How King Kong Works

King Kong Basics
Photo courtesy Universal Pictures

In 1933, King Kong climbed the Empire State Building with Ann Darrow clutched in his hand and fought off biplanes circling his perch. It's one of the most recognizable motion-picture scenes of all time. The original King Kong was a series of mechanically controlled models, the product of stop-motion animation and a $650,000 budget. Seventy years later, King Kong is a 3-D model, the product of motion capture, digital animation and a $250 million budget.

The story is a classic: The beast falls for the beauty, and it doesn't turn out well for the beast.

Peter Jackson's "King Kong" still takes place in 1933 -- in one of his post-production diaries, Jackson says he couldn't pass up recreating the classic "biplanes vs. King Kong" scene that can only be pre-World War II. A team of scientists and filmmakers lands on Skull Island to track down a mythical giant gorilla. Beautiful actress Ann Darrow is along for the ride, and King Kong falls hard for the blond bombshell. The team uses King Kong's infatuation to capture him and haul him back to New York City. But the 24-foot (7-meter) ape breaks loose and sets out to find Ann. (Click here to watch the trailer for the movie.)

Peter Jackson's remake of the 1930s classic film integrates 3-D animation with live-action footage.
Photo courtesy Universal Pictures

The computer-generated (CG) King Kong comes to life primarily through two techniques: motion capture and digital animation. The process requires heavy computing power: Weta Digital's cluster is one of the largest supercomputers in the world. Weta uses a PC Linux cluster running Intel Xeon processors. At the completion of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Weta had 1,144 2.8-GHz processors. The company added another 500 3.4-GHz processors to assist in the final stages of post-production for "King Kong." The processing power used to create the giant gorilla and integrate him into the live-action footage equals the combined efforts of about 15,000 well-equipped PCs.

The work of animating King Kong took much longer than the live-action filming. For scenes that would includes both live actors and the digital Kong, the actors had to approximate their digital co-star with Kong-like stand-ins and props.

Naomi Watts as actress Ann Darrow visualizes the experience of being caught in Kong?s paw.
Photo courtesy Universal Pictures, Pierre Vinet
Andy Serkis, who plays King kong in the motion-capture studio, and Naomi Watts plan out a scene.
Photo courtesy Universal Pictures, Pierre Vinet
The digital King Kong was inserted into the live-action footage during the post-production stage, after the live actors had all gone home.
Photo courtesy Universal Pictures

Motion capture and animation were happening simultaneously -- animators were busy building King Kong's skeleton and fur while Andy Serkis, the same actor who portrayed Gollum, was beating his chest in the motion-capture studio.