“King Kong” — How Did They Make It? 🇺🇸
A prehistoric monster on the loose in our modern world — nothing like this has ever been seen before in the talkies. And how was it done? How was the giant ape created and made to look “alive” — how were the battles of the monsters filmed — how were their cries concocted — how was Fay Wray picked up in Kong’s huge paw? This is the first story — and the only authorized story — telling the “inside” secrets!
by Jack Grant
Three hundred hardboiled newspaper correspondents, with their customary assurance, took their seats in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre recently. The hour was nine-thirty in the morning, an unearthly time for the average Hollywood news hound to be awake or about. But RKO Studio was holding an advance press preview of King Kong, in the making for more than two years amid much mystery. They were promised such a picture as they had never seen before — and they were there to be shown.
Before noon the showing was over and the same three hundred members of the press emerged from the theatre to face the glaring sunlight of a California day. They were no longer hard-boiled. They gave no evidence of ever having been self-assured. They felt, as a matter of fact, like tiny atoms, so thoroughly were they still within the thrall of this gargantuan thing that is “King Kong?”
It was several minutes before a sense of reality returned. Then, almost to a man, came the chorus of nearly three hundred voices, asking, “How was it done?”
As “King Kong” confounded these many writers, wise in the technical tricks of the film trade, as it presented to them an illusion that they were unable to fathom, so it probably has startled and intrigued you. And you, too, have no doubt asked, “How was it done?”
Under ordinary circumstances, the long-established policy of MOVIE CLASSIC would prohibit an answer to that question in these pages. It is not our desire to strip the films of their glamour, to destroy the illusion of good drama. If “King Kong” were other than what it is, an obvious excursion into fantasy, we would not attempt to reveal the “inside”story of its production. It is impossible, however, to view the picture without the knowledge that the whole affair is a feat of movie magic. You know that you are being magnificently fooled, yet you find yourself willing to enter into the spirit of the deception — that is, while you are in the theatre. Then you return to reality and begin to wonder.
All Visitors Banned
Secrecy, of course, surrounded the actual photographing of this monstrous spectacle during the two and a half years that it was in production. Every technical process known to films was employed to animate the prehistoric mammals and when the effects, in a few cases, were unsatisfactory, no less than seven new processes in camera magic were invented. People wishing to visit the “King Kong” sets were advised politely that it was impossible to do so. But Hollywood, completely fooled, did not guess that there simply were no sets to see unless one took along a magnifying glass.
Secrecy, except for these inventions which cannot be patented, is no longer necessary. “King Kong” has been completed and now is in your theatres from Coast to Coast. You have seen it or will see it. But in this story, you will learn for the first time how it was done.
The idea that was to become “King Kong” was originally conceived, as you know, by the late Edgar Wallace the author of countless mystery novels, and Merian C. Cooper, who, with Ernest B. Schoedsack, has adventured in far corners of the earth to film such pictures as “Grass,” “Chang,” and “Four Feathers.” It was Cooper’s desire to create a film monster so fantastic that it would defy description. But he was to learn that man cannot improve on Nature.
“We quickly discovered that we must follow the laws of Nature, even in fantasy,” Cooper says. “Gigantic figures, to move with any semblance of reality, have to resemble some living creature or a creature that once lived. A purely imaginary beast may be described on paper, but it cannot be animated successfully. Nature knows more than we do about such things.
How Kong Was Created
This is the reason Kong was made a giant ape, instead of something more mythological. Among his companions on the island where our motion picture troupe wanders in the story are a brontosaurus, a tyrannosaurus, a pterodactyl and a reptilian-like monster that was in reality the grandfather of dragon folklore. All actually lived in prehistoric days and all were painstakingly reconstructed in exact scale — but in miniature — from duplicates of skeletons such as those exhibited in museums all over the world. Their limbs, heads and necks moved on tiny ball-bearings.
“Kong, himself, was constructed upon the skeleton of an ape, with each measurement greatly enlarged. His height, for example, was fifty feet. His face was seven feet from hairline to tip of chin; nose, two feet; mouth, six feet; eyes and ears, both always small in an ape, twelve inches. His teeth varied in height from four to ten inches and in circumference from seven to fourteen inches. All of the bones in his body, though exaggerated in size, were copied with great fidelity. Otherwise, he could not have moved with any realism whatsoever.”
You will note that Cooper refers to Kong as though it were an actual living thing. So it is to him, and so it will seem to you on the screen.
As a matter of fact, there were many dozens of Kongs (seventy-four, to be definite), all exactly alike, but of different sizes. Most of them were just a few inches tall; only one was in the full proportions of fifty feet. This big Kong was in sections, appearing only once in the picture in his entirety. That is when, after having been shot down by airplanes from the top of the Empire State Building, he lies dead in the street.
How His Fingers Moved
For many scenes, made on miniature sets, one of the miniature Kongs was used. Large sections of this huge Kong were used from time to time, however — particularly his arm and hand, which pick up Fay Wray so often. This arm was made to the size of twenty-three feet and operated much in the manner of a crane derrick. An intricate system of wires caused the fingers to open and close. So delicate was this mechanism that Fay never once suffered injury in the monster’s grasp.
Kong’s head, full size, was photographed in several sequences, notably the scenes at the hotel windows and the times when he crushed the life out of humans between his huge jaws. The killing of a native when Kong steps on him was also done with a full-size foot and leg. The leg was lowered by unseen ropes and pulleys from above, the foot being so large as to cover the actor’s body completely as it apparently crushes him into the earth.
Other than in these comparatively few scenes, Kong was far from the formidable figure he is in the picture. In miniature, he seemed more like a child’s plaything, made of rubber and leather and covered with coarse hair. Seldom did the actors who exhibit such fright at his approach really see him. They were told by the director the approximate height at which to gaze, horrified, and composite photography took care of the rest.
There is a sequence in the picture, if you remember, that duplicates this technique in acting. Fay Wray is given a camera test by Robert Armstrong in which she is told to act terrified at an imaginary menace.
“It was the easiest scene I played,” Fay will tell you, “for I had been doing little else for many months. I worked in ‘King Kong’ more than a year intermittently and for six months I never saw anything more than the artist’s sketches of the Thing in whose grasp I pretended to struggle.”
What Fay Had to Do First
The first day of work for Fay happened to be in the tree where Kong places her while he battles with the tyrannosaurus that attacks him. Fay stayed in the tree for twenty-two hours while cameramen recorded her fear from a score of angles and distances with different degrees of light. All that was photographed in the long day’s grind was the girl’s white figure perched among the branches. The background was a solid black velvet curtain.
Then it was the job of the composite technicians to strip in the action of the fight — which, incidentally, had been staged in miniature more than eight months previously. According to Cooper, the fight was comparatively simple to photograph. “It was merely precision photography,” he says, “— the individual exposure of one frame at a time. The difficult part was to get Miss Wray into the same picture. Intimate scenes were always the toughest.”
Asked to name the most difficult sequence in the picture, Cooper unhesitatingly says, “The one on the cave’s cliff where Kong pauses to examine the beautiful creature he has captured. He tears away a section of her skirt and, holding it between thumb and forefinger, looks at it in amazement.
“I can’t tell you how this was done, for the secret is not mine to divulge. It belongs to Willis O'Brien and his splendid technical crew. They worked it out with seven separate composites when others had said that it was impossible. Many times O’Brien proved nothing was impossible. I cannot give him too much credit for the success of ‘King Kong.’”
When you realize that only a single “frame” or individual picture can be taken at a time in animation, you will agree with Cooper in his giving O’Brien and the technical crew a major share of credit. There are sixteen “frames” to a foot of motion picture film and every time Kong opened and closed his jaws, two hundred and thirty-eight exposures had to be made of this action alone.
How Kong Looked “Alive”
For each frame, O’Brien moved portions of the ape’s jaw a fraction of an inch and after photographing the position, moved the jaw again. Better results were obtained by doing this by hand than with wires or other automatic devices. But it was slow and tedious work. The fight between Kong and the pterodactyl on the cliff took more than seven weeks to film. Each slight movement had to be photographed separately — an operation that took infinite patience. Yet even after such battles were successfully animated, there still remained the task of stripping in human action by composite printing.
Sometimes a half-dozen different figures of Kong were used in the same sequence. As they were of varied sizes, the distance of the camera from the figure had to be worked out with painstaking mathematical accuracy and the backgrounds constructed accordingly. Occasionally, these little lifeless figures were laid out flat on their backs and photographed from a stationary camera above — as cartoon figures, Mickey Mouse and others, are animated.
The uninitiated who see “King Kong” on the screen may voice a unanimous criticism of his first entrance. “The figure moves jerkily,” they may say. “The later scenes are much better.”
Actually, there is no difference in the animation of the first scenes from that of the last. There is, admittedly, a jerkiness that cannot be avoided, no matter how perfect the technicians’ work. Your eyes, however, become accustomed to the action and you fall under the spell of the illusion. Kong’s first entrance, for example, is made through trees and dense underbrush. This was skillfully plotted to give ‘you an opportunity to adjust your eyes to his movements.
The same criticism may be hurled at the scenes where airplanes attack Kong as he stands atop the Empire State Building. The speed of the ‘planes, aviators will tell you, is too great. This again is only by comparison to the ape’s ponderousness.
The Empire State Building, by the way, is not a miniature, but the real thing. For this sequence, five separate pictures were taken and joined by double exposure. Motion pictures of the Empire State Building comprise the basic composite, the figure of Kong a second, Fay Wray in his hand a third, the airplanes a fourth and the ‘plane that Kong dashes to earth a fifth. Other scenes in New York were similarly composited, all excellent examples of the perfection of this new art of trick photography.
The history of “King Kong” is not complete without mention of the sound recording. There was no scientific data available as to the cries of prehistoric mammals. So again inventive genius had to be called upon.
Murray Spivack, head of RKO’s sound effects department, acting upon the advice of paleontologists (biologists who specialize in prehistoric data), created some forty sound-making instruments for the hisses the authorities believed dinosauria may have uttered. But synchronized with the appearance of the huge monsters, the noises were slightly effeminate. “There is no menace,” said Spivack, and tried another tack.
How Beasts’ Cries Were Made
He forced air by pressure through a series of pipes and recorded the hiss, then re-recorded it at sub-normal speed. This made the sound an octave lower and gave a definite note of terror.
For the arsinotherium, the giant beast that Kong kills in the jungle by tearing its jaws apart, the sound expert again used compressed air, blowing it through a vox humana pipe from an old organ. Despite the slowing-up process, the sound was recognizable as something heard before. So Spivack calmly reversed the sound track and got a groan, the like of which human ears had never heard before.
His success in this gave him the secret of vocalizing the other monsters. Their cries are respectively the growls of cougars, leopards and lions run backward. The screams of the bull gorilla reversed did very well for Kong in his milder moments, but when you are told what Spivack invented for the great ape’s battle-cry, you may doubt the truth. It is nothing more or less than the familiar “raspberry” or “Bronx Cheer” re-recorded backward!
There are many details about the production of “King Kong” that are not available at present for publication — and in fact, may never be available. For whenever you ask Merian C. Cooper or his associates a question that trespasses on their secret processes, they invariably reply, “It was all done with mirrors.”
And the funny part of it is that, after seeing the picture, you are willing to believe anything... even the mirror gag.
Photo by: Ernest Bachrach (1899–1973)
Top, Kong shakes the men off the tree over the abyss.
Kong and the tyrannosaurus battle for Fay Wray (in treetop at right). The figures, huge on the screen, were actually miniatures
Five different pictures were joined to make this one scene of Kong atop the Empire State Building, battling the airplanes
Left, Fay Wray gazes horror-stricken at where Kong is supposed to be.
Above, the adventurers fight a dinosaur — which wasn’t there when they made the scene!
Source: Movie Classic Magazine, May 1933