KING KONG (Cooper/Schoedsack, 1933) and its Ground Breaking Special Effects

KING KONG (Cooper/Schoedsack, 1933) and its Ground Breaking Special Effects

From Edgar Wallace’s first draft of “The Beast” to “Kong, the eighth wonder of the world,” Merian C. Cooper and B. Schoedsack established a milestone of special effects in early 1930s.  Their film, King Kong, recounts how a giant prehistoric ape is discovered and brought to New York City where it tears apart railroads and tosses cars searching for his beloved beauty, and is finally killed by the bullets pouring from airplanes at the top of the Empire State Building.  King Kong broke new ground with the use of such novel technologies as an early “bluescreen” technique called the Dunning process and one of the first uses of the optical printer, invented in 1931 (which allowed filmmakers to combine two pieces of film into one, creating the first composite shots).  Even though the plot is similar to the 1925 silent film The Lost World, another tale of dinosaurs brought to life by master animator Willis O’Brien, Cooper brought King Kong up to date with three months of intense investigation into geography, sound configuration, and most importantly, special effects to merge the actors, the 50-foot ape and lively Manhattan in one scene.

King Kong (1933) was a visual effects milestone that continues to inspire filmmakers. It used a variety of techniques, including stop-motion animation of miniature sculptures, rear-screen projection and full-scale physical effects.This image of Kong was an 18″ puppet. Actress Fay Wray on the tree would react to a projected enlargement of Kong in the background, or, in most cases, nothing at all. The two pieces of film were printed together later. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. – Study Guide from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

In order to maintain the secrecy of King Kong’s production process, all initial work done by the technical staff was kept unknown even to the other staffs on the film crew according to the article “Hollywood’s Mighty Ape” in The New York Times. The amazing technique used is now no longer a secret, but a classic case study of stop-motion, miniature models and rear-projection.

Willis O’Brien’s terrifying giant ape is in reality an 18-inch fur puppet with rubber joints (there is indeed a controversy of whether the puppet was covered in rabbit or bear fur), manipulated incrementally frame-by-frame through the stop-motion animation process.  The crew also built huge individual body parts of Kong for close-up shots. Crewmembers would hide inside Kong’s model and control its body movement by cables, levers, and compressed-air devices.

Rear projection is frequently used in the filming of King Kong. For example, instead of placing Kong atop a skyscraper, part of King Kong’s final scenes are achieved by posing Kong’s miniature in front of a translucent screen on which a previously filmed scene of the Empire State Building is projected. Miniature sets of New York City and a primitive jungle were also constructed.

The craftsmanship had to be extremely precise in the production of King Kong. The article published in 1933, “Hollywood’s Mighty Ape,” states that “one-sixteenth of an inch of film could be photographed at a time and never more than a total of
twenty feet on the best ten-hour day’s work was made.” Moreover, seven separate shots were merged into the one scene in which Kong roars and fights with the aircraft.

Cooper, Schoedsack, and O’Brien are not the only ones that should be praised–the success of King Kong was not due to the hard work of a handful of people, but that of the actors and the whole production crew. It must have been hard to make Kong pound his chest with gigantic-seeming arms, or in actress Fay Wray’s case, to scream through most scenes of the film.


  • This site features a video created by Peter Jackson when he did the 2005 remake and restoration of the original Kong that explains the rear projection and travelling-matte special effects innovated in 1933 by the Kong filmmakers.
  • King Kong certainly contributes to the Empire State Building being the most remarkable skyline in New York. Bloomberg Businessweek posted a photo series of the Empire State Building after its owner, Empire State Realty Trust, filed an initial public stock offering in February 2012. Titled with “The Empire State Building: From King Kong to IPO,” two snapshots from the movie King Kong occupy one-sixth of the twelve-photo collection.
  • The special effects and making of King Kong are also covered in this website called “The Museum of Unnatural Mystery,” together with other resources of dinosaurs and UFOs.  The illustration of rear projection is originally published on this website.