These days, it’s pretty easy to find out how a film was made. There’s a plethora of websites, podcasts, books, you name it. Chances are you’ll even find your favourite filmmakers sharing their secrets personally on social media.
Back in the 1930s, things weren’t so simple. To find out just how tricky it was, let’s wind the clock back to 1933 and the release of King Kong, a film that inspired not only the audiences of the day, but an entire generation of movie fans and professionals alike.
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, with special photographic effects masterminded by chief technician Willis O’Brien, King Kong is packed to the rafters with innovative illusions, including stop-motion animation, miniature sets, glass paintings, travelling mattes and full-scale practical creatures.
The methods by which these effects were achieved are now well-known – indeed, they’re practically part of visual effects lore. But were those methods common knowledge back when the film was originally released? To find out, I’ve delved into some of the magazines from the period.
One of the earliest references I found to the visual effects of King Kong was in the 6th Feb 1933 edition of “The Film Daily”, where a small paragraph in the “A Little from ‘Lots’” section announces, “Willis H. O’Brien is completing his work as chief technician on ‘King Kong’, for which RKO has high hopes.”
The following month, in a multi-page promotional feature timed to coincide with the movie’s release, “The Hollywood Reporter” also mentions O’Brien, along with artists Mario Larrinaga and Byron Crabbe. The text includes a rousing but wholly uninformative: “‘King Kong’ is the most sensational exhibition of camera tricks in the history of motion pictures.”
King Kong received plenty of attention in the press following its release, even featuring in such celebrity-obsessed monthlies as “Photoplay”. The April 10th 1933 edition contains a typically cheesy publicity still (left). The original caption reads: “She’s no woodland nymph, nor is he a satyr. Fay Wray, heroine, and Merian Cooper, producer … are measuring the hand print this monster ape leaves.”
Hmm. We’re not getting a lot of detail about how they put the big ape on the screen. Time to dig a little deeper. How about a contemporary review of the film?
In the May 1933 edition of “Motion Picture”, an enthusiastic reporter says, “How many kinds of trickery were used … we do not know, but after the first glimpse of King Kong … one’s imagination becomes adjusted to any slight jerkiness. You will never know the extent of what the movies can do till you’ve seen this tale.”
While it’s interesting to note that, even in those early days, one reviewer at least found stop-motion animation a little “jerky”, it’s still not much help. Perhaps “The Film Daily” can do better. In the 31st May 1933 edition, in a column entitled “Features Influenced by Cartoons”, Hugh Harman of Harman-Ising Melodies is quoted as saying, “Animated cartoons, by their increasing cleverness and popularity, are having a stimulating effect on features, influencing more imagination and novelty. ‘King Kong’ is an example of the feature possibilities suggested by the cartoons.”
“King Kong” a cartoon? It’s another interesting nugget shedding light on the attitudes of the age. But it’s not the VFX gold we’re panning for. Where the heck is the motherlode?
Wait a second. What’s this? In May 1933, “Movie Classic” ran an article entitled: “King Kong – How Did They Make It?” Now that’s more like it!
The article begins in cautious fashion, advising, “Under ordinary circumstances … it is not our desire to strip the films of their glamour. If ‘King Kong’ were other than … an obvious excursion into fantasy, we would not attempt to reveal the ‘inside story’ of its production.” The text goes on to reveal that the various creatures’ “limbs, heads and necks moved on tiny ball bearings,” and says “Kong himself, was constructed upon the skeleton of an ape, with each measurement greatly enlarged.” It also claims, “There were many dozens of Kongs (seventy-four, to be precise), all exactly alike, but of different sizes.”
Eventually we get an actual breakdown, describing the shot in which Ann Darrow shelters in a tree while Kong battles the T-Rex in the background: “All that was photographed … 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 shot in miniature more than eight months previously.”
There’s even a decent description of the stop-motion process: “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.” However, when interviewee Merian Cooper is pressed for more detail about a later shot where Kong removes Darrow’s clothing, Kong’s creator clams up. “I can’t tell you how this was done,” he says, “for the secret is not mine to divulge. It belongs to Willis O’Brien and his splendid technical crew.”
The article concludes, “There are many details about the production of ‘King Kong’ that are not available at present for publication … 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.’”
Okay, so it’s hardly exhaustive. What’s also clear is that Cooper was keen to maintain the mystique of the movies. Indeed, there’s evidence to suggest he actively spread misinformation about O’Brien’s visual effects. How else do you explain the final article I uncovered in my journey through the Hollywood archives?
The article in question appeared in a 1933 edition of “Screen Book”. It’s a double-page spread filled with diagrams and descriptions purporting to explain exactly “How King Kong Was Filmed”.
My favourite picture demonstrates “How 50-foot Ape is shown climbing Empire State Building.” A detailed illustration shows a man in a Kong costume crawling on hands and knees along a model building facade laid flat on the studio floor, with the camera angle cheated to create the illusion of a vertical ascent.
It looks plausible enough, and no doubt convinced the magazine’s original readers. However, as Robert Ripley might say, the choice is yours whether to Believe It Or Not. I know what I think of the drawing. How about you – are you convinced?
If you want to explore how the visual effects of “King Kong” were really done, be thankful you live in the 21st century. Good places to start your research are Don Shay’s biographical article “Willis O’Brien – Creator of the Impossible” in Cinefex #7 and Orville Goldner’s & George E. Turner’s “The Making of King Kong”.
This article first appeared in slightly different form on the Cinefex blog. Content copyright © Cinefex 2013. Reproduced with permission.