Our latest Design FX piece with our media partner WIRED
Skull Island is a re-imagined version of the classic King Kong story. Kong’s uncharted Skull Island is inhabited by physically real looking creatures that have evolved into much larger versions of those found elsewhere on earth. There is also an indigenous human population that has, thanks to Kong, survived for generations. Kong is considered a god on the island and maintains the symbiosis of all life forms, maintaining a balance in the exceptional eco-system. The lead visual effects company tasked with bringing this Kong to life was Industrial Light and Magic (ILM).
Stephen Rosenbaum was the Senior Visual Effects Supervisor on the film, overseeing all the effects houses that contributed. He started in November, 2014 before there was a final script. “When designing Kong, we drew inspiration from the original 1933 Willis O’Brien version. Most people think of Kong as a large gorilla, but unlike gorillas the 1933 Kong walks as a biped and has a disproportionately large head with “monster-like” facial features”.
For Skull Island, the design concept was to make Kong look like a modernized version of the 1933 Kong by sculpting anatomical body details that the original puppet lacked while retaining the familiar physical silhouette of Kong. “Also, like the original, our Kong walks as a biped and was designed with facial features and expressions that are evocative of the O’Brien stop motion performances”, added Rosenbaum.
The team did intentionally depart from the original Kong in a few areas. Firstly, he is 100 feet tall whereas the original ranged in size from 24 to 40 feet. But perhaps most importantly, from an animation perspective, this Kong is “supposed to come across as an intelligent and sentient creature, and present himself as a proud, noble creature with hybrid human/animal expressiveness. Hopefully, you should be able to see Kong think“.
“Like all my projects, I direct the visual effects work to be built from a physically plausible foundation. Regardless of the fantasy component, the creatures, environments, camera composition, and action have to be based on our real world understanding of things” he explains. “For Kong I want the audiences to actually understand and perhaps even connect with him as a sentient creature, so the development process had to be more than making just a cool looking giant monkey. The key part of my direction to ILM was to instil a personality so he became a relatable character and not just another obscure movie monster. The goal is for the audience to care and cheer for him as the unwilling hero of the movie”.
Rosenbaum hired creature designer Carlos Huante to design the details of this Kong. “We started by referencing posed still frames of the original King Kong and then he would draw muscle and body shape details to create an anatomically updated physique. We intentionally preserved Kong’s disproportionately large head, large eyes, elongated teeth, and his big bulbous brows”. When the team moved to the facial animation stage, these exaggerated features “would serve us well to bring out the “monster” within Kong” he explained.
Once the team had illustrated designs, a 3D model was sculpted so the team could analyze body proportions from all angles. “It also helped us analyze Kong’s overall size as a 100 foot primate and how we were going to frame shots with him that could also include people at a fraction of the scale”. Rosenbaum points out framing a ‘two shot’ with Kong running after a human on Skull Island is like “filming a man chasing a mouse through a forest”.
Once the team felt they had a good-looking model, it was passed it to ILM VFX Supervisor Jeff White and ILM Animation Supervisor Scott Benza to do character poses and start working on look development. “They also began to animate movement studies so we could refine the design and also explore Kong’s character”.
Getting scale is an issue, large things should move slowly which is very hard in an action film, one of the most nuanced and difficult scenes was where Kong is sitting and eating his ‘Sushi’ lunch.
The animation and effects teams had to use just about everything in the ILM pipeline, from water simulation to advanced facial motion capture. Jeff White headed the team at ILM as Visual Effects Supervisor, he points to small things, such as how Kong’s lips interact with the giant squid, sucking it in, “really grabbing on” as being indicative of how complex the animation challenges were on the film. “Once the tentacles were pretty good, we ran another simulation on the tentacles to get their squish between Kong’s teeth, and the sense of the tentacles sticking to his skin”.
The system used a tet-mesh simulation, which is part of a newer approach at ILM. Tet-meshes are at the heart of a Finite Element Analysis approach or FEA. This approach in simulations, meant that in the face pipeline, the team could use the same solver for the skin simulation and “run it on the lips and face, which gave us a lot of good collision work” explained White.
This scene naturally shows the incredibly detailed model work supervised by Character Lead Lana Lan. The Kong face is not too anthropomorphised nor does it look like a scaled up gorilla. Kong is expressive and Lan’s model allows for very complex eye animation. The eyes and surrounding facial muscles allowed animation supervisor Scott Benza to have Kong sit and stare at nothing, without looking ‘dead inside’ – perhaps thinking about what had just happened with the helicopter attack. “In animation it is easier to animate action”, reflected Rosenbaum, ” rather than subtle interior reflection and thought”.
“We spent a lot of time working on the eyes. Gorillas have large dark irises that cover nearly all the white (sclera) part of the eyeball, whereas human irises are not as broad and we see more whites. The ’33 Kong eyes had smaller than normal irises, which helped with expressiveness so we made our Kong irises a little smaller, too” says Rosenbaum. “The last 10 percent of Kong’s development is all about making him look real and establishing a personality within the creature, and this phase took as long as the first 90 percent of his construction” How the eyes were animated in turn dictated the motion for a complex CG armature of facial muscles. “We discussed each specific performance and how Kong would emote and then ILM would push and pull the face, which in turn would then drive the action for the body”.
Rosenbaum, explains that “the Squid sequence was a shot that we had conceived of early on. In the early days, in addition to ILM, we also had MPC’s (Art department) and others doing design work. Stefen (Stefan Dechant : Production Designer) and I had worked together on Avatar so we knew how to create large creatures in Jungle environments”. The two creative leads split the early work load, Rosenbaum focused on creature development and Dechant focused on environments and sets. “I hired ILM, MPC and Framestore art departments to do some pre-production creature exploration work”. From this early work there was one pencil sketch done by an artist at MPC which became the blueprint for the sequence (see above). “It is a brilliant pencil sketch of Kong, just sitting there eating his sushi lunch” Rosenbaum explains. “ It just became evocative of the temperament we wanted to convey – that he is this god like beast, that maintains the balance of the island but also has the normal day to day struggles of eating and surviving”. This pencil sketch was faithfully carried right through to the final film, in a sense it is “just him sitting there eating his sushi lunch”, but for the ILM effects team it was one of the most complex and polished shots in the film, being one of the first they started and last that they finished.
While the MPC pencil sketch was the shot’s framing and compositional reference. The actual idea to include this scene came from a live action film. Kong’s complex combination of animation and simulation for the tentacles and face collisions came from a film reference of a man eating live octopus in the 2003 film Oldboy.
Another fascinating aspect of the squid sequence was that Toby Kebbell, the actor playing Jack Chapman who is watching Kong, is also playing Kong in this shot. Kebbell provided lead motion capture for Warcraft at ILM, so the team re used him here to inform the facial animation of Kong. The team recorded a day of face work with Kebbell “which was great, because he worked through the Kong Squid scene and did some really good capture for us chewing on a huge pack of Twizzllers (similar to Red Vines) for the squid at the end, and we spent a lot of time pouring over that” explained White.
Terry Notary also did a couple of days of bodywork motion capture to give a set of “all the big body movements in the film” says White. This involved everything from climbing rock faces and knocking helicopters out of the sky, to physically interacting with people a fraction of his size.
“Terry and I had worked together during our extensive Performance Capture sessions on Avatar so I was thrilled with the opportunity to work with him again on Skull Island. He has the keen ability to take a character description and summon a unique personality into his body movements. We brought him to a capture volume in LA during the early days of developing Kong to help us define character posture, timing, behavioural gestures, and mannerisms. Doing this informed us on how to adjust Kong’s model so we could take advantage of the character performances proposed by Terry” says Rosenbaum.
“After those capture days there were quite a lot of changes, so the motion capture was used for inspiration, but given the huge re-targeting from a 6 ft man to a 100ft Kong we did not use the motion capture directly” explains White.
There are also a couple of cinematic cheats in this sequence. If you look below at the squid /Octopus fight, the sea creature has more than eight legs. Additionally, Kong also changes in scale by a factor of two from the time he walks in until the time he finishes eating. This was done to make him look larger at the beginning of the sequence, when he is framed by the mountains. Scale is always complex to show although once he is fighting in the water the brilliant fluid sim work lead by Florent Andorra (CG Effects Supervisor at ILM), really helped give a “key visual indicator of scale” according to White.
But being able to scale Kong arbitrarily was not a get out of jail card, it actually made ILM’s work harder as the groom of the fur is all done at one scale, and so scaling it up changes the physical parameters and the way it looks.
For the lake fire fight, Phil Keller drew storyboards and illustrated the action beats, and The Third Floor animated the action into a pre-viz cut. This served as a guide for the production departments to follow how to shoot the scene. “We found a location in a field in Hawaii, and I asked Art Department and Special Effects to build a small jungle setting complete with a 100 foot wide shallow pit that they filled with water”. The Special Effects team rigged an array of propane emitting flame bars just under the water surface and covered the surface with a flammable liquid. This system allowed the team to control the pyro effect by igniting the propane and then dialing up and down the amount of gas coming from the flame bars, which in turn would ignite the flammable liquid floating on top of the water, causing it to run along the surface for a highly dynamic look. This small lake setting also enabled the camera crew to shoot a lot of non-VFX angles on the actors. ILM digitally extended the rest of the lake and jungle. They also created all the fire and explosions for these shots, as well as augmenting the practical flames seen in the reverse angles on the actors looking towards the lake.
For Kong’s hair there needed to be a new and complex groom. “once we arrived at our base level Kong we had to create almost an entirely separate version of his hair – to make the burnt version of Kong,”. The damage to Kong is tracked through the rest of the film, but to avoid the burnt Kong reading black on screen, the team did tweak up his burnt fur color to make it browner. White commented that “we weren’t sure going into the project how much they were going to want to show damage on Kong, and it turned out it was lots”.
At the end of this scene, with Kong passed out on the ground, Packard orders his men to finish the job by placing more charges around his head. At the last moment, Kong stirs when sensing the Skull Devil has been drawn to the surface, and stands just in time to face his arch nemesis.
“I asked the Grips department to construct a wide green screen to cover the area where the actors stand near Kong’s head. ILM then added Kong’s body laying on the ground and added an extended jungle background behind him.” adds Rosenbaum.
“The hardest thing on Kong was the Hair, for sure” he adds. ILM assigned two digital groomers, Ryan Gillus and Gaelle Morand, to do the groom on Kong. They used HairCraft which had been developed on Warcraft for the Hair and Fur in Skull Island. “Gaelle did head shoulders and legs .. and Ryan, the chest and arms. We found that ‘out of the gate’ we could get a gorilla pretty quickly, but the director did not want Kong to look like a gorilla – he want Kong to be half gorilla, half man – a whole new species – referencing the 1933 Kong. The groom looked more like buffalo hair or camel hair, matted, nasty real world hair with lots of changes of direction and texture types, so as you look across this 100ft character you see all the different hair types” says White.
Kong had 19 million hairs, but with rendering controls so an artist could easily reduced setting: decimate the count, or use fatter hairs so less were needed, “plus we also had camera culling to reduce hairs out of the shot, that you couldn’t see, and all that was really useful for getting all the rendering through”.
The famous Kong Roar was hand animated and did not rely on flesh or air flow simulation, “A lot of what you are seeing is just down to the skill of the animators” he comments.
The team illustrated concept art for over 20 different types of creatures. “Most of this work was done to build the narrative of the island, and eventually written into the story. As the script evolved, we focused on seven unique creatures to design, develop and integrate into the movie”, the biggest of these was the Skull Crawlers.
The team went through many iterations to arrive at the final look and design of the Skull Crawlers. These beasts were designed as a combination of work done by the film’s art department (with contributions from Martin Macrae at Framestore) and the design team at ILM. The primary look was that of a three legged beast with a very defined skull head. The inspiration for the Skull Crawlers came from – Pokemon Cubone! That was one of the key references the director mentioned to Rosenbaum “The single biggest task for creating the visual effects on Skull Island was interpreting the director’s aesthetic drawn from anime and video game abstractions into photo-real content. He would suggest ideas from a variety of these highly stylized concepts and then ask me to adapt it to work as character and narrative imagery”.
Once the studio approved the creature concepts and storyboards, ILM did a series of design passes on the creatures. This involved tweaking the creature anatomy and surface details so that the character moved and looked physically convincing to the audience. “Ultimately, it’s not until we see the creatures perform believably within shots that we actually stop the design and development process” says Rosenbaum.
The ILM team worked hard to denote the two different sizes of Skull Crawler, the ‘baby’ .. and the much larger final version. ILM worked hard to show the differences between them, by not only adjusting proportion but also through detailed texture work, for example, adding calcification to the larger Skull Crawler’s head.
The younger Skull Crawler was about 20 feet at the shoulder, (or T-Rex in size). The older was about “45 feet at the shoulders but over 100 feet in length. A good match for Kong in the Final Battle sequence” says Rosenbaum.
For nearly all the scenes in the end battle, if the shot does not have people/actors in it, then it is a 100% CG shot fully produced by ILM.
The team did LIDAR of the remote locations, but it was tough as both the vegetation moves and is rarely still, and the team struggled to have a stable platform from which to do the scans, as often times they were on the water. “The LIADR gave us the gross structures of the mountains but the vegetation and environments were all done through Clarisse for the mountains and trees” he adds. All the mid and foreground were all simulated as they interacted with Kong, or the other creatures. The effects (water) were rendered in Mantra (from Houdini) Kong himself was done by RenderMan.
The team used the new denoise tool from Renderman as well as the specialist code from Disney (animation). “but only as part of finishing in the last few weeks – getting renders done by the shot production team was not a problem, so denoise was not key” says White
Wherever Kong interacts with plants he is interacting with CG vegetation. The team built a library of Vietnamese vegetation.
Initially Halon worked on the previz. “I joined the show at the very beginning and then immediately hired Halon to start Pre-Viz” says Rosenbaum. “There was no script at this point, only individual pieces of concept art so we started with the most interesting looking work of Kong attacking the helicopters. We hadn’t yet determined exactly why Kong is attacking the helicopters, but it looked cool so the director and I started to create action beats that we would then string together to start forming a dynamic action sequence”.
As the script developed over ensuing months, The Third Floor were hired to create Pre-viz for most of the big visual effects sequences, including the opening Kong tease, the flight to the island, the Boneyard, Kong catching the giant squid, and Packard’s men attacking Kong.
The film was pre-visualised primarily by Third floor, but the final battle pre-viz was done internally at ILM, since Third Floor were busy at that time on the opening 1970s ‘flight of the valkyries shots’. “This was very handy to have done internally”, comments White “…as really the last revision of the previs, was our first version of the final”.
The details within the script took many paths and numerous scenes continued to transform well into Post Production. For example, the original narrative direction was less focused on Kong and revolved more around a variety of oversize and oddly evolved creatures on Skull Island. “We also spent time developing several variant sequences around the boat and how it navigates across the island. The script maintained for quite some time that the boat would eventually be destroyed by a Skull Crawler” explains Rosenbaum. In addition to the boat attack there was a tiger in one version of the script, as well as Camo birds, pod creatures and a version where the audience witnessed Kong’s family fighting.
“We created several Pre-Viz sequences and even more storyboards sequences that didn’t make the finished movie. Some were attempts to introduce and establish principle live action characters. Others were created to show off the variety of creatures and ensuing dangers lurking on the island. An example of this was the “Tiger” creature. It looked like a giant tiger with some irregular looking fur and body anatomy, and was the first animal the principle characters encounter and ultimately kill” he explains.
As the script matured, the story shifted to Kong and his struggles to maintain the ecological balance of life on the island. Even with the new narrative focus, however, several of these designed scenes changed by the time the team moved into Post Production. The Skull Crawlers were originally just one creature that first moved through tree canopy and later moved mostly through water. “As a result, the scripted action written around this creature’s habitat changed dramatically, with exciting battles and suspenseful moments requiring wholesale shifts in the story” says Rosenbaum.
There was very little digital double work done “we got away without a lot of digi-double work”, the exception being a few of the more graphic death sequences of the soldiers and expedition team.
The signature shot of Brie Larson – Mason Weaver, in Kong’s hand at the end, took a lot of work. “We decided right up front that we were not going to build some mechanical hand”. The photography of Larson on blue material – lying on Kong’s hand was done in LA during second unit pick up photography. The team pre-vized the sequence very carefully and lined it up on the day with meticulous care. Larson laid on the blue screen buck and then the team spent a lot of time fine tuning Kong’s skin texture and lighting to make it look like she was really in his hand. “Honestly it is absurdly hard to get those shots to work, it is incredible, it is one of those things you look at and you are like I do not expect that to be tough, – getting the shots of Kong and the Skull Crawler splashing around fighting each other was far easier than getting her stuck in his hand”.
Aside from Kong, one of other great hair grooms was the Water buffalo reveal. “it was designed as a wonder moment, another creature that is giant, here the water buffalo is about the size of a helicopter” says White.
Gaelle Morand did the underlining hair, much as she did Kong. The Grass on the Water Buffalo’s back was done by the environments team, who did vegetation, grass etc. The effects team grew seaweed but as it interacts with the water it needed to be simulated not hand animated. “The close up of the water buffalo was one of my favorite CG character shots of the whole film” says White.
On set the actors were just looking at nothing, they had seen some artwork, but the rest is just their acting. The environment is real, with only the buffalo and the water around him being digital. This was in line with the films overall approach of filming at real locations whenever possible “which I really appreciate, it is just so hard to create everything that is there, and even if we did end up having to have a fully CG shot, the fact that we had this spectacular photography in Vietnam was absolutely critical to getting the shots right” says White.
Stephen Rosenbaum also did second unit. “I was responsible for guiding what prospective visual effects shots should be attempted instead as in-camera, stunts or physical effect shots. I wanted to leverage our shooting locations and practical sets as much as possible, so I worked closely with the Production Designer Stefan Dechant , Director of Photography Larry Fong, Special Effects Supervisor Mike Meinardus, and Stunt Coordinator George Cottle to determine the best methods. I find that anchoring visual effects shots against practical shots ground the look of a scene, helps the actors comprehend their performances, and gives us a defined organic reference point for the actual visual effects shots”.
An example is the Boneyard sequence, the team could have decided to make the entire sequence on a stage, green screen with giant bones as portable set pieces. However,Rosenbaum and the director felt that there would be no real comprehension by the cast and camera crew of the depth and scope of the environment. Performances and action would also have been more limited because of the confined stage space. “Special Effects would not be able to do their explosive and pyro effects. And stunts would not be able to fire guns and hurtle people across set. It would have been a lot more controlled and assuredly less interesting on stage. In my experience, shooting at an exterior location becomes part of the movie-making process and allows the talents of other departments to weigh-in. This always results in far more dynamic and exciting action sequences”.
In this film of amazing action sequences Rosenbaum’s favorite ILM animated sequence is in the final Battle when Kong, leaping from a tall rock peak, holding a large boulder over his head, descends to whack the Skull Crawler in the head. “The graphic body pose illustrates his athletic superpower and his ability to use island terrain as weapons against his enemies. Combined with his high intelligence, Kong will be a force when confronted in future conflicts…”
Note: In addition to ILM who did the sequences above, Hybride and Rodeo FX effects both contributed major shots such as the helicopter 1970s (non Kong) sequences, the World War Two plane sequence & crash and some secondary creature work.