Visualizing Kong's Boneyard
June 1, 2017

Visualizing Kong's Boneyard

Kong: Skull Island takes audiences on a thrill ride into Legendary Entertainment’s MonsterVerse, with a team of explorers discovering the king of apes – and a jungle full of other beasts – on a mysterious Pacific island. 
Hollywood visualization studio The Third Floor helped contribute previs, techvis, and postvis for the project, helping map out story action as well as aspects of the shoot for certain sequences. Having provided similar work for 2014’s Godzilla, the company was no stranger to creature features on the largest scale.

The previs process aided the director as well as Visual Effects Supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum as sequences were designed. The Third Floor’s artists worked from storyboards initially and then iterated shots organically based on notes as new ideas would come up.

“This was [Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’] first big effects-driven film, and he was very responsive to our work,” says Mark Nelson, previs supervisor at The Third Floor. “He and Stephen would typically find a piece of art that would set the look for the sequence and that would become the basis for our visualization of the environments and their lighting.”

To construct the (mostly jungle) previs backdrops, The Third Floor’s team referenced photographs that had been scouted from locations in Vietnam, Hawaii, and Australia. This helped match the previs terrain to the features of the places production was planning to shoot. 

Many shots also received a techvis pass, particularly for shots where the filmmakers had a real location in mind and wanted to see how what had been previsualized translated to the real world and real cameras. One such case was a shot of Kong coming over the edge of a cliff edge. The previs featured a very long lens, so production knew the shooting camera would have to be quite far away from the actors. 

“Working with the art department, we also did a lot of previs for the production’s shoot in Hawaii,” Nelson notes. “Stephen had us build the boat deck in previs to the construction specs so they could plan for greenscreen placements and other considerations. We also researched and simulated where the sun would be on shooting days so they knew what time they had to shoot in order to get the desired lighting or which way the helicopter gimbal needed to face at what time of day.”

One non-jungle environment – the Boneyard – proved to be interesting in that it needed to feel brooding and dangerous, even through it was stark and colorless. 

“We worked on seven sequences in previs,” says Nelson. “One of the most key and extensive was the Boneyard Sequence. It required a lot of blocking and keeping track of the many characters in the scene. We also had to depict the smoke and atmosphere very dynamically, which is not that easy in previs.”

As Nelson describes, the Boneyard was meant to be a mysterious place where you could see only a few feet in every direction. “It was great to see how much the final set resembled the virtual environment that our previs asset creator, Maria Serrano, developed,” he adds.

The Third Floor also helped integrate the CG Kong into sequences.

For adding Kong into the previs, the team was able to use a model provided by visual effects facility Industrial Light & Magic. Having the previs asset very closely resemble the final, minus the fur, was helpful.

“In terms of animation in the previs and postvis, Stephen really wanted us to get as close as possible to what the general feel of Kong’s final animation would be, as it would inform everything from cameras to effects to acting on set on the day of the shoot. We spent a good deal of time working out how fast Kong would move, how upright he would walk, and how he would fight,” Nelson adds.

Using visualization to help compose Kong into the shots was one of the biggest overall challenges. Both in previs and in postvis, where artists filled in visuals as shots were developed in post and visual effects, artists needed to creatively frame shots with a bigger Kong.

“We knew lens choices would be paramount,” Nelson notes. “If the camera was tilted upward to see Kong, then a wider lens would be needed so he would get smaller as he receded from camera – much like looking up at a tall building. The opposite was the case if looking at Kong farther away. We constantly had to double check and make sure the lenses worked for believable scale.”