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Keeping ‘Kong’ King

Bryan Reesman • Inside TheaterJanuary 2019 • January 14, 2019

Photos by Matthew Murphy

Video Adds Dimension and Animation to the Set

Bringing King Kong to Broadway has been no easy feat. The 20-foot-tall, 1.2-ton animatronic ape is maneuvered by 10 on-stage puppeteers clad in black and a Tait system to allow the beast to move safely and also haul the weighty puppet above the stage when not in use. At the same time, a giant video wall enhances onstage scenery to transport us from far-flung Skull Island to more familiar 1930s Manhattan. It’s an impressive coordinated effort between live action puppetry and acting with preprogrammed backdrops and practical scenery.

The tragic romance between Ann Darrow and King Kong gets played out on a grand scale at the Broadway Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus

‡‡         A Decade in the Making

The journey to this incarnation of the King Kong musical — directed by Drew McOnie and produced by Global Creatures on a budget of $35 million — took nearly a decade. Before the show hit Broadway for an opening in November following October previews, it enjoyed an extended run in Melbourne, Australia from June 2013 to Feb. 2014. But when Peter England started work as scenic designer on the Australian production back in 2009, there was initially no video. At the time, he and creature designer Sonny Tilders undertook a feasibility study to determine what kind of specs and parameters were necessary to make such a show possible. Two years later, recalls England, with the help of The Creature Technology Company in Melbourne, they developed the 20-foot-tall marionette gorilla that dazzles audiences now.

Some quick specs on Kong. He is basically constructed of welded steel, fiberglass forms, carbon fiber shells and inflatable air bags and tubes. Inside of him runs 985 feet of electrical cable, 1,500 connections and 16 microprocessors. He has his own on-board hydraulic power with a quiet liquid-cooled pump. Kong also has more than 45 axes of movement controlled remotely by a team of three “voodoo operators” in the back of the venue. His detailed facial expressions are delivered by 15 industrial servo motors which have also been used in the NASA Mars rovers.

Tait worked with Global Creatures on the puppet used in both the Australian and Broadway productions, providing a gantry crane, eight high-speed BT2-290 winches with power diverters and four automated swing arms. Additionally, Tait installed two BT2-390 winches at front of house allowing King Kong to safely lean past the proscenium arch and over/into the audience. Tait’s automation platform allows for up/down, left/right, backwards/forwards, roll, pitch and yaw axes of motion, while Global Creatures’ voodoo rigs provide the facial expressions and internal body movements.

While the massive animatronic marionette was great from a puppetry perspective, it presented major staging challenges. It blocked overhead lighting possibilities and a traditional fly system, since Kong would be stored above the stage. Because the story encompasses locations ranging from the high seas to an island mountain summit to city streets and the top of the Empire State Building, they needed some way to represent all those places. “It was really at this juncture that the notion of a surround LED screen was born as a support device to the three-dimensional scenery,” recalls England.

‡‡         Video and Lighting

Lighting designer Peter Mumford worked with England on the Melbourne production, but they had some new ground to cover with England also taking over the video and projection content in New York. “With the wonders of fast and efficient digital communication these days it was very easy to keep Peter across content development regularly, from my original storyboard to the AIM Animatics as they developed,” explains England. “By the time we sat in the theater to start bringing our departments together into one vision, Peter had already seen the completed content package, and we had discussed it extensively. From that moment on, we could start massaging all the elements into a cohesive whole.”

England says some “lateral thinking was essential” given the dominance of the LED wall and of Kong. “The overhead lighting positions were created by introducing a mezzanine platform surrounding the airspace Kong performs in That performance space is a kind of keyhole shape in plan, and you can see it very clearly defined by the lighting rig in many production photos of the show.” He notes that the side lighting issue was solved by introducing single point flown moving light fixtures with gyroscopic light-lock mechanisms for motion stability. “They’re a terrific addition to the show, and apart from achieving numerous side lighting positions, they add a brilliant dynamic movement of light source in many of the urban locations.”

The semi-circular LED wall is 27 feet tall and runs 90 feet long. It is a ROE Visual product called Linx-9 that is a thin, bendy LED display, chosen for numerous reasons. The wall weighs just over 6,600 pounds, making it relatively light, and is very flexible in terms of curvature. The small panel modules are 12 by 48 inches (WxL), which England says allowed them some freedom in placing the required access door locations. “The power and data is onboard rather than remote, thus reducing cabling,” he says. It is also fanless and quiet.

The Broadway LED wall is similar to the Australian one. The main difference is that the Melbourne screen had a 12mm pitch, as compared with the 9mm pitch in New York, which “was a nice upgrade,” says England. “We repositioned the access doors a little, but apart from that, the physical shape is unchanged.”

There are two main sequences where the video wall plays its most dynamic, integral role. The first is during the boat sequence, when film director Carl Denham (played by Eric William Morris), actress Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts) and a hired crew journey across the high seas. In the original story, the passage to Skull Island takes three months. They needed a set befitting such an epic voyage and also one that was big enough to believably contain a giant, caged gorilla. The boat encompasses most of the available open set space.

“That basic practical need led to the idea of lifting a large part of the stage to create a boat’s bow shape,” says England. “It’s essentially a triangle, where the pointy prow of this ‘boat’ faces upstage and is the single lift point, and the wide downstage section of the boat shape is hinged flush with the adjacent deck — simplistically, a giant triangular ramp. With the right sort of automated lift machinery, we could then generate a rhythmic movement suggestive of a boat’s pitching movement. I also knew that with our surround LED screen I could then start playing around with horizon lines, waves and clouds to further enhance this sense of travel and motion dynamic.”

The boat’s motion feels quite real, despite being simulated. While they use a mixture of automation and LED imagery when the boat first leaves the docks of Manhattan, the screen imagery soon takes over completely. “The stage lift is set to its highest angle, and doesn’t actually move at all [after that],” says England. “That whole illusion of motion and travel on an open ocean is created by the screen imagery alone.”

The other major sequence with strong LED reinforcement occurs when Kong runs loose through the streets of Manhattan. The video imagery zooms past him as he runs, imitating motion in a similar way to the sea journey. But England notes that, unlike on the boat, any scene with Kong “has a very live and variable aspect to his performance” that created some challenges.

A light moment aboard the boat contrasts with a gloomy LED backdrop and carefully positioned overhead lights, giving an ominous sense of foreboding to the voyage to Skull Island. Photo by Matthew Murphy

‡‡         Synchronizing the Visuals

Synching the automation side of Kong — the three “voodoo operators” and the puppeteers (a.k.a. the King’s Company) moving him onstage — with the video was critical. England notes that the work of the King’s Company and the voodoo operators has “an inherent flexibility when it comes to timing. But the automation component — that controls the puppet’s entrances, exits and gross moves around the stage — is a series of pre-programmed cues and are the same every show. This is what we needed to ensure synchronicity.”

The content animation cues were built to accurately match the auto cues called by the stage manager. Extensive puppeteer rehearsals were necessary for them to be in perfect sync with the music and video components. “All 14 performers in absolute unison,” says England. “We all nailed it together.”

When it came to generating the animated LED content for King Kong, England says he adored collaborating with Sydney-based company Artists In Motion (AIM), with whom he has worked before and who have handled projections for the Beijing and Vancouver Winter Olympic ceremonies and the How To Train Your Dragon Arena Spectacular. The designer wanted to achieve “an aesthetic cohesion” between the two and three-dimensional elements in the show as he considered them natural and logical extensions of each other.

Before Artists In Motion came onboard, England built “a very detailed visual storyboard of the entire show,” he says. “This involved me setting up and photographing the 1:25 (half-inch) stage model for every scene with a green sheet of card expressing the LED surround screen. I then imported these photos into Photoshop and, employing the basic technique of a green-screen in movie making, set about manipulating the images so I could create content for each moment in the show and ‘drop it in’ to the model version of the built scenic environment.”

The raw material that Artists In Motion transformed into something grander allowed England to show what he needed, imagery that was “locationally recognizable but distinctly abstract,” he elaborates. “I wanted it to feel like it had been painted by hand — to have a painterly softness that gave it aesthetic depth whilst also contextually forcing it into the background almost like traditional painted drops.” He did not want the large LED wall to upstage the performers.

“One of the other devices I employed from the very beginning to help achieve background aesthetic was a soft black vignette that framed pretty well all the content to some degree,” he continues. “The vignette removed the harsh straight edges the screen inherently has, and it helped push the imagery further back, evoking greater depth and distance.”

The imagery that Artists In Motion created over the course of a year “was just so beautifully perfect, it was thrilling,” declares England. “Much of it was presented back to me using VR goggles. They had created a 3D render of the stage design in a virtual model of the Broadway Theatre into which they could play their content. This was an extraordinarily useful and accurate exercise allowing infinite viewing positions of the whole stage image from any seat in the theatre. By the time we finally got into the actual theatre we had a full package of content as ready to go as it could be.” The next step was the “maddening challenge of getting it to play properly on the actual LED screen.”

One visual challenge was forcing the LED screens to play at about nine percent of their full brightness potential. “This is a degree of subtlety these screens don’t really like,” notes England. “Content starts to get some very nasty stepping in its output, and achieving fade-to or fade-from black gets ugly. To overcome this, we had to introduce varying layers of ‘grain’ into the content — almost a kind of white noise — which allowed us to trick the eye into a version of black that wasn’t really black at all. There was no ‘one-grain-fixes-all,’ either. Every scene had its particular needs.”

Achieving the painterly style that England desired also proved tricky. “Even those images that are single locations are actually animating — the idea being to give the content ‘life’, to make it ‘breathe’ just as the real 3D stage does,” he says. “Even a desolate street scene has some movement to it — mist in the air, steam seeping out of manholes, window lights glowing, street lights twinkling, clouds drifting. Almost imperceptible, until it stops and it suddenly dies and becomes static. But this animation concept threw up big challenges for our painterly effects that sit as separate layers in the content. That took a lot of tuning to resolve before we had imagery that would animate, retain the designed aesthetic and not become distracting ‘noise.’ But we did get there, partly through effects we could generate in the d3 media server operating software, and partly through revising approaches in the original content using After Effects software. It was an ongoing tennis match of tweaking between the two systems.”

‡‡         Video Plays a Supporting Role

England’s “less is more” design aesthetic keeps the video imagery, which was completed after the scenery was designed for the first production, from dominating the visuals. “LED screens can be invasive elements on a theatre stage,” he says. “Hence also the measures we went to in darkening, abstracting and distancing the content so when it is used it sits where it belongs — in the background.”

One sequence where the projections blend in well when Ann, Carl and the ship’s crew arrive on Skull Island. Rather than portray first worlders confronting “savages,” the natives are painted like the vines and blend in with the landscape, adding a sense of mystery and suspense that quickly leads to the arrival of Kong. “The scenic vines are mapped with front projection and are repeated on the LED screen to increase the sense of depth,” says England. But the moment when the stage gets black and only Kong’s eyes and mouth are visible is “when the real depth kicks in, and the fearful imagination of the unknown takes over. Mystery is provocative. The aim here was to offer more sophisticated ideas about nature and the entire indigenous environment as a whole living entity that is mysterious, precious, sentient and vulnerable — ideas perhaps more pertinent to an audience in 2018 than archaic stereotypes.”

England was thrilled by his first Broadway experience, and praises “an extraordinary team of talented folk working on the show” that helped him to immediately become “immersed in an environment of first class inspiration.” And while impressive in the technical sense behind the scenes, “probably the aspect of the show we collectively best offered up as a whole production was a use of really high-end technology that felt human, and not robotic. Most audiences have no idea just how technically complicated this show is. And that’s a really great result.”

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