Starring: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Studio: Universal 29945
Video: 2.35:1 enhanced for 16:9 widescreen – feature
1.78:1 enhanced for 16:9 widescreen – extras
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English – feature; DD stereo – extras
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French
Extras: Intro by Peter Jackson, Post Production Diaries on every aspect of making the film, including extensive postproduction details (over 3 hours); Skull Island: A Natural History (the back-story on this mysterious place and its strange creatures); Kong’s New York 1933 (covers the Depression, Vaudeville, Skyscrapers boom)
Length: Feature – 3 hours 8 minutes
I could summarize this movie epic in the phrase “So wise up, ya big ape!” But I won’t. This film puts to shame the idea of “bigger and better.” Compared to the 1933 original it is a remake squared – not just improved. The original story line is fleshed out and many details are filled in which were missing in the 1933 version. New Zealand-based director Peter Jackson – fresh from his mega-success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy – easily got the backing he required to tackle a modern version of the original black and white adventure with the animated giant gorilla.
He set his sequel in the same 1933 time frame for several reasons: it allowed him to use similar biplanes in the final scene of shooting Kong down off the Empire State Building; it set the story in the time of the great Depression – which Jackson mines in a depth not seen in the original; and he felt that in the early 30s it was still possible to imagine that Kong’s Skull Island could be one of the last uncharted places on earth. The alleged documentary on the history of Skull Island fills in many things not fully explained in either the original or the new feature – such as who built the ruins on the island, who the threatening natives now living there are, and why there is such a mishmash of long-extinct as well as formerly unknown animals crowded onto the small island.
Since everyone knows the story here and there’s not a great deal to say about the acting and general production that doesn’t bear in some way on the subject of special effects, let’s go right to the extras on the second disc: They are probably the most detailed and in depth view of what actually does into the making of such an epic that has ever been included with a movie DVD. Director Jackson is to be lauded for the extensive efforts he made in keeping a production diary video week by week as the time left until the completed film’s premiere quickly ticked by. Every aspect of the shooting and post production is dealt with separately in nearly three hours of footage.
The materials reveal that 95% of the shots in the finished film had some sort of cgi or computer work done on them. The entire original footage was converted to digital video, worked on by the hundreds of post production experts in various studios over the months, and then converted back to 35mm film for distribution to theaters.
Among production details that were surprising to me were that in many of the scenes where actors would normally be doing their thing in front of a blue screen, the production was often just too big to have a big enough blue screen, and whatever happened to be in the background – sky, stage lights, airplanes – were just left there for the computer whizzes to clean up later. One of the cgi operators said that the most difficult things to replicate realistically were hair and leaves. Due to all the closeups of King Kong’s fur and the many plants in the jungle of Skull Island, the operators were kept busy overtime. Shooting also occurred at wildly different times; some “cut-ins” were shot in the studio a year after the main shooting on location. The continuity people also had a tremendous challenge in keeping track of exactly how actors’ hair was arranged and myriad other details that could clash when closeups shot at different times were cut together. The construction of the studio sets and models in various scales are also detailed.
The diaries on sound recording and post production were especially fascinating. 90% of the original field recordings of the actors’ voices had to be re-done in the studio later in the ADR process. This usually stands for Automatic Dialog Replacement, but it’s far from automatic. Actors have to view their scenes and get back into their character so that their voices sound believable and match their images. The recording of the original score by James Newton Howard is covered and the composer is interviewed about his methods of working. This was all done long distance, with Jackson in New Zealand and Howard in Los Angeles. The procedure of mapping Kong’s movements to those of actor Andy Serkis are quite amazing. Tiny sticky balls of white foam on the actor’s body register on special cameras which convert the dots to similar spots on the cgi Kong’s much larger frame so that the big ape’s physical movements are more natural and believable. And his facial expressions are totally convincing. The scenes on board the ship that takes the adventurers to Skull Island were shot on four different sets, plus smaller models of the boat for long shots. The only slip up in the special effects I noticed – both in the theater and on the DVD – was the black smoke issuing from the stack of the boat as it left New York Harbor at night. The smoke was like a two-dimensional cutout which moved with the boat but didn’t move itself; don’t know how that was left in.
The transfer to DVD seems excellent, but even with my 53″ screen and superior surround sound compared to the theater, the visual impact was considerably more epic in the theater. (That could be due to the 2.35 widest normal widescreen ratio requiring considerable letterboxing to fit within the standard 1.78 16:9 home RP screen dimension. Here’s where a good front video projector would probably shine.) Can’t knock the acting, though the special effects take the spotlight here. Some of the mass attacks of frightening creatures to which the expedition’s crew are subjected on the island seem to go on a bit too long, and the obsessive focus on the romance between the actress and the big ape gets tiresome, especially in the final scenes atop the Empire State. But in spite of that this is still a really spectacular must-see epic which fully employs the latest technologies in achieving its movie magic. Now I want to see the recent DVD reissue of the original again.
– John Sunier