08/04/2017

Kong - Digital Aesthetics

Thoughts On: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

On an expedition to an unexplored island in the Pacific Ocean, a team of adventures hope to find ancient monsters.


Kong: Skull Island was a fun time at the movies. But, the more I think about it, the more depressed I get. We'll get into that later though. Firstly, in respect to what this movie did well, it does sell itself as a worthwhile remake of the original 1933 King Kong. This is something that Peter Jackson's King Kong didn't really do so well. Whilst it made vast technological improvements on the (at that time) 72 year old film, the narrative of the classic Kong remained roughly the same. The set up to Skull Island was then the element of its script I respect most. The era was pulled forward to the end of the Vietnam War, and all of this gave the characters wanting to go and explore Skull Island much more sensical motives for, and means of, getting there. In such, Bill (a replacement for Carl Denham as played by John Goodman) takes advantage of this politically and governmentally hectic time so he can explore an unknown island that may contain useful resources - all before the Russians do. And because of this, he has helicopters, bombs, guns, ships, boats and soldiers at his disposal - which makes a lot more sense than the movie making plot-line in the original film. Beyond practical reasons, the use of this era also gave the film, especially in the first act, a light, enjoyable tone that really works in the film's favour. And so, much props must be given to the writers for this.

**LIGHT SPOILERS - NOTHING SIGNIFICANT**

The other elements of the script that positively differentiated this film from the original were the general sensibilities. The 30s version of King Kong was stereotypically stereotypical. That is to say that the 30s film used many dated tropes such as the damsel in distress, forced love story, blind approach to other cultures, such and so on. Whilst I think some of these tropes make sense - such as the love story and damsel in distress - because of the subtext of King Kong, the surface level use of these tropes just comes off as bad writing. (Side note, you can check out a post on the original King Kong here that discusses this subtext). With the new film, we have a more complex approach to the characterisation of the native people that doesn't just see them as a senseless, savage rabble. We also have stronger characters across the board - in comparison to the original. That is to say that everyone from Mason (Ann Darrow but played by Brie Larson) to James Conrad and Preston Packard (who are kind of John Driscoll split into two polar characters as played by Hiddleston and Jackson) to, as mentioned, Bill (Carl Denham played by John Goodman) are more complex than the original characters. Added to this, we have a huge cast with many significant characters - all of which are given some amount of depth and complexity. (There are problems with characterisation, but we'll get to these later). Also, with the new Kong, there is no 'damsel in distress' story line. You're made to think that Kong is about to snatch Brie Larson away, but it never happens. This further humanises Kong (more than what you see in the original) just like we saw in the Godzilla movie, so... take away from that what you will. There is also no strong sense of a love story in this narrative. There are elements of romance, but of the friendly and subtle kind. This works in the film's favour as it gives it a concentration on action and adventure without rushed, weak romances - all whilst providing space to add complexity to characters.

**LIGHT SPOILERS OVER**

And that just about covers all that I like about this movie - apart from the fact that it was cool to see Kong smash things and that we actually get to see a lot of him, unlike the recent Godzilla. Moving towards the negatives of this film, we have to look at the direction and cinematography. There is a strong sense of colour and light in the aesthetics of this film, but a very weak depiction of texture and tone. That is to say that the frames aren't thoroughly immersive nor powerful because we're never allowed to feel the weight of them. You see this in a lot of digital movies with CGI - and is why people complain about them so much. There are 3 main elements to the digital construction and projection of a shot. You have the modelling, the lighting and the textures. For an image to be photorealistic, it needs to manage all of these elements. Let's take a quick look at Kong...


The modeling of him in terms of proportions (and to my unprofessional eye) is ok. I don't like the near-human brow that has been given to him however. This makes him look a bit like a Neanderthal...


... and whilst I understand that they are trying to further humanise Kong as a character, I think the realist gorilla aesthetic of the 2005 Kong is much better looking:


I think more humanity could be put into the features of Kong here, say in his eyes and mouth, but he looks so much better than the new Kong in my view. What's more, the realist gorilla stature of the 2005 Kong is faaaaaaaaaar more sensible than that in the original and this new version.



You can see in both of these images that the newer Kong is much closer to the original in terms of stature (the size difference is monolithic however). Whilst there's much better musculature and definition in the new Kong, he retains that awkward stance that the original did. This means that when you see him move, it's not nearly as good as the motion capture performance in the 2005 version. And this all comes down to the physiology and physics of choosing this unrealistic stature that mediates between a gorilla and human, instead of just being a gorilla like in the 2005 Kong.


The same can be said, in respect to bad modelling choices, for a few of the other creatures on the island - some of which look truly ridiculous. However, we won't get into this as talking about some of the other creatures would spoil quite a lot that I need't spoil. So, coming back to this image...


We can see that the lighting is pretty strong, but that the textures just aren't there yet - but so nearly are. We can't really critique the film too much for this as it is on the forefront of technological capabilities, but, look at the texture of the trees in comparison to the fur and skin. Since the projection of Sully in Monsters Inc...


... hair and fur animation has been making huge strides, but, looking at Kong, we still have quite a way to go. Nonetheless, the weak sense of texture isn't just seen in the animation of Kong, but across the entire film. Look at these two wide shots for example...



This isn't the best way to critique these images as they are so small and not in the context of the film, but, even in the cinema, the grass, ground, background and fog have very little weight in the frame. That is to say that you can feel the colour grading and special effects creating a skin over the frame that disconnects you from the textures beyond. We see this in other blockbusters, like the Marvel movies...


Everything here is flat and grey - and the cinematography, as it has made its way through post-production and into the final image, creates a pretty ugly shot. In such, when you study this shot from the movie you can't help but seen a bunch of actors in dumb suits. This is true of a shot like this too...


The use of colour and light is cool, but there is no textural cohesiveness that allows the actors to fit into the image thanks to the lighting which is too hard and makes no sense in context. What angle is the sun shining from? Where are the shadows of the trees around them? Why isn't the fog near them? Why does it look like there just staring into empty space? I know next to nothing about high level filmmaking of this kind, but it's very clear that this is a pretty ugly image. How do you fix this? In technical terms, I'm not too sure. But, it's clear that digital cinema, as represented by these films and those alike, simply lacks this...





Beyond aesthetic critique, the direction in Skull Island is really erratic and pretty banal. A lot of the film's directorial approach jumps to and away from a gaming look with a lot of POV shots mixing in with shots that characterise the camera as a person - say for instance when helicopters go down and the camera remains inside, helpless, like a person, as it spins out of control. Many other shots look like Vogt-Roberts (director) overshot and was just grabbing whatever came to mind - you see this with the over abundance of insert shots and close-ups on small bits of action. I may be wrong and the film may have been meticulously planned to be this way, but the use of camera movement, handling of mise en scène and general expression of filmic language is nonetheless, as said, erratic and never truly poignant. This ultimately reduces the value of spectacle as, though the camera whirs around a 100 ft Kong and jumps to vast wide angles of an almost alien island, next to no shots actually make you go... wow.

Nonetheless, none of this is what truly disappoint me in respect to Skull Island. Despite these downfalls, I enjoyed the movie and was able to have quite a lot of fun with it. What hit me a few minutes after the credits rolled, however, was plain dismay. A kind of dismay I hadn't felt since watching the incredibly mediocre Hobbit movies. That is to say that there were so many hints of an incredibly better movie within this narrative that were never properly explored. However, this is what we'll continue to discuss in part two.

For now, what are your thoughts on how Kong looked? And did you enjoy the film?






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Ghost In The Shell - The End Of The Arcing Rainbow

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Kong - The Sound Of Silence...

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