LOS ANGELES — After nearly 19 months away from the spotlight, a new King Kong — more grizzled and, definitely, 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 largest 3-D exhibit in the world, will debut this summer at the height of tourist season.
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If the new technology works as designed, park visitors will not only see Kong in three dimensions but will smell his banana breadth, 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.
"You are really going to be immersed in every part of the show," Universal Studios show producer Valerie Johnson-Redrow said during the preview for employees and advertising sponsors last week.
The new digital Kong represents the lastest trend in theme park attractions: the increased use of movie magic to thrill and entertain park visitors, including 3-D effects, holograms and pyrotechnics.
The new Kong replaces a seven-ton, 30-foot-tall mechanical ape that was built in 1986 and considered for many years to be one of the most complex animatronic figures in the world. 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 attendance at the park because the economic 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 Kong would return in digital form.
Although they declined to discuss the price tag for the 3-D production, theme park officials said the cost will be more than six times the price of rebuilding the destroyed mechanical Kong.
"After the 2008 fire, we knew he had to bring him back to the back lot studio tour, but in a way that has never been experienced before," said Universal Studios Hollywood President Larry Kurzweil.
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 visual effects supervisor for the film.
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.
"It's going to feel like 'Avatar' but it will be happening all around you," he 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, said Johnson-Redrow. Guests must don 3-D glasses for the 2 1/2-minute 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, she said. 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, she said.
Jackson, Letteri and others have been putting the final touches on the attraction in the same 281,000-square-foot hangar in Playa Vista where aviation legend Howard Hughes built the 200-ton plane known as the Spruce Goose in the 1940s.
The few test scenes shown during a preview last week were taken from the 2005 "King Kong" movie but Johnson-Redrow said tour-takers will see original material, created by Jackson, specifically for the attraction.
"We are going to bring you to Skull Island," she said. "We are going to bring you right in the middle of a knock-down, drag-out fight with a T-Rex."