Ross Riege, On Journeying Through The Jungle For ‘Kong: Skull Island’
With a film that’s headlined by remarkable talent all across the board, from Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson to Jordan Vogt-Roberts and Dan Gilroy, Kong: Skull Island accumulated all the pieces necessary to make it into one of the most outright fun blockbusters in quite some time. Centered around a team of soldiers who wind up exploring an unknown island in the middle of the Pacific, Kong: Skull Island is vibrant, thrilling, and all sorts of enjoyable. One of the most unheralded parts of what make the movie so exciting comes from the explosively and the wonder derived from the setting of Skull Island. While cinematographer Larry Fong does an incredible job of capturing the story and characters in the latest iteration of the King Kong mythos, it was second/nature unit DP Ross Riege who played a significant role in illustrating what the untouched world of Skull Island actually looked like.
Generally, the second unit is somewhat of a backup team for a production. Dedicated to shooting supplementary footage for a feature film, the second unit will be assigned to capture establishing shots, stunts, or inserts that the main production unit doesn’t have the time or energy to shoot. But in the case of Kong: Skull Island, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts knew that he had an opportunity to do something more with his second unit. While cinematographer Larry Fong handled the first unit with a stylized proficiency, Vogt-Roberts decided to title his second unit team, the “nature unit,” and put his old friend Riege behind the camera. As Riege put it, Vogt-Roberts was trying to do something entirely unique by bringing on Riege for this nature unit.
[Jordan] was looking to have some sort of additional unit that wasn’t a traditional second unit doing stunts and stuff. He wanted something that’s actually right there and really small and autonomous. [My crew and I] would see something in nature, or something around [us] and we [would just shoot it]. We had that freedom.
Riege’s addition to the production team of Kong: Skull Island was the culmination of a long-standing relationship between Riege and Vogt-Roberts. Introduced to each other when Vogt-Roberts first arrived in Los Angeles, the two have become a dedicated duo when it comes to shooting Vogt-Roberts’ work. They’ve worked on countless projects together, from online videos to comedy specials, and their work together finally reached a wider audience with Vogt-Roberts’ feature film debut, the excellent Kings of Summer. On that project, Riege recounts stories of Vogt-Roberts sprinting off into the woods with a camera so he could just spend time shooting whatever caught his eye. With a massive-scale blockbuster like Kong: Skull Island, Vogt-Roberts no longer had the opportunity to just go off by himself and shoot whatever looked cool, but by bringing Riege on board, the Kong: Skull Island team found a way to capture some of that indie spirit without detracting from the production of the main unit.
Riege describes his position as the director of photography on the nature unit as something of a utility role. He would meet with Vogt-Roberts at the start of every day, and receive directives on what needed to be accomplished. Some days that would involve hanging with the main unit and acting as a third camera, other days that would mean going off to capture a landscape or shooting specific stunts. The shoot was very run and gun and adaptive for Riege, and offered him the chance to explore a variety of different possibilities.
And while Riege’s work providing coverage and inserts was integral to the shoot, there was no doubt that he had the most fun working within the confines of exploring the natural beauty of his setting. Riege describes the locations where they shot in Vietnam with a sense of absolute wonder, talking about how his role and his work were such a perfect fit for this movie.
You’re basically living [the story], because in the movie there’s this crew that’s found this island that nobody knew existed, so there’s this sense of wonder and awe that’s built into what we’re trying to shoot, and those were the same feelings that I was having. [You’re] just sitting around looking [at the world around you] and saying, wow, that’s incredible, that’s beautiful. What is that little thing? So it became easy to funnel the shooting through my own experience.
If I’m [one of the soldiers in the movie] walking through this area for the first time and I don’t know if there’s a giant beast or a weird plant or something around the corner that’s going to catch my attention, what can I do to capture that feeling? How can I shoot that in a way that’s going to feel a little bit out of this world? [It was] all about being on the same page with the mood and the story they’re telling with this exploration of this unknown island. [That] was all I could do.
And Riege was able to completely capture that feeling while acting as an avatar for those soldiers. The world of Skull Island as seen in the movie is absolutely breathtaking. As Riege ambled throughout those jungles in Vietnam, he found himself completely awestruck by so many of his surroundings to the point where he thought audiences might even be a little hesitant to accept the visuals that he was capturing through his lenses.
There will be these beautiful landscapes, and in most movies, as audiences, if you step outside of the movie you might think maybe these landscapes are enhanced in [post-production], and maybe those mountains were added. But in this movie, there’s going to be a lot of these natural environments and landscapes that you see, that are actually what they were, because there’s a lot of stuff there that you don’t need to add to. It is what it is. It’s beautiful.
The sights and sounds of Skull Island are such an essential component of what brings the film together, and Riege’s contributions were a huge part of why that aspect was so successful. The exploration of a new world, and finding these unique and outstanding new creatures is such a defining characteristic of what makes the movie so fun to watch, and Riege’s state as the embodiment of those soldiers through his camera acutely picks up on what it felt like to be there. The transition from our world into these beautiful, unfamiliar landscapes are what allow audiences to commit themselves to being a part of this movie, and that wouldn’t be possible without the contributions of Riege.
As he describes it, and as the movie shows it, the locations that Riege and the rest of the Kong: Skull Island crew were privileged enough to shoot in, were truly fantastic. And Riege isn’t taking the opportunity for granted.
I never want to be pigeonholed into one thing or another, but if people said “let’s do a nature unit like they did on Kong,” I’d be more than happy to make a career out of running to the most amazing locations in the world and shooting nature. There’s something nice about filmmaking that way because you’re not in the comforts of stage. You’re working in the elements, you’re putting on boots, you’re getting muddy, you’re getting dirty. All of that stuff, it makes it into more of an adventure, so I think that’s something that makes the process fun and challenging. I’d be super happy with that for sure.
The experience of getting to join a close friend in the beauty of nature was clearly an excellent experience for Riege, and the footage that he shot invariably made the movie even better. Kong: Skull Island is a fun romp through the jungle, and that endeavor is more fully actualized thanks to the work of Ross Riege and his nature unit.
Kong: Skull Island is in theaters now, and you can next see more of Riege’s work on the upcoming season of ABC’s The Catch. If you’re interested in reading more stories about some of the most successful cinematographers in the business, check out our interview section, where you can find articles with Manuel Billeter (Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist), Paul Cameron (Westworld, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), Eric Robbins (In A Valley of Violence), and more!
[Header Image Photo Credit: Paul Murphy]