King Kong to come roaring back to Universal

LOS ANGELES -- After nearly 19 months away from the spotlight, a new King Kong -- more grizzled and, definitely, more ferocious -- is preparing to return to Universal Studios Hollywood.

Since the old animatronic Kong was destroyed in a fire on the theme park's back lot, Hollywood's top visual effects wizards have been tinkering away in a giant hangar in Playa Vista to create a new, more realistic ape to terrify visitors who take the park's signature back-lot studio tour.

Inside the humongous drab-green building, Academy Award-winning director Peter Jackson has led a team of film and theme-park ride experts in creating a 3-D version of the hairy ape to replace the Kong that died in the June 2008 fire.

The new Kong attraction, described by Universal Studios as the world's largest 3-D exhibit, will debut this summer at the height of tourist season.

If the new technology works as designed, park visitors will not only see Kong in three dimensions but will smell his banana breath, feel the gust of wind as he jumps over the guests and sense the ground quake when the ape engages a Tyrannosaurus rex in a life-or-death battle. The Kong attraction will be one stop on the park's back-lot studio tour ride.

During a recent preview of the technology, a dirty, battle-scarred Kong stared menacingly out from two 180-foot-long by 40-foot-tall screens that wrap around the trams that will carry visitors. In another scene, a 35-foot-tall T. rex steps over the trams, turns to the audience and bares its massive teeth.

The new digital Kong represents the latest trend in theme-park attractions: the increased use of movie magic to thrill and entertain park visitors, including 3-D effects, holograms and pyrotechnics. It replaces a 7-ton, 30-foot-tall mechanical ape that was built in 1986 and considered for many years to be one of the world's most-complex animatronic figures. The old Kong was also an icon, used by Universal Studios in television commercials and print ads to draw visitors.

It is unclear if the loss of the attraction hurt park attendance because the recession that took hold in 2008 cut theme-park attendance nationwide.

Within months of the fire, executives began forming plans to rebuild and improve the attraction. Park officials quickly agreed that film technology had advanced much faster than robotics and so decided that Kong would return in digital form.

But the concept of a 3-D King Kong was born long before the fire killed off the animatronic ape.

After Jackson completed the 2005 Academy Award-winning film King Kong for Universal Pictures, some of his visual effects experts converted scenes from the movie into a 3-D visual format.

"We saw it, and we said we wish we had done the whole movie in 3-D," said Joe Letteri, the film's visual-effects supervisor.

Since then Jackson and his team of visual-effects experts at Weta Digital have honed the 3-D technology on this year's Golden Globe-winning film Avatar. Many of the technological advances developed for Avatar will be used in the Kong attraction, Letteri said.

Last year, park officials announced the partnership with Jackson to create the attraction, formally titled "King Kong 360 3-D, created by Peter Jackson."

The new ape will resemble the Kong from the 2005 film, right down to the broken canine tooth and the scars over its right eye. Other creatures and scenes from the movie, including caves, giant bats and dinosaurs from Skull Island, will also appear on the four-story-tall screens. When the attraction is complete, guests on the studio tour will board a tram that will enter a 200-foot-long soundstage, and guests must don 3-D glasses for the attraction.

Inside the building, the tram will stop over a tram-mover system, powered by massive air bags that will lift, shake and drop the tram, giving guests the feeling of being jolted during the battle between Kong and the T. rex. The 180-foot-long screens will curve around the tram so the 3-D images seem to surround the viewers. A system of fans, sprayers and other devices installed in the building will spew park visitors with air, water and odors to bring the images to life.