Saturday, July 21, 2012

King Kong – They All Laughed

 When modern engineers see the pyramids of Egypt, they marvel: How could people so long ago, without heavy machines or modern building materials, build such impressive and enduring structures? Not for one second do they think that these pyramid builders were inferior because they did not have our modern technology.


This is true too of ancient Roman structures, bridges and aqueducts that still stand. Engineers do not shake their heads in pity at the achievements of these primitives.

No architect or builder enters Notre Dame cathedral and thinks that it’s such a shame that those poor fools in the past did such a poor job of it without the use of computer models.

No, when modern-day builders, engineers, and architects see these wonders, they are amazed that these geniuses of the past could do so much with so little.
So why do today’s students of film dismiss the past so quickly?

The fact that early filmmakers did not have such things as sound, color, wide-screen, steady-cams, non-linear editing systems, surround sound, small digital cameras with ultra-high resolution, or CGI, or whatever, is seen only as a limitation by many of the students I talk to.

They do not marvel at what the pioneers were able to do without our modern advantages; the early work is somehow inferior because technology has improved. But those early filmmakers, with so much less, were still able to produce classics.

Several years ago, I was giving a lecture at a university where most of the attendees were interested in animation and computer-generated effects. At one point I mentioned that they should watch the original 1933 version of King Kong and before I could get out another word they all laughed. It was, they thought, a ridiculous piece of advice.  

All these years later their laughter reverberates in my memory. How could they laugh at King Kong? I was stunned.

Sometimes I feel very lucky to have been born when I was because I got to live in an analog world. Stop-motion animation was still very much in use in the world of special effects and had changed very little since the very beginning of film. So what looks crude to younger eyes, because they have been weaned on computer-generated effects, does not look quite so crude to me.

I saw King Kong on television when I was five or so and it was magic. It was one of the things that got me interested in film. At that time, the film was nearly 40 years old and the effects worked as well on me as I’m sure they did on the 1933 audiences.

In fact, the King Kong animation of Willis O’Brien inspired a couple of generations of children to grow up and become filmmakers. One of those kids was Ray Harryhausen, who became a special effects icon. He was so popular that when people refer to his films they are “Ray Harryhausen films”: not the actor’s film, or director, or screenwriter, but the effects guy. No other effects artist can make that claim.

Peter Jackson says that King Kong is the film that made him want to make films. This is by no measure a rare claim for filmmakers, artists, animators, and effects people.

It is no coincidence that when comic book artist Art Adams created his series, starring an intelligent gorilla and his beautiful partner, that he called it Monkey Man and O’Brien after King Kong animator Willis O’Brien.

For me, and for the others who were inspired by Kong, he was a living, breathing creature. If stop-motion animation was “done,” just how Kong could seem so alive?

When I was a teenager and the technology would allow, I began to watch the animation one frame at a time to study just what O’Brien was doing. I learned a few things by doing that. When you watch Kong move, his fur seems to dance around and change erratically.  Seen a frame at a time it is clear to see that the hair changes from frame to frame because this is where O’Brien put his fingers to manipulate the model.
In fact, my friend Todd Masters and I spotted one or two surface gauges left in shots. Surface gauges are devices (a kind of pointer) used to keep track of a model’s position but are meant to removed before each frame is snapped. Even so, these “mistakes” did not take anything away from the illusion of life that O’Brien was able to imbue Kong with.

One day, I was watching the fight scene between Kong and a Tyrannosaurus Rex – at the end of the fight Kong breaks the jaw of the dinosaur. What I noticed after studying the fight was that Kong gets the idea to snap the jaw early in the fight – in fact he tries more than once to get a hold of his opponent’s jaw before he succeeds in his plan.
 
 What O’Brien did was give Kong a plan – Kong was thinking. Even though on the surface the animation may seem crude by today’s standards, what worked about the animation is timeless. I have seen more than a few modern computer-generated creatures that have less going on internally. These creatures are slick and polished on the outside, but vacant on the inside. They do not think. They do not feel. But King Kong did.

There is something to be learned from those who came before. They were able to do such much with the computing power of their own brains, imagination, and feelings.

To be fair to animators, many of them, more than most young filmmakers I have met, tend to know and respect the history of their craft. For them innovation and history walk hand in hand. (That said, I have met students who say they want to be character animators and have never heard of the legends in their field.)

It baffles me that in this, the Information Age, so many people don’t bother to take advantage of the vast knowledge at their fingertips. YouTube and Netflix are just sitting there, with all the treasures of the films of the past – and their lessons to be learned. The problem is that things that were once so bright and shiny that they lit up the world become dull and tarnished with the dust of time. Time has a way of making old things look useless, but look deeper.

Recently, audiences were amazed as a ghostly image of Tupac Shakur appeared on stage to work with living performers. This “hologram’ was initially hailed as a modern marvel – but though there was some modern technology involved, the basic technique is a 150-year-old theater trick for creating ghost effects on stage. Someone involved in this task knew and respected history. 

If you can learn to brush off the dust of time and look beneath the surface you may get a glimpse of genius. At the very least, you’ll learn not to laugh at the hard work of pioneers.


23 comments:

Ryan said...

That's too bad. I actually find King Kong more impressive now considering what it accomplished without using many of the tools we use today. It's still a staggering achievement.

I'm curious, when you speak to young filmmakers today, what do they list as their big influences? It's not King Kong apparently.

Julian Perez said...

I am a huge fan of Art Adams and "Monkeyman and O'Brien," and I must confess it never clicked in my head that O'Brien was named after the special effects wizard. I kinda feel a little stupid now.

If you ever want to be depressed, read books about movies that "might have been." If I could somehow bring any into existence, it would be the unproduced c. 1939 Willis O'Brien "War Eagles."

The script would have been by Cyril Hume (later on would go to write Forbidden Planet) and featured a lost land of Vikings who ride giant eagles. At the conclusion, the Nazis take over New York City with an electromagnetic pulse-like weapon, and so our explorer-hero has to rush into battle against them with an army of Vikings riding giant eagles, downing their dirigibles.

It sounds wildly imaginative and it's a shame it didn't happen. Imagine "what the King Kong guy did next."

There are many occasions where as a result of special effects limitations, storytelling worked around it and turned those limits into strengths. The lightsaber only appeared a few times in the first Star Wars movies because they just didn't feel like doing the special effect. Anything cool that's overused becomes boring.

Mike said...

"How tall is King King?"

"Three foot six!"

A recurring lesson that Peter O'Toole teaches Steve Railsback in THE STUNT MAN. Love it.

Raymond Arotin said...

This was such a wonderful article!

Sadly... I know many of my friends will only rent a "new release" movie and they never, ever venture into enjoying a classic.

I, on the other hand, constantly search out great old films. There's such an amazing vast selection of rich history in film... and usually they are widely available for free or deeply discounted. (I watch lots through Amazon Prime). I truly don't understand people who can't "get into" an old movie. Admittedly, there's a different pace and sometimes patience needed... but the knowledge gained from past masters is well worth it.

Kochise said...

King Kong is the very first memory I have. It is also the film that made me want to make films. I was three when I saw it, maybe younger, maybe older, it's irrelevant. What is relevant is that I believed that that ape was real, and cared that he was in love with Fay Wray. 40 some odd years after seeing it for the first time, I still believe that when I watch this film, and still hold it in the highest regards.

When I watch an old film, I do have to mentally "engage" in the film, in other words, register that things are going to be a little more stiff than in a modern film, but if the story telling is solid, and the characters believable and honest, all of those rough edges quickly disappear.

Long Live The King.

Brian McD said...

Hello Ryan,

Thanks for your comment. To answer your question most of the time I talk to younger folks they are more excited about the next big movie coming out than anything that has come out before.

They tend to be influenced by games a lot. But for the most part they do not watch things made before they were born. Some do, but not too many.

I will mention some of the giants of filmmaking and most students have never seen the classics. It makes me a little sad.

Brian McD said...

Hello Julian,

Thanks for writing.

I have read about War Eagles – too bad it didn’t get made.

Brian McD said...

Hey Raymond,

Glad you liked the post, thanks for letting me know.Glad to hear that you make the effort to see work by the old masters.

You may like this post:
http://invisibleinkblog.blogspot.com/2008/10/our-very-own-library-of-alexandria.html

Thanks again for taking the time to write.

Brian McD said...

Hey Kochise,

It can be hard for some to watch the older films for various reasons, but I have found the more you watch these older films the easier it gets to watch them. You just get used to the tone, editing and acting style. And, yes, soon that stuff disappears.

After a while it doesn't feel like homework -- you are just get caught up in the story.

I hope more people start making the effort.

Thanks for the comment.

Kochise said...

The same night I wrote this post I watched Wilder's SABRINA for the first time. It took exactly zero seconds to "get into it", but I did drop out of it a few times. But those moments that I dropped out, are very much the rules of the time the film was made.

For instance, Audrey Hepburn is supposed to be the ugly chauffer's daughter that William Holden won't give the time of day too. Uh... She still looks like Audrey Hepburn with almond shaped eyes and alluring smirk. But I think that was back in the day of "People are coming to see an Audrey Hepburn film, they don't wanna see some ugly street urchin. Give them Audrey Hepburn."

The other moments were just the sort of typical social rules of the day - When Hepburn sort of easily retrained her love for Holden over to Humphrey Bogart. Y'know how it was back then, women just needed a man, any man.

Those felt like false notes to me, however, compared to almost any film made today which sound like an orchestra tuning -- it was a breath of fresh air to watch something that good.

Point being, there are small things that might take you out of an older film, but nothing compared to what takes me out of most modern films I see.

Btw, Brian, this is Kris. I think we used to hang out and make features together.

Brian McD said...

Hey Kris,

Why didn’t you say it was you? You know, I thought you might be Korby Sears.

Anyway, as for the film SABRINA, yeah it is weird to say that Audrey Hepburn is ugly. But on some level I think her class was also an unspoken issue. Because when she came back from Europe she was more ‘sophisticated’. But you’re right, it was weird.

She’s what I always refer to as ‘TV ugly”. They still do it on TV the hot woman wears her hair up and has glasses and she is presumed to be a hideous creature not fit for human eyes. But magically when the glasses come off she’s the hottest woman alive. Always lame. Not that Audrey Hepburn has glasses, but you know what I mean – she has a Clark Kent mode.


As for stereotypes of the day, you’re talking to a black guy who likes classic American movies. Here’s Judy Garland who I like a lot:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7Y2Ll24GRU

These old movies cannot help but be a product of their time, in fact it can be educational. But the craftsmanship of many of these old films is so valuable and the stories so compelling that most people can look passed them, as you did with SABRINA.

When the film is good it is easy to separate our modern viewpoint from the viewpoint of those folks who made the film in a particular time and place.

Thanks for reading the blog, Kris. And thanks for letting me know it was you.

Kochise said...

oh, sure, the tv ugly thing is more popular than ever, it's ridiculous. i think casting normal looking people is probably what people unconsciously like most about indie films. it's what makes them seem real, even though most of the time no one in indie films behave like anyone i know.

yeah, the lack of respect for old films is silly. as you mentioned, take any old building or for that matter a car, or piece of furniture made more than 50 years ago people say "Look at the craftsmanship," but a film over 10 years old is a joke.

Clint said...

I watched Kong just a couple of months ago for the first time in a long time with my 10- and 11-year-old. I was floored by how complex the effects were, and had to stop it every once in a while to point it out to them. They know about stop motion from me—I made a number of stop-motion shorts with my silent Bell & Howell camera when I was a teenager—and have done some of their own stop-motion work as well. So they could at least appreciate to some degree just how much was involved in many of the scenes. Relatedly, when my 11-year-old saw Star Wars for the first time a couple of years ago, she said she thought the visual effects were better than the films she sees now somehow; she wasn't sure. I asked her, "Did the ships seem to have more weight?" Her eyes got larger and she said, "Yes." There is a difference, and even a kid can notice it. As for the old B&W's, it really is all about the story. If the story is compelling, the stylistic differences largely drop away, at least in our experience. My kids never said anything about Kong, Stagecoach, Wizard of Oz, or any of the oldest classics I've shown them so far. They're too wrapped up in the story to care.

Digg said...

Kris. Brian.
Let's hang out.

I just wanna kick back and listen to you two talk movies. Seriously.

By the way, this isn't Korby Sears... it's Rich Phelps.

Kochise said...

It's almost your lucky day, Rich. Brian and I are talking about UNFORGIVEN on the 20/20 podcast tonight, which should be online in about a week or http://www.2020awards.org/podcasts.php

Digg said...

Yeah. That's almost the same thing. Almost.

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KD Bailey said...


I love old films. Casablanca, the African queen, bridge over the river Kwai, South Pacific, singin in the rain, true grit, citizen Kane, its a wonderful life... The list goes on and on.
The whole reason i want to be a screenwriter is because of my love of film. It is the storytelling medium of our time, much like opera or plays once were the popular storytelling mediums of their time. I feel that through this medium, i can reach the most people and make the most difference.
Anyone who is not into films yet wants to get into film is in it for the wrong reasons. Fortune, fame... Just like with anything else, such as music or art, the desire for glory alone will not get them far. You have to have a real love for your chosen field, a respect for it that includes an interest in its history, to get anywhere. A passion.
Thats what i think is missing amongst this younger generation.
Now we could all sit around and bemoan the state of youth today just like Socrates did, or we can be glad that these people arent any real competition for the rest of us. The cream will rise to the top. Hopefully, Bryan, you will find a few dedicated souls in your travels and be a real influence on them. You have found one here.

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