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April 01
2017

ISSUE

Spring 2017

A NEW KONG IN TOWN: A Q&A WITH ILM’S JEFF WHITE

By IAN FAILES
All photos courtesy of Warner Bros./Legendary Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.

All photos courtesy of Warner Bros./Legendary Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.

ILM Visual Effects Supervisor Jeff White tells VFX Voice about how the studio crafted a 100-foot-tall ape in the new Kong: Skull Island.

VFX Voice: When you came on board, just where did you start with a project as big as this?

Jeff White: It just really was all about Kong. Everyone knew that he was going to be the biggest challenge on the film, the character everybody cares the most about. There was a lot of amazing design exploration that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, production designer Stefan Dechant and senior visual effects supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum had gone through.

We were able to start modeling Kong early. That was really important. We were able to take all the reference that Jordan had pulled together and filter it between our VFX Art Director Aaron McBride and Kris Costa, our lead Kong modeler, to really find who this character was in the film. That process took us a very long time, not only just to arrive on a look, but then put the asset together and cover it with hair.

Q: Was there anything you felt needed to be done with ILM’s pipeline and workflow to help bring Kong and the creatures to life?

A: Yes, absolutely. We knew that over the course of the film, the camera could be anywhere on Kong. With a creature that’s about 100-feet tall, we knew we would see close-ups of the feet, the hands, and the face. Just about every part of him had to be completely detailed out. We would even look at the bottoms of his feet knowing we’re probably going to see him step on a fair number of humans.

That meant a tremendous amount of resolution and incredibly detailed texture maps that were painted by Alison Farmer, lead texture artist. We spent a long time just getting the base level asset working. In particular, we had two hair groomers work for almost a year on Kong. It was such a big task, we had to split it up: One did the shoulders, head and legs, and the other did the torso and arms.

Even though all the haircraft tools we developed for Warcraft were incredibly useful and got pushed forward on The Revenant, it still is a really big undertaking to style the hair for a creature this large. When it’s 100-feet tall, anything that feels like a repetitive patch just gives it away as a CG render right away. So a lot of the different styles and grooms had to be hand-styled to sell all the changes in direction of the fur.

We were helped by looking not at a lot of gorillas, who tend to actually have very straight hair and keep themselves very clean, but at bison and camels. We were looking for matted, dirty, tussled hair as inspiration for Kong. We were thinking about him living in that environment and probably not bathing that often. We had to develop an entire system to scatter debris into his hair so that it moves along with the dynamics of the hair. That let us put leaves and twigs and – we called them sesame seeds – little bits of extra crust onto his face. And then lots of caked mud and dirt.

“Just about every part of him had to be completely detailed out. We would even look at the bottoms of his feet knowing we’re probably going to see him step on a fair number of humans.”

– Jeff White

Kong also spends a fair amount of time in the water. We developed a system where Kong could take a dry arm and plunge it into the water, and we would measure the saturation of the hair and use that to drive the hair simulation so it would sort of swim and be loose and flow around, and then as he pulled his arm back out it could start to dry again.

Q: Can you talk about getting emotion out of Kong, especially in terms of his facial animation?

A: One of the advantages of Kong is that you’re getting to express emotion through a 12-foot-tall face. There is just an incredible amount of detail in there. We did have some capture sessions with actor Toby Kebbell that we ended up using for inspiration, but a lot of it was keyframed. Scott Benza, animation supervisor, spent a large amount of time working on just the eye movements. He was able to bring a lot of empathy for the character and show that, yes, he’s this giant movie monster when he’s fighting helicopters, but he also has these very emotional moments where you feel real sympathy for him.

Q: What kind of planning went into shooting the scenes on location where creatures would be added later?

A: It was a huge challenge – not only was Kong huge, but the big ‘Skullcrawler’ that you see him fight is 40-feet tall and 200-feet long. It really takes a lot of thinking ahead in terms of, okay, how are we going to shoot this, and tell people where to look, and hope it still feels organic. We did have some great previs that was done by The Third Floor, and also Halon, so that provided a nice blueprint.

“Scott Benza spent a large amount of time working on just the eye movements. He was able to bring a lot of empathy for the character, and show that, yes, he’s this giant movie monster when he’s fighting helicopters, but he also has these very emotional moments where you feel real sympathy for him.”

—Jeff White

And then on set we used everything from just trying to give the actors an eye line to describing where the action was. We had a Kong balloon that we could fly up to a 100-feet if we needed to. We also used a tool that had been pushed forward for Jurassic World called Cineview. It’s an iPad app which ILM has written that uses the camera in the iPad but you can assign masks that line up with the film camera. You can load in a model and place it in the scene. It was incredibly useful because we could stand next to the camera operator, load in Kong and show he was 100-feet tall and 50-feet away and really give the operator a sense of how high the camera needed to tilt in order to go from his feet to his head.

There were also a few scenes with Tom Hiddleston’s and Brie Larson’s characters up on a cliff so they could be at Kong’s head height. She puts her hand on his muzzle and they look into his eyes. In those cases we used a little greenscreen pad that she puts her hand on, and we had eyeliner markers for her to look up to.

Q: One of the spectacular scenes is the helicopter attack. How was that staged?

A: When we went up to shoot the helicopter scene, it had been well developed in previs by The Third Floor. A fair amount of that scene was shot initially in Hawaii because we were able to film real Huey helicopters along with an aerial ship flying all over Hawaii. So we got beautiful background plates, and beautiful shots of choppers banking, turning and flying over the landscapes.

During principal photography, we also had access to a Hydra rig. It’s essentially six RED cameras stacked 3 to 3. We get about 152-degree tiles that we can stitch together for backgrounds. We used that in Hawaii and all over Vietnam. So a lot of the shots you see in the film we almost always tried to use real Hueys; some are CG, but we actually roto’d the real helicopters out.

Q: What went into that final fight between Kong and the Skullcrawler?

A: Originally they talked about the fight taking place in this quarry in Australia, and then they location-scouted a marsh in Van Long, Vietnam. The whole sequence moved there, which means all of a sudden it moved from grass and dirt to about four feet of water! That comes with some pretty significant challenges because now every shot is a water shot. But it was amazing to work on.

Just the fact that they’re fighting in this water and mud, and the scale and the authenticity that that gives the visuals, was incredible. Even though it was quite difficult to do, I was so happy we had that as part of the texture of this movie. It’s this really ‘throw-down’ massive fight between these two creatures at the end of the film.




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KING KONG: A HISTORY OF VFX

The 1933 King Kong is considered a breakthrough visual effects film, from its stop motion armatured ape to the use of rear projection and other compositing techniques.

While ILM’s Kong moved away from the ‘gorilla’ look, there remained several throw-backs to the original film, “especially the huge brow and the bigger eyes,” observes visual effects supervisor Jeff White.

Visual effects artists at the studio also drew inspiration from an interesting quirk of the 1933 stop motion puppet. “Our animation supervisor Scott Benza was particularly focused on what Kong looked like when he roared,” says White.

“We would look at the old Kong reference and in those roars his eye whites are huge! They’re incredibly non-gorilla like. They’re very human. So we tried to incorporate that wherever we could in our Kong.”

“Each Kong film has had so many technological breakthroughs,” adds White. “Kong is really film history.”

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