it all? It wasn’t like it narrowed it down…it opened it up. And I think that was the thing that was we realized when we eventually started to shoot Kong during the performance capture stage.”

But before shooting any of the sequences where the gigantic ape was involved, Serkis would be utilized in a much more human way, manning the galley of the Venture as Lumpy the Cook. Jackson quips, “This is the first time we actually got to shoot extended drama sequences together, in the full knowledge that Andy would not be ‘painted out’ after the fact, as he was with Gollum.”

Published December 15, 2005
 



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Andy Serkis in the role audiences can see his face as a member of the Venture crew

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