A tale of two islands

'Kong' kingdom spans skyscrapers, primeval wilds

In Peter Jackson’s state-of-the-art tribute to the classic “King Kong,” there’s no shortage of the sweeping shots that made the “Lord of the Rings” director famous. Taking in the photorealistic vistas of New York City and the deep jungles of Skull Island, what’s hard to remember is that Jackson’s “King Kong” is essentially a gigantic set piece with digital extensions.

“We did the whole thing in the studio,” says production designer Grant Major, a 15-year Jackson collaborator. “It essentially was a ‘built’ environment.”

It took 7½ acres of stages to contain what Major considers the “canyons” of two islands — Depression-era Manhattan and the fictional Skull Island where Kong is found.

Major kept the relationship between the two locations in mind while designing the chasm-scarred Skull Island, a foreboding place inspired by photographs of Nan Madal, one of the Melanesian islands just north of Australia.

This system of former islands leaves craggy reefs behind as the earth slowly sinks into the Pacific. “That helped to describe that Skull Island is cracking up and breaking away into the sea,” Major says. “It wasn’t overt, but it was suggestive of going from the civilized environment of Manhattan to the uncivilized chasms of Skull Island.

“We didn’t want a lush rainforest with broad-leafed species,” he explains. “We wanted something more idiosyncratic, so we used as many sharp and dangerous-looking things as we could. We made weird-looking flowers and researched strange, prehistoric plants.”

Notable among the flora were huge vines that provide the setting for Kong’s swinging combat with three dinosaurs. Major says the concept for that scene evolved spontaneously. “We all threw around ideas for action sequences,” he remembers. “Peter’s very open to suggestions. One day, an artist came in with a picture of Kong amongst those vines, and the idea stuck. That sort of gymnastic thing suits Peter’s style.”

Though audiences tend to focus on Kong whenever he’s onscreen, Major’s team paid special attention to animating the backgrounds in order to make the character’s Skull Island environment convincing. “One of the things that Peter was very keen on was wind,” he says. “So many jungle environments aren’t very animated. He wanted to complement his moving camerawork with lots of moving backgrounds.”

Once Kong arrives in New York, Major says, “Expectations are bigger, and so is the scrutiny. You can’t show this to New Yorkers and have them not believe they’re actually there. We had six artists for New York to research what was actually there and copy as much as possible. Back in 1931, the tax department photographed every building in Manhattan, and that archive still exists, so we knew exactly what was on every street. There’s also lots of film footage that we could glean details from.”

Of course, most references are black-and-white, and Major says, “It was an adventure finding out what the coloration of these things would have been.”

Keen-eyed viewers will spot vintage signs advertising Woolworth’s department store and even an old Universal Pictures billboard. Majors laughs when he reveals, “The actual reference photograph had a Columbia Pictures sign.”

Major shared all of his research with visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, who was charged with digitally re-creating the Manhattan panoramas.

But the view audiences get from atop the Empire State building in the film’s climactic battle contains significant nondigital elements as well. Most striking are the biplanes that fire on Kong, Major says. “We acquired the workshop drawings of those biplanes from the actual manufacturer. Two were made, and one had guns that fired while they flew it around on a motion base against a greenscreen.”

Despite the fantastical nature of “King Kong,” Jackson sought verisimilitude in Major’s designs. “Peter warns us to be real all the time. You have to suspend some reality to make an audience believe there are such things as dinosaurs. But if the environment looks real, that gives more realism to the things you invent.”

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