Through nearly nine decades and almost as many major studio movies, an enormous, tortured ape has moved the dial on special effects time and again. In the original King Kong, released in 1933, it was special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien’s unprecedented blending of a stop-motion monster with live-action footage of actors. In the 1962 Japanese production King Kong vs. Godzilla, it was special effects director Eiji Tsubaraya’s determination to convince audiences that a man in a rubber suit was, in fact, a gargantuan monster tearing through cities and towns. A steady fixture in a century of movie-making, Kong has benefited from advances in technology as he has helped move them forward.
The latest installment in the franchise, Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts and in theaters March 10, features the largest, most realistic Kong yet. Created by visual effects house Industrial Light & Magic, he stands at a towering 100 feet and wears a coat of 19 million digital hairs. As visual effects supervisor Jeff White tells TIME, this Kong is remarkable not just for his scale but for the way he interacts with his environment: the insects buzzing around his head, the mud caked into his fur, the way his hand splashes through water. And his power is not merely physical: his eyes convey profound emotion. As White explains, “It definitely helps when your character’s face is 12-feet tall. You have a lot of eyes to be looking at.”
But White and his team were not only looking forward when fashioning the new monster. “What was exciting to me about this project is that Jordan’s vision for the character was to make sure that he’s not just a gorilla,” says White. “Jordan’s idea was to take Kong back to the 1933 version and focus on him being this whole new species of movie monster.” The result is a marvel to behold, a monster all his own who owes his existence to the forebears in the images above.