Fit for a King

by MIchael S. Eddy

Esther Hannaford’s Darrow with Kong in the air war scene
Esther Hannaford’s Darrow with Kong in the air war scene
Creating the scenic environment for Global Creatures’ King Kong

When King Kong first appeared on movie screens in 1933, audiences marveled at how the visual effects were done. Willis O’Brien, the great stop-motion pioneer, was able to turn an 18-inch gorilla into a terrifying, yet sympathetic beast. Eighty years later audiences are again marveling at the technology which has once more brought this legendary creature to life, albeit onstage this time. Originally conceived by Merian C. Cooper, King Kong has proven to hold a universal appeal that spans cultures and generations.

It was that appeal, that quintessential story of a beast gentled by beauty and love that drew producer Carmen Pavlovic to the idea of developing King Kong as a live theatre piece. Pavlovic, CEO of Global Creatures, was looking for a story that fit the capabilities of the company’s animatronics technology but also offered strong narrative and musical possibilities. Production designer Peter England looked through source material with Pavlovic and agreed that Kong was the one. “We felt that, as a story, King Kong had an international appeal,” recalls England. “The story in its simplicity is very well known and the archetype—the beauty and beast spine to it—had real potential we felt could be taken into a theatrical context. One of the goals of this show is to not make it all about spectacle and technology. We wanted to do something ambitious and unique that had not been seen before, but always it is about telling the story.”

King Kong, the theatrical show, took five years to develop and opened this summer at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne, Australia, as a large (okay, enormous) musical. To tell this epic story onstage, Pavlovic brought in director Daniel Kramer, and a design team including costume designer Roger Kirk; lighting designer Peter Mumford, sound designer Peter Hylenski, projection designer Frieder Weiss, and production/set designer England.

 

Esther Hannaford as Ann Darrow growls back at Kong
Esther Hannaford as Ann Darrow growls back at Kong

The physical realities of staging a show whose leading man is a 19.5-foot-tall, 1.2-ton puppet meant that the theatre itself needed to be capable of handling the show. It was important to address the size and weight of the large amount of machinery required both for Kong but also for the scenic elements. Technical director Richard Martin worked closely with England and also Production Resource Group (PRG), the general contractor for all the scenic, automation, lighting and audio on the production. The Regent underwent significant renovations to its infrastructure to ensure it could house the show.

 

Martin explains the massive structural work, “It was a major project, especially for theatre in Australia; it is unheard of here. The first thing that we did was the venue engineering impact. There were five structural engineers involved to get this into the theatre, and we did a significant amount of work with the PRG engineers. We completely removed the existing orchestra pit lifts; excavated some of the orchestra pit structure in the base to get a bit more depth; put in new supports; and installed three new pit lifts. We removed the theatre stage and all its support; put in new structural support to bear the increased loads, and installed a huge hydraulic lift element covering the majority of the new stage floor. We added in nearly 20 tons of structural steel to the grid and completely removed 80 fly lines. We also upgraded the power because we needed 2,000 amps in the building. It was a major overhaul and upgrade to the theatre.”

Everything is built to fit within the 63-foot grid height; from stage floor to grid surface. They then built and welded in a full sub-grid, known as the gantry platform, at a working height of 32.8 feet. It covers the entire stage, wall-to-wall; from the back wall all the way down to within three-feet of the smoke pocket. The gantry is the operational platform for the crew and flying performers who use it for loading and unloading as well as housing scenic elements, automation rigs, winches, lights, sound, Venetian curtains and connections to the LED wall underneath it. The gantry platform itself weighs 12.5 tons, plus another 3.5 tons of video processor racks, automation racks, winches and performers.

 

3D Computer Model of Kong from Global Creatures
3D Computer Model of Kong from Global Creatures

Moving a Gentle Giant

 

There is large opening in the middle of the gantry called the “keyway,” in which Kong’s automation apparatus moves around. England worked closely with creature designer Sonny Tilders of Global Creatures Technology to accommodate Kong’s needs into the production design. England states, “We wanted him to be big but also fluid. He ended up being a 1.2-ton creature that was to be hanging from the grid. He also needed to be able to move all over the stage. As you can imagine that immediately just clears everything else out of the grid. All the other design elements were worked around Kong.”

The apparatus for Kong's automation allows him to traverse a large portion of the stage. The 19.5-foot Kong rigs at the grid level (63 feet up) and fits in the large keyway. He can travel 20 feet on each side of center, 26 feet up/downstage, and 13 feet to each side of center downstage. Martin explains, “The apparatus has 11 winches in it. They can fly him in and out and he can travel at 9.8 feet per second, so he’s pretty quick. Essentially it is like an overhead gantry crane; there are two 36-foot-long I-beams running up and downstage. Hanging off that is a 19.6 feet wide by 9.8 feet deep trolley frame that tracks up/downstage. A rotating device housing the winches, weighing 6.2 tons, hangs off of the trolley tracks across stage. It can turn as well as lift and lower the creature. All totaled there is nearly 12 tons of machinery in the Kong apparatus.”

Contracted by PRG, Stage Technologies supplied the apparatus automation system, which specifically controls Kong using Stage Technologies’ Acrobat console. Kong’s arms and legs are manually manipulated by puppeteers known as the “King’s Men,” dressed in black on stage with the creature. There are also the animatronic puppeteers, who control the facial movements and the shoulders via Global Creatures’ proprietary Voodoo system.

PRG supplied and installed the separate scenic automation system that controls all the flying scenery, the hydraulic lifts, Venetian curtains, and the winches for the flying performers. The scenic/flying automation system uses the PRG Commander automation console. With both automation systems operating in the same area it was important to avoid conflicts between the two systems. “We did a lot of studies on impact and potential issues between the two systems,” notes Martin. “The operators sit on the upper fly floor level at 39 feet. They have a direct view from their desk across to the machinery, which they can watch live as well as on infrared monitors; we have 12 cameras onstage at various positions. Everything was done with safety as the most important consideration.”

 

Set Model of Kong breaking out of Times Square Theatre
Set Model of Kong breaking out of Times Square Theatre

New York, New York

 

The story itself, set in the early1930s, starts in NYC during the Depression, it then moves to the high seas as a filmmaker, his crew and leading lady sail to the uncharted Skull Island. Once on Skull Island Kong is discovered and captured. The story then returns to NYC and eventually the top of the Empire State Building. England wanted his production design to capture the vertical nature of the plot and the scale of the creature. “It is the story of two islands and Kong climbs to the highest point of each of them: the mountain on Skull Island and then the Empire State building. It is a story that is constantly rising and then falling, physically and emotionally. As production designer one of my challenges became about creating vertical entrances.”

For the opening in NYC, England evokes the feel of the iconic black and white photo images of the building of NYC in the 1930s. “The NY set has the idea of height and fearlessness,” points out England. “We start Act 1 in the city during the Depression. The palette is very black and white, which fits into the feeling of bleakness of the time and also gives a nod to the story’s black and white movie heritage. Recalling the famous images from the ‘30s of men hovering high above NYC on I-beams as they build to great heights, we have three scenic walls with I-beam platforms, known as the Times Square walls, that concertina from the gantry. We also have a 19.5-foot-long I-beam that flies in with men on it, that sets up the time period in NYC and a clear sense of verticality.”

England continues, “When we come back to NYC in the second act, our idea was to bring some of the electrical energy from Skull Island back with Kong. It is also like the Depression has passed, the Empire State Building is now complete. I have 1,500 rivet heads with RGB LEDs in them on the I-beams that let us do our version of the Great White Way; creating a vivid world of light. In Act 1 you see the building of this emerging empire but now we see the empire lit up; bringing the cold hard steel to life.”

For the Empire State Building, England uses a roller device to give the effect of Kong climbing up. “That is a beautiful piece of machinery built by PRG. It is three rollers on a single drive axle, a continuous roll, like a treadmill. It is the façade; a snapshot of the windows on the building that goes around and around; an opaque cloth with cut translucent windows in it that is backlit, to create the illusion of rising. People think it is projection—there is some projection on it—but we would never get the depth of visual effect if it was just projection.”

Ocean Voyage

For the ocean journey, England wanted to infer the boat rather than build a boat. “I wanted to do something that was suggestive,” states England, “something new but quite simple in its form. We have a boat-like shape that comes out of the floor but it is the movement that sells the boat and also gives it some musicality. The simplicity to it totally belies the technology behind it.” Martin agrees, “It is very complicated technology that makes me smile every time I see it. PRG bested themselves on this; it’s a wonderful bit of engineering. It seems quite straightforward, but it is really not. It is a very heavy piece that travels up, down, and gimbals at a good speed. It rocks ‘n’ rolls around absolutely dead silent, then it drops within a millimeter of where it starts each night; dead accurate.”

The boat is a motion platform lift, which is cut as a 30-foot equilateral triangle that rises out of the stage floor. Using three large hydraulic cylinders that are programmed on the Commander console, the platform moves in all three axes at the same time, mimicking the look of a boat’s bow being lifted and dropped as the ocean buffets it. There are two hydraulic power units 9.2 feet below that power the boatlift for a combined 140hp and it moves at 2 feet per second. The boatlift weighs 17,000 pounds, but with people and scenery the weight is 25,000 pounds. The PRG system also provides encoder feedbacks to the video operator so they can sync their video waves on the LED screen with the boat’s movement.

Painting of King Kong’s facial detailing during fabrication
Painting of King Kong’s facial detailing during fabrication

Island Home

 

It was important to the entire team that Skull Island be a truly unique environment. “We wanted to do something that we’ve not seen before and avoid absolutely any form of stereotype,” says England. “We started by looking at the idea of the rise and fall of empires. The original 1932 novella suggests Kong lives in the remnants of a massive civilization that had somehow fallen to ruin on Skull Island. He is then taken to another island that is in the process of building a modern empire. Director Daniel Kramer said, ‘why don’t we think about Skull Island as being way, way in the future.’ By putting it into the future it is something unknown to everyone, allowing aesthetic liberation and edge. This is where Frieder’s talents really shine. His projection work is quite extraordinary and extremely abstract.”

England and Weiss made Skull Island appear to be alive with an electrical energy. Weiss has created an infrared (IR) sensitive interactive projection system that works in realtime with the performers and scenic elements onstage. The costume fabrics and scenic materials needed to be IR tested to ensure the right elements were or were not seen by the system. The visual imagery captured via an infrared video setup is then projected back on to the stage or is delivered to the LED screen. “I have a video camera that sees in darkness with an infrared system,” explains Weiss. “I basically project the image that I see on the video camera with infrared light back through the projectors. I can also do digital effects on these images. It’s picking up all of the impulses from the performers movement. It’s all realtime; a low-latency response to what’s happening onstage and visualizing that.”

At one point Weiss’ system makes Kong appear to be running with electric charges rushing around him. That effect could not simply be premade content. Weiss states, “Because he’s not totally programmed, he moves a little differently every night. In the running scene, it would be totally impractical to pre-render the content because the performers and puppeteers couldn’t move 100% in sync with the video. The particles you see appear mostly on the LED wall but we also project the same on him to layer the effect. The projection allow us to have this animated movement directly on him; it gives him a trajectory like a storm of particles coming off him.”

 

Projection and lighting make a massive spider web look like it’s merely a projection—until Chris Ryan climbs it
Projection and lighting make a massive spider web look like it’s merely a projection—until Chris Ryan climbs it

Weiss uses Panasonic 20K lumen projectors, selected for being the quietest in their size range. The 12mm pitch LED video wall is an enormous 28 feet high, 89 feet wide semi-circle back wall screen that bends around the sides of the stage. PRG fabricated the framework that the wall is rigged onto with three purpose-made hinged doors for entrances. All of the video equipment and projectors were supplied by Video Equipment Rentals (VER).

 

Another striking element created by Weiss and England is the 30-foot-high-by-39-foot-wide jungle web. To the audience it seems a flat projection but then the lead actor climbs it. “The web was quite a complicated piece, a bit of a nightmare to put together,” Martin jokingly recalls. “To the audience it looks quite simple at first, but the way it’s lit, the video projected onto it, then the actor climbing up it—that gets one of the largest rounds of applause every night. People can’t quite work out what it is; it looks flat to them.” England notes, “Even industry people ask, ‘How does he climb the projection?’” It’s actually an all-white lattice of small steel tubes, various sized solid steel pieces, three sizes of rope and two sizes of bungee cords built into a frame that is only 8 inches deep. With a black backing, Weiss’ IR projection makes the web look electrically charged.

The award-winning design work has certainly electrified audiences. England concludes, “I think at the very heart of this production there exists a true marriage between old-school theatrical device and extremely modern technical wizardry, united by a focus on story. To that end, the creative goal for all of us has been a production with humanity that thrills the audience both visually and emotionally. It’s not a spectacle, but it is spectacular.”