The Evolution of King Kong: From Stop-Motion Monster to Computer-Generated Giant
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is about to bring one of the biggest Kongs ever to the screen in Kong: Skull Island … and I mean that literally. In the history of King Kong, only one mega gorilla ranks bigger in terms of height. And yet it’s not size alone that has shaped the legacy of the iconic movie monster that first graced screens nearly 85 years ago. Kong has transcended a world war, the atomic age, and the end of a millennium. He’s been formed from clay, molded into a rubber suit, and rendered into 1s and 0s. Kong has battled dinosaurs, biplanes, giant robots, and almost Frankenstein, as well as Godzilla, which he’ll get the chance to do again before too long.
But not all of Kong’s cinematic outings have been golden; far from it. He’s been featured in sequels, remakes, and spin-offs, as well as a wealth of parodies, satires, and outright imitations. The more popular Kong became, the more his likeness appeared in cartoons, comics, and all sorts of merchandise. But that’s not our focus today, so if you were hoping for an in-depth breakdown of Mighty Joe Young or The King Kong Show, I’m sorry to disappoint you.
What we will be talking about, however, are the changes that came to King Kong over the years in order to see how the character went from the creation of Merian C. Cooper‘s nature journal-inspired imagination, to the revolutionary stop-motion animated character brought to life by Willis O’Brien and Buzz Gibson, to the modern versions made more expressive than ever thanks to digital effects and filmmakers like Peter Jackson and Vogt-Roberts. King Kong has gone through some very bizarre transformations and has gone up against some truly laughable combatants over the decades to get us to this point, so let’s get into it! (A big thanks to Inverse for providing some insight into Kong’s height over the years.)
King Kong (1933)
The granddaddy of them all, co-directors Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack‘s 1933 epic adventure film King Kong saw filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) booking passage to the exotic and dangerous Skull Island in order to capture the mysterious Kong on film, alongside his newfound ingénue, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). The ambitious plan is interrupted by a daring rescue mission into the heart of the jungle and an ill-fated trip back to New York City with Kong in tow. As you probably know, things do not end well for the beast.
King Kong was far from the first jungle picture to play upon native/tribal stereotypes and give audiences an adventurous thrill. The 1925 film The Lost World might be the most influential since it showed off the stop-motion animation talent of O’Brien and a crew which would go on to work on King Kong.
As for Kong himself, if we’re basing his size on the models constructed by Marcel Delgado that were 1 inch = 1 foot, this version of would have stood between 18 and 24 feet tall, depending on if he was on Skull Island or in New York City. (One of the original four armatures now belongs to Peter Jackson, another with Bob Burns, and one went for $200,000 at a Christie’s auction.) If Kong’s size was to be based instead on the huge bust of the gorilla’s head and upper chest, which was set into motion by three operators nestled within it, the king of Skull Island would have stood 30 to 40 feet tall. Cooper wanted the title beast in the range of 40 to 50 feet, but animators had the final say; the film was still marketed according to Cooper’s more sensational figures. It would be about 30 years before Kong reached these on-screen proportions in earnest, but there were other Kong iterations in the interim.
The Son of Kong (1933)
Released just nine months after the debut of the successful King Kong, RKO Radio Pictures released this sequel that reteamed Schoedsack, Armstrong, O’Brien, Gibson, and Frank Reicher‘s Captain Englehorn. It picks up about a month after the events of its predecessor and actually explores the aftermath of Kong’s rampage in New York City … like Carl Denham’s daily dealings with numerous lawsuits. In a roundabout way, the adventurers return to Skull Island to investigate the rumor of a treasure hidden there, but find a creature they assume to be Kong’s son. This poor creature spends most of its time defending the puny humans from the island’s dinosaur denizens, ultimately sacrificing himself to allow them to escape with the treasure in hand.
The title character, who is also an albino giant gorilla (because why not), is remarked as being twice the height of a man and half the size of his father. This should put the not-so-little fella somewhere between 11 feet tall and 20 feet tall, going by earlier estimates.
The Son of Kong reused some of the same models from King Kong (and which had previously been made for the 1931 film Creation), partially to save on costs, though certain ambitious action sequences in the script had to be cut due to budget restrictions. The so-called “long face” Kong armature used in both films is the one that belongs to Bob Burns today.
Kong Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Here’s where thing get nuts. After a nearly 30-year drought, King Kong returned in the biggest possible way in 1962. This film was the third in Godzilla‘s Showa series and the first of two Japanese productions to include Kong. In this bonkers film, the boss of a pharmaceutical company wants to use the giant monster Kong for publicity. His efforts to capture the beast lead to Kong fighting a giant octopus and, eventually, Godzilla himself. (Though Kong is somehow powered up by a million volts of electricity and/or a lightning cloud in this installment, he’s knocked out repeatedly by red berry juice.) This thing ends with both a mountain-top and underwater battle which leaves both behemoths beaten but alive.
In order to go toe-to-toe with Godzilla, Toho decided to give America’s monster a fair shake by jacking his size all the way up to 147 feet. Since the reigning “King of the Monsters” has always been over 100-feet tall, it would have been rather unsportsmanlike to have the smaller simian go into battle out of his weight class. (Plus, practical limitations on the “suitmation” model of bringing the monsters to life would have been even more difficult given earlier height differences. However, that’s exactly what’s going to happen in 2020…)
Perhaps the craziest factoid for this whole thing was that King Kong vs. Godzilla was not the original idea. Instead, animator O’Brien proposed this gem: King Kong meets Frankenstein. Yeah, we almost saw Kong battling a giant version of Frankenstein’s monster in San Francisco, but thanks to some complications over the rights to the monsters and the prohibitive cost of using stop-motion animation for the picture, the idea ended up at Toho Company. The rest of this tokusatsu nightmare–which was a hit, believe it or not–is history.
King Kong Escapes (1967)
Hold onto your gorilla butts because this Japanese-American co-production might be as zany as Kong gets. The second of two Japanese-produced Kong movies, this thing loosely adapted Rankin/Bass’ Saturday morning cartoon series, The King Kong Show, which featured a mad scientist named Dr. Who and a gorilla robot dubbed Mechani-Kong. These elements somehow made it into this movie with a plot that saw the evil genius creating the robot beast in order to dig for the highly radioactive “Element X” at the North Pole. When the bot fails, Dr. Who seeks out the real Kong to complete the task, as you do. After liberating Kong from Mondo Island (which stands in for Skull Island this time) and hypnotizing the beast with a flashing light, the two Kongs ultimately collider in a battle on Tokyo Tower.
As far as the scale of Kong goes, this one was a little tougher, but since Mechani-Kong is listed at 20m or about 66 feet, then Kong is roughly equivalent. That’s a big downsize from the time he went up against Godzilla. This version of Kong’s suit was used once more in the Japanese TV series Go! Greenman as the character “Gorilla”, and Mechani-Kong was intended to be used in another “vs. Godzilla” picture in the 90s in quite an interesting way. Apparently, Mechani-Kong would have been outfitted with injectors that would deliver humans into Godzilla in a sort of Fantastic Voyage riff in order to fight the beast from the inside. The difficulties in obtaining Kong’s likeness put a stop to this idea, which I think we can all be thankful for.
King Kong (1976)
Nearly 45 years after the original film, the first remake in earnest came about from director John Guillermin, starring Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, and Jessica Lange in her first film role. It would go on to be one of the year’s most successful films at the box office and received two Oscar nominations (Best Cinematography, Best Sound), taking home the Academy’s Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects (which it shared with Logan’s Run).
In this remake, an oil executive (Grodin) sends an expedition to a newly discovered island in the hopes of securing untapped oil deposits. However, an ambitious primatologist (Bridges) stows away on board, where he comes across the mysterious castaway, Dwan (Lange). The rest of the film plays out in much the same way as the original did, only swapping the World Trade Center for the Empire State Building for the climactic battle scene.
With Dino De Laurentiis picking up the rights to Kong for this picture, the revamped titan came with a size increase. Once again, there was a difference in height depending on Kong’s location; he stood at 42-feet tall on Skull Island and a 55-feet tall in New York City.
Legendary special effects guru and seven-time Oscar-winner Rick Baker collaborated with Carlo Rambaldi on the Kong suit and a variety of mechanical masks that would show off the creature’s emotional range. (Baker also happened to be the man in the suit, though he was uncredited.) Rambaldi also created a 40-foot tall, 13,000 pound mechanical Kong, but mechanical problems prevented it from being used much at all.
King Kong Lives (1986)
After the success of the 1976 remake of King Kong, this clunker of a follow-up film came along 10 years later. Guillermin and Rambaldi returned with newcomers Linda Hamilton, Brian Kerwin, and John Ashton coming onboard.
Being a direct sequel, the premise of King Kong Lives picks up in real time, 10 years after Kong presumably fell to his death in New York City. Surprise! Turns out that he’s been kept alive in a coma under the care of a surgeon (Hamilton), who’s prepping to give the beast an artificial heart in order to save his life. However, Kong needs a blood transfusion, so adventurer/love interest Mitch (Kerwin) heads off to Borneo and, lo and behold, captures a giant female gorilla they dub Lady Kong. After a successful transfusion and operation, the two Kongs escape from captivity together. The rest is all “birds and the bees”, plus an insane army officer (Ashton) thrown in for good measure. While the sequel gives Kong a heroic send-off and a second generation, it got absolutely crushed critically and at the box office.
Kong grew an additional five feet for Laurentiis’ sequel, topping out at 60 feet. Unfortunately, the visual effects were not up to par with the Kong name; the sequel was nominated for a Visual Effects Razzie. Don’t feel too bad for Rambaldi though. Effects wizards Stan Winston and John Dykstra also earned a nomination in this category for Invaders from Mars, while Industrial Light and Magic’s Howard the Duck waddled home a “winner” with the dubious distinction.
King Kong (2005)
In a return to sanity, Jackson opted to remake King Kong as a period piece in 2005. And after going through those last few films, Jackson’s remake is looking a lot better in light of the various sequels and remakes since the 1933 original. Naomi Watts, Jack Black, and Adrien Brody step in to fill in the iconic roles this time, with master motion-capture artist Andy Serkis performing the part of Kong, a first for the movie monster. It won three Academy Awards for Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects.
King Kong had a huge influence on Jackson’s life; it’s a movie that’s been on his mind since he tried to remake it with his parents’ Super 8 camera when he was 12 years old. Though it took decades, Jackson was finally able to realize his dream of directing a new King Kong, an opportunity he felt was ripe for technological innovation. The creative team opted for a design inspired by real-world silverback gorillas, which led to them studying hours of gorilla footage; Serkis worked with gorillas at the London Zoo and traveled to Rwanda to observe the animals in the wild. The size of the final Kong design was scaled down (relative to his other on-screen counterparts) to a 25-foot-tall version, similar to the original character.
While the daily process of motion-capture make-up application took Serkis two hours, plus an additional two months of post-production doing motion-capture miming of Kong’s movements for the film’s digital animators, it was well worth the effort. Jackson’s King Kong design and Serkis’ performance are, in my humble opinion, the standard to which other Kongs should be measured.
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
The newest iteration of Kong comes as a complete reboot of the character. Kong: Skull Island is the second film in Legendary’s shared MonsterVerse, following Gareth Edwards‘ Godzilla. The relatively massive ensemble cast includes Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary and John C. Reilly, well beyond the usual three-piece core.
The story takes a change as well: It sees a government agent (Goodman) hiring a former soldier (Hiddleston) to lead an expedition mapping out the uncharted Skull Island in 1973. The team is escorted by a militarized helicopter squadron and joined by a pacifist, pro-science photojournalist (Larson). There are a lot of moving parts here, but essentially it boils down to a shadowy government organization attempting to find evidence of monstrous creatures that pose a threat to modern civilization.
The real stand-out here is the size of the title monster. Vogt-Roberts himself has said that his version of Kong is a 100-foot ape. That’s insane, by a number of biological and physical standards, but it’s also the second-biggest Kong ever seen on screen. The design is also a throwback to the 1933 version which looks like something between a man and a gorilla, a departure from Jackson’s more naturalistic take. Kong’s environment he rules in and the anime-inspired look of the other monsters within it were just as important to Vogt-Roberts as the design of the title creature himself.
Stunt performer and motion-capture artist Terry Notary portrayed Kong through motion capture once again, with some guidance from fellow motion-capture veteran, Kebbell.
Godzilla vs. Kong (2020)
While Kong seems content to rule Skull Island for the moment, there’s already a release date for the inevitable clash between some of the most famous movie monsters in history: Godzilla vs. Kong is set to bow on May 29, 2020. One wonders how the 100-foot tall Kong is going to measure up to the 350-foot-plus tall Godzilla, which is essentially like a toddler taking on an adult. Granted, Kong is super strong and bestial with incredibly sharp teeth, but Godzilla comes loaded to the brim with his own powers…
The only way I see the playing field being leveled is either by Godzilla shrinking down to size or wandering into a landscape that tilts the scales in Kong’s favor … like perhaps a big city that acts as a sort of urban jungle for the mighty Kong. Time will tell, but with the benefits of modern filmmaking technology, the longstanding creative barriers to monster-movie mash-ups are no longer. Now we just have to see which monster’s left standing when the dust clears.
For more on Kong: Skull Island, be sure to read up on some of our recent articles here:
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- ‘Kong: Skull Island’ IMAX Featurette Transports You to a World of Monsters
- Tom Hiddleston on ‘Kong: Skull Island’s Political Edge and the Humor of ‘Thor: Ragnarok’
- Brie Larson & John Goodman on ‘Kong: Skull Island’ and Building a Better Heroine
- ‘Kong: Skull Island’ Exclusive: Our Debut of Paul Ainsworth’s Astounding Original Poster