‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Prompted Some Upgrades to the Monsters in ‘Godzilla x Kong’

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In “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire,” the gorilla has a new adversary: Skar King, the cunning, lanky, red-haired orangutan-like creature, who lords over the subterranean realm of Hollow Earth like a sadistic bully to keep his ape minions in line. With Shimo, the ancient ice Titan, whom he controls as his slave, Skar King is so formidable that it takes the two titular Titans to stop him from achieving world domination.

In creating the best villain yet in the five-film MonsterVerse franchise, director Adam Wingard relied on Wētā FX — the king of ape films, with “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” right around the corner — to animate Skar King. They overhauled the design concept to ensure his biomechanics worked in line with the desired motion and also roughed him up, complete with a cat-eye reflection in one of his eyes.

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Wētā additionally aged Kong by altering his fur groom while rebuilding his interior skeleton in alignment with their latest tech developed for “Avatar: The Way of Water.” They also animated Kong’s tiny sidekick, Suko, a cute yet gritty ape, complete with a dirty and messy fur groom to add to his punk-kid persona.

After directing “Godzilla vs. Kong,” Wingard wanted to expand the MonsterVerse with some personal touches. One of them was immediately apparent in the new Kong design. “For Kong, they wanted him to [look] a little older, a little grayer, to see that progression of time,” Wētā’s VFX supervisor Kevin Smith (“Godzilla vs. Kong”) told IndieWire. “One of the things I noticed about the art was that his beard was longer. The funny thing is that I hadn’t seen Adam in a long time, and when we first got on a call with him, he had a huge beard, so we knew where that came from.”

'Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire'
‘Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire’

As before, they relied on motion-capture stunt performance for reference and then keyframe-animated the characters. But the advancement from the “Avatar” sequel provided improved performance. “We relied on the underlying muscle technology from ‘Avatar,'” Wētā’s animation supervisor Ludovic Chailloleau (“War for the Planet of the Apes”) told IndieWire. “When you want Kong to give an expression to that performance, you’re going to get a lot better results and faster. So going from a smile to a frown is more realistic because you’re blending together those face shapes better.”

Kong taking on Skar King was a study in contrasts: the gorilla is taller and stronger and built to attack frontally with brute force with his axe, while the orangutan is leaner and sneakier and will attack from behind with his trusty Whipslash, the sharp bone weapon strapped to his torso that slashes and strangles enemies and contains the crystal that controls Shimo.

“He has very long arms, and this triggered the whole way he would move,” Chailloleau said. “He will look at you with a little bit of a tilt, and you don’t notice. But he already has his arm on your leg, and that’s how we came up with this sneaky attitude, which is something we built for him. So when he comes out of his cave, he’s using his arms. He’s planting them like a spider monkey will do. He’s very agile.”

Their contrasting behavior helped define the staging of their fight scenes. Wētā introduced asymmetry to Skar King’s eyes and mouth, and he acts with a confidence that comes from thinking several steps ahead of Kong. He wins the first match in his lava-flowing cave lair with the element of surprise. He uses his Whipslash to disarm Kong, who then overpowers him until Skar King unleashes Shimo.

At an advanced screening at IMAX headquarters in L.A., Wingard explained that their battle was inspired by the 1973 cult film “Emperor of the North.” The film features a duel between defiant hobo Lee Marvin and abusive railroad engineer Ernest Borgnine, who brandishes a chain-like weapon with a spike on the end.

GODZILLA X KONG: THE NEW EMPIRE, Suko, 2024. © Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection
‘Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire’©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

“We use this whip as part of the language of the fight for extra strength,” Smith said. “There’s a shot where he’s jumping over Kong, and he’s wrapping it around the neck and pivoting around to get behind and pull it. We figured out a way to do it with the stunt guys in chunks. You gotta see that he’s a sneaky bastard, and you gotta rely on the facial and body posturing. He’s been there a long time and he’s going a little stir crazy, and it’s almost like he’s been waiting for Kong.”

After a brief skirmish, Godzilla joins Kong and Suko to fight Skar King, Shimo, and an army of apes in Hollow Earth. However, supernatural forces cause two pyramids to collide, creating a zero-gravity complication. This was shot using motion capture on wires. “We took all the performers into our [mocap] stage,” added Smith, “and we came up with a shot-by-shot solution.” This involved floating, revolving, contact, stopping, repercussion, and hitting something again.

“There are these two gigantic guys,” Chailloleau added. “One has a whip like Indiana Jones. He can grab from far away, can bring things to him. The other one has the axe, but he loses it again. And there are floating rocks all around. So they can jump out of these rocks and use the rocks to throw them, use the rocks to push. There is also a progression when the gravity is kicking back, which is essentially having them going from floating back to free fall.”

But it’s unresolved as the fight spills over to Rio de Janeiro (which Wētā didn’t work on), where Shimo puts a deep freeze on the city, and Godzilla and Kong unite to stop the Skar King and Shimo combo. “We’re almost just killing time to get them out of Hollow Earth to Rio where the fight actually ends,” Smith said. “So, in one sense, it opens it up to just being cool. And Adam let us run with stuff on our own after letting us come up with some beats on the previous movie. You can dial down the storytelling and dial-up Godzilla, who’s coming from underwater and is the only one that feels confident once zero-G kicks in, or having Suko throwing rocks [at an ape] and kicking one eye off the thing. It was a balance between obeying Newton’s law and keeping it interesting.”

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