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Issue: December 1, 2005

DIGITAL FILM: 'KING KONG'

By: By Ken McGorry

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - In 1933, many among the audiences viewing the original King Kong simply figured what they saw was real. The film featured a director and camera crew making a movie on a remote island and, since no one had seen anything quite like Kong before, few suspected that the outrageous onscreen action could be faked. Thatâ??s what my dad once told me; as a teenager he saw Kong first-run. The film drew the biggest opening-weekend box office in Hollywoodâ??s early history.

Today we have a new director and camera crew making a new movie about the same subject â?? a gigantic ape â?? on a remote island, but everything else has changed.

Modern audiences still want to be shocked and awed, but their sophistication level is way up there, and woe betide the filmmaker who lets slip even one scene that prompts a kid to say â??that looks so fake!â??

All this makes Peter Jackson the best-suited director to take on Kong. And, besides attracting cast, crew and special filmmaking talent from all over to his special island, heâ??s got the undivided attention of Weta, the VFX (and practical effects) house here that made its name helping create the fantasy world of Middle Earth for Jacksonâ??s Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings effort.

About five weeks prior to Kongâ??s debut Post interviewed Pete Williams, head of digital imaging at Weta Digital, and first assistant editor David Birrell about their work on King Kong, using the magic of email to span the globe and time zones.

Made for DI

With its dramatic mixture of animated creatures, digital doubles, miniatures and live action, Kong is a movie made for the DI process. Wetaâ??s Pete Williams cut his teeth at Londonâ??s Cinesite where he helped pioneer digital film intermediate for 1997â??s Pleasantville. In 2001 he joined Weta and worked on all three LOTR films. In August of â??04, Weta took delivery of the new Arriscan, a pin-registered film scanner for use on King Kong.

Weta (www.wetadigital.com) went on to scan over three million 35mm frames on the Arriscan. â??In pre-production we tested various film scanners on the market and decided upon the new Arriscan,â?? Williams says. â??It was a change in technology from the traditional CCD/Xeon bulb machines to a CMOS sensor with LED illumination. The â??leap of faithâ?? to this new technology proved invaluable. Scanning over three million frames on just one machine on a single project more than road tested the Arriscan. Being so far away in New Zealand was also risky, but Weta Digital had the full backing and support from Arri.â??

From this basis, converting footage to digits, anything becomes possible. The titular hero, performed in motion capture by Andy Serkis (who also performed Gollum in LOTR), including detailed facial expressions, was converted into the furry, long-armed, excitable Kong in CG. All manner of exotic creatures, giant bugs and dinosaurs needed to be created and composited into the action, as well as the vast and fantastic scenery, from primitive Skull Island to primitive (1930s) Manhattan Island. Fans can see much of this come together on King Kongâ??s Web site where Jackson has been very generous in documenting the filmâ??s progress.

Cutting Kong

Working in Australia, Dave Birrell was an assistant editor on the last two Matrix films; he then went on to New Zealand to become assistant VFX editor on the LOTR finale and then first assistant editor on King Kong, both under editor Jamie Selkirk.

Dailies were reviewed three ways in the Kong production pipeline, Birrell says. â??We had good, old-fashioned projected workprint, which our DP Andrew Lesnie reviews along with other department heads. We screened one-light graded print of a selection of each day's footage. We also telecine to HDCAM SR and SP Betacam. The HD telecine gives the dailies video grader a very high quality image for assessment of negative condition and the ability to check single frames easily. The film screening gives Andrew the ability to assess negative condition, exposure and lighting.â?? The SP Betacams are a backup of the standard def video, which is simultaneously digitized to an Avid for the edit. The HDCAM SR tapes are used to conform screening versions of the film in post, Birrell says.

Kong editorial comprises a main cutting room where Peter Jackson works with supervising editor Selkirk and Avid editor Jabez Olssen. A secondary cutting room, operated by Jonno Woodford-Robinson, works on selected sequences, particularly focusing on motion capture, music and dialogue.

â??Behind the front lineâ?? is a department headed by Birrell with the help of many assistants. â??Also we have a two-person VFX section comprising Matt Villa as VFX editor and Jenny Vial as VFX coordinator.â??

King Kong was edited on Avid Adrenaline. â??We currently have 10 Avids on two Unity shared-storage arrays,â?? Birrell says. â??Both arrays have duplicate media, so the main cutting room could change location without having to copy the entire film across at short notice. Also it provided a complete safety backup of every frame. Each Unity system has 9.6TB of available storage. Simply put, that's enough space to hold about 1,600 hours of footage or nine million feet of film.â?? Since Kong comprises about three million feet of film, the rest is taken up with sound, video from the motion-capture stage and thousands of shots making up all the work-in-progress versions of every shot in the film.

â??In addition we have a separate 2.4TB of storage allocated to Avid HD, which allows us to conform and play out sections or versions of the film in high definition for theater projection,â?? Birrell says. â??The quality is near film and perfect for work-in-progress screenings.â??

The film was progressively edited by scene, then scene â??ranges,â?? which grew into full sequences or reels and were progressively handed over to Weta Digital at various stages of post. Some scenes were first turned over well before shooting started. â??These were previs animations which set the structure for some of the main action sequences,â?? Birrell says. â??Live action scenes were first turned over shortly after shooting began and continued to be changed even several weeks out from delivery.â??

Rough composites created in the Avid using keying, rotoscoping and other effects served as a guide for Weta's compositors, particularly to explain relative timing and arrangements of the various elements. Shots begin as reference for others to work to and eventually become a representation of the final frames of the film.

â??The whole process is ongoing and continuous, so there's always been something being either shot, edited or updated with visual effects versions,â?? Birrell says. â??The cut scenes start out as live action, previs animation or a combination of both. Weta has compatible Avids and hold a copy of the same Avid media we have, so cuts can be delivered as Avid bins which are transferred by network connection.â??

Placeholder versions of shots come back to be cut into the master reels, evaluated, re-edited, and the evolution continues until final versions are delivered, he says. â??We use the layering capabilities of the Avid to keep original film dailies, original sound, several VFX versions and incoming sound mixes all within the master reels. As final shots are delivered, the original edit evolves into the final cut of the film.â??

Keeping track

The Kong projects are shared and accessed by each Avid from the Unity workspaces. The film is managed through five separate projects: input (for film dailies, location sound and syncing of both); VFX (for management of all film scanning, visual effects elements, temp composites); edit (for all cut sequences); output (for all play-outs for sound, color timing, previews, reference, etc.); and archive (holding the history of all cut scenes, sequences and reels). â??All projects have access to the same mass picture and sound media on Unity, so the cut is managed by transferring Avid bins containing shots and sequences between the projects,â?? says Birrell.

The entire film is overseen by the main cutting room and any sections sent off for work are always vetted and reintroduced to the master reels through the main room. The assistants manage the constant preparation and turnover of scenes and reels to all the departments who need them. Birrell says, â??Most are QuickTime exports or external QT captures with security burn-ins, differing audio splits, cut lists, EDLs or AAFs. This ongoing process of turnover and return of updated picture and sound continues until the final delivery day.â??

In the DI theater

The â??lookâ?? of Kong was still being determined at press time, but Jackson was going for something moody and â??not contemporaryâ?? given the filmâ??s 1930s milieu. Jackson wanted to affect natural light to dramatize the time of day or to emphasize actorsâ?? faces and eyes, and even add highlights to background flora in dim jungle scenes.

Color timing was performed by a team of colorists headed by David Cole at Weta Digital using Autodesk's Lustre grading software. The color grading process was previewed in a number of ways, Pete Williams says. â??Initial grades were performed on CRT monitors, reviewed on a Barco DP100 in a DI theater environment with regular film-outs to 35mm for cross reference.â?? Weta Digital's preview theater/grading theater is the size of a standard commercial theater.

Daily VFX shots, along with the final DI master, were recorded back to 35mm, with the use of Weta Digital's Arrilaser film recorders, Williams says. â??The final film would be QC'd on both 35mm and as digital data using the Barco DP100.â??

At press time, the film still needed to be recorded out in its entirety. Multiple negatives would be recorded, and release printing was to be done directly from the â??digital negativeâ?? to save any generation loss through the traditional duplication process.

â??The main challenge was the deadline and its length, which has now increased [at press time] to three hours,â?? Williams says. But Jacksonâ??s myriad fans have never been put off by a long Jackson movie.