Beastly Beautiful FX
Issue: Volume 40 Issue 2: (Mar/Apr 2017)

Beastly Beautiful FX

The first time you see Kong, all you see is his fist, a massive fist that he pounds down near two soldiers fighting on the ground. The ground shakes, and dirt flies up in the air. Kong's fist dwarfs the actors it lands beside. From that moment forward, it's clear that Kong is the star of this movie, and he is enormous.

"Because they shot the movie anamorphic, and because he's so tall, we have a lot of shots of just his feet or hands or head," says Industrial Light & Magic's Jeff White, the visual effects supervisor who led the team that created the CG character. "We knew the camera would look at every part of Kong."

You see Kong backlit against a sunset. Blocking out the sun. With a giant moon behind his head. He walks through a swamp between tall, green islands, with water splashing up to his knees. His fur is bloody and wet, and filled with debris. He bends a little, reaches into the water, cups his hand, and scoops up a drink. Water pours down. He fights through an explosive scene set in a marsh, and his fur catches fire. He's on an island in the South Pacific, and he stares up into an aurora borealis.

"There are shots in this film that you think won't work," White says. "Shots where you don't see him at first and then there's an explosion, and whoa, Kong is right there. There are striking shots, non-traditional for a tentpole film, but they really work. That's what I admire about Jordan. This film is so beautiful. Jordan didn't limit himself."

"Jordan" is Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who brought his vision for this latest King Kong movie to the big screen. The Legendary Pictures film distributed by Warner Bros. stars Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, and John C. Reilly. It roared to $146 million at the worldwide box office opening weekend.

Artists in ILM's San Francisco, Singapore, and Vancouver studios and those in two subcontractors, Rodeo FX and Hybride, handled about 750 shots. An in-house team at Legendary created approximately 300 shots.

Stephen Rosenbaum was the senior effects supervisor on the show. White led the work at ILM and supervised effects created at subcontractors Rodeo FX and Hybride. Most of the Skull Island environments, a gigantic storm, the gigantic Kong, and all but one of the strange creatures on Skull Island were handled at ILM.

"One of the great things about this film was the variety of creatures, each so unique in their design," White says.

ILM's creatures included Kong, all the Skull Crawlers, a water buffalo, a bamboo-legged spider, a giant squid, and many varieties of prehistoric-looking birds. Artists at Hybride created and animated an odd creature that looked like a fallen log. Hybride's shots also included a scene with the actors staring up at an aurora borealis, a digital ship that brings the actors playing the Monarch research team toward ILM's storm, and the interiors of the helicopters that take the team through the storm and on to Skull Island. At Rodeo, artists created the complex and beautiful rotating paintings of Kong and the Skull Crawler in the village, the opening sequence with the World War II planes crashing, and scenes set in Washington, DC.

Two mandates in particular set the tone for the visual effects work in the film. One, that the setting would be in Vietnam; the other, that Kong was a monster, not a gorilla.

Filming a Mythic Island

Even though film production took place on location in Hawaii, Australia, Vietnam, and Los Angeles, most of the film looks set in Vietnam. "Because Jordan [Vogt-Roberts] felt like Jurassic Park had put its stamp on Hawaii as a look, we replaced all the horizons that felt like Hawaii with Vietnam environments," White says.

Skull Island begins with the flashback scene in which two World War II pilots, one Japanese and one American, crash onto a beach, fight each other, and meet Kong's fist. Fast forward to 1973 and a supposed scientific team under the auspices of "Monarch" head for a mysterious, mythic island shrouded by a storm created at ILM. When their helicopters break through the storm, they fly in formation over the island's dense jungle to the sounds of Credence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising." White dubs the sequence the Flight of the Valkeries in homage to Apocalypse Now.

King Kong

"We shot aerials around the limestone karsts in [Vietnam's] Ha Long Bay," White says. "It was spectacular."

The Monarch team drops explosives into the jungle below to supposedly get seismic readings. But, the attack angers Kong, who sends a palm tree through one helicopter, and then grabs two helicopters in his fists, bangs them together, and tosses them to the ground. Within a short while, he's crashed all the helicopters. ILM artists created the nearly all-CG sequence with live-action and digital actors. It sets up a journey by two teams of survivors across the sometimes digital island to meet rescue helicopters; one team determined to kill Kong, the other to simply survive.

"It was a great show overall for environments," White says. "When you have a 100-foot creature shot anamorphic, you're going to miss the framing a lot of time. So, we did set extensions and built a few fully digital environments, especially for the final battle. Our environment supervisor, Susumu Yukuhiro, came to Vietnam with us."

Much of that final battle takes place in a marsh surrounded by mountains. To create the digital environments, the crew scanned, measured, and tracked the areas in Vietnam's Van Long nature preserve using a FARO Focus 3D scanner. Yukuhiro also took photographs and cycloramas.

"To get to our sets, we had to ride in small boats through caves," White says. "We had the scanner on a barge. It was really tricky not having a stable platform, so we looked for shallow areas where we could put the tripod down in the water to get as clean a scan as possible. But, having those scans helped us lay out the size of the mountains."
On set, the crew used ILM's Cineview, an iPad application with which the director and cinematographer could see digital creatures composited into the natural environment. ILM's Tim Alexander had first used the app for Jurassic World. For this film, the team added a matting feature.

"That was really useful," White explains. "The iPad camera gave us the background, and Cineview put Kong over it. So, if Kong is 50 feet away, we could see how high we'd have to tilt the camera to get his face. But, when he's 200 feet away, it's hard in this natural environment to understand how tall he would be. So, we could paint a quick matte to put him behind whatever in the landscape would be in the foreground. The nice thing was that we could take the iPad anywhere – even on a boat."

Building the Digital Environments

Artists in ILM's San Francisco, Vancouver, and Singapore studios worked on the environments, about 15 artists in all, who extended sets, created completely CG environments, and replaced footage shot in Hawaii.

"In Hawaii, you see palm trees like we have on the West Coast," Yukuhiro says. "The places we went to in Vietnam had trees that are kind of shaped like palm trees, but they're banana trees. And the mountains are more rocky and mossy than Hawaii's jungle-covered mountains. This is one of the very rare shows in which most of the environment work was purely organic."

To create the digital environments, the artists used matte paintings, 2.5D projections, and 3D geometry. The tens of thousands of photographs Yukuhiro took while in Vietnam were reference for the environment artists, used as projections onto cards, and became the basis for the matte paintings. The cyclorama helped artists create the background environment for the final battle.

"The easiest way to change the environments was by using the photographs," Yukuhiro says. "But when we had 3D camera moves, we had to make CG environments. For that, we used [Isotropix's] Clarisse to assemble, set dress, light, and render the scenes. We had successfully used Clarisse for the first time on The Force Awakens, and we really wanted to push it for this show. Votch Levi was the Clarisse tech lead, and he wrote so many amazing tools to integrate Clarisse into our main pipeline."

Speedtree software helped the artists build more than 150 unique trees. "Now-adays people know what Speedtree trees look like, so we customized them with hand modeling or added extra geometry to make them look slightly different," Yukuhiro says.
TDs in the creature development department (creature dev) could use the rig created in Speedtree to simulate tree movement and character interaction with the trees. A proprietary system moved the Speedtree rig through ILM's Zeno pipeline.

"We could identify which trees would be hero trees so creature dev could simulate only those trees," Yukuhiro says. "For shots with a lot of interaction with trees, animators would add trees and bushes as placeholders. Then the environment artists would place the hero trees and send those trees to the creature developers."

King Kong

To scatter grass and distribute other elements on the ground, the environment artists used a procedural system within Zeno that also gave them control over wind speed, direction, and strength. While they were working in Clarisse, the artists could see the complex scenes, often in real time, whether jungle, marsh, a bamboo forest, or a bone-scattered graveyard, on screen.

"Instead of proxies, we could see geometry in the viewport when we were set dressing," Yukuhiro says. "For the final battle, the effects team did the water simulation surrounding the characters, but we had initial water that they replaced. In Clarisse, we could see in almost real time the complexity of the scene, the water reflections, depth and refractions, the trees, the grass moving. Trillions of polygons."

In addition, Digital Environment Artist Mike Wood developed a clever tool in The Foundry's Nuke that particularly helped with last-minute changes. First, working in Clarisse, environment artists created libraries of 2D trees and grass pre-rendered with multiple lighting scenarios and stored in AOVs. Then, using Wood's Nuke tool, compositors could move the lighting direction, change the color of leaves, and alter the motion of the trees on these pre-rendered cards, and place them in 3D space.

"Jordan [Vogt-Roberts] always wanted to see more foreground," Yukuhiro says. "But, it was no problem. The compositors didn't have to ask for a re-render to add grass or one more tree."

Compositors assembled final scenes with environments rendered in Clarisse and with creatures and effects rendered in Pixar RenderMan's RIS. Final rendering for the giant creatures, associated simulations, and effects often took 80 hours per frame.
"We have a unified shader between Clarisse and RIS," Yukuhiro says. "It's not perfect yet; it's in progress. But, unless the TDs changed something dramatically from what we established in look dev, it matched."

Building Kong

The second tone-setting mandate for the film was that Kong would be a monster.

In the lobby of ILM's San Francisco studio is a statue of Willis O'Brien holding a miniature of King Kong in homage to that legendary special effects creator's work on the 1933 film. For Skull Island, Vogt-Roberts wanted his Kong to reference that film rather than subsequent movies in which Kong became more of a gorilla.

That meant Kong would have brown fur like the rabbit fur used for the original puppet, not the black fur of a gorilla. His face would have heavier brows. And he would always stand upright; he'd never be on all fours.

"[Vogt-Roberts] wanted a scarier Kong," says Animation Supervisor Scott Benza. "So, we couldn't anthropomorphize much. Sure, he'd have facial expressions that conveyed certain emotions, but we wouldn't have many opportunities to give him human-like behavior or advanced primate-type behavior."

Take the way this Kong roars, for example. Rather than a human or primate who would squint and furrow the brows when thundering, this Kong shows the whites of his eyes and raises his brows. "Like a maniac," Benza says. "It took some gear shifting to find what the director wanted."

That exploration happened in pre-production through concept art created at ILM by Visual Effects Art Director Aaron McBride, 3D sculpts, and Pixologic ZBrush work by Model Supervisor Krishnamurti Costa, and by animators posing the sculpts. But much of the character exploration happened through shot work once the animators had a full facial library built by Model Supervisor Lana Lan and through motion capture.

Two actors helped the animators find Kong's movements and character. Terry Notary provided video reference for Kong's body. Toby Kebbell provided reference for Kong's facial expressions. Both actors were motion-captured – Notary at House of Moves and Kebbell at ILM, but although the data was retargeted onto a digital Kong during the capture sessions, the data was rarely used for shots. Kong was keyframed.
"[Vogt-Roberts] was excited about working with animators instead of being locked into an actor's performance," Benza says.

Although Kong's physique still resembles that of a gorilla, with long arms and a large upper-body mass, because the director wanted him upright, the animators and character riggers had to find ways to work with the awkward proportions. As they worked, the animators could choose the level of detail they wanted to see on screen, from rough blocking with no facial expressions to more detailed models with muscle enveloping. Modelers sculpted a custom shape to represent the fur volume that animators could turn on or off.

"It was a sanity check for particular moments to help avoid interpenetrations and compressions," Benza says. "The sims were so complex already. The creature effects TDs had fur, fire, water, mud, muscle sims, and everything plus the kitchen sink to do."

King Kong

A team of 15 technical directors – 10 in San Francisco and five in Vancouver – led by Creature Supervisor Karin Cooper, handled flesh and fur simulation, and rigging for Kong and the other creatures.

"We had to improve the rigging for Kong's shoulder with extra mechanisms to have it play better," Cooper says. "But, the biggest challenge was scale."

Although in most sequences Kong is around 100 feet tall, during a sequence in which he fights a giant squid, Kong is over 200 feet tall.

"We were putting an 80-foot character in these dramatic Vietnam landscapes with trees 40 or 50 feet tall," White says. "As soon as he'd get into a shot, we'd say, ‘Oh, he looks too small, scale him up.' But we hadn't needed to scale a hairy creature before to that extreme degree, so we had to build a pipeline to accommodate arbitrary scale values on Kong."

The problem with scaling is that as the character grows, the hair gets sparser and shorter, and that changes the dynamics. With the new system, the artists in all the departments worked at a 1:1 scale so the groom wouldn't be affected. Then, Kong could be scaled arbitrarily.

"The look didn't change even though his size did," White says. "The creature developers would run their sims, then we'd scale him up as a last step post hair caching. The effects simulations could run at whatever scale the animators put Kong at, so the dynamics of the water simulation felt correct for his large size."

The realistic water pouring off Kong helped sell his size: the size of the squid in one battle, and in the final battle, the size of the Skull Crawler.

"I knew the water would be difficult, and it was, but as soon as we saw the first pass of water simulation on Kong, I was so happy we went there," White says. "More than anything else, it added incredible scale to the creatures. A big challenge with water, though, was finding the right speed of animation to sell his 100-foot scale without having him be lethargic. When Kong's hand hits the water, it might be traveling at 40 or 50 miles per hour, and the explosion of water would cover him. So effects artists had a big job to artfully direct the simulations without covering the characters all the time, while still keeping the simulations feeling physically plausible."


Until Warcraft, hair groomers at ILM used a typical curve-based hair system. But, to handle the multiple creatures in Warcraft and close-ups of the photorealistic bear in Revenant, the technical team at ILM developed a procedural hair system called Haircraft, which made it easier for artists to specify complex grooms. With Haircraft, by connecting nodes with particular parameters, groomers can give a creature a complex hairdo or fur pelt with tufts, curly hair, straight hair, flyaway hair, and so forth.

Kong was so large and so complex, though, that he still needed two groomers, Gaelle Morand and Ryan Gillis, who divided and conquered the hairy beast. Between them, they specified 50 different types of hairstyles organized into 250 layers.

"It was a challenge to blend the two grooms together, but it was the only way we could get there," White says. "We had hair going in every direction, with lots of hair sticking out to break up the profile. Gaelle and Ryan would do one base groom, and then the effects team put mud, sticks, leaves, and palm fronds into the hair, the things we thought he would accumulate as he lived in this environment. We also had a lot of automatic input. When Kong is in the water, we could define areas of wetness automatically based on submersion in the effects sim volume. It took a long time to get that system in place, but it was incredibly useful because we never knew when he would get wet, which, it turned out, was all the time."

As Kong moved, TDs in the creature dev department managed the hair simulation, which responded to his animation.

"The advantage for my crew is that with the procedural hair system, when a groomer makes a change, I get the change right away," Cooper says. "Before when they changed something, I'd have to redo the sim setup. Because it's now procedural, it's a completely different workflow. Now, we have nodes to connect."

Because Kong had so many hairs to simulate – an estimated 17 million – Cooper divided the simulation by body parts.

"We'd sim the arms, legs, torso, and head separately, and then add functions
to have those parts collide without intersecting on the seams," Cooper explains. "We also improved our review pipeline. The hair looks like spaghetti until it's rendered properly, but that takes forever. So we found a way to render it with a lower quality that gave us a good preview."

King Kong

King Kong

During a fight with the big Skull Crawler, Kong becomes wrapped in chains, which was yet another simulation problem.

"Chains are always difficult. Ask any creature TD," Cooper says. "We always get it done, but it's always painful. On this show, Kong was tied into the chains, and they wanted to see tension, to see the chain pulling into his skin. Whenever there's tension, the solver has to work really hard. We have a simulation on Kong's flesh. We had to make the hair not intersect yet get compressed by the chain. Sometimes it was wet. Sometimes it wasn't wet. Sometimes they wanted to see it slide on his arm and have the hair react."

The chain became a collision object for the hair, and when the director wanted to see more interaction, the TDs simulated more hair than usual.

"It was a lot of hand work," Cooper says. "It was the same with the tentacles of the squid. When the camera was close to the tentacles, they wanted to see Kong's hair moving. And, when the Skull Crawler licked Kong's chin, they wanted to see the chin hair move. We had someone spend a day just sim'ing chin hair."

The TDs also had to fix any problem areas, such as armpits, where the hair became too compressed or otherwise messy when Kong started moving.

"We'd have to go into the sim and pull the hair out a little bit so you wouldn't see a black line," Cooper says. "The groomer couldn't tell since we groom characters in their rest state. And, by the time we're into the final animation and final look, it's too late to go back and groom an area better. But, we had a movie file with metadata so we could find out from which hair groom a particular hair came. We could find the curve ID and manipulate it or turn it off."

More Creatures

Although Kong was the biggest character in the film, he wasn't the only giant. ILM also created one creature he battled, one he ate, and one he saved.

"All these characters had enough of a fantasy aspect that they weren't something we could find reference for," Benza says. "Everything was a mix and match of different inspirations."

The final battle was with the biggest Skull Crawler on the island. Its skin is translucent – you can see the creature's ribs, which meant animators had nowhere to hide. It has a long tongue, with little mini tongues coming out of it, each of which had to be rigged. Its human-like shoulders attached to a cat-like scapula, which made it difficult for both animators and riggers.

McBride revised an initial design from the production art department until a Skull Crawler the director could love took shape. After the design phase, the animators spent three months doing motion studies to develop the bizarre creature's walk cycles.

"It's basically a snake with front legs," says Benza. "A unique character design. You wouldn't mistake it for anything you've seen before. It walks like an iguana with its head leading the action through its spine down to its tail. To get the reach we needed, we could raise its scapula higher than it really should, but when we did, we could see it separate because of the translucent skin. So, we had to find other ways to cheat. And it uses the tail in ways we haven't seen a reptile do – for balance and as an appendage to grab onto things, like a monkey, and support its weight."

To work with the creature's tail, animators used an expression-driven tool that let them mix secondary animation with target poses.

"We weren't forced to run a simulation pass or only play a timeline forward," Benza says. "The same rigging also helped us with the squid creature."

During one sequence, Kong reaches down into the water and pulls out a squid tentacle. The squid wraps its many other tentacles around Kong's body. Kong struggles, and then stuffs a tentacle into his mouth.

"It's one of my favorite shots," White says. "Kong eating the squid with drips of water running down his face. The movie Old Boy, in which an actor eats a live octopus, was inspirational for us."

Two other large characters appear in the film, albeit briefly: a water buffalo and a spider with bamboo legs.

"The spider had bamboo legs, so there were also limitations on how much it could move and keep its camouflage qualities," Benza says. "It couldn't bend its legs unnaturally."

As for the water buffalo, when the actors first encounter the huge creature, the animal is completely underwater, covered with moss, and has birds living on its back. It slowly rises up.

"We couldn't have it behave like a natural buffalo because the minute it started to move, the birds would fly away and the grass would move too much," Benza says. "We had to keep things stable so it would feel like the massive scale it was."

King Kong

White calls the encounter one of the film's "wonder moments."

"Here's a massive creature hidden in the water," Benza says. "You think, ‘Wow, this place is majestic.' The creature is complicated, with all this seaweed. We added little flies, gunk on its skin. It was a long process to create it, and it's a small scene. But, it was really fun to do. The water buffalo just happens to be in the water. It's non-confrontational. It comes out of the water, looks at them, and that's about it."

Although originally slated for only this one scene, the water buffalo appears in a second scene, as well. In this sequence, the character played by Brie Larson encounters the huge beast trapped under the wreckage of a helicopter. She struggles to lift the copter but can't budge it. Then Kong appears, frees the buffalo, and walks away.

Will audiences appreciate the amount of work VFX artists had to do to accomplish these two small but important scenes? The modeling, texture painting, and rigging, the hair and fur and flesh and water simulations, animation, set dressing, lighting, rendering, and compositing; the technical achievements that made it possible for artists to do all that; the new pipelines and systems that had to be written? What really matters is simply that all this work helps tell the story.

"Every Kong film has been a technical breakthrough," White says. "That's why putting Kong on film is such an important legacy. Our Kong really is a nod back to the 1933 Kong. It was such an inspiration for us. We all had the best time."

Making a CG Kong Real

Critics praise Kong: Skull Island's "moments of CGI wonder" (Christopher Orr, Atlantic) and "thunderously exciting creature effects" (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone).

For two-time Oscar winner Stephen Rosenbaum (Avatar, Forrest Gump), who was the senior visual effects supervisor and second unit director on the film, the path to the highly-praised effects began with location scouting.

"The mandate from the beginning was that this would be a location-based movie," Rosenbaum says. "We were all about having our characters react to physically real and interesting terrain, about seeking inspiration from the locations."

In fact, he, Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and a small team traveled the globe from Iceland to Vietnam looking for the right location.

'"I've done movies with virtual environments," Rosenbaum says. "But, when we can go to real locations, I think we end up with more plausible and tangible action sequences. They become part of the narrative of the movie rather than becoming the movie itself."
He gives an example: "There's an island off Ha Long Bay [Vietnam] that you reach by taking a boat for an hour. On the island is one woman, probably 75 years old, in a one-room cinder-block hut. We looked at her backyard, which is this quiet, peaceful lagoon. We were awestruck. There's no way we could have fabricated that lagoon from our imagination.

"We talked about how to do a scene there," Rosenbaum continues. "We wanted to show Kong as a sentient creature, not just on the island to defend it, but to inhabit it. He has to drink. Maybe he pulls water from the lagoon. Wouldn't it be interesting to see him eat? What would the food be?"

The food, of course, became a giant squid.

'"I think an important take-away from this film is that we can still do VFX movies in fascinating physical locations," Rosenbaum says. "We don't have to fabricate virtual locations. We can ground ourselves in real environments, leverage ideas from them, and focus our VFX efforts on the character of the creatures. It doesn't make it easier – we still have to integrate with the environment. But, I think it's a win for us."'

King Kong

Barbara Robertson ( is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for CGW.