Kong mask"Man in an Ape Suit"
"Who do you think went through there -- some guy in an ape suit?"

The mere phrase "man in an ape suit" conjured up deliciously inept images of rigid paper mâché masks and visible zippers

From a marketing point of view, one question may forever be debated.  In interviews, De Laurentiis and company made the decision from the start to deemphasize Rick Baker
and the Kong costume in favour of the full-size robot Kong. All the same, critics found out that a costume would be used for much of the film, and this costume became a lightning rod for their barbs.

The mere phrase  "man in an ape suit" conjured up deliciously inept images of rigid paper mâché masks and visible
zippers, comical visions of countless B-movies from King Kong vs. Godzilla to Robot Monster to television's Spencer, Tracy and Kong (not that MaskBob Burns' Tracy the gorilla didn't win us over anyway!).  But to compare the ground-breaking engineering marvels devised for King Kong '76 -- both mask and suit -- to the simplistic, zipper-backed costumes seen in previous films is like comparing the T-rex in Jurassic Park to Barney the Dinosaur.

And perhaps if De Laurentiis had said as much in interviews, he might have mollified at least some of his critics, just as the later ad campaigns for the various Batman movies got considerable mileage out of their newly engineered bat-costume (which was, after all, clearly a descendant of the Kong costume, as we will see).

Bob Burns and Rick Baker were the top names on a very short list.

Things might have turned out quite a bit differently.  In the pre-Kong/ pre-Star Wars '70s, there were no "special effects" companies and most films relied on in-house effects experts.  But, when a gorilla was called for, it was standard to go out and find someone who could supply their own gorilla costume. (Take for example the alleged
sketchesgorilla costume used in Escape From the Planet of the Apes.  Yikes!)  Bob Burns and Rick Baker were the top names on a very short list.  Rick Baker was hired, along with his own gorilla costume, but it was quickly recognized that Baker's costume, as impressive as it was, couldn't possibly come close to providing the range of emotions which De Laurentiis demanded for his Kong.  Enter from Italy a mechanical effects wizard, Carlo Rambaldi. 

After reading the script, Rambaldi determined that they would need seven masks, each one animatronically controlled to provide a range of expressions.  More than one mask was necessary because there wasn't room in a single mask to include all the cables and mechanics  required for all the expressions.  Rick Baker, though hired to wear the costume, was also called upon to sculpt the mold used to make the outer latex skins of the masks.

The masks were built up much like a real face, starting with a plastic "skull" over which were placed artificial muscle groups activated by cables which entered the costume through Kong's feet.  Though the full-size Kong used hydraulics to provide movement, there wasn't room in the masks for the tubes which a hydraulic system would require.  Hence the use of cables controlled by operators working at control boards just off the set.

It was pointed out that the only parts of Rick Baker actually visible on film were  his eyes...

As revolutionary as the animatronic masks were, the rest of the costume was itself a feat of engineering which set the standard for later costumes, and served as the suitprecursor for everythingsuit from Batman's muscled-up Batsuit to Hellboy's "ripped" scarlet torso.  (You didn't really think Ron Perlman looked like that, did you?)

Far from being a simple zippered boo-suit, the costume invented for Kong '76 (actually four costumes were used) realistically depicted the appropriate musculature beneath the fur through a special undersuit with silicone filled muscles.

The costume's hands used animatronic extensions, again controlled by operators off set, so as to give Kong appropriately gorilla like long limbs.  It was pointed out that the only parts of Rick Baker actually visible on film were his eyes -- and even those were gorilla-fied using contact lenses!  (Rick Baker explained that the key to a good gorilla suit is in the eyes.  If they look too human, the entire effect is lost.)

So complex was the result of all this  technology that to use the word "costume" seems wholly inadequate.  It was more nearly a state-of-the-art, remotely-controlled, mechanized "exo-skeleton".

headSadly, Rick Baker had few good  memories of his work on Kong '76, feeling under appreciated, that his suggestions were too readily ignored (he wanted Kong to knuckle-walk) and that his contributions were unfairly downplayed -- which of course they were.  The credits merely read: "With special contributions from Rick Baker."

Nonetheless, he had little reason to worry as, in spite of the misleading press, it was well known that he had played Kong in the "ape suit", and he received only praise, even from those who pilloried the film itself.  And it seems likely that Baker owes his present status as a top Hollywood make-up man to the initial boost given him from the publicity surrounding King Kong 1976.

But who'd have thought a guy could make a life-time profession out of dressing up like gorillas?!


Kingdom Kong