King Kong — “A Wonder in Celluloid” and “Miniature Effect Shots” (1933) 🇺🇸

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December 08, 2021

Here is RKO’s King Kong. It is something really new and intriguing for the jaded appetite of the screenplay fan. That overworked word “colossal” is entirely applicable in this case. The story is fantastic, including prehistoric animals and strange tribes. The central figure is King Kong, a tremendous ape; so large that when Fay Wray is held in one of his huge paws she looks like a very tiny doll. It would be impossible for the average picturegoer to visualize the amount of time, work and care that was exercised in the taking of one scene in which Kong appears. A scene that lasted but a few minutes on the screen consumed weeks in the making. In fact way back in 1930 experiments and research work were started and in the fall of 1931 Kong was given his first screen test under the working title of “The Eighth Wonder.”

The picture was actually 55 weeks in production with 2 to 10 cameras on the set. The negative used amounted to 238,000 feet, although there are only 10,000 feet in the finished picture. Some astonishing camera tricks were employed which in many cases required weeks before the desired results were obtained. The old method of using “matt” shots was almost entirely eliminated and various new methods in advance of anything done heretofore were introduced. In one sequence 65 electricians were at work and 350 lamps were throwing their powerful beams over the set.

It will be interesting to note that Director Schoedsack and Photographer Linden spent two weeks in New York on the Empire State Building to get that thrilling scene where Kong holds Fay Wray a prisoner on the “mooring mast” 104 stories above the ground. Breathing is almost suspended when the huge ape holds her in his paw out over the city.

However, a few lighter moments did brighten the hard work. Take for instance where Robert Armstrong is shooting a test of Fay Wray aboard the good ship Venture. He tells Fay he “shoots his own” because the last cameraman he had got scared at a charging rhinoceros and beat it. Then Bob decides to try a filter and the camera crew almost ceases to work in registering their amusement over Bob’s effort to get the filter in the holder. They say he’d still be trying if Director Schoedsack hadn’t called lunch.

In another sequence where Kong steps on the native’s body in the mud, the colored boy raises his head and says: I’s all through, Boss. Ah jest saw Saint Peter a reachin’ foh his fountain pen.”

A goodly share of King Kong’s crown belongs to Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, whose courage and convictions made this tremendous undertaking a reality. A bow is also due Technician Willis O’Brien for some of the fantastic effects achieved.

The photography of the picture is one of the outstanding features of the season and the greatest credit is due Eddie Linden, J. O. Taylor and Vernon Walker, all of whom measured up to the full stature of their artistic capabilities.

This is a picture that will undoubtedly appeal to all.

Directors, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack; story by Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper; screenplay by James A. Creelman and Ruth Rose; first cameramen, Eddie Linden, Vernon Walker and J. O. Taylor; operative cameramen, Eddie Henderson, Felix Schoedsack and Lee Davis: assistant cameramen, Bert Willis. William Reinhold, William Clothier and Clifford Stine: chief technician, Willis O’Brien; sound, E. A. Wolcott; film editor, Ted Cheesman.

Cast: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Fred Reicher, Sam Hardy, Noble Johnson, Victor Wong and James Flavin.

Here the 56 foot ape, perched upon the peak of the Empire State building, the tallest structure in the world, fights an. attacking fleet of army planes.

A flying reptile — Pterodactyl for short, seizes the beautiful maiden, and soars aloft, only to be grabbed out of the air by the gigantic ape, which proceeds to tear the bird limb from limb.

Source: International Photographer, March 1933

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King Kong— Miniature Effect Shots (1933) 🇺🇸

by Willis O’Brien

Editor’s Note: Willis O’Brien, the author of the following article, has been connected with the technical phase of motion pictures for twenty years. Applying his talents for Edison in the early days, to his present connection with R.K.O Studios, he has been a cogent accessory to the development of the miniature and trick shot and its unquestionable place in the motion picture of today. He is a recognized authority on prehistoric animals and well known for his artistic ability. THE LOST WORLD and KING KONG were made possible only because of his technical and artistic ability and they stand as pictorial monuments to his genius.

In previous articles there has been so much misinformation presented relative to the methods used in obtaining effects shots (which do add immeasurably to the scope and general possibilities of the motion picture), that I believe a short description of the work as it is actually carried on might prove of interest.

The completed shot represents a combination of applied talents creating an ultimate picture or impression that, when well done is beautiful and conclusive. The dramatic value of the setting — its lighting and construction— are all necessary elements that must be studied and worked out prior to the consideration of the mechanical agencies to be applied.

A scene that flashes before your eyes on the screen for a few seconds may have required several weeks of concentrated preparation and work. Often a day’s work of 25 feet of finished film is shown in about 1/3 of a minute on the screen. In the making of “KING KONG” a detailed sketch was made for each set. The artist created a picture or illustration of that certain bit of action. This sketch would necessarily have to be complete in all detail — the comparative sizes of people and animals, their actions, the dramatic value of the setting and its lighting.

Each scene was planned as a single picture — a dramatic conception in black and white. Continuity sketches were made combining these larger sketches in their correct sequence, so that the protraction of the story would be kept, the whole, as well as details, receiving an infinite amount of study and research.

Then the best or necessary means to duplicate this conception was worked out. It might be a miniature set with the characters or people being projected into a part of it. The practical requirements necessary for the working of miniature animals might be necessary to consider. The advisability of using glass paintings, or, perhaps matting the lower part of the set so as to use conventionally photographed foreground must be taken into account. All these and many more possible requirements must be considered.

After deciding the means to be used, the layout or construction plans were drawn and detailed, even to the exact position of the camera and the placing of people and animals. This work is done by Carrol Shephird. If the people were to be projected or matted in the set, a complete drawing for that part of the set would be necessary, so that they would take their place in the miniature in the correct perspective and create a convincing picture. In many instances of a composite shot, a full size set with people would be shot a month or so before the miniature of which it would become a part, thus necessitating exacting layouts and camera setups.

The layouts are conceived entirely from the sketch so that the shot would be an exact reproduction of the artist’s conception. Much research was necessary so as to obtain correct reproductions of every detail.

When the plans were ready the set or sets were put into work. Expert craftsmen carefully built the necessary units. It might be a combination miniature set with glass paintings and projected images, the sketch artists painting the glasses and backings themselves, and in many instances having the original sketch projected on the glass to serve as a guide for the glass artist. When the set is finished the cameraman and electrician light the set from the sketch.

Then tests were made until the required and desired results were obtained, the final picture being a practical setting and exact reproduction of the artist’s conception.

From the foregoing it can easily be seen that the miniature technician cannot bring his set to the screen single-handed. It is fundamentally an artist’s conception but requires the united efforts of many craftsman, its success depending entirely upon the combination of artistic, photographic and mechanical effects, each person being a specialist in his held but also having a general knowledge of the whole.

When making KING KONG, it was necessary to have a large staff of experienced men to carry on the work. A group of men were kept busy building and repairing the animals or executing any mechanical necessity that was required. Another group built the miniatures, which included a New York Elevated Railway recreated in detail, and jungle settings on a tropical island. Mario Larrinag and Byron Crabbe made the sketches and later painted the backings and glasses for the sets after the miniatures were drawn up and put to work. Besides these men, others were necessary for the actual working of the miniature.

Experience is the only teacher of the various treatments required to obtain the desired effects. Each new set is an individual problem and requires separate treatment. There is no set rule or method by which you can classify all miniatures. The scale and size must be individually determined.

The miniature of today is a much more convincing and effective medium than it was a few years ago. The introduction of real people into the miniature (by process, matte or projection) and the addition of sound have all helped considerably. Many people pride themselves on being able to tell a miniature shot on the screen. A well-executed miniature cannot be detected, except by the expert himself. Miniatures are very often shot at high speed, that is from four to eight times normal speed. This is always done when shooting water, as the scale and illusion cannot be brought about except by the use of the high speed camera.

Miniatures and so-called trick shots are not a medium used to fool the public, but rather a means of obtaining a better or otherwise impossible angle to further the completeness of the story and often is used as the only possible solution to get the desired effect. The average picture has a few. The Hollywood Herald called KING KONG “the most sensational exhibition of camera tricks in the history of motion pictures.” It was probably the extreme case because of its impossibility without them. New ideas and new combinations of older processes were used. Miniature animals, combined with the projection of people on the miniature set, created a scene that was convincing, not for the purpose of fooling the picture-goer, but to give something new and formerly impossible. I believe the public has come to realize and appreciate the true creative ability required in the conception and execution of these shots so as to obtain the maximum in artistic and realistic effects.

Upper Left — Men working behind set on high-speed shot, showing how water is agitated and the animal is moved by wire controls.

Upper Right — Shooting a high-speed shot. The animal here seen was made by Marcel Delgado who makes the O’Brien miniatures. Note the spraying water.

Lower Left — The artist’s conception of the scene.

Lower Right — The completed shot. Note how closely it matches with the artist’s conception. The foreground water was matted and real water put in. The large tree and bank are miniature, as is the animal. The trees and foliage behind are painted on glass and backing, while they are put into the miniature by projection, this having been taken on a full size set sometime before.

Oval in Center — King Kong and Willis O’Brien. This head of a gigantic ape was made by Mr. O’Brien for the picture “King Kong.” This head was controlled by men within the head. The internal mechanism was so devised that the lips would twitch, the tongue move, eyes roll, head move, and in fact do everything, even to roaring, that a real ape would do.

Source: International Photographer, May 1933

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