King Kong is cinema’s most famous “monster movie.” Launched on an unsuspecting public in 1933, the picture features several of cinema’s most memorable moments, among them Fay Wray squirming in the giant ape’s hand, and Kong atop New York’s Empire State Building, swiping in vain at Curtiss Helldiver biplanes.
After he wrapped the epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings (see AC Dec. ’01, Dec. ’02, Jan. ’04), director Peter Jackson decided to fulfill a long-cherished dream to show a new generation of moviegoers the film that had inspired him to make his own movies. To bring his King Kong to the screen, Jackson reteamed with Lord of the Rings cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, ASC, ACS. “In simple terms, King Kong is a love story with a tragic ending, but the film concerns itself with so much more than that,” observes Lesnie. “In the early discussions I had with Peter and [co-producer and co-writer] Fran Walsh, we talked about the juxtaposition between notions of the ‘savage’ and the ‘civilized,’ as well as humanity’s desire to control and often destroy nature. The fate of Kong reveals this general theme; his capture and eventual destruction shows us that our notions of civilization are but a thin veneer.
“In my opinion, the character of Kong is the classic Alpha male,” he continues. “While he obviously represents humanity’s primal nature, his more significant characteristic is the honesty of his feelings. Kong has an emotional courage that most of the human characters, in particular Jack Driscoll [Adrien Brody], do not possess. Indeed, it is Jack’s encounter with Kong that finally awakens his own emotional bravery.”
Humankind’s insatiable desire to control the natural is embodied by entrepreneurial filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black). “The character of Denham reveals much of the film’s subtext about humankind’s wish to demystify and control the natural world, and it comments on the nature of filmmaking itself,” notes Lesnie. “It’s interesting for a cinematographer to be filming people who are making movies in a film that’s already been made twice. In many ways, King Kong was the Star Wars of its time. For the era in which it was made, the filmmakers used incredibly audacious ideas. Trying to figure out how they conceived of those ideas, let alone put them into place, boggles the imagination.”
Lesnie found that Jackson’s incarnation of the classic story had its own particular intricacies. “Lighting-wise, King Kong is entirely different from previous projects I’ve undertaken,” says the cinematographer. “For example, on Lord of the Rings I tended to use a very graphic style of lighting, whereas the nature of the lighting in Kong is softer and more ephemeral. The script makes great use of what I’d describe as ‘fragile’ times of day pre-dawn, dawn, dusk, twilight to represent certain emotional states, not as short, transitional scenes, but as extended sequences that were very complex to achieve. This dictated all sorts of scheduling, design and lighting approaches so that we could allow Peter the maximum flexibility to find the dramatic truth of each scene in an organic manner. It’s true that not a lot of filmmakers can enjoy such an approach, but I think Peter’s earned that right.”
In anticipation of the project’s complexities, it was important for Lesnie to establish a defining look that he and Jackson were happy with prior to principal photography. “For productions requiring extensive previsualization, I believe it’s important for the cinematographer to be able to contribute to the look of the film from the very beginning,” says Lesnie. “Decisions made at this stage impact not just the lighting, but also the work of all the postproduction departments. If Peter likes the concept art for a scene or sequence, it immediately becomes the reference right through the film, from production design [headed by Grant Major] through to the miniatures unit [led by Alex Funke, ASC] and on to visual effects [by Weta Digital].”
Lesnie spent a substantial amount of time with the conceptual artists and previsualization department, a process he describes as analogous to timing a digital intermediate [DI]. “The concept artist and I would work together on a sequence, then they’d strip in a pre-dawn sky from their library and we’d tweak the colors, tones and so forth until I thought it was right. Helping to determine what the digital backgrounds would look like impacted the way I lit some sequences. In the dailies, for example, the foreground sometimes looked a little bland, but I knew full well that the highlights would play in the composited background.”
The production’s set for New York was built on an industrial site in Seaview, a suburb of Wellington. Occupying seven acres, the set featured a complete scale representation of Times Square. When AC visited the production last year, Major offered a look at the “concept room,” which contained many of the key visual references for the looks of New York and the harsh environs of Skull Island. “On these walls, we have some of the huge library of references we’ve amassed for New York,” Major explained. “Most of these are black-and-white stills, including some aerial photography, so for color references we sourced original paint charts from the period for cars, trams, buildings, boats and so forth. The New York palette is generally muted browns and grays; we’ve avoided primary colors, as well as white and black. Peter wanted the set to be a totally realistic rendition of Depression-era New York. We were after a gritty-looking city as well there are a lot of people and cars vying for space. One of our other main considerations was to avoid what I’d describe as a ‘backlot New York,’ where the streets are closed off, so many of our streets will be extended digitally. Peter wanted to be able to shoot this period film in a contemporary way, to be able to point the cameras virtually anywhere and see nothing but New York, whether it’s set or digital.”