King-Size Kong

How big is King Kong?

Everyone who’s heard of him knows the answer is “big,” but the real answer is, “it depends.” Because in his seven film appearances (including this week’s Kong: Skull Island) his height has varied dramatically, at times within the same film. So if we’re going to look at the history of life-sized King Kongs, we’ve got to talk about what “life-sized” means.

When conceiving the original story, Kong creator Merian C. Cooper imagined a gorilla “40 to 50 feet tall,” and RKO’s publicity material for the film listed his height at 50 feet. During production, Willis O’Brien and his special effects crew built models to a scale where Kong would be 18 feet tall while on Skull Island and 24 feet tall in New York City (where O’Brien wanted to make sure he’d still appear imposing among the skyscrapers of the city). But in directing the special effects sequences, Cooper used camera angles to make Kong’s size range from 18 feet to 60 feet, depending on the scene. In 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, made by the Japanese studio Toho, Kong was scaled to be 45 meters (approximately 148 feet) tall, in order to be a worthy foe for the 50-meter-tall Godzilla. In Toho’s second Kong film, King Kong Escapes, the ape was scaled to be 20 meters (roughly 66 feet) tall. When Dino De Laurentiis remade the original Kong in 1976, he followed O’Brien’s example and Kong was scaled to be 42 feet tall while on Skull Island and 55 feet tall in New York. In the sequel, King Kong Lives, Kong was scaled at 60 feet. In Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, Kong was a consistent 25 feet tall no matter where he went. And in Kong: Skull Island, the character is reportedly 100 feet tall.

For the most part, this illusion of size was accomplished through miniature sets and models, utilizing stop-motion animation or men in suits (and later, computer generated imagery). But sometimes, you just need to see an actual full-sized Kong.

In 1933, the filmmakers created a bust of Kong’s head and shoulders scaled to a 40 foot Kong, and a giant hand and foot scaled at 70 feet. While the hand and foot were largely immobile props, mounted on cranes or levers to operate, the head was a different story. Made of wood and rubber and covered with bearskin, it was filled with mechanisms and an air compressor used to control the mouth and create facial expressions, and it took three people to operate. The head was used throughout the film in close-ups, and after production was used for publicity, eventually stationed in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater for the official premiere. In 1983, beloved gorilla-suit performer and movie history collector Bob Burns worked with a crew to build a recreation of the head for a 50th anniversary engagement at Grauman’s (now Mann’s) Chinese Theater. Unfortunately, neither prop still exists.

The Toho Kong films both featured full-sized hands for their actresses to be scooped up in, though for close-ups they just utilized smaller scale puppets.

But when Dino De Laurentiis remade King Kong in 1976, he also announced that his Kong would be portrayed by a full-sized 40-foot-tall King Kong robot. Designed and built by Carlo Rambaldi, the finished creature supposedly cost $1.7 million cut an imposing figure, standing the promised 40 feet. But in all other ways, it proved a disappointment. It could not support its own weight and the support pole that ran up its spine gave it a stiff, awkward posture. The face had some articulation and the arms had limited movement up and down, but its use was so limited that it ended up appearing in only a few scattered shots in the completed film, with a suit (designed by Rambaldi and Rick Baker) and smaller puppets doing most of the work.

More successful (though still fraught with issues) were the enormous hands and arms Rambaldi’s team built to interact with Jessica Lange. De Laurentiis wanted the hands to have life and movement that weren’t attempted in the original film, and
wanted them to even express emotion in the scenes where Kong relates to Jessica Lange’s Dwan. The mechanical hands required six people to operate them, and they left Lange bruised from bumping or squeezing her too hard.

After the film, the full-sized mechanical Kong would go on to tour the world as a circus act, in a 20 minute live show retelling the story of King Kong. It eventually ended up on display in a tent in Argentina, but when a dispute arose between the owners of the tent and the owners of the Kong robot, the tent was removed and the weather ended up rendering him completely non-functioning and was ultimately towed and discarded.

For the 1986 sequel, King Kong Lives, Rambaldi’s team again contributed an enormous Kong, though this time the model was more of a mannequin than a mechanical puppet, useful primarily for the early scenes where Kong undergoes open-heart surgery. They constructed a 60 foot version of Kong with removable head and legs that allowed them to use the same mechanical creature for both Kong and the film’s Lady Kong.

14 Apr 1983, Manhattan, New York City, New York State, USA— Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Three years earlier, in April 1983, in a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the original film and a bit of publicity for the Empire State Building, an 84 foot nylon balloon replica of Kong was anchored to the mooring mast of the building’s spire (with biplanes hired to circle the building!). Unfortunately, things soon went awry, as the balloon popped a seam at the shoulder during its initial inflation (not doubt exacerbated by 100 mile per hour winds) and when it was reinflated the next morning it sprung another leak and had to be taken down altogether.

Back in 1986, the Studio Tour in Universal Studios Hollywood got a new attraction: King Kong Encounter. As part of the tram ride that toured the studio backlot, visitors rode into a soundstage and into a city street. Television news reports visible from an open apartment window explain that King Kong is rampaging through the city, moments before the reporter screams in terror and her helicopter plummets down in front of the tram. They then turned a corner and drove out onto the Brooklyn Bridge, putting them face to face with Kong.

The Kong animatronic in the ride, the largest of its kind for many years, was designed and built by Disney Imagineer Bob Gurr. It was 30 feet tall and weighed 7 tons. Unfortunately, when a three-alarm fire broke out on the Universal lot in June 2008, King Kong Encounter was one of the things that was completely destroyed. Instead of rebuilding the attraction, they replaced it with King Kong: 360 3-D, a 3D film with environmental effects that now occupies the Encounter’s spot in the Studio Tour.

In 1990, Universal Studios Florida opened and Kongfrontation was one of its original main attractions. An expansion of the King Kong Encounter from the Hollywood park, Kongfrontation had guests board an air-tram to evacuate from Manhattan to Roosevelt Island to escape King Kong. The tram then proceeded to travel over New York City streets where they could see the damage caused by Kong. Rounding a corner, the tram passed Kong battling a police helicopter from the Queensboro Bridge. Nearly at Roosevelt Island, Kong again appears and proceeds to grapple with the tram, dropping it after being fired on by the helicopters and allowing guests to safely arrive on Roosevelt Island.

The ride features two 39 foot tall animatronic Kongs. They were lighter than the one in King Kong Encounter, and had a greater range and sophistication of movement, though in order to improve the reliability of the ride and accommodate the large crowds it attracted, they ultimately intentionally reduced some of the puppets’ functionality. But they still had the banana scented breath that was deployed when they roared at the trams. The attraction would eventually close altogether in 2002, leaving the Florida park Kong-free for over a decade.

In the summer of 2016, Kong returned to Universal Studios Florida with the opening of Skull Island: Reign of Kong in the Islands of Adventure park. A combination ride and 3D movie, guests board an expedition truck and embark on a perilous journey around Skull Island. Guests ride through a cave and into a swamp resembling the spider pit sequence in Peter Jackson’s King Kong and are menaced (via floor-to-ceiling 3D screens and environmental effects) by a variety of creatures, culminating in an attack by three vastosaurus rexes. King Kong leaps in and saves riders in the nick of time, battling the dinosaurs and saving the guests from falling to their doom. The truck then rounds a corner and encounters an enormous new roaring animatronic Kong.

The newest way to see a life-sized King Kong is at Madame Tussauds in New York or London. To celebrate the opening of Kong: Skull Island, the venerable wax museum has installed a new permanent exhibit, the “Kong: Skull Island” experience, which features a wax replica of star Tom Hiddleston, a spooky Skull Island environment, and a full-sized animatronic Kong head. The head is over 18 feet tall and uses pneumatic controls to blink, breathe, and snarl.

It seems too much to hope for an update when Legendary’s proposed Godzilla vs. Kong comes out, with its even larger Kong, but we here at are an optimistic bunch. Here’s to a 50-foot-tall King Kong head in 2020!