MAKING KONG: SKULL ISLAND
When Larry Fong ASC read the script for Kong: Skull Island, he thought he might be the cinematographer for the job. Of course, the opportunity to make a film with the progenitor of all movie monsters was appealing from a career standpoint, but for Fong, the thrill was also personal, as he grew up as a superfan of the tragic simian. In high school, he had a shelf full of books about Kong, beginning with “The Making of King Kong,” by Orville Goldner and George Turner, which is the standard reference. He studied the visual effects techniques used by pioneer Willis O’Brien, and his first attempts at filmmaking featured stop motion animation, ball-socket armatures, clay sculptures and rear projection.
“I made my dad take me to the theatre whenever King Kong was playing,” says Fong. “I’d force my friends to watch the original 1933 King Kong.”
In fact, during this period, Fong read in the Los Angeles Times that the 1976 Dino E. Laurentiis Kong, starring Jessica Lange, Charles Grodin and Jeff Bridges, would be paying tribute to the hairy protagonist, with the robot from the film production performing impressive feats. Fong convinced his dad to take him, but it turned out to be a thinly veiled excuse for gathering extras for the scene in which Kong escapes from his cage. Fong’s enthusiasm was undimmed.
“We sat there all night long, and nothing happened for hours and hours,” says Fong. “There was a problem with the robot and all it did was twitch its pinkie. My dad said that we had to leave, and I begged him to stay. In the film, there are a couple of seconds from that night, surrounded by shots made by Rick Baker.”
Fast-forward several decades, and Fong is now a freshly minted member of the American Society of Cinematographers with credits like 300, Watchmen, Super 8, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
“When I realised that the Skull Island script was a King Kong story, it all came flooding back,” he says. “It freaked me out, I have to say, to know that I’d be part of that long lineage.”
The next question for Fong and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts was how to put their own spin on the tale. Kong: Skull Island is set in the 1970s, and the initial look they devised referenced 70s classics like Apocalypse Now as a springboard. The look evolved from there. Film buffs will notice echoes of 70s-vintage films in the script and characters as well.
Larry Fong ASC
“It’s a blockbuster, popcorn kind of movie, and a pop culture mash-up to some degree,” says Fong. “We tried to take an artistic approach while making it accessible to audiences all over the world.”
Fong is known in cinematography circles for shooting film, but in this case he opted for digital, which he has used throughout his career on commercials and television projects. Still, a film aesthetic was the goal, so Fong chose the anamorphic format and used lenses engineered to his specs by Panavision’s Dan Sasaki.
“We didn’t want to create classic anamorphic flare,” he says. “We went for a warmer flare and different look. Dan basically combined new and old glass into a unique hybrid lens.”
The cameras were ARRI ALEXA XTs using Codex Capture Drives.
DIT Robert Howie was aware that Kong: Skull Island was Fong’s first feature on digital. “Larry has shot huge movies on film, and could have very easily done this without me,” says Howie. “Even though he has shot tons of digital, he hadn’t used it as the primary format on one of his features. So it was my job to support him wherever he needed it. My goal was to give him all the extra tools that digital has to offer and let him choose what would help him in his process.
“Dan Sasaki told us that the 2x anamorphic glass was designed more for the 4x3 sensor setting than for the extended FOV OpenGate format,” says Howie. “So we shot 4x3 FULL mode to give some extra room on the sides for visual effects and other adjustments. It was important to know we could go up to 90 frames per second in that mode and still get the FULL quality of the sensor using Codex recording. I pre-made all the user setup files for the camera assistants so that they could switch between different sensor modes without having to do a complete re-initialing of all the settings, since sometimes we needed to go OpenGate Spherical for visual effects.”
“IT WAS IMPORTANT TO KNOW WE COULD GO UP TO 90 FPS IN THAT MODE AND STILL GET THE FULL QUALITY OF THE SENSOR USING CODEX RECORDING”
The jungle portion of the shoot unfolded in Hawaii, where Fong has previous experience on Lost, and in Vietnam. Fong found the right DIT in Howie, who came with a reputation for mobility. The duo worked up a couple of LUTs beforehand that “made things look interesting without making them look bizarre,” according to Fong. A special 5219 film emulation LUT designed by Steve Yedlin ASC simplified things.
“Larry and I specifically focused on the locations in prep,” says Howie. “We had very little stage work, so everything needed to be compact and adjusted to run completely off 24- or 12-volt systems if needed. My full systems with OLED displays and modified smaller packs allowed us to move from mountaintops to boat work. After talks with the folks at Legendary, we decided Codex Vault would allow for the simplest, quick and secure on-set copy process. After the on-set copy was made, the Codex Capture Drives were a perfect shuttle solution over to FotoKem and the NextLab team.”
Howie points out three reasons the Vault was the right choice: “One is Vault’s unique ability to handle all the formats and run quick offloads,” he says. “Second, the secure format made the studio happy knowing that the media wasn’t simply accessible to anyone who got their hands on it. And third is the amazing support that Codex is able to supply. This gave all of us confidence that in our hard-to-work locations and weather we would not be left in the cold.”
Fong, whose love for King Kong and admiration for his creators has come full circle, says that technically, the shoot went well. “I was familiar with the ALEXA-CODEX workflow from previous shoots,” he says. “The only difference was using it theatrically. It was smoother that I could have imagined – smooth as silk, in fact.”
Kong: Skull Island opened in March, 2017.
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