Although and Ernest B. Schoedsack knew exactly what

Although it couldn’t shock and scare viewers as much today, ‘King Kong’ was a definite horror film when first released in 1933. The ‘eighth wonder of the world’, ‘King Kong’ was a huge success and hit, kickstarting the careers of Fay Wray (Ann Darrow) and Bruce Cabot (Jack Driscoll), and subsequently inspiring remakes and spinoffs. The gigantic ape is a piece of cinematic history. The use of the times cutting-edge cinematic technology regarding the practical effects and lighting helped to develop the film into the blockbuster success it was and is still today. The 100-minute film, with a budget of $672,000 ($12 million today), grossed an outstanding $2.8 million (roughly $51 million today) which made one of the highest grossing films for 10 years 2.  This essay will explore the use of practical effects and manipulative lighting, and the way it was used in the infamous ‘Empire state building’ scene from 1933’s ‘King Kong’, to create the ape climbing and fighting off fighter planes at the top of the Empire state building.  The 1993 original, and even the newer 2017 ‘Kong: Skull Island’, use practical effects and clever lighting to impress the audience, and create the perfect idea of a giant ape. Although the first film has been said to be lost between a documentary style film and a horror, the directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack knew exactly what to do to make it a huge success 8.   1933’s ‘King Kong’ is a classic of stop-motion animation. It is seen by many as a pioneering achievement of the practical effects art form. The ‘Kong’ stop-motion armatures were animated by a team of practical effects professionals, including Willis O’Brien, an American motion picture special effects and stop-motion animation pioneer 3.  The way the giant Kong was created was from stop-motion armatures. This involved making a model for Kong, alongside the Empire state building he climbed, for example. Stop-motion is a timely practice, especially when several things are moving at once. Computer Generated effects were not available in the early 20th century, so stop-animation and manipulative lighting were two of the only ways of producing one of the times most ambitious films. It is easier to see now how Kong doesn’t move smoothly, but at the time this was the closest thing moviegoers would get to a real-life gigantic ape. The effort put into the stop-motion animation and lighting is clear, however, when you watch the ‘Empire state building’ scene. You can see how Kong’s limbs, joints, and body angles move and shift away from the live action and miniature fighter planes, and how shadows and lighting direction support them. Work was evidently put in to make the ape as realistic in its movements as possible. This is possibly one reason why audiences held the film in such high esteem, and still do 4.  Four scale-sized stop-motion models were built for animating the ape. 3 of the 4 used materials such as aluminum and foam rubber, but the one used for the ‘Empire state building’ scene used lead and fur materials 4 5. The planes also used in the scene were based on a prop which gets featured. Joe Maddalena, owner of the original plane prop used, described it as “…one of the most important pieces of film memorabilia, probably in existence… this is really important”13. When watching the final battle on the Empire state building, you can see how the timings were made perfect for the movements of Kong’s arms, matched with the clever overlays of the planes, made to look realistic with special camera angles and effective lighting, created a believable new world where Kong could exist. The overlays of the planes circling the beast are done by inserting photos and films of the planes using the same lighting as Kong would be shot in, and playing them in sync with the stop-motion movement of the ape. This pre-visualisation and overlay work makes the scene what it is; a huge success. the filmmakers used a mixed variety of in-camera effects. Most used was rear projection, where the actors perform in front of images projected onto a screen behind them, and a technique known as the Dunning process, which involves loading a camera with two strips of film simultaneously, and combining the image on one with the image being captured by the other 7.  Without tricks such as clever lighting and stop-motion, live action and stop-motion shots would have to be separate, and any live people in the shot, such as when Kong picks up Ann Darrow repeatedly on top of the building. You can see the transition of a stop-motion woman in his hand to the overlay image of her lying on the ledge of the building. Just like Kong, her movements turn jerky and are no longer as smooth. However, the limited use of this kept the quality of the film to a higher scale 6. Lighting would be off and jumpy, making characters and planes look like they do not belong in the shot.  Creating stop-motion and live action together was the first time this had been done on such a scale. The scene in question took huge risks, creating models of the Empire state building, and using special camera angles to make it look like Kong was climbing it for example 9. There were other elaborate practical effects in place within this scene- miniature sets and paintings were used to create the cityscape, whilst lighting was adjusted to create the fully developed world. As seen in the image from the scene below, you can see the technicality and detail of the Manhattan cityscape. The way the lighting shines on the plane, Kong, and the artificial Empire state building makes it look so realistic and added perfectly against the background. It is these factors that make CGI seem somewhat redundant. In my opinion, I am glad the film wasn’t created originally in the age of CGI, as it may have ruined the authenticity of the scene, and perhaps the film as a whole also. Besides from stop-motion animation and effects, the other main form of importance is the lighting, as briefly discussed with the more stop-motion aspects. When watching the ‘Empire state building’ scene, the artificial lights and their angles create a much more realistic atmosphere, bringing the miniatures to life. The way the planes cast shadows on the building makes it believable to the viewer that they were there when shot. Most importantly, the painted background shows the suns light beams breaking through the clouds, which is implicated through the lighting always coming in from that direction. This adds to the realism of the entire scene. Viewers often need realism to enjoy a film, or more importantly so that they can see familiar things and relate to them. Without, they may feel lost, which could have been easily done when taking a leap as big as to bring a giant ape to the screen and show it climbing the Empire state building. This all supported the whole film and creating Kong’s world. The fine structures added shadows which are so well done, and show the level of attention to detail that directors Cooper and Schoedsack and leader of PFX O’Brian had when creating this master of horror fiction.  The surrealism of Kong is shown through the emotions expressed within the whole scene. All aspects (not just the stop-motion and lighting) help to create the emotive image of Kong. This is supported by music and cinematography for example, while the edits do clever things like POV shots from the planes, heading straight for Kong. This shows the fear and anger he contains, even if he is just an inanimate model. Lighting was also such an important factor in the ‘King Kong’ film as a whole, as it was in black and white. Without appropriate lighting for the lack of colour, much of the cinematography and practical effects might have been missed or not noticed by the audiences 10.  The lighting used in the ‘Empire state building’ scene is soft and not blinding, however, despite being bright enough to really emphasise the stop-motion effects and details. I appreciate how the ape’s fur is really picked up on, and it looks much more realistic as a result. This really shows how the two forms worked together perfectly to create the perfect shots in the scene. I feel like without this the scene would have lost its charm and effect, no longer mesmerising the audiences and inviting them into this horrifying and realistic world. Depths in the windows look real as Kong climbs up the building for example (which at the time was the tallest building in the World), as created from the power of practical effects and lighting. It is hard to believe that even now it was fake.   I personally see the scene as being ahead of its time in ambition, creativity and practical effects. It opened a door to a whole other world where giant apes could fight Tyrannosaurus’ and climb large buildings, so realistically, some people at the time believed the ape, along with his island, was real. The ‘Empire state building’ scene really emphasised how important and useful lighting and practical effects were in such ambitious films, and therefore was a great learning experience for Hollywood filmmakers on what can be used to draw a large audience in, and create a monumental film.  Perhaps the greatness that was the final scene of Kong climbing the building is the reason there has since been 15 remakes, animated adaptations and even spin-offs, such as ‘King Kong vs. Godzilla’, and 2 new films so far announced. Although despite the CGI capabilities of today’s world, many would still believe the original scene of Kong climbing the Empire state building is the most iconic and unforgettable, with its excellent performances of practical effects and lighting. The building itself is now forever linked with King Kong, as it was so realistically created as a miniature for Kong to climb within the perfectly designed Manhattan cityscape. Variety’s 1993 review of the film described the giant ape differently, with some criticism about the practical effects- “…After the audience becomes used to the machine-like movements and other mechanical flaws in the gigantic animals on view, and become accustomed to the phoney atmosphere, they may commence to feel the power” 14. Many criticised the ‘clunky’ and ‘jerky’ movements of Kong in the last fight scene, and how the stop-motion Darrow increases in size in Kong’s hand. It is easier to criticise the film now with its practical effects, but at the time they were the best and biggest thing the audiences had seen. ‘King Kong’s’ ‘Empire state building’ scene is a work of genius, built from a thousand intricacies. Every element, every matt, every puppet, every background, was created with such thoughtfulness that the film still stands as some of the best practical effects put to film.