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King Kong is a chest-beating reminder that visual effects can be as engaging as human actors

The great gorilla is Hollywood’s original visual effects movie star.

Kong: Skull Island Warner Bros.

King Kong has never looked better than he does in Kong: Skull Island.

As rendered by the effects wizards at Industrial Light & Magic, he is both bigger and more realistic than ever before. His gargantuan brow furrows with puzzlement and suspicion, and spittle drops from his teeth when he roars in rage. When he mends his wounds in one of the titular island’s waterways, the digital water around him shifts and splashes, creating waterfall effects that look like vacation postcards. Kong’s massive muscles flex and ripple as he lumbers across his territory, and his salt-and-pepper fur looks soft enough that you almost want to reach out and touch it, just to see how it feels. (At one point, almost as if sensing the viewer’s desire for contact, that’s exactly what the character played by Brie Larson does.)

This Kong isn’t just another computer-generated spectacle; he’s a character I connected with — far more than anyone else in the movie.

It’s fitting, in a way, that all the human characters in Kong: Skull Island are such personality-free duds: Since his debut in 1933’s King Kong, the true star of every King Kong movie has always been the great gorilla himself. He’s Hollywood’s first visual effects movie star, and he remains a roaring, chest-beating reminder of the ways in which teams of anonymous cinematic artisans can craft characters as memorable and engaging as any played by human actors.

King Kong movies have helped shape big-screen special effects for decades

From his very first big-screen appearance, King Kong has pushed the boundaries of what visual effects can accomplish. Indeed, as a recent article at Inverse declares, you can trace the advancement of Hollywood special effects through the character of Kong.

The 1933 King Kong was a stop-motion marvel that relied on tiny, articulating models to bring the monster and an island full of dinosaurs to life. The first Kong was modeled after real-life gorillas, but with some of the animal’s more exaggerated features stripped down. Two tiny metal armatures with articulating joints were designed by model maker Willis O’Brien — one of which is now owned by director Peter Jackson, who would go on to make his own King Kong film in 2005.

A King Kong model from the 1933 film, poised above the city skyline with actress Fay Wray in hand.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In addition to creating the character himself, the filmmakers behind the 1933 version also had to find ways for Kong to interact with his human co-stars. Blue- and green-screen composites, which allow actors to appear in front of a blank screen that is converted into a background image in post-production, were still years away. Instead, the filmmakers relied on a combination of in-camera effects — mostly rear projection, in which 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.

The movie was enormously expensive to make, but according to Jackson, it was sold to studio executives on the basis of test effects footage showing King Kong in action: They made a bet on the demo, and it paid off. The movie became a hit, and King Kong — an 18-inch model of a giant gorilla — became a movie star.

Future film versions of King Kong continued to push the limits of contemporary effects technology: The 1976 version, which won an Oscar for its visual effects, relied on a combination of techniques that, according to Inverse, included men in gorilla suits, miniatures, and a hulking robot version of Kong. That film’s version of one of the character’s signature visuals — a woman held in Kong’s hand — relied on 6-foot-wide hydraulic gorilla arms, which had to be built with safety measures to avoid clamping down too hard on actress Jessica Lange.

Jessica Lange in King Kong’s hand circa 1976.
Dino De Laurentis Company/Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, King Kong, rendered the gorilla through the use of motion capture, in which a human acts out the gorilla’s movements while wearing a suit that records the information into a computer, and computer animators create a digital ape on top of the actor’s performance. The computer effects advances included an innovative fur system designed by the effects shop Weta Digital. Jackson’s Kong blended actorly mannerisms with digital detail, bringing the character into the age of digital cinema.

The effects artists who made King Kong were creating actorly performances

Each of these films was an attempt to solve a problem: How do you make an audience believe in and care about a character who is menacing, violent, and not even human, a character who does not — and physically cannot — exist?

And yet what stands out in all these versions of the Kong story is the strength of the bond they create between the viewer and the creature. These are grand films built on excitement, terror, and spectacle, but in their best moments, they all manage to engage your sense of empathy with Kong.

In other words, the effects teams that worked on these movies were doing the work that actors do. If anything, their job is more difficult, because they cannot rely on the basic shared humanity that helps human actors and characters connect.

There’s a similar effect at work in Skull Island. Some 300 ILM effects artists across the globe worked on the creature for more than 18 months, in a complex process involving layer after layer of animation and composite work. The results throughout are extraordinarily impressive on a technical level. This is the most photorealistic Kong yet.

And yet what really makes the character connect are the small behavioral details: the way Kong washes his wounds in a river after a battle, his body language when he helps an endangered animal, the look in his eyes during a quiet nighttime encounter with two human allies. These are the moments in which Kong becomes real — a character, not a monster, a creature with a recognizable personality rather than empty cinematic spectacle.

As with the many Kong movies of the past, Skull Island is packed with stunning, innovative effects work. But that effects work is also a form of consistently excellent acting, one that contrasts with the generally lackluster human characters Kong is surrounded by. In this movie, the effects are the only performance that matters.