Friday, 5 November 2010

King Kong (1933)

Although the story of this film is simple, and the acting fairly wooden, it has gone down in history for its special effects.  Every technique available to the 1930's film producer is used to full effect, with the real stars of the film the stop-motion effects of Willis O'Brien, the man who is doomed to go down in history as "the man who taught Ray Harryhousen".  It is a pity that this is the case, as without him and the rest of the pioneering special effects team "King Kong" would have been either unmakable or reduced to using a man in a monkey suit and basic forced perspective.
The first half hour of the film uses conventional sets and stock footage, and is in many ways the most forgettable part of the movie.  It is only when the story reaches (what would now be considered the incredibly unimaginatively named) Skull Island that the special effects appear, with the island created using glass matte paintings composited with location shots of tropical beach.  Once on the island, the cast encounter a village of (for want of a better word) savages that appears to have been created by mining every racist cliche in the book.  The village buildings (built in model form) seem based upon indonesian stilt houses, while the villagers themselves seem modeled upon a mixture of zulu and polynesian cultures.  As a backdrop, a curiously western wall (according to Rodger Ebert in his review, it was a reuse of a set originally built for Cecil B. DeMille's "King of Kings"), through the gates of which we find a sacrificial altar strangely remenicent of native american Totem Poles.
The other side of the wall is populated with all sorts of monsters, from dinosaurs to giant spiders (cut for being too gruesome).  It is these dinosaurs that give O'Brien a chance to shine, using experience from his previous silent film version of "The Lost World" to great effect.  Compared to modern movies, the dinosaurs seem curiously plasticy, the jerky movements of stop motion contrasting with the modern CGI of films like Jurassic Park.  However, as James Berardinellisays in his review, "The dinosaurs of the '90s look real; the creatures brought to life by Willis O'Brien's stop-motion look fantastical." and King Kong doesn't aim for realism, but rather fantastic effect.
 All this takes place against a background of primordial jungle and swampland, created using a mixture of sets, miniatures and matte painting.  These are carefully combined, leaving almost no visible joins; indeed the film-makers have used some clever tricks to help cover the join, such as the use of fog in the swamp scene to cover the join between the set at the bottom of the screen and the stop-motion dinosaur chasing the ships crew.  Another shot (the approach to skull mountain) avoids the usual problems of trying to scale water by using dry ice to produce a river of fog, which gives a fairly convincing effect.
Overall, however, the film revolves around the titular Kong, and without the skill of the stop-motion puppeteers he would not have the presence that the film needs.  Although the large scale model used for shots of his face appears strangely square and almost cartoonish, it is imbued with a lot of expression and emotion, all of which helps to sell the story to the audience.  The effect is best summed up by Kieth Breese in his review when he says "While the special effects that really came to symbolize the film look a bit ragged and prehistoric today, they carry an emotional weight that remains unequaled by modern CGI trickery and model work"

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