Peter England is perhaps unusually qualified for a production designer to talk on the ‘whole show’ level. He is one of the trio – the others being Sonny Tilders and Carmen Pavlovic – to have been involved in KING KONG from the very beginning, not only working on preliminary designs with Tilders but also doing a huge amount of research on the story and the background to King Kong, even going down the psychological route where he made a delightful discovery about the “Uncanny Valley” principle (why our empathy with robots dips when they become too ‘perfect’).
Five years in development, four years in the animatronics workshop, numerous design ideas – creating Kong has, in the understated words of Creature Designer Sonny Tilders “been a serious challenge”. In a way, similar to the challenge Wallis O’Brien faced in 1933 when he worked out how to make an 18-inch steel-framed puppet covered in rabbit fur appear ‘live’ on film interacting with Fay Wray. Just like now, it had never been done before.
With their world-renowned expertise in animatronics proven with T-Rex and co. in Walking With Dinosaurs, then upped in complexity with flying dragons in How To Train Your Dragon, when first mooted the obvious first thought was to have a super-realistic, high-level, high-tech animatronic creature that could do things in a theatre that had never been done before. “It was going to be the most complex creature we ever made,” recalls Tilders.
With a plot that is so simple most people can recount the basic outline in one sentence, the King Kong tale has nevertheless maintained its fascination to audiences for almost eighty years. Why? It has transcended to the level of a myth.
Says director Daniel Kramer, “The beauty and the beast myth is personal to us all – from time to time, we all feel like the ugly, misunderstood, demonised beast; we all dream of being understood, accepted for who we are, loved. Midway through the myth, we are reminded that the beast is actually a beautiful, gentle, loving being whom society has made a monster with their own projections.”
The idea to adapt KING KONG for the stage began five years ago when newly appointed CEO of Global Creatures, Carmen Pavlovic, considered how to next use the extraordinary technology and capability of the company’s animatronics technology. Global Creatures was already having huge international touring success with the landmark Walking With Dinosaurs – The Arena Spectacular (WWD), which featured hyper-real animatronic creatures, so it made sense to look for another project that utilised this technology.