'Kong,' 'Worlds' presented radically different challenges

It’s hard enough creating the visual effects for a studio tentpole, with rising audience expectations and shorter production schedules.

However, two of this year’s big vfx films faced another challenge: getting out of the shadow of their famous predecessors.

The 1933 “King Kong” may have been the prototype for all the f/x extravaganzas that followed, and it remains a beloved film, as helmer Peter Jackson and Weta Digital knew very well.

The 1953 “War of the Worlds” is not quite as famous, but it’s one of the films that inspired the current generation of lead f/x supervisors — including Dennis Muren, who oversaw this year’s version. Certainly, it’s well known to the Academy’s effects branch, who’ll be sizing up the new version.

But the challenges presented by “King Kong” and “War of the Worlds” were radically different. On “Kong,” the filmmakers wanted a radical change in tone from the original, but they knew some iconic images simply had to be included.

Few people today know the story of the 1933 “King Kong,” says visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, but “most people in America know Kong on top of the Empire State Building with planes and a blonde.” That had to be in the film.

But where the original “King Kong” was basically a monster movie, the new version, says Letteri, is “very much like a Quasimodo story,” where the heroine (Naomi Watts) bonds with Kong.

Advances in CG animation and motion capture make it possible for Kong to be a more complex character than he could have been in 1933 or even in the 1976 version.

On “War of the Worlds,” by contrast, Dennis Muren and ILM faced almost the opposite challenge.

Everybody knows the outlines of H.G. Wells’ story: Aliens attack a great power, humanity seems hopelessly defeated, then germs save the day. But it lacks iconic images.

The most famous visual element from “War of the Worlds” is probably the tripod war machines that Wells described. Although they weren’t in the 1953 film at all, the tripods are a major effect in the new one. “The (1953) movie was updated to the floating saucers because they didn’t know how to do the tripods as miniatures and make them look real,” says Muren. “We did what they would have done in ’53 if they’d had the technology.”

Helmer Steven Spielberg, says Muren, wanted his “War of the Worlds” to be like a World War II movie, set in a world that felt real and familiar. “It’s as if you’re living in a country somewhere and some futuristic army comes over a hill.”

The new film tells the story very much from a single character’s point of view, says Muren, avoiding a “God’s eye” view of the action, with vistas of the aliens laying waste to cities.

“The ’53 film is much more of a Hollywood film than what we did here,” says Muren.

That keeps the aliens — and many of the prominent effects — often partly out of frame.

“It’s all just in the background, to the right of you or the left of you, so your mind fills in the space,” says Muren.

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