Eighty years after King Kong first appeared on movie screens, audiences are once again being captivated as the legendary creature is being brought to life, only this time he is live onstage. For the groundbreaking musical, presented by the world-renowned animatronics technology leader Global Creatures, PRG was named the general contractor handling the majority of production services. PRG provided the theater’s structural preparation and the lighting, audio, scenic automation and scenery packages.
When Producer Carmen Pavlovic, CEO of Global Creatures, was looking for a story that fit the capabilities of the company’s animatronics technology but also offered strong narrative and musical possibilities she landed on the to the idea of developing King Kong as a live theatre piece. KING KONG took five years to develop prior opening during the summer of 2013 at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne, Australia. To tell this epic story onstage, Pavlovic brought in director Daniel Kramer; production/scenic designer Peter England; costume designer Roger Kirk; lighting designer Peter Mumford; sound designer Peter Hylenski and projection designer Frieder Weiss.
PRG worked closely with the design team as well as the technical director Richard Martin throughout the production process. They started first with ensuring that the theater was structurally prepared and capable of handling the show. With a leading man that is a 19½’ tall, 1.2-ton puppet it was important to address the size and weight of the large amount of machinery required to move Kong but also for the numerous scenic elements.
Martin explains the massive structural work that PRG helped coordinate, “It was a major project, especially for theatre in Australia; it is unheard of here. The first thing that we did was the venue engineering impact. There were five structural engineers involved to get this into the theatre, and we did a significant amount of work with the PRG engineers. We completely removed the existing orchestra pit lifts; excavated some of the orchestra pit structure in the base to get a bit more depth; put in new supports; and installed three new pit lifts. We removed the theatre stage and all its support; put in new structural support to bear the increased loads, and installed a huge hydraulic lift element covering the majority of the new stage floor. We added in nearly 20-tons of structural steel to the grid; and completely removed 80 fly lines. We also upgraded the power because we needed 2,000 amps in the building. It was a major overhaul and upgrade to the theatre.”
Everything is built to fit within a 63’ grid height; from stage floor to grid surface. They installed a full sub-grid, known as the gantry work platform, at a working height of 32.8’. It covers the entire stage, wall-to-wall; back wall all the way down to the within three-feet of the smoke pocket. This is the operational platform for the crew and flying performers as well as housing scenic elements, automation rigs, winches, lights, sound, Venetian curtains, and connections to the LED wall underneath it. The platform itself weighs 12.5-ton plus houses another 3.5-ton of video processor racks, automation racks, winches, and performers.
King Kong hangs from the main re-enforced grid and moves via a gantry crane-style automation rig, known as the Kong apparatus. Sub-contracted by PRG, Stage Technologies supplied the King Kong apparatus automation system, which specifically controls the Kong’s broad movement on stage, operating in a large “keyhole” cutout that allows him to move around the majority of the stage.
PRG engineered and installed the separate scenic automation system that controls all the flying scenery, the hydraulic lifts, Venetian curtains, and the winches for the flying performers. The scenic/flying automation system uses the PRG Commander automation console. With both automation systems operating in the same area PRG knew it was important to avoid conflicts between the two systems. “We did a lot of studies on impact and potential issues between the two systems,” notes Martin. “Everything was done with safety as the most important consideration.”
Setting the Stage
Peter England’s scenic design for KING KONG includes scenes in New York, Skull Island and on board a ship in the ocean. The first NYC scenes evoke the feel of the iconic black and white photos of NYC in the 1930s and England had PRG construct three scenic walls with I-beam platforms, known as the Times Square walls that concertina to the work platform. There is also a 19 ½’ long I-beam that flies in recalling images of men hovering on the I-beams in the air as they built the city to great heights. In the second act return to NYC England wanted to convey the idea that some of the electrical energy from Skull Island was brought back with Kong so he had the 1,500 rivet heads on the I-beam set electrified with LEDs in them. “It is our version of the Great White Way,” describes England. “We are creating this world of light; bringing the cold hard steel to life.”
For the penultimate scene of Kong climbing up the Empire State Building, England is especially pleased with the vertical rolling scenic device that gives the effect of Kong climbing up. “That is a beautiful piece of machinery built by PRG. It is three rollers on a single axle, a continuous roll, like a treadmill. It is the façade; a snapshot of the windows on the building that goes around and around; an opaque cloth with cut translucent windows in it that is backlit, to create the illusion of rising. People think it is projection—there is some projection on it—but we would never get the depth of visual effect if it was just projection.”
England wanted to infer the boat rather than build a boat for the scenes during the ocean journey. “I wanted to do something that was suggestive,” states England, “something new but quite simple in its form. We have a boat shape that comes out of the floor but it is the movement that sells the boat and also gives it some musicality. The simplicity to it totally belies the technology that PRG put in behind it.” Martin agrees, “It is very complicated technology that makes me smile every time I see it. PRG excelled themselves on this; it’s a wonderful bit of engineering. It seems quite straightforward, but it is really not. It is a very heavy piece that travels up, down, and gimbals at a good speed. It rocks ‘n’ rolls around absolutely dead silent, then it drops within a millimeter of where it starts each night; dead accurate.”
The boat is a motion platform lift, which is cut as a 30’ equilateral triangle that raises out of the stage floor. Using three large hydraulic cylinders that are programmed on the Commander console, the platform moves in all three axes at the same time, mimicking the look of a boat’s bow being lifted and dropped as the ocean buffets it. There are two hydraulic power units 9.2’ below that power the boatlift for a combined 140hp and it moves at 2’ per second. The boatlift weighs 17,000lbs but with people and scenery the weight is 25,000 lbs. The PRG system also provides encoder feedbacks to the video operator so they can sync their video waves on the LED screen with the boat’s movement.
How though do you work with an automation and scenic shop half a world away? “Today’s technology with e-mail, Skype, etc. it wasn’t that hard,” points out Martin. “PRG were so organized and on top of all the details. As soon as their team had drawings they would send them for review, if we made changes it was immediately passed to all the different PRG departments to make sure that conflicts in systems were handled long before we got into the theater. I can’t say enough about working with PRG. The distance made no difference to the attention and quality of work, it was top of the line.”
Light the Lights
Space in the automation heavy production of KING KONG meant the lighting designer Peter Mumford had to be creative and economical in his selection of fixtures and hanging positions. “Poor Mr. Mumford and his lights; he couldn’t put in any overhead lighting bars; all of his lights had to be fit around the keyway,” comments Martin. “They had to be out of the way so Kong wouldn’t hit them. Still Peter did a wonderful job, most people don’t realize how complicated it was for him to light this show.”
Mumford’s found that working with the challenges was actually the solution. He explains, “It was not really a question of working around the gantry it was a about working with it. We didn’t have the conventional overhead anything, because all that space was taking up by the Kong machinery. Having designed the rig into the gantry it was a structure, which could contain a very large number of moving lights. I was also able to build some bars into the false proscenium at the front so that was a more conventional position. I also add things like the lightlocks with VL3500; they were at the back of the gantry so we could fly movers right into the floor up against the LED screen. Then big banks of Sharpys left and right. You look for positions, it is like a set with a ceiling, you work with the reality of the way it is. That becomes your canvas and you find how you are going to light it and how you are going to approach it.”
Along with the VL3500s, his design includes Clay Paky 700s, Sharpys and over eighty ETC Source Four LED Lustr+ profiles. His rig could not include any tungsten sources. “I am using a totally non-tungsten rig, I had to because any tungsten sources would interfere with the infrared projection work,” notes Mumford. “I am a big supported of maintaining tungsten as an available theatrical source but this isn’t the show that reflects that.” Programmer and Associate Lighting Designer Victoria Brennan used an ETC EOS control console, which is linked to the show control backbone for triggering some cues and positions.
Mumford was pleased with the support from PRG, even from across the globe. “PRG were great, they are always great,” he says. “I work with them a lot in England. I also had an absolutely brilliant crew in Australia.” He also worked closely on this production with the scenic team from PRG, as there was a large amount of set electrification. He put ETC Selador Desire D60 Vivid Luminaires within the Empire State building solely for the effect when Kong falls off said building. They also created pop-up footlights that come out of a floor grill at the front of the stage where Mumford placed Clay Paky Sharpys into the floor that shoot into a white reflective on the footlights. He can then also turn the Sharpys around to be shafts of light into the space. There is LED tape used throughout the set to and glow and resonance to some of the scenic elements as well.
The Sound of Kong
Sound Designer Peter Hylenski and Associate Sound Designer/Production Engineer Simon Matthews worked with Shelly Lee the Australian Associate Sound Designer to give a voice to King Kong. Matthews explains, “The biggest challenge was the voice of King Kong. Nobody knew what that would be at first. It ended up being performed live. A guy named Harley Durst, every night, vocally performs him. He’s got a microphone; the microphone feeds into proprietary software. King Kong is alive.”
‘Kong’s entrance is one of the coolest theatrical moments that I’ve seen, or certainly have been a part of,” continues Matthews. “It takes all the departments and when he lands for the first time it’s magnificently loud. He roars and you still don’t see him. You start to see his eyes and his teeth. He’s landed behind this web of lights and a fog curtain. You just see his teeth and just his eyes; then he roars and it’s amazingly loud. People around me in the house gasped. It was a guttural reaction gasp. It was incredible. Then there’s another moment in the show, where King Kong is holding Ann in that iconic, loving gesture. King Kong turns and roars; it’s palpably different. That moment, making the roar live makes it work; you couldn’t replicate that moment with a recording. You do truly forget, as a watcher, as a listener, that he’s not alive. That’s the highest testament to the guys who perform him. In the end, what the technical side has given is the tools.”
Mostly a Meyer rig with a d&b surround system of M’elodie arrays. “One of the notable things about the system is that we have arrays of subwoofers that are 20’ tall on proscenium left and right,” describes Matthews. “We have 700HPs. We have four of the new 1100LS across the floor in front. There’s a total of 14 dual 18s or 28 subwoofer drivers. When King Kong puts his fist on the ground, you feel it. We have a sound effects operator to take visual cues—‘boom, boom’ that’s 50% of the sound. Without that you’re watching Kong and you think that while he’s really amazing; but he’s not alive unless he makes some sort of sounds. Those sounds need to interact with his environment and with his voice.”
Matthews feels it is a fairly straightforward sound system. “It is mixed on a Studer Vista 5. It goes through the D-Mitri system. The heart of the system is this mix engine I/O. The Studer goes through that. We also have the sound effects operator that’s using a QLab setup. It’s actually being triggered over Show Control by D-Mitri. The D-Mitri is the master cue list. We run five separate cue lists during the show. The Studer has a range of channels on its own cue list that it exists inside of. Sound Effects has its own cue trigger list; we’ve got the King Kong turbocharge list; and then we have the voice modulation key list. D-Mitri sends the MIDI Show Control out to the lighting and video departments. There’s really nothing else that’s still suited to be that level of show control unless you go to a dedicated show control platform. Even then the flexibility is already in the D-Mitri; you don’t have to build modules or timelines. You just operate it. There are two outputs that come from our audio matrix that go to the video system so they can use whatever sound effect or Kong’s voice to modulate the video that’s being played. That’s another realtime experience.”
The audio package was provided by PRG out of the United States and shipped to Australia. The system was put together as a normal Broadway show would and then put into sea containers for a high seas journey of about 45 days. “PRG was very supportive. If somebody says ‘hey we want you to go do a show in Australia and the shop is in New York,’ which by the way is 10,400 miles away, I would choose PRG.’ We went in anticipating that there would be problems but we really didn’t have any.”
The award-winning design work has thrilled audiences and the entire creative team feels that they have achieved a good balance of technology and narrative. England concludes, “I think at the very heart of what this production is, is a true marriage of traditional and ambitious technology; it reflects the story in a way. It is certainly something that no one has seen before. The goal in everyone’s heart has been to create something that has heart, emotion and humanity. It is not spectacle but it is spectacular.”
Designing KING KONG: The Creature, The Sets and the Costumes
Fit for a King – Stage Directions
King Kong Live On Stage – Video