The Mechanical Hand!


And perhaps most amazingly, he wanted it to gently undress the heroine in one classic scene, all without breaking her neck! 
 

Critics of King Kong 1976 frequently harped on the robot Kong as proof of the project's "failure", special effects wise.  Because the robot ultimately failed to live up to its billing (whether intentionally or not), and barely appeared in a few brief
Handsglimpses in the final film, critics contended that the film was not the special effects triumph which its fans claim.  But in their emphasis on the robot, those critics seemed strangely blind to the movie's true special effects accomplishments.  Along with the animatronic masks worn by Rick Baker, King Kong 1976 boasted the creation of a pair of Kong-size hands that were alone a triumph of mechanical engineering.

While a full-sized Kong hand had been used in the original 1933 King Kong, it was little more than an inanimate prop.  The fingers had to be man-handled into position around
Fay Wray's body by stage hands, and it could not move during the actual shot.  For his 1976 remake, Dino De Laurentiis wanted more -- a lot more. 

He wanted the hand (which was about twice as big as the one in the original) to convey emotion and character, to be tender one minute, then terrifying the next, to be capable of being submerged in a pool or slammed into the earth in a fit of simian rage.  And perhaps most amazingly, he wanted it to gently undress the heroine in one classic scene, all without breaking her neck!

For Lange it must have been like being fondled by a Buick!

Given that the hand was essentially a giant hydraulic steamshovel covered with rubber and Argentinian horse tails, what Carlo Rambaldi and Glen Robinson, its creators, accomplished was truly remarkable.  Operated by a team of six technicians through a boardremote control board, in one scene the hand gently caresses Jessica Lange with a gargantuan index finger, delicately stripping away her necklace a strand at a time, and finally pulling off her dress, all with a seeming gentleness which must have been at complete odds with the reality of the situation.

Consider that reality.  As soft as the hand appears, it was made of duraluminum metal under the rubber.  It was huge, ungainly, and its movements were conveyed from a distant control board.  Thus, there was a delay between a command to move and the movement itself.  If Jessica Lange had placed herself in the wrong position -- if she somehow found herself even an inch out of place -- the hand could have seriously injured her.  As gentle as the hand appears, for Lange it must have been like being fondled by a Buick!

Without warning, the hand just suddenly went limp, closing around the helpless stunt double...!

Of course, precautions were taken.  Special bolts were placed in the knuckles to prevent the hand from closing too tightly, even schematicif the main cable in the wrist broke.  It was a good thing this was done, because that was precisely what did happen, during a rehearsal with a stunt double in the hand.  Without warning, the hand just suddenly went limp, closing around the helpless stunt double who, knowing her profession, knew to go limp to prevent injury.  But the bolts worked and, even though the main cable holding up the hand had snapped, the fingers were prevented from squeezing too tightly.  Nonetheless, Dino De Laurentiis was not pleased by the delay caused by the broken cable -- a cable which he had been assured would be strong enough for the job.

There were actually two hands.  They were designed by Carlo Rambaldi, an Italian "line artist and sculptor" who had initially made his name creating a very famous animatronic puppet "Pinocchio" for an Italian television special.  As well as designing both the Kong costume worn by Rick Baker and the giant robot Kong, Rambaldi later went on to design the animatronic head of the alien in handRidley Scott's Alien (based on the art of H.R. Giger, of course) and the alien in Steven Spielberg's ET

Although King Kong 1976 was produced by Paramount Pictures, much of the design work was done at the larger MGM facilities.  Along with the robot Kong, the hands were constructed at the MGM construction department under the supervision of "special mechanical effects expert" Glen Robinson.  Initially an aircraft manufacturer was approached to build the robot and hands, but, when they reported it would take a year and a half to do the job, Robinson and crew decided to do it themselves.  It took them four and a half months, with Robinson noting: "Which, I guess, is pretty good."

Such being the case, it doesn't take much to see Danforth's reaction to the Academy Award as a response to that uncomfortable truth.

Glen Robinson, Carlo Rambaldi and Frank Van der Veer (in charge of optical effects) won a "Special Achievement Award" at the 1977 Oscars, an award which they shared with Logan's Run.  A minor controversy raged over the award, with one of the judges, Jim Danforth, reportedly resigning in protest.  In hindsight, the controversy seems absurd.  For the animatronic hand alone, King Kong clearly deserved the award, and the animatronic mask was nothing less than groundbreaking.  Whatever weaknesses there may have been, no film up to that date had come close to matching the quality and quantity of special effects techniques showcased in King Kong 1976.  And it certainly deserved it as much as Logan's Run!

But Jim Danforth was a loyal disciple of Ray Harryhausen, the master of stop motion Jessicaanimation, with Danforth himself not far behind the teacher, having most notably done the stop motion work for 1970's When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.  It is not surprising then that, as Forrest Ackerman reported in Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine, Danforth had made it clear even before King Kong 1976 opened that he was opposed to any remake of King Kong that didn't use stop motion.

King Kong 1976 wasn't the end of stop motion; but it was certainly the beginning of the end. Other than Ray Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans, the technique was henceforth relegated to minor effects
, with Jurassic Park essentially putting the final nail in the coffin.  Such being the case, it doesn't take much to see Danforth's reaction to the Academy Award as a response to that uncomfortable truth.

(In the wake of 1993's Jurassic Park and its combination of CGI with Kong-style animatronics, Rod Bennett's essay "Jurassic Park and the Death of Stop-Motion Animation" had this to say:

"Jurassic Park's mighty Tyrannosaur has bellowed out his arrival... and current stop-motion practitioners Jim Danforth, Dave Allen, Phil Tippet, & company are jumping out of windows, like so many Wall Streeters on Black Tuesday."

Instead of asking "Why did Danforth resign in protest?", we should be asking, "Why didn't he disqualify himself from the judging process, given his obvious professional bias?")

Kong's height was chosen first by establishing the size of the hands compared to Jessica Lange, then scaling the body to the hands.

In the 1933 movie, King Kong varied noticably in height.  At different times, he might be as small as twenty feet, or, in the city, as tall as fifty.  It all depended on the Armeffect required for that scene.  For King Kong 1976, Kong's height remained consistently slightly over forty feet.  That height was chosen first by establishing the size of the hands compared to Jessica Lange, then scaling the body to the hands.

Two full size legs were constructed as well to allow such scenes as where Jessica Lange, in the oil tanker, climbs down off Kong's leg, and in the Shea Stadium scene when he stomps on Charles Grodin.

Finally a full size styrofoam Kong was constructed for the climax filmed in New York, which simply required Kong to lie on the shattered cement after his fall (drenched in red karyo syrup to simulate blood).  According to Glen Robinson, in total they constructed four full size Kongs: the non-mechanical styrofoam Kong used in New York; the robot Kong; a Kong model used to make the horse hair skin; and the extra legs and arms.





                 

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