The Academy Award Winner discusses his favorite effects in the film, working with Peter Jackson as well as his work on the upcoming Halo and The Lovely Bones films

Having done digital computer work on such movies as The Abyss, two The Lord Of the Rings films and a host of other major Hollywood productions, it seems only fitting that Joe Letteri would eventually win an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for his work on 2005's King Kong.

Moving from Industrial Light and Magic in the United States to WETA Digital in Wellington, New Zealand, Letteri seems to have made a career of creating fantastic spectacles on the big screen. As someone who is in high demand throughout the film industry, Letteri was both gracious and introspective when he sat down for our interview.

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How does it feel to win an Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects?

Joe Letteri: Well, it was great, I mean Kong was such a big film and we were so deep into it... it's funny, but you really don't think about those things when you're making a movie. You're just trying to get it all done because there's just so much coming at you constantly, so much that needs to happen.

So it was really nice to be recognized for it. Especially given the other work that was out there this year, because there was just some really good stuff.

What in your opinion was the most challenging aspect of working on King Kong?

Joe Letteri: Creating Kong himself. It just took a long time to find his character. To that line of, "Gee, this is a real creature that lived. This is what happened to him over his whole life." Because we tried to build that whole history into him and getting that to read on his face, just kind of in the way he looked but then also in the way he acted and the way he expressed himself.

And then of course there were all the technical challenges of getting the fur and the muscles and everything working properly. Wrapping all of that up into a package took longer than we thought. We spent a long time really trying to just figure out who he is.

Going into that a bit, when all is said and done and you're sitting in a theater watching the film, or any film that you've worked on... are you able to just watch the movie or because you have worked so painstakingly on it, do you always look at a movie like King Kong differently than a viewer who sees it as one seamless piece?

Joe Letteri: I'm sure I do because I do know it so much in detail. Especially the first viewing, because it's so much like... we finished it so close... like in this case it was the premiere. We finished it only a week before the premiere. You're so close to seeing it and you're used to seeing so much of it, it's almost like you're seeing it at work if you know what I mean because it just kind of rolls right into it.

The second time I saw it I was able to sit back and just watch it, because we try to get all that out before the movie gets released. Look for all the mistakes and look for all the things that are going to trip us up when we watch the movie. The last thing I, or anyone who works on the film wants, is to sit in the movie and be taken out of it. We all want to enjoy the film that's why we make them.

Of all the effects you did on King Kong do you have one you maybe take a little more pride in than all the others?

Joe Letteri: There are a couple of scenes that I really like with Kong. There's two and it's hard for me to separate them. One is the first scene with Naomi where she's playing dead and she tries to escape, and Kong realizes what's happening and he gets angry and she engages him. She starts to do her Vaudeville act; she figures him out. She figures out what's sort of been missing in his life. He realizes that too and he can't bring himself to kill her like he's done all the others. That's sort of the two of them bonding for the first time but that's also the start of his downfall; you can see it coming.

And of course I just love the scene on the Empire State Building at the end.

When you're given a script like The Lord Of the Rings or King Kong, how do you go about breaking down a massive script like that from an effects standpoint?

Joe Letteri: We just look at it line by line in the script, scene by scene and figure out what we're going to need to create. We collaborate with everyone else, the art directors, costume designers, everything just to figure out what is going to be shot "in camera," what is feasible to do "in camera", what's not. We sort of trade ideas, "Oh yeah, we can do this. We'll build something on stage for this or it will be easier if we do that later on digitally or as miniature." There's a whole process that we go through to kind of whittle it down to what we need to create.

How did you come to work with Peter Jackson?

Joe Letteri: It was coming here for the The Two Towers because I was really interested in working on Gollum, and I knew some of the people here who were working on Lord Of the Rings. It was just sort of a perfect opportunity.

And so you've been working with him ever since?

Joe Letteri: Yes, we went from Lord of the Rings right into King Kong. We've done a couple of other films in the meantime, while all this was happening, but we just kind of rolled straight into it.

Was there ever a point as you were "rolling into it" that someone said, "Hey, after those three great films that we've created maybe we need a little break?"

Joe Letteri: (laughs) It may have seemed like a nice idea but it was never gonna happen.

How does your job change doing effects on a film like King Kong as opposed to Magnolia which is a much different kind of film?

Joe Letteri: In a way it doesn't change. It's all sort of the same thing you're just integrating it into the storytelling process. For a film like Magnolia, it's just a small part of one scene of everything else that goes on. You still have to be just as involved with the film. You have to know everything that's happening to get you up to that point. To understand what you need to do to make it fit in with the rest of the film. It's not created in isolation, you know? There was a lot of collaboration on that film as well, even though there wasn't a lot of effects work.

We do the same thing here where we just really work with Peter and everyone else to just figure out how we're going to tell the story.

What are you currently working on? Are you going to be doing any work with Peter Jackson on The Lovely Bones or Halo?

Joe Letteri: Peter hasn't written The Lovely Bones, yet, so we're waiting for that and Halo we're waiting for the script to finish; Peter's going to produce but not direct. So, I'm sure that we'll be involved with both of those once we know exactly what the story is. We're doing some work on X-Men: 3 right now, which will be out in a few weeks. And we're doing a film with Jay Russell directing called The Waterhorse that will be out next year.

King Kong will climb into DVD stores on March 28th, 2006 through Universal Home Entertainment.

Dont't forget to also check out: King Kong [WS] [2 Discs] [Special Edition]

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Evan Jacobs