Friday 12 July 2013

KING KONG - The Mightiest Wonder of the World


The Special Photographic Effects of one of cinema’s most enduring and boundary breaking classics.

As a youngster, I, along with millions of like minded adolescents in all four corners of the globe were infatuated with that mightiest of all mighty creatures of fantasy and adventure – a certain temperamental eighteen foot tall gorilla with a penchant for lithe blonds and high places – Kong – the 8th wonder of the world!
The very name Kong stirs one’s imagination with a sense of danger, excitement, romance and impending doom – all wrapped up in an adrenalin charged mythology unlike any other.  As a youngster growing up in the sixties the closest I ever managed to come to ever seeing said beast were the pictorials in Forry Ackerman’s vital and unmissable magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland and the odd lesser quality competitor journal – most of which were very short lived unlike Forry’s  publication which would enjoy a long and healthy shelf life both for Ackerman and the millions of readers.

I craved everything I could get my hands on in regards to KING KONG and prayed for the day I might be able to see the actual film by some means.  The nearest I ever got at that time to KONG – or at least a feeble facsimilie – was the Japanese flick man in a suit stomp fest KING KONG ESCAPES (1967) which although fun, even a kid like me saw straight through the patently ‘toy’ miniatures being stomped on!  Television here in New Zealand in those days was bleak at best, with just one (count ‘em  O N E ) channel – and it being in glorious monochrome until around 1973.  I can still vividly remember the day I opened our local magazine The Listener- the guide to all tv shows and radio etc – and there it was….. KING KONG scheduled for television screening for the first time, I think late 1973 or early 1974.  That was it….. finally the moment had come and I would be face to face with this long sought after foe!  I even recall the fear of what would I do if the old black & white tv set broke down that day?  What if there were a power cut?   What if I fell off my bike and got mangled beyond repair and couldn’t see this movie (or anything else for that matter!)   
Well KONG did screen on that late slot on a Friday night and nothing was going to prevent me from planting my 12 year old self in front of the tv for 100 minutes (in those days Fridays and Sundays were commercial free and uninterrupted on NZ television unlike now by a very long and sad shot).  Those were the days long before VCR video tape recorders so the best I could do was to record the whole thing on my Dad’s old reel to reel audio tape recorder.  That tape would be played almost to death for years as I’d relive each and every moment in my mind –  not the least bit difficult a task as the film’s evocative Max Steiner score – one of the best scores ever to come out of Hollywood - and those phenomenally creative Murray Spivack sound effects fuelled one’s imagination so succinctly and richly it was an aural experience in itself (those screaming sailors falling into the spider pit were Spivack's voice). 

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the film since then.  It never showed up again on tv to the best of my recollection but successive viewings on Super 8, 16mm, VHS and DVD have never worn out KONG’s welcome for me.  Today’s article will, I hope, delve into the wonders of KING KONG with a broader examination than usual of the myriad of special effects and trick work utilised to bring the show to life.  I normally only concentrate upon matte art with the occasional miniature and so forth popped in where needed, but for KONG I’ll cover as much as I can across the board, from Willis O’Brien’s stop motion through the sensational multi-layered glass shots as well as some explanation as to the optical processes utilised for tie together the numerous elements.
An RKO publicity department paste up still using key elements and some excellent matte art to great effect.

Co-Director/Producers Ernest B. Schoedsack & Merian C. Cooper
The 1933 KING KONG was largely – if not entirely – the brainchild of visionary director (and true life adventure, thrillseeker and then some!) Merian Coldwell Cooper – a man of considerable talent and seemingly unquenchable thirst for conquering just about anything he took an interest in – and his interests were many and varied.  Throughout the twenties Cooper had produced a number of silent adventures for Paramount, usually with exotic locales and themes – more often than not with scenarios that would captivate 1920’s audiences with far away narratives of lands unknown, totally unfamiliar at the time.  Basic elements from some of these early pictures would germinate into Merian’s dream project, the subject of today’s blog – with Cooper’s known fascination with Gorilla’s notwithstanding.  Interestingly the central character of Carl Denham as played by Robert Armstrong in KONG would be  largely drawn from the real life 'man's man' Merian C. Cooper himself.

CREATION multi layer fx.  Real river, miniature midground and glass art.
The film industry of the early 1930’s would be hit hard by the Depression with the powers that be in the Hollywood studios seeking all possible to attract audiences.  RKO (Radio-Keith–Orpheum) was one such studio, and, in an effort to breath fresh financial life into the troubled and near bankrupt studio the highly regarded producer David O. Selznick was lured away from his then home base of Paramount Pictures and brought on board around 1930 to try and reshape RKO’s creative structure.  Selznick’s production assistant, by good fortune,  just happened to be Merian Cooper.  RKO already had a prehistoric beast project under way titled CREATION which was sucking up much needed finances yet showing no signs of reaching any sort of completion.  
Crew with Kong puppet & glass painted cave
 Selznick and Cooper decided to pull the plug on CREATION despite several finished sequences showing a great deal of promise and technical virtuosity the likes of which hadn’t really been seen on theatre screens before. The notion of an island populated with dinosaurs undoubtedly would sew the seed in Cooper’s mind as to what would develop into KONG a little later.   It’s long been debated as to just how much of CREATION was ever finished with much of the original 35mm nitrate negative and test sequences long lost.  Some very limited 35mm material apparently exists as do many stills and frame blow ups from optical composites.  Many of the technicians responsible for what had been shot would in turn prove vital to Cooper in the subsequent KING KONG some 18 months later, most notably it’s chief technician and special photographic effects director Willis O’Brien along with his close collaborators Mario Larrinaga, Byron Crabbe, Marcel Delgado, Orville Goldner and Buzz Gibson.
Artfully composed publicity photo most likely from CREATION, although some creatures were built for KONG (or recycled from the various CREATION puppets) and not included in the final plan of action.

Having seen examples of O’Brien’s work in the incomplete CREATION Cooper was fascinated with what could be achieved by way of trick photography entirely within the confines of the studio, much the opposite to most of the productions he’d previously worked on whereby foreign lands and so forth were a pre-requisite.  Cooper and O’Brien developed a sound friendship and shared notions of putting together an exciting feature length adventure using all of these special processes already in place for the doomed CREATION.    

Key conceptual art by Byron Crabbe and Willis O'Brien
O’Brien and glass shot artist and key collaborator Byron Crabbe jointly painted a large conceptual painting depicting a semi clad woman under threat of a gigantic ape, while an intrepid hunter fires at said ape.  This artwork proved pivotal in setting the wheels in motion for what would become KING KONG as we know it, though early Selznick-Cooper studio memo’s would title it as ‘Giant Terror Gorilla’ (thank goodness they dropped that one!)  The studio heads committed to an animation test using models and puppets originally intended for CREATION. 

 Some live action tests were also made in the RKO soundstage manufactured jungle, conveniently built for THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932), much of which was used for KONG’s actual shoot with ironically some of the same cast and technical crew working on both films concurrently – a great budget saving for the cost conscious moguls at RKO for sure.

A rare colour picture of O'Brien on the 1935 POMPEI set.
The studio would ‘greenlight’ the project after a little persuasion, with Cooper assembling requisite cast and crew.  THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME’s director, Ernest B.Schoedsack would join forces with Cooper in co-directing (and co-producing) KING KONG with the former directing the more narrative material from the script and the latter generally directing the action sequences as I understand it.  Various screenwriters had a hand to varying extent with famed mystery writer Edgar Wallace having some limited involvement storywise, though no actual scriptwriting as such.  The key script input was from Ruth Rose and James Creelman.  Rose, herself something of an adventurer, scientist and published researcher would end up marrying co-director Schoedsack. From my research it seems Ruth Rose was the major contributor scriptwise.

As this is a special effects blog I’ll concentrate here on the various members of the visual effects unit.
KING KONG wouldn’t have been possible without the wide ranging talents and know how of Chief Technician Willis O’Brien.  While primarily an expert in the then very narrow field of stop motion animation, Obie (as he was known) was well rounded in all aspects of trick work as well as a highly talented artist and painter – a skill which would see him delve into matte painting on several projects in the 1940’s when animated projects were hard to come by.  Obie’s animation effects had already dazzled audiences in the original 1925 THE LOST WORLD – certainly the KONG event of it’s day.  As a change of pace, Obie would supervise the many and varied effects sequences for the 1935 THE LAST DAY’S OF POMPEII, also for Cooper & Schoedsack – none of which would involve stop motion.   

Obie at work on one of his magnificent conceptual oil paintings for MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)
Sadly Obie would never really reach a period of satisfaction with his craft, with many of his projects never getting off the drawing board, such as WAR EAGLES and VALLEY OF GWANGI and others such as the dire SON OF KONG being a very poor vehicle for his vast talents. Obie did at least receive some well deserved and somewhat overdue recognition when he collected the 1949 Academy Award for his work on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. A great many next generation effects people owe it all to Obie, such as Ray Harryhausen and many others.

Obie animating on THE LOST WORLD (1925)

 Incidentally, some of O’Bie’s most under rated special effects work (and some may disagree with me) was the low budgeted Mexican shot THE BLACK SCORPION (1956) – a terrific little fifties monster movie with wonderfully innovative stop motion set ups and photography thereof – the likes of which were entirely fresh to the genre and extremely well accomplished.  Willis O’Brien would pass away while preparing stop motion shots for the 1962 IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD with Jim Danforth then  taking over as a result.

Marcel Delgado building one of many miniature trees.

The name Marcel Delgado should be well known to anyone who has a special place for KONG.  Primarily a sculptor, Marcel was discovered by Obie who persuaded him to construct model dinosaurs for THE LOST WORLD (1924) and would follow up with miniature props on a number of films before Obie once again employed Marcel on the ill-fated CREATION, and ultimately his job of a lifetime – KING KONG – together with his brother Victor Delgado.  In the pictorial essay that follows I’ll describe Marcel’s techniques in more detail.

Delgado in his later years with his old KONG armature.
I’ve written much in my previous blogs about Mario Larrinaga and Byron Crabbe.  Larrinaga started off in scenic backing painting, as did many veteran matte artists, and gradually moved into glass shots probably in the 1920’s.  As well as being chief matte artist on KONG Mario was heavily instrumental in the look and design of many aspects of the production .   
Mario Larrinaga
Willis O’Brien’s friend Byron Crabbe was also heavily involved with pre-production concepts and the general look of the film, with many fine sketches, oil paintings and glass shots attributed to him.  Crabbe had a long association with David Selznick and Jack Cosgrove and painted mattes on films such as THE PRISONER OF ZENDA and THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME and would again work with Willis O’Brien on the many glass shots for THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII.  Byron passed away during the early stages of effects production of the gigantic GONE WITH THE WIND whereby he was Cosgrove’s primary matte artist and associate.

Byron L.Crabbe

With the number of glass shots required on KONG, several other artists were brought on board too.  Albert Maxwell Simpson was one of the real veterans of the trade, with a very long and distinguished career dating back to D.W Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION (1914), the original THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1923), GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) and REBECCA (1940) to name but a few standout credits. Interestingly, Al’s mattes for the RKO version of SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON (1940) show a remarkable resemblance in style and composition to those on KONG.  Both Clarence Slifer and Matthew Yuricich stated that Simpson was a master at blending the join between live action and painted matte and he was known for this talent.   Simpson was active through to the mid-sixties on films like HAWAII and never received much in the way of credit nor accolade during his massive career.  He died in 1980.

In addition to glass shots, Larrinaga & Crabbe touched up puppets paint.
Other artists involved in glass shots were Mario’s brother Juan Larrinaga – an artist who would later paint mattes for Columbia while his brother did likewise for many years at Warner Brothers.  Future career matte painter for Warren Newcombe at MGM, Henry Hillinick was apparently involved too with mattes as was Zachary Hoag (possibly related to MGM’s optical effects man Robert R. Hoag?) whom I believe had input into some of the New York matte shots.

Vern Walker - RKO effects head from 1933 to 1948
A number of cinematographers were engaged on KONG, with Eddie Linden being first cameraman and a veritable busload of cameramen hired for the trick shots.  These included Vernon L. Walker who by that time had assumed the mantle of head of photographic effects for RKO after the studio’s founding optical effects man Lloyd Knechtel departed just before KONG commenced production. Walker would die suddenly in 1948 with RKO’s veteran effects cameraman Russell Culley then assuming command. 
Other effects cameramen on the KONG payroll would include Clarence W. Slifer, Clifford Stine, Harold Wellman, Bert Willis and Bill Reinhold – all of whom would have careers to follow in visual effects – with Slifer in particular a standout name in trick photography innovation for decades to come.

An interesting group photo taken on the effects stage of KONG for a Leica camera advertisement.  Top row (L to R) Clarence Slifer, Carroll Shepphird, Eddie Linden & Mario Larrinaga.  Bottom row (L to R) Bert Willis, Felix Schoedsack and Willis O'Brien
Obie and Larrinaga in a competitive 'brush-off'.
Cliff Stine would have a long association with Vernon Walker as cinematographer in the RKO effects department on many films such as CITIZEN KANE and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME before moving to Universal as a D.O.P in 1949.  Stine would again take on special effects when replacing David Horsley on many of the 50’s sci-fi films produced by Universal such as THE LAND UNKNOWN and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. 
Many years later Stine would be coaxed out of retirement to shoot miniatures on EARTHQUAKE and THE HINDENBURG.

Like Stine, Harold Wellman would have a long career in effects, mostly at RKO, with a special interest in process photography and held the unique honour of having worked on effects for both the 1933 and 1976 KONG pictures.  Orville Goldner was another key member of O'Brien's team.  A multi talented specialist in a number of areas, most notably miniatures, which he had learned from working for one of the great miniaturists of the industry, Donald Jahraus.  Goldner would construct many of the jungle sets, tiny props and special rigging required to make it all work as well as animate on several sequences involving birds, planes and other bits and pieces.

With many of the shots requiring optical combinations of one sort or another several compositing systems would be employed, although with varying results.  Travelling matte technology wasn’t new and had in fact been utilised in various forms for a number of years preceding KONG,  sometimes with quite astonishing results - such as Murnau's SUNRISE for one - and far more ingenuity more often than one might expect from silent era practitioners of trick compositing.  Frank Williams (pictured above) was most likely the originator of the travelling matte process, patented in 1918 as The Williams Process.    Put simply (a more technical explanation to follow) The Williams Process was based upon the sound premise that a foreground element such as an actor for example, is photographed in front of a black backing – or in some situations an evenly illuminated white backing – from which high contrast prints were generated whereby the foreground performer was rendered as a moving black silhouette while the background remained clear.  The high contrast film was then combined in a bi-pack (dual mag) camera while photographing the required background element, such as the matte painting or miniature set thus creating a hold out moving black matte in the background plate, with the elements being then combined through the optical printer to produce a final travelling matte composite.  During the period of KING KONG's production an improved blue backing method was developed.

The other technique for achieving travelling matte composites, and one widely used on KONG, was the Dunning-Pomeroy Self Matting Process, patented in 1927, surprisingly, by a seventeen year old schoolboy, C. Dodge Dunning who was the son of Carroll Dunning  (pictured at right) – the Vice President of the Prizma Colour Process Company.  According to George Turner it took some years for Dunning senior to convince the US Patent Office that his son’s invention would actually work.  I asked optical effects cinematographer Spencer Gill to expand and elaborate on these two important compositing techniques:
Dunning-Pomeroy schematic from 'Special Effects: The History and Technique'.  *Note, the diagram above describes a bi-pack camera though the illustration is a standard single mag camera.

The Dunning-Pomeroy Self Matting Process:
First, the Dunning (aka: Dunning/Pomeroy process, but beware, Roy Pomeroy was said to have claimed credit when it wasn't always his to) is a little easier to comprehend. It takes advantage of Panchromatic (sees all the colours even though it's black-and-white film) film and chemical toning of film.

The footage that will be the background to the shot is printed on Bell and Howell perforated film (camera stock perforations as opposed to Kodak Standard perfs which are used for most projection prints) and the prints are immersed in a chemical bath which adds colour to the silver image. After the toning  (I've left out some rinsing and other steps) the image is the same as it was before but a transparent yellow version of the image. This toned film is loaded into a bi-pack magazine (raw stock in the upper, toned film in the lower) and as the film is exposed through the  toned print. This would ordinarily produce a ghost image of the background over the new scene. However the foreground is lighted with yellow light and that is not held back the yellow image of the toned print so it would render the print invisible. If you were to photograph a blue background the toned print would show up as a crisp, properly-exposed black-and-white image. So the foreground set is yellow and there is a very blue backdrop in back of them. So when the film is processed you've got a composite shot. No matte-fitting and the foreground is original negative and very sharp. Image degradation in the background (it's gone an additional generation in addition to the toning process) is OK because in real life, stuff in the distance tends to be softer due to aerial diffusion … moisture and dust in the air diffuse distant objects.

The pluses listed above are obvious. Also bright objects and dark objects should work better than in the Williams process. 

Linwood Dunn and Vernon Walker with RKO's optical printer set up.
The drawbacks? Well the toning process ain't perfect. The backgrounds can have problems with density and colour purity. Running live-action film in bi-pack (it's better on slower cameras such as in optical printers. Also a lot of the problems that you have in colour bluescreen work, primarily in the lighting, are a factor. Getting a pure blue that is evenly-illuminated is hard (and remember they didn't have all the nice, mass-produced quality filters and backgrounds we have today)  and in many cases the bluescreen was too bright. Also people forget that, in a bluescreen shot or a greenscreen shot) black objects are a problem. And spill or surface sheen will cause transparency problems or in the case of digital, matte tearing … see  Gwyneth Paltrow on the boat at night shot from Shakespeare in Love in 1998. They were in a very tight schedule and would often just light the foreground very flat. If your foreground is too dark or too light then … well … you are screwed. 

Spencer, who has provided optical effects on a number of films such as ROBOCOP, BEETLEJUICE and CAVEMAN kindly explained the Williams Process as well just for this article… thanks so much Spencer:

Williams Process schematic also from 'Special Effects: The History and Technique'

The Williams Double Matting Process:
Chaplin's THE GOLD RUSH Frank Williams travelling matte.
This sort of lab work had been done for years but when the Bell and Howell camera with its fixed-pin movement (still in use in scanners and the few, remaining optical printers) was introduced in 1912 and that pretty much created optical effects proper. The processes generally lumped under the name "Williams process" are some sort of "density matte." You either photograph the foreground against either a black background or a white one depending on what will work best. In the Chaplin film The Gold Rush the shots of Charlie Chaplin and the miniature of the cabin teetering on the edge of the cliff were done with Chaplin shot against white and (if you remember, in the negative the white is opaque) so just as you can "burn-in" a white ghost on a dark background into the dark sections of a background plate in a positive you can burn-in a dark object shot on white into a background with white areas. In the case of The Gold Rush I suspect that the process was done totally in the Intermediate Positive stage and a contact printed negative of the composite was made and cut into the film. Contact printing produced less grain and copy lenses weren't very good until the 1950s … with a major leap ahead in the early 1980s. White backing was used a lot in MGM films and A. Arnold Gillespie mentions working with Williams on the 1924 Ben Hur in his book.

Black backing is a bit easier for most people to grasp. You have a black background (zero density on the negative) and the foreground is completely illuminated so that even the black objects and shadows have some density. This is the part that is as much art as science. You have to avoid exposing the bright objects so "hot" that they flare and make sure the dark areas and shadows don't "milk out" but have enough density for you to pull a good matte. The disadvantages are that you run the risk of dark outlines (not always matte lines … sometimes those edges are dark), there is the generation loss caused by duping film (Fulton always tried to keep backgrounds as contact-printed elements in a comp to minimize grain and contrast gains), and the optical guy's bête noire … matte dirt.

The big plus to density mattes is that you shoot the live action with the actors before you have the BG, you shoot them once, and you can adjust the exposure of the foreground and background when making the comp. This gives more control and is easier to light the people against black. The Dunning method can be astounding but at RKO they had some dodgy results both with King Kong and its companion film The Most Dangerous Game. I suspect that the density matte stuff was done in-house and elements of the Dunning Method were farmed out.  (*According to Production Assistant Archie Marshek most of the Williams mattes were in fact made at Frank Williams’ lab in Santa Monica – Pete)

MGM (according to what I've gleaned but don't take this as Gospel) had some of the first aerial image printers (all were custom, one-off items until the Acme 101 in the 1940s) and some of their travelling matte stuff was incredible. A lot of it was pretty dodgy as well in the silent era. When The Silent Movie (a theatre on Fairfax Boulevard in Los Angeles that showed nothing but silent movies) was still running I was amazed at the sheer number of density mattes (yes, Frank Williams patented the technique and people like John Fulton learned their craft at his lab/optical house) they had in their films. Brownlow was correct it that most (over 50%) effects were done "in camera" but a ton went through the optical printer.

Optical Cinematographer Linwood Dunn joined RKO’s Camera Effects Department in 1929 under Lloyd Knechtel and in time would design and develop, with associates Cecil Love and Bill Leeds, the famous Acme-Dunn Optical Printer which would become an industry standard for over 50 years in various incarnations.  Of course Dunn would continue in optical work for the rest of his life and, with longtime collaborator Cecil Love,  would successfully operate Film Effects of Hollywood for many years.

To my knowledge there weren’t any hand drawn rotoscope mattes, though I stand to be corrected if need be.

Mention should be made here of Sidney Saunders, supervisor of RKO’s studio paint department, who developed what would become the industry standard of rear projection process screens.  Rear projection had been around a while but was largely avoided in favour of the Dunning or Williams processes due to problems with hot spot from projector arc’s, fall off of intensity toward edges of the screen, diffused illumination and grain issues associated with the screen itself which up until then were sand blasted and fragile glass sheets of limited size in wooden frames.  Saunders was able to develop a flexible, non breakable cellulose-acetate screen that not only was significantly larger – measuring some 16x20 feet – but offered vastly increased luminance and clarity of projected image, as evidenced in many of the excellent KONG process shots.

A wonderfully evocative publicity paste up composite photo that highlights the superb multi layered glass art (never has a movie jungle looked so damned good!).  Note the added dinosaur at right from an unused sequence where the men were confronted and forced to cross the log bridge.


SON OF KONG   (1933)
SON OF KONG before and after matte shot.
The studio were so ecstatic about the success of KONG that a sequel was rushed into production – and I do mean rushed.  SON OF KONG, let’s be honest, is a dismal affair with barely a shred of that sense of utter wonder that held audiences spellbound with the earlier film.  The same crew and a few of the same cast re-unite for an astonishingly dull gabfest that despite it’s brief running time, feels like several hours.  RKO, for reasons known only to their inexplicably tight arsed bean counters, decided to allocate a miserably unforgiving budget to the sequel and still expect a quality product at the end of it.  Apparently O’Brien and team didn’t think much of it either though in it’s favour SON OF KONG had some great, smooth animation (when it finally comes), extensive use of ingenious miniature rear process shots and a beautiful glass painted view of Skull Island that’s even better than the one in the first film.  Still worth a look but very disappointing an affair it is.
Wonderful glass painting of Skull Island from SON OF KONG that's better than the first film.

The aforementioned Japanese monster flick KING KONG ESCAPES (1966) was a plus above the other films in one respect – that we actually witness the explorers getting Kong to the ship (via 4 helicopters and slings) where it’s always been one of those great unanswered questions with the other versions.  We even get two Kong’s for the price of one here – the conventional hairy monkey one and a laser beam shooting metallic robot one which I thought was pretty cool as a kid back in the day.  What ever will they think of next - and don't get me started on the abysmal QUEEN KONG (yeah, it's for real) or THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (not as bad as it sounds).

KING KONG   (1976 version)
Much has been written about Dino De Laurentiis’ 1976 remake – much of it dismissive.  Well, I didn’t think the whole enterprise was a complete write off, in fact it had some great things about it.  Firstly, John Barry’s opening theme is sublime to say the least, and one of John’s all time best without question.  Jessica Lange looks great and carries her rather superficial role surprisingly well (I had a seriously intense joint crush on both Lange and the delectable Jenny Agutter that very same year…that was one hell of a year!).  A number of Frank Van der Veer’s optical composites are often actually pretty good, with several split screen blends between miniature set ups and live action being excellent.   
The film moves at a good clip with excellent camerawork until they hit the Skull Island jungle whereby the biggest failings occur – especially the badly lit soundstage jungles. Dale Hennesy’s art direction is dreadful to say the least.  The native village and wall look ‘backlot’, with Lou Litchtenfield’s mattes very mediocre at best.  The Skull Island jungle sets and Styrofoam plateaus are just plain awful and pale in comparison with the frightening locales featured in the 1933 version.  Rick Baker’s costume and performance as Kong were good but a fatal mistake was made in not shooting Kong with a high frame rate to suggest bulk.   
My thoughts exactly!
Key action sequences such as the log scene are abysmally handled here.  Badly designed and lit, with poor set decoration and matte art.  The biggest let down for me was the utter lack of any dinosaurs – and no, I don’t count that snake as a dinosaur!  I remember seeing this on it’s first release and really liked it, but was utterly let down by the lack of monsters on the island.  Of course the hyped and outright bare faced lies that the producer tried so hard to have us believe in the 40 foot mechanical robotic Kong animatronic was shameful and fooled no one…..except The Academy!

KING KONG   (2005 version)
The chasm sequence from Peter Jackson's 2005 version.
Peter Jackson’s 2005 version of Kong was an event.  Overlong for sure, but a triumph in motion performance capture courtesy largely of the highly talented Andy Serkis and WETA’s state of the art CG animation supervised by Christian Rivers.  Despite having reservations about Jack Black I actually liked his portrayal.  Naomi Watts made an attractive and genuine heroine and gave the role 100%.  The opening NYC montage set to Sitting On Top Of The World was pure magic and a real treat, as was the entire Empire State set piece.  The natives were terrifying and the Larrinaga-esque jungles were a wonderful tribute to the original.  And as for dinosaurs….. well the film had ‘em in spades – all superbly realised by WETA senior vfx man Joe Letteri – with a T-Rex brawl that while admittedly being over played, was a stunner none the less. 

A few too many wild and out of control camera moves whereas a bit more thought toward composition and less mobile VFX shots would have been my preference.  That said, a  well earned Oscar for visual effects all round.  Of note here is the theatre Kong wrecks and escapes from is the very theatre which screened the De Laurentiis KING KONG back in 1976 – the magnificent Civic theatre, right here in Auckland – one of the few remaining glittering picture palaces from the 1920’s and worth the price of admission alone, though as usual I digress!

So with that out of the way, let’s take a look back in time, to 1933, and the greatest monster movie of all time.

KING KONG – special effects crew:

Chief Technician & Special Effects Director:                       Willis H. O’Brien

Animation First Assistants:                                                   E.B Gibson & Orville Goldner

Animation Fabrication:                                                        Marcel Delgado & Harry Cunningham

Technical Assistants:                                                            Carroll Shepphird, Fred Reefe, Earl Martin

Chief Matte Artists:                                                              Mario Larrinaga & Byron Crabbe

Effects Cinematographers:                                Vernon L. Walker, James O. Taylor, Kenneth Peach,  
                                                                               Clarence Slifer &  William Reinhold

Assistant Cameramen:                                                          Clifford Stine, Bert Willis, William Clothier

Optical Cinematography:                                                    Linwood G. Dunn, William Ulm, Cecil Love

Optical Printer Engineer:                                                       Bill Leeds

Projection Processes:                                                            Sidney Saunders & Harry Cunningham

Miniature Construction:                                                    Gus White, Juan Larrinaga, Victor Delgado

Miniature Prop Crew:                                                              Robert A. Mattey & Thol Simonson

Figurative Sculptors:                                                               John Cerisoli, Charles Christadori

Matte Painters:                                                                   Albert Maxwell Simpson & Henry Hillinck

Dunning Process Supervision:                                              C. Dodge Dunning & Carroll H. Dunning

Dunning Process Cameraman:                                                  Ellis ‘Bud’ Thackery

Williams Composite Process:                                                     Frank Williams

Special Mechanical Effects:                                                       Harry Redmond, jnr

Painted Backing Technician:                                                      Peter Stich

Paul Detlefsen's multi-plane glass painted moving clouds and Linwood Dunn's animation.

Great cast too.  Wray was terrific, Armstrong a solid leading man and Cabot the ideal square jawed hero.

Although I can't confirm, I'm told that this opening shot of New York city is indeed a glass shot.
The S.S Venture - sky is glass shot and boat is either painted or a miniature for this brief shot.

The 12 foot Venture miniature constructed with illustration board and shot 'dry' with water and mist added later.  Note high level of detail and 'people' carved by sculptor John Cerisoli visible on deck .
Skull Island.  Those beating native drums and Max Steiner's subtle music cues inject more than just a hint of forboding.  A beautiful matte shot, though why the natives built that damned door so big I'll never know!  Just asking for trouble.

Note the exquisitely animated and matted in birds - probably animated by Orville Goldner - which work wonders in this and several other effects sequences.
There's trouble brewing.  Probably matte art and flaming torch elements combined with rear projection.

Rare before and after of the great wall interior.  Extras filmed atop a Culver City soundstage, the wall itself is a superbly convincing miniature where the stone texture is actually glue mixed with sand and corn meal.  The people are split screened in and  Fay Wray matted in separately.  All up a tremendously well photographed effect.
Kong arrives.  Fay on limited set matted into miniature environs via the Williams travelling matte process.

Before and after test  If you pay attention, Kong actually changes size and facial features several times throughout the movie, depending upon which model they were shooting.

Large scale mechanical prop head built by Fred Reefe and used sparingly.
The pursuit begins.  I'm fairly certain this is a matte shot with painted trees on both sides of the frame.

No movie jungle has ever equalled those depicted in KONG.  Dank, humid and outright scary, this aspect is one of the things I love most about KING KONG and find these glass shots sublime.

More jungle matte art beautifully blended with the soundstage set.
Close view of 'deep' matte set up with as many as 4 planes of painted glass and a painted backing in the distance.

Another example with miniature-glass mix.

Mario Larrinaga (L) and Byron Crabbe (R) share a laugh while jointly working on one of the many large glass matte paintings for KONG.  A great many carefully rendered drawings were prepared for the many scenes requiring mattes and O'Brien devised a means by which those drawings could be projected directly onto the glass as a guide to the painting.  The projector, although built for the purpose, tended not to be used as Larrinaga tended to prefer to work 'free' and felt he had no need for it..
19th Century French artist Gustave Dore's dark and malevolent works were the inspiration for all of the Skull Island lighting schemes and matte art compositions to superb effect.  Orville Goldner was mostly involved with constructing and dressing these miniature marvels with a particular expertise in duplicating trees, rocks and leaves by various means.

Terrific set piece: Excellent stop motion animation of Stegosaurus, superb 'deep' miniature set and top notch rear screen process projection on a large (for the time) 16 x 20 foot process screen developed by Sidney Saunders of the RKO Paint Department.  The new Saunders screen proved invaluable for achieving clean, crisp projected images with a far greater gray range across the width of the screen than the previous sand blasted glass RP screens which softened and diffused the projected image with a dull, flat result.

Gas bomb optically superimposed into effects footage.  Note excellent blend with process elements to foreground guys

Nice touch here with a dolly in following actors as they move up near process screen.  Perfect integration in all respects.  Later on, Buddy Gillespie's process department at MGM and to a slightly lesser extent Farciot Edouart's unit at Paramount would set an entirely new standard in RP process, at least in black and white.  Colour productions would forever be frought with problems though.

Stop motion fallen beast photographed incrementally as a tracking shot, with the actors on a treadmill in front of a process screen simulating a walk by.
Behind the scenes photo of a miniature tabletop set with puppet tie down support holes visible.  Note the lovingly crafted scale foliage.  According to surviving documents the Triceratops sequence was fully prepped and even some filming had begun, though Cooper decided to drop the entire, quite elaborate chase and confrontation with as many as three of these beasts in favour of moving the main thrust of the story along at a faster clip.  I'd loved to have seen it..

Another view of the miniaturised forest set and Stegosaurus puppet supplemented by carefully layered matte art.
The Brontosaurus makes his animated appearance.  Foreground trees painted on glass along with mist.  Background also painted.
Miniature raft and people in tank helped by moody camera work and slow building music cues. Brontosaurus is a mechanical puppet in these shots.  Lower frame is probably a Dunning composite due to burn through ghosting artifacts inherent in that process.
Left:  a wonderfully executed trick sequence where O'Brien has the animated creature pursuing stop motion Venture crew out of the swamp whereby a carefully devised split screen is used to excellent effect behind the tree trunk to transition from stop motion men to the real actors seemlessly coming out the other side.  A brilliant illusion which is used several times in various scenes in KONG and is all but undetectable.  Right:  Rear screen process shot with animated beast.

A closer look at the above shot.  Note the miniature figures and the as yet un-matted lower portion.
Closer again with a look at the matte painted jungle.
Same, with stop motion sailor up tree.

An interesting on set still photograph demonstrates the miniature rear process in action in this unused test.

Close up of the tiny semi translucent process screen blended into the set with miniaturised foliage.
Willis O'Brien's RP process set up from KONG used for scaled down visual effects comps such as demonstrated above.  The motor is geared to agitate the screen constantly in an up-down axis so as to avoid constant grain.
Willis O'Brien and Mario Larrinaga with new pet.

A crisp,nicely detailed large format still taken presumably for publicity purposes as the two creatures never have a scene together and reputedly never so much as spoke to each other during the entire shoot.  They were however spotted sometime later 'canoodling' at The Brown Derby apparently (!).
The centrepiece of the film is undoubtedly the Kong vs T-Rex punch up - something that was desperately lacking in the 1976 version but lovingly recreated (and then some!) by Jackson for his 2005 version. 

A wonderful trick shot whereby the stop motion Kong carries a small puppet likeness of Fay toward the fork in the tree, by which point the real Fay Wray is optically substituted, possibly by means of the Dunning Process and a carefully executed optical wipe as Kong's paw moves away revealing her atop the tree.  Nice work indeed.

Fay in prop tree with action projected onto the Saunders RP screen.

And so it begins... in the left corner weighing 20'000 pounds is Kong..... and in the right corner weighing in at 30'000 pounds is Mark Bolan (any T-Rex fans out there other than NZPete?).   An anomoly with Kong's hair/fur constantly being 'mobile' was unavoidably the result of the animators hands disturbing the rabbit fur pelts used on the Delgado armature.  This problem was overcome in later films by lacquering down the fur beforehand to ensure non disturbance
An unfinished matte art test with chinagraph pencil marks on the closest glass still to be painted with jungle vines and foliage to add depth to the miniature set.
Tremendous stuff from O'Brien made all the more unforgettable by Murray Spivack's sound effects editing - the likes of which audiences had never heard up to then and would take years to be matched by other likeminded sound fx cutters.  Fay, on a small log set, is matted into the miniature set which in turn was augmented not only with the usual layered glass jungle paintings but by a further foreground glass painting of foliage and bushes.
A test frame from the T-Rex sequence with a Fay Wray puppet and unfinished glass art.

Fay, relaxing in an unfinished matte painting camera test.

Gustave Dore inspired design with, literally, light at the end of the forest.  Dark foregrounds, intermediate bands of light and shadow with the major light source usually seen as the distant scenery lit by shafts of light.  Love it!
Obie and effects unit at work on a sequence that will ultimately not be used.  Note matte artist Mario Larrinaga at right in the middle of a large glass painting of the Skull Island environs.

Bruce Cabot senses impending danger.  Likely a RP process shot.

Now this one's a stunner.  Another one of those sleight of hand trick shots I love so much about this film.  Miniature set with much glass matte art with Cabot added either by excellent, soft split screen matte (there is a slightly detectable irregular formed line which suggests a split screen, though some accounts report the shot as a back projection composite).  The magic occurs when Cabot moves behind some bushes and emerges the other side as a barely detectable stop motion puppet as he approaches the fallen T-Rex.
Cabot in front of RP process screen.  Nice detail with animated bird flying off - possibly animated by Orville Goldner who seemed a specialist at these avian stop motion gags.

The shot everyone remembers - the famous log scene across the chasm.  One of the all time great images of fantasy cinema in terms of mood, excitement and just plain perfect visual effects execution.  Interestingly, an almost identical shot occurred the previous year in RKO's THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME from the same effects crew.

Originally the men were pursued by a pissed off Triceratops and took the log as a last option only to run head on into Kong, though the Triceratops footage was scrapped (sadly).  A wonderful matte painting of the gorge and forest and a miniature log with the running sailors shot separately against a blue screen via the Dunning travelling matte process.

The ravine in long shot is an in camera matte shot with men on the RKO set and a quite magnificent glass painted matte of everything else.
A reverse view of the men backtracking across the log.  A full scale log and cliff face against a large Dunning blue screen used to drop in the miniature and glass art in upper half of frame behind the fleeing crew.
The set with Dunning screen illuminated with blue light.

Kong arrives and does his utmost to rid the world of pesky humans.  A wonderfully orchestrated scene with full scale log being mechanically rocked as stuntmen fall off onto padding.  The live action was matted into the miniature setting by way of the Dunning process.  Stop motion Kong mimics actual log action very nicely.

One of the failings of the Dunning process were the unavoidable halo artifacts and occasional bleed through of matted figures which often appeared 'thin' and ill defined.  Still, a great set piece that's years better than the '76 attempt at same.
Same, with Cabot making a quick getaway.

A publicity photo taken for LIFE magazine that year nicely show's the detailed miniatures, puppets and Mario Larrinaga glass art in wooden frame beyond.
Split screen matte shot which I don't recall being in the final film?

Miniature set, stop motion Kong and lizard, with Cabot added by miniature rear screen process.

I'm not sure how this one was done.  I'm thinking Bruce Cabot was matted into a miniature-glass art setting on the far side while Robert Armstrong was likely added separately as a Dunning travelling matte.
Reverse angle from Cabots POV.  Wonderful matte art and miniature foliage with Cabot almost certainly added as a Dunning blue screen travelling matte.
A multi part composite.  Real High Sierra waterfall footage, a double for Cabot photographed in Nicholas Canyon matted into a matte painting.  The tree and foreground foliage are miniatures.

Kong's lair is a complex combination of multiple elements.  A miniature set combined with several glass painted layers together with two pieces of miniature rear projection for Cabot and Wray.  Bubbling mud was a separate element added optically, as was rising steam, a pool of water and stop motion birds flying around.  A phenomenal shot even before Kong arrives.
A rear projected Fay replaces the small puppet version as Kong places her in the small cave.
An approximate breakdown to demonstrate the many elements tied together for the big cave shots.

O'Brien animating the cave battle.
Note RP process to drop Cabot and Wray into the effects shots.
Kong takes a breather and lights one up.  A curious shot where the Kong model appears very washed out and his head bleeds through some of the cave wall (left frame).

Miniature and glass art combination, with projected people at left.

An excellent behind the scenes photo revealing the detail of the model terrain and the size of the glass painted backings.  Interestingly KING KONG was possibly the first show to really embrace the notion of on set still photography of all aspects of production, particularly the trick work.
The ledge with Skull Island below.  A mix of miniature ledge, glass painted island below and sky, projected Fay and Bruce, real ocean in the background and some animated birds.
Test frame of above with carved figurines.  Note matte not yet complete as ocean plate (with Venture) still to be completed.
Kong surveys his kingdom.  The frame at right is a mistake that no one at the time noticed.  An animators gauge to ascertain degrees of movement between frame exposures had inadvertently been left 'in shot' during one frame exposure and appears on screen in the blink of an eye.  Not uncommon for such things to happen in stop motion, with aerial braces often found, even in Ray Harryhausen's shows.  Apparently one of the set ups in KONG featured actual living foliage of some sort, and, unbeknownst to the crew a small bud had formed and was gradually flowering during animation, which naturally wasn't spotted until the dailies were run at 24 fps and there it was  - the rapid birth of said flower in Skull Island's fetid jungle!
The Pteranodon swoops down on Fay.  Great animation and moody matte painting with the great wall, village and the ship off the beach.  The water was real.  Wire supports (aerial braces) for the model puppet Pteranodon can be seen when running the scene in slow motion.  According to Willis O'Brien, these shots were the toughest to animate and shoot.
Another great piece of Willis O'Brien sleight of hand - the rear projected Cabot and Wray at back of Kong seemlessly transition into well lit and animated puppets of same as they appear in view before climbing down the vine.

Close ups such as this were achieved by filming Fay in a giant mechanical hand which in turn would be rear projected into a miniature set with the Kong puppet animated to precisely match the already shot life size footage.  The frame at lower right clearly shows the uneven blend within the miniature rockface and the projected element.

The great escape...
I told those guys not to build a huge gate in that wall....just asking for trouble.  Miniature Kong added behind actual wall set via the Williams double matting process.  As the gate opens failings in the travelling matte become clear and areas of the gate become transparent with Kong bleeding through.
The live action shoot with the giant blue lit screen behind foreground white lit set and cast.  The Dunning process couldn't be used here as a key requirement to make the self matting composites were the need to illuminate all foreground props and actors in specially filtered orange light - an impossibility for such a large shot.

A closer view reveals the inevitable fringing with fine objects such as hair and spears etc.  Production assistant Archie Marshek once stated he spent a lot of his time running back and forth between RKO's effects stage and the Frank Williams Laboratory - a curiously pie shaped little building at Santa Monica:  "I'd have to see if they had got those little bleed lines out of the mattes and explain what Cooper wanted.  They'd have to do it over again until it was right".

A split screen matte shot with miniature upper half and backlot set lower half.  Incidentally I thought the similar shots in De Laurentiis' KING KONG were pretty good.
Excellent rear projected composite for native village showdown.
The village was mostly multi-plane glass painting with some miniature structures.  The natives at right were a miniature projection of a live action plate.
Key matte artist Mario Larrinaga shown here sandwiched between a pair of carefully painted glass sheets representing the native village.
Stop motion Kong, miniature hut at right, glass painted foreground and background plus running natives added in via the Williams travelling matte process.
Mostly miniature set with painted background.  Kong and native both stop motion.

Miniature set, stop motion Kong, rear projected natives throwing real spears which were then substituted with animated miniature spears as they fly past or at Kong.  Running natives matted into shot.  Close up at lower right is huge mechanical head - a shot much censored in various territories for years.

More outstanding process projection with miniature and matte painted village, stop motion Kong projected behind child
Kong get's bombed at the beach.  Upper frames a miniature setting with sailors matted in with the Dunning process.  Bottom frame is a multiple element effect with miniature Kong in front of a process screen, on which is projected a split screen matte shot with the cast on location with a painted sky and Venture ship.  Most people miss this trick shot and get swepped up with Carl Denham's "We're millionaires boys...I'll share it with all of you...Kong - the 8th Wonder of the world".

I always thought they could have done this shot a little better.  A matte painted theatre frontage and neon sign (I always like painted neons) with an optical tilt down onto the crowd.  It always looked just what it was - two ill matched elements stitched together a little recklessly.

Before and after split screen matte with miniatures seemlessly added.
"Don't worry ladies and gentlemen...those chains are made of chromed steel".  Oh, that's a big relief...shiny, highly polished chains... that oughta do it, right?
Another outstanding effects shot, with live action street action photographed by J.O Taylor in New York which was in turn rear projected behind the Kong puppet on a foreground miniature of the theatre door and wall.  The door was made of copper to allow gradual frame by frame destruction.
Miniature NY set rear projected behind fleeing extras.

A realistic miniature skyscraper facade with stop motion Kong.

Multi-part effects shot with real building and people in windows at right that was split screened into an intricately detailed miniature street set complete with El Train and street cars.  The crowds were added two ways - some background people were animated figures and most of the others were extras doubled in by way of the Williams travelling matte process.
Close view of the actual miniature NY street and vehicles.  Note the holes in the road for stop motion tie downs.
Kong vs train
Stop motion victim in Kong's paw (or hand, or whatever?).  A great composite shot, even with the matte weave running up the side of the building at right.
The El Train and New York cityscape.  Part miniature part glass painting of the skyscrapers.
Left- A glass painted matte shot of New York's skyline doubled with actual aircraft on an airfield.  Right - Kong climbs the Empire State in a curiously interesting shot.  It's always been stated that it's stop motion - and photos show Buzz Gibson doing just that - though I've always been mystified as to the smoothness and 'human' look to the motion.  As much as this might not sit well with fans, I reckon it to be a guy in a suit in that so brief a shot.  The physics and weight are just too spot on to be stop motion.  Modern CGI suffers from the same errors in physics and weight in this respect and there are still terrible CG animated movements that miss the mark by miles.
A test frame from the final moments nicely illustrate the miniature rear projection employed to insert Fay Wray into the model of the top of the Empire State Building.  The background is entirely matte art painted on glass by Mario Larrinaga with his brother Juan and Byron Crabbe.  The cityscape was painted in three planes of artwork.

Kong battles to the death as model fighter planes swoop by. 
One of the surviving original KONG miniature planes.  The models ranged in scale from around 4 inches in length up to one with a 15 inch wingspan.
A production still reveals the wire rig employed to 'fly' the planes frame by frame.  Carroll Shepphird was largely responsible for overseeing the miniature plane footage, with O'Brien and Orville Goldner animating.
One down, 5 to go - Kong demolishes one fighter.  The city is entirely matte art, the planes tiny miniatures doubled in, the crashing bi-plane a large scale miniature shot against blue screen and matted against what is reportedly a miniature of the Empire State Building, though it looks painted to me.
Gus White drops the flaming bi-plane past a blue screen for subsequent matting into the above scene.  Note the bi-pack matte camera at work.

"It wasn't the airplanes... it was Fay Wray who killed the beast".

Well, that's it for another special effects blog... hope you enjoyed it.  By the way, Mario Larrinaga's grand daughter left a kind note on my blog recently and I do wish she'd contact me.



  1. Bravo - as ever. It's now 11.30 pm (ish). Meant to be setting off early tomorrow morning for the bimonthly jaunt to Stratford Upon Avon (Titus Andronicus this trip - In the cheap seats...).

    You've ensured I'll be on top form for a 7am start...

    1. Hi Andy

      So.... sue me, provided of course you're not all 'Konged out' ;)

      All the best


  2. This is absolutely wonderful, Peter. I love your excellent use of photos to support your essay, which reads beautifully. Your photo of dear Fay Wray is also a knockout. I cannot recall whether or not I've ever told you how I collaborated with Fay's daughter, Vicky Riskin, to get Ray Harryhausen and Fay together, for what would sadly prove the last time, in Manhattan in 2004 at the end of Ray's book tour for "The Art of Ray Harryhausen." Mike Hankin's "Ray Harryhausen: Master of the Majicks, Volume 1" will go into more detail, so watch for it.

    1. Hi Arnold

      Thanks for those kind words. I had a feeling you might enjoy this one. And, yes, Fay was a real doll no two ways about it.



  3. I know it's controversial but I agree that the shot of Kong climbing the side of the Empire State Building looks suspicious. It's inconsistent to the rest of the stop motion because the action is so smooth. There's even a moment when Kong looses his footing briefly that seems spontaneous.

    I've also seen the photo of Buzz Gibson animating Kong's climb up the Empire State building. Perhaps his animated footage was rejected for some reason and a faster alternative was sought out due to time constraints.

    Nonetheless, King Kong remains the benchmark for fantasy films. The concept remained strong enough to be given new life in the 1976 version which I personally really like, even with the terrible jungle set that Rick Baker had to walk through. Jackson's Kong is the one I can't really enjoy. It's over-long, over the top and sadly I never really felt much of a connection between Kong and his true love.

    Thanks for a really lovely blog post and I've got to say your blog is a real joy to read!

  4. Thanks for that Pierre. I thought I might have opened a can of worms with my opinion on the 'live performer' theory... but it sure looks it to me.
    I'm glad you enjoyed the article and my blog in general.

    Many thanks


  5. Fine article and illustrations. I dig your blog (loved the Jim Danforth article). Kudos to you, sir.

    The above photo ("Gustave Dore inspired design with, literally, light at the end of the forest. Dark foregrounds, intermediate bands of light and shadow with the major light source usually seen as the distant scenery lit by shafts of light. Love it!") looks like it might be from Peter Jackson's re-creation of the Kong puppet for the demonstration of O'Brien's techniques. A marvelous extra on the Kong dvd.

  6. Hi Martin

    I can't recall where I got that photo from, but, yes, Jackson's doco on the old KONG is as good as it gets, 'extras wise'. Sensational.


  7. Hi, It's great to see another Kiwi interested in King Kong. I also taped the screening fron TVNZ back in '73 including Merv Smith's introduction. Famous Monsters of Filmland was my bible. Kong was my inspiration to become an animator, later an editor and now a director.Your explainations of the various processes used is wonderful. Thank you for all you work and blogs about the "Art" in the art of cinema

    1. Hi Ken

      Thanks for those comments. You're about the only Kiwi who frequents my blog I suspect. Some of the WETA boys used to tune in from time to time - perhaps some still do - though what they do now is soooo far removed from 'hand made trickery' it may in fact be lost on them.

      Feel free to pass my blog onto any interested parties in ole' NZ.



  8. Enjoyed your blog. several nice shots I hadn't seen before. You mention Zack Hoag, and I have a little info on him you might find interesting. It came from Orville Goldner by way of George Turner (my father). Goldner identified Hoag as "the tall fellow with the mustache" standing between the Delgado brothers as they work on life size pteranadon. He further mentions that he was a "nice guy" and was put to work "laying in backgrounds for Mori and Jaun."
    A lengthy interview culled from Turner's notes was recently published as "All the King's men, volume one: the Orville Goldner interviews.

    thanks again doug turner

    1. Hi Doug

      That's very interesting indeed, and I appreciate the info. I sure miss your father's wonderful 'special' articles in the older American Cinematographer mags. The man always knew his stuff and presented it all so well that I still re-read those old articles, along with The ASC Treasury of Visual FX (always looking through that great book)and his other books.

      I must search out that 'All The Kings Men' you speak of. Sounds interesting.

      Thanks again for your kind note.



  9. What an incredible coverage of Kong. It has everything, including the controversial "Was it a suited man in the Empire State long shots?" which I'm sure will get many a persons back up. With all the claims that have gone on over the years, I do believe there could be an element of truth (although I will only say this now because Ray Harryhausen is no longer around to shout at me). At least when you saw Kong for the first time it was complete. Despite a lot of Ballyhoo, when it was first shown on British TV in 1966 they cut out the whole sea voyage from "We're off!" to arriving at the island. I believe there were other scenes missing too, but it is too long ago to remember clearly. I too recorded it on a reel to reel tape (which I still have somewhere) and listened to it over and over. I was blown away when I finally watched the full Kong at a 'Classic' cinema in London. My greatest thrill was to watch it several times with Ray Harryhausen, who would pick out scenes to watch closesly. As if I needed coaching. I was getting so excited at the prospect of giving Ray his copy of the last Majicks book, because of its coverage of Kong. Sadly it was not to be. Thank you for such a wonderful blog. I will keep a close eye on it.

    1. Hi Mike

      Thanks for the positive feedback. I feel honoured as your tomes on Ray are as good as trick photography writing has ever, and will ever be! No question. Although I only own the British Films volume, it remains my all time favourite book on special effects. Nothing (and I do mean nothing) was left out (except any pics of that GWANGI cathedral model that burns down...such a good miniature comp). Exhasutive and magnificent in every respect. An earlier blog of mine was dedicated to book reviews on the SPX topic and you'll see your book got an overwhelming review - and deservedly so.

      All the best


  10. It's almost impossible to imagine someone unacquainted with Kong until the age of 12. I can no more recall the first time I saw KING KONG than I can remember the first time I breathed air. One of my earliest memories is being taken to see a double feature of KING KONG & MIGHTY JOE YOUNG at a local theater. I couldn't have been more then four or five, and I was already a devoted fan of the Big Ape.

    Re: the "Kong climbs the Empire State" mini controversy --- I know more know the truth than anyone else, but as someone who's done a fair share of stop-motion I can say that an eighteen inch model animated to appear that small would look totally fluid. The little discrepancies that give animation it's strobing look would be imperceptible.

    1. Hi Brett

      Surely still a sore point for many fans. I can't imagine why they'd bother with a stunt guy for such a minor shot and given all O'bie's talented people, but it DOES look oddly 'human'. Even Mike Hankin (see above) seems to be unsure about that shot. Hmmmmmm???



  11. I just realized I wrote "I know more know" instead of "I no more know". It may be a trivial thing but it makes me feel like an illiterate boob, the kind who doesn't know "your" from "you're" or "their" from "there". It was a TYPO, you hear me? A TYPO!!!!!!!

    1. Brett

      At first I read it as: "I know more than you" (!) which left me thinking, "well, that's dampened my enthusiasm for any 'Nymphoid Librarians in Dinosaur Hades'....
      All is forgiven Brett. Keep checking out the blog and keep making movies.



  12. I finally did manage to contact Mario Larrinaga's grand daughter, Jill and we had a chat, though I was saddened to learn that nothing appears to exist pertaining to Mario's illustrious and long career - at least nothing film related with the remaining family - which is so unfortunate.

    I was hoping to do a full retrospective on Mario's career in an upcoming blog, though it may still happen it won't be as all encompassing as I'd have liked - certainly not as detailed and intimate as my Jan Domela and Ellenshaw articles where access to family archival material was such a pivotal part of the entire process, for which I'm most grateful.


  13. Congratulations on yet another fantastic posting. You have quite a knack for finding obscure photos. I was surprised and flattered to see a pic that I had stitched together last year make an appearance. The shot of Kong leaning over a miniature ledge looking down at Bruce Cabot and the two legged lizard, is a stitch/compilation of frames from one of the only moving camera animation shots in the film.

    You might be interested in seeing the stitch I did of the dying stegosaurus shot. You can find it at at the end of the December 2012 posting. Thanks again for all your hard work.


    1. Hi Yancy

      I don't recall where I found that photo - either on the net or someone sent it to me. Hope it's okay that I used it as it's a superbly high rez pic of said motion shot and demonstrates the whole thing so well.

      So glad animators such as yourself still find so much to motivate and inspire you from O'Bie's wonderful event.

      All the best


    2. Hi NZPete,
      Please feel free to use any pics you find on my site. I love making those stitch-ups. I will be doing more and am open to suggestions.



  14. Another thing occured to me that adds a little to the 'Kong climbing the Empire State' question. To my knowledge, the only (posed) shots of the animation of this scene around show Buzz Gibson. When they were looking for a further pair of hands for the animation work on Mighty Joe Young (that was eventually taken on by Pete Peterson), Buzz Gibson did some tests that didn't meet the grade. Even from a distance, Kong's climb is a remarkable piece of 'animation'. So how do you go from doing such wonderful work on Kong to rejection on Mighty Joe?

    1. Hi Mike

      Yeah...I wondered about Buzz too. As much as I love Ray's work, films and the man himself I have to say I've been a little disappointed over recent years as Ray seemed to have devalued Pete Peterson's input into MIGHTY JOE down to a stage where it seems poor old Pete may be entirely written out of the history books altogether. As far as I know, Pete did wonders considering his physical ailments and so forth.

      On JOURNEY TO CENTRE OF EARTH - take a look at my reply to your comment.... enough to bring tears to one's eyes.

      All the best


  15. Hello Pete,

    Love any entry about Kong 1933, but I have to say you missed it on the details of a few shots! In particular the matte painting of Kong climbing the building which you labeled as a miniature (shame, shame)! I will dig it our and send you the images, they explain several shots.

    As to the "controversy",I saw a new 35mm print of Kong projected years ago at The New Art Theatre in Santa Monica (Fay Wray was even there) and I would say the footage is definitely stop-motion. The "difference" you may be reacting to seems to be one of style between animators. On the Big Screen Kong's movements are slow and rather exaggerated. Anyway, why would the production spend money on a gorilla suit and hire a performer to get a shot that could have been easily done (as in the photo)by Gibson?

    I will send you that image of the building matte! Thanks for posting good, unusual shots!


    1. Hi Earl

      Thanks for those most illuminating photos. If it weren't so risky going back in and 're-jigging' a big blog like this I'd add those pictures - especially the before and after of the building. Very interesting, and I most welcome your observations and critique.
      It's amazing just how much correspondance I've received since publishing this article - REALLY alot of Kong fans out there!


  16. Brings back nice memories of visiting Forry Ackerman's mansion and pushing
    away the spaceship from Abbott and Costello Go To Mars in order to see closeup all the models from King Kong - does Peter Jackson have any plans for a film museum now that he owns the models ?

  17. I believe that Peter Jackson does have a museum at his WETA workshop in New Zealand (perhaps Peter knows more about this). I too visted Forry's place just a short time before it was all scattered to the four winds. The Los Angeles City people should have stepped in to preserve that place for future generations to visit. Forry was so trusting with his visitors, who were allowed to wander around at will (after his personal guided tour). I was alowed to move the Kong and Harryhausen models around to photograph them better. It was a scary thing to do, as bits of the hardened foam rubber fell away with each touch. I deem myself so lucky to have seen the collection, as well as Bob Burns treasure trove on the same day. May the lovely Bob live forever and remain the keeper of our dreams.

    1. Hi Mike

      I know Jackson has 'The Weta Cave' which is a sort of souvenir shop at WETA, but I'm not sure about the museum as such. He darned well should have as I believe he has some great stuff.

      I always regret not visiting the Ackermansion during my several trips to LA... always meant too, and now of course it's too late. Is Bob's archive open to the public? He's got a few matte paintings I'd love to see up close.


    2. My publisher Ernie Farino arranged for the visit, but I think Bob will give guided tours to interested people if asked. I have many stories to tell about my visit, such as sitting in The Time Machine (which I don't think Bob allows anymore after some damage was done) the photo of which you can see in the upcoming vol 1 of Majicks. More relevant to this post was being allowed to sit quietly in one corner to hold and take photographs of both the King Kong and Mighty Joe Young armatures. Many years later I was allowed to handle the Kong armature that went up for auction at Christies in London (Ray Harryhausen was there on that preview day). So, I suppose I have handled both existing Kong armatures.

    3. Hi Mike

      If you happened to get photos of those two Bill Brace matte paintings from THE TIME MACHINE that Bob has, I would be thrilled to see them!!


  18. FANTASTIC post about one of my favorite movies! Thank you so much, this clearly was a labor of love. As others have commented, you shared some photos that I have never seen before, and I thought I'd seen them all! I can't wait to show this to my older brother, who is even more of a Kong fan than me.

    1. At ease Major....

      So glad you (and others) liked it. Spread the word.

      Kong lives on!!! Yeah!


  19. Used to be my favorite movie. Sure is crude now. Well, now that Peter Jackson remade it, nobody ever needs to see it again.

  20. Sorry about that last stupid post. I was really down (having some big challenges).
    KONG is still one of the all-time greats, and I still love it. Thanks for your really terrific blog. I never saw that guage! One of my favorite shots is the POV of the airplane diving in on Kong and then peeling off with a simulated motion blur. Still not sure how they did that!
    Visited the Ackermansion in its heyday. One of my treasured memories is the night at BOOKFELLOWS in Glendale when I met Forry Ackerman, Ray Bradbury, AND Ray Harryhausen all together. My God! Got a wonderful signed copy of Ray's book,(which I've since had to sell).
    Thanks for the great site.

  21. Incidentally, have you ever noticed how often Kong looks off-camera, as if someone is directing him, and that after he wrecks the El, he looks at the audience, sort of like, "Whatta ya think of that, huh?"

  22. Wow-- magnificent job you did; I love all the great shots of the foreboding rock and foliage that are Skull Island. Thank you! :D

  23. Wow-- magnificent job you did; I love all the great shots of the foreboding rock and foliage that are Skull Island. Thank you! :D

  24. Great article and photos to boot of Kong 33!

  25. Great article with pictures of the Kong33 production to boot!

  26. Wow, great work on this site, I'm very much enjoying it!!! Just wanted to mention, however, that a few of the pics above appear to be from Son of Kong (a movie I'm actually quite fond of, goes way back with me) rather than King Kong. I recognized Helstrom and the skipper right away in two of them :) --Rick

  27. Fantastic work on digging out ever more Kong 33 stills! Back when I got Turner's book, I thought I had "seen it all" given the the behind-the-scenes photos, but there seems to be an absolute motherlode of pics out there.
    We're lucky that these have been kept; one must think that they took so many production stills because they knew they were doing something groundbreaking.

  28. Thank you for this blog. My grandfather (Carroll Shepphird) worked on the film and we have one of the original matte paintings (signed by Mario Larrinaga) used to help sell the film. I was doing a search to learn more about it and came upon your blog. Fun seeing him in the photo you included here.

    1. Hi there

      Thank you for that interesting note. I would be VERY much intrigued to be able to view that matte painting you speak of if you would care to email me. This sort of 'treasure' is simply impossible to come across I can assure you.

      I do hope you can contact me about this and any other info you may care to share on your Grandfather's career. These fellows got so little recognition as you know.


  29. Send me an e-mail at and I'd be happy to send you a photo of the painting.

  30. Loved this thorough (and funny) analysis. My FILM class just viewed this film and I wanted them to write on noticeable special effects, or trick photography. This interesting article of yours will answer many questions, and more importantly, make us all aware of how involved it is to do this kind of film. Thank you!

  31. Contagiously enthusiastic writing. All these blogs should be put together in a book. TWO books!

  32. Wow. Great info. Well done. By the way, I own the Willis O'Brien easel that Willis and Byron Crabbe used to create the fantastic artwork that helped sell the King Kong idea. His widow, Darlyne O'Brien left it to me in her will along with many other fantastic objects. She loved me like a mother loves her son. We unofficially adopted each other as mother and son back in the late 70s...

    Wayne Gilbert

  33. Wow! Great work. Well done.
    By the way, I own Willis O'Brien's art easel. Along with Byron Crabbe, they created the fantastic artwork on this easel that helped sell the King Kong idea (according to her widow). The easel was given to me by Darlyne O'Brien, the widow of Willis O'Brien, in her will. She loved me like a son. We unofficially adopted each other as mother and son in the late 70's...

  34. Just happened to see your great blog on KING KONG today (in 2020). Im 64 and remember seeing KONG the first time on Los Angeles TV in 1959 ! In 1970 my bro and i met Delgado at his home to interview him for a stop-mo fanzine my bro was preparing (but he was then drafted into the U.S.Army, then got into a religious cult, permanently). Delgado also showed us his Kong and Lost World photo-albums (whatever happened to those?....auctioned ?....Lost?) The blog has lots of great info and not-seen-before pics !....however, i was a bit surprised (considering your attention to details) that you identify the dinosaur chasing Denham's men to the ravine log as a "triceratops"...actually it's a styracosaur !!! (shame Peter! shame!!!....ok, just kidding)....BTW, did you ever find that copy of CINEFEX #7/1982 on O'Brien that you wanted ? (its actually a reprint from a 1973 British mag)....Gotta love that amazing Crabbe and Larrinaga jungle-background matte art for KING KONG ! As for Jackson's 2005 KK, as soon as that amazing and beautiful first brontosaur-group scene suddenly devolved into that ridiculous, comedic multi-bronto pile-up and cliff fall-off, the whole film just slowly slid from there into further scenes of high-priced CGI absurdities : Kong fighting/rolling with 3 T-Rexes, while gently holding Ann???!....Funny-boy Jack Black as boss/leader Carl Denham???!....the 1933 unique-looking prehistoric Kong is in this 2005 film just a gigantic zoo gorilla???! (Jackson could've saved Million$ using an actual zoo gorilla, photo-enlarged with a CGI arm holding Ann!!!) Even with the jerky stop-mo and other flaws, the ORIGINAL Kong has easily thrown that CGI ape out the window and into the FULL trash can of FAILED REMAKES !!!....Anyway, your blog on Classic Cinema FX and Matte Art is GREAT!....and so is New Zealand (The Last Great Unspoiled Paradise) !

    1. Thanks for that great letter. I would be so keen to see those Delgado albums. Must have been a treasure trove of wonderful pictures.
      I believe KONG was the first film to actively engage 'behind the scenes' still photography on a significant scale, to record the day to day production.

      Sorry about the dinosaur screw up. I frequently read a massive and beautifully illustrated dino-paedia to my 4 yr old dino-hungry grandson and am amazed at how many 'new' species seem to have been found and described since I was a kid!!!

      On Peter Jackson's KONG, well I actually liked it and found it pretty true to the classic '33 original, which admittedly cannot be beaten and is still the greatest film ever made. Made a HUGE impact upon me too when I first saw it on tv here in 1974, after years of just seeing photos in Famous Monsters of Filmland.


  35. Superb work on Kong. I'm sure you've heard it all by now, but you really should write a book!

    You're blog is the only place online that mentions Robert A. Mattey's work. Aside from the super rare Mattey interview in which he mentioned in pasing that he worked on Kong, where did you dig up the info that he was part of the miniature crew?

    - West

    1. Hi West

      It's been a while since I penned this article and I can't exactly recall where I got the Mattey reference. Additional credits come to light as the years pass from various sources.
      I'm glad you liked the blog.


    2. Hi again West

      I had a think and some searching through my bookshelf and, yes, it was documented in Rolf Geisen's book 'Special Effects Artists' which came out about 10 years ago. A good reference tome for people like me.


  36. Hi Peter,

    How were you able to uncover Bob Mattey’s job on King Kong (1933)? It’s been a mystery to me for years. I’ve been researching a book about Bob Mattey and have been stumped until I came across your site, which essential reading by the way! Fantastic work!

    I don’t remember if I’ve ever previously contacted you, so please forgive if I have.

    I know you focus of matte paintings, but have you come across any other Mattey stories during the RKO days Flash Gordon, Tarzan, John Wayne pics?

    Thank you!

    Keep up the amazing work!

    1. Rolf Geisen's book SPECIAL EFFECTS ARTISTS lists hundreds of pre-CG era FX guys and Mattey's entry mentions him working on the 1933 KONG.