Trevor Hogg chats with visual effects producer Allen Maris, production visual effects supervisor John Dykstra; visual effects supervisors Ken McGaugh, Guillaume Rocheron and Darren Poe, previs supervisor Eric Carney and designer Christian Pearce about the monstrous task of bringing a Toho Studios icon back to the big screen….
“I received a call from Kim LoCascio, Legendary’s VFX Executive, saying they had a cool project that was starting to gear up and asked if I’d like to meet for it,” recalls VFX Producer Allen Maris (Prometheus) as to how he became involved with reviving a Toho Studios iconic diakaiju (giant monster) called Gojira which is better known outside of Japan as Godzilla. “I met with her and Ty Warren and then they set up a Skype interview with Gareth [Edwards]. I started the week after that.” A major conventional presentation served as a starting point. “Coming into this one, they had done some extensive work developing the VFX as they wanted to do a Comic-Con teaser. Going in there was a previs sequence complete for Hawaii, the Godzilla model was about 90% developed and there was quite a lot of artwork setting the mood of the film. Going into the bidding, we knew exactly the style and tone as well as knowing what our main character would look like. It made things a lot more precise for us.” The Toho movies starring the creature were not ignored by the man behind the camera. “Gareth wanted to go back to the roots of the character so I know he referenced a lot of them during the development phase and we took bits of inspiration, like the blue breath and fins.” Maris was teamed with Jim Rygiel (The Amazing Spider-Man) who served as the visual effects supervisor. “Jim is a great guy and easy to get along with; that, coupled with his reputation in the VFX industry, brought a sense of confidence to the other departments that he had a vision and the knowledge of how to bring this type of movie to life. We mainly focused on our particular aspects of the production. I dealt with the schedule, budget, crew and logistics of everything while he focused on the daily shooting and leading the creative feedback loop from Gareth.”
“We used the Comic-Con piece for creature and interactive elements as well as production artwork to build out the rest of the VFX sequences,” remarks Allen Marris. “Gareth also does Photoshop notes so we could give him a frame grab and he’d do a paint-over to show what he’s looking for. Later on when he became too busy we hired Art Directors Steven Messing [Avatar] and John Park [Transformers: Age of Extinction] to take over those tasks. We then had a great reference for the vendors showing which direction to take their shot.” Assisting the project was John Dykstra who won an Oscar for being part of the visual effects team responsible for the original Star Wars (1977). “John was brought on at the end of the director’s cut period. John had just finished up Seventh Son  for Legendary and they were quite happy with what he brought to the table, which is a great sense of style, realism and 30+ years of VFX experience. It became apparent that with a tight schedule and a third act that was primarily VFX, an additional supervisor to help design and oversee that battle would be needed.” Maris adds, “Even though John was the newcomer, he quickly became part of the department; he’s a wonderful guy that brought so much to the VFX of the movie. We had lots of conversations about the physics, the dust and debris simulations, the tight schedule and the daily tasks of keeping things moving to the finish.” Dykstra states, “Gareth always wanted to incorporate people into the shot in some way that kept the audience aware of not only the scale of the creatures but the scale of the environment in which the fight was taking place. You do that by putting the creatures next to buildings but also by putting people in the foreground or elements in the foreground that gave us a sense of a camera operator position.”
“One of the additional problems with creatures this big is that when you’re close enough to see the creature you don’t see the environment and when you’re far enough away to see the environment you don’t get the detail of the creature,” observes John Dykstra. “Putting the people and creatures together in a storytelling way was the difficulty for the third act. The creatures are bigger than most of the monsters that you’ve seen in recent tentpoles. If we looked over Ford’s [Aaron Taylor-Johnson] shoulder and saw the creature we needed to incorporate pieces of architecture in the environment so when we did the reverse and saw what Ford was seeing it put you into the same space as him.” Dykstra notes, “One of things that computers don’t do a good job of is chaos or any kind of random event whether it’s motion or physics. Great care was given under Gareth’s tutelage to make sure that the camera operation had a sense of humanity to it. The camera adjusted for the action as if someone was photographing. One of the toughest things to do with a movie like this is when the physics of it start to become fantasy. If you take something that are 300 feet long and swing it through a 90 degree arc in two seconds that speed at the tip of that limb or tail is 450 miles per hour. A difficult part was finding a balance that gave the creatures the mass and scale we needed to have but kept the fight kinetic and energetic. If you start thinking about how fast they could really go they’d probably be very slow.”
“When we start destroying buildings you’re back in the physics world in terms of creating mass and the kinds of shockwaves that travel through rigid structures,” states John Dykstra. “It’s tough. When you start doing rigid bodies dynamics the part that gets lost are the random stuff that happens when you do real destruction of real objects; that was a real effort on the part of MPC and Double Negative to keep reality in there with the use of atmospherics so you fill it up with stuff in the air. You ended up with stuff streaming off of buildings as they fell. You ended up with stuff streaming off the creatures as they interacted with the buildings.” Imperfections had to be incorporated into the imagery. “In some cases you find that simulations are accurate to the last ounce or centimetre in terms of the specifics of them but when we look at them they don’t look real. Part of that is there are not enough random events in it as should be. Smoke obscures the background. The thing you do with smoke to make it interesting is that you introduce motion in that environment that turns the smoke into a swirl or a shape. It’s a movement you wouldn’t get unless you added in a random element.” Complicating matters was the lack of lighting sources as the action takes place at night in a city bereft of power. “Moonlight was modulated in many cases by clouds and in other situations by smoke or shadows cast by architecture adjacent to it. We had the conceit that when needed we could build a fire in order to have light that could fill and pickup the details of the creature.”
“During the shoot, Jim and I would discuss the cross over between VFX and the other person’s department,” states Allen Maris. “It’s always give and take and trying to find the balance that makes the most sense creatively as well as logistically and financially. Many of the conversations with Seamus McGarvey [Cinematographer] were about understanding his lighting plan as well as the interactive lighting that might be needed on-set to tie the practical and VFX worlds together. Owen Paterson [Production Designer] really brought Gareth’s vision from the script and his head into reality for everyone. The artwork that they created was outstanding and gave us such a great guide to follow for the rest of the scene and the full digital shots. Most of the conversations we had with Owen and Grant van der Slagt [Chicago], the supervising art director, were, ‘Okay, who’s destroying what?’ We all felt that the best approach for the movie was to provide as much practical destruction set dressing as possible, and we’d take over digitally with the larger parts. With Sharen Davis [Costume Designer], there weren’t a lot of creative conversations since we were doing non-costumed characters and when we were doing digital people, we just matched what she did practically. We mostly had interaction with her great crew helping us logistically doing reference photos and cyberscans. We spent a lot of great time with Bob Ducsay [Film Editor]; he played a critical role in our world. Since a large portion of the third act [as well as the key creature scenes] required adding digital creatures, there was a lot of back and forth and discussion with him about what animation was needed to tell the story as well as how cut changes impacted us, and of course how our animation impacted the cut and story. You’d give the vendor the requirements of the shot and the direction and many times they would have to change it slightly due to physics or restrictions or whatever the case. Sometimes they would offer up a cooler animation than we were expecting, and if Gareth and Bob liked it, Bob would go into the Avid and figure out how to make it work in the cut.”
“Gareth is a big fan of pre and postvis and when you’re doing complicated character and full environments, it’s critical,” states Allen Maris. “The Third Floor came in even before the Comic-Con teaser and did the Hawaii sequence with him. Once I came aboard, we rolled into previs within a couple weeks and did all the VFX sequences, wrapping them up right as we were getting into shooting. The third act was critical, not only in figuring out the action, but also developing the fighting styles between the creatures. We all looked at hours of animal fights and Gareth selected nuances from different animals and the way they interacted and used that for inspiration. All the sequences were referenced constantly on set by Gareth but also it was used as his way to help communicate with E.J. Foerster [Carrie], the second unit director, and the other crew what he wanted. The AD’s would cut out frame grabs from previs and storyboards and pin them to a board and when the shot was done, flip it over. When all the boards were turned over, we knew the day was made.” When it came to selecting the different visual effects vendors, Maris remarks, “I had just finished working with MPC a couple times and had a great experience so if the schedule and budget could work I wanted them to play some part. Dneg had been doing some great work recently with their environments and had built a pretty solid animation pipeline after John Carter , so we started looking at them for a large portion of it as well. As we started getting more into the breakdown and budget phase, Dneg and MPC started to become the frontrunners. MPC did some great large scale creature and water work for Clash  and Wrath of the Titans  so the question of who was going to do our main character started to become pretty clear. At that point Jim came aboard, and after looking at lots of demos and doing a lot of scenarios on how to split the work up, things started to make sense to do a two vendor split and try to keep Godzilla and all the San Francisco shots with MPC. Kim LoCascio at Legendary was supportive of what we were considering so after discussing with Warners, things fell into place quite quickly after that.”
“For the amount of time we had there wasn’t much room for error,” states Double Negative Visual Effects Supervisor Ken McGaugh. “We had to make sure that the compositions and timings were locked down before they turned over the work to us so we didn’t have to go through that part of the creative process. We could get things running with the shots.” 400 visual effects shots were divided between the two facilities in London and Singapore. “Initially it was 50/50 but as the film got refined on the client side it ended being a 2/3 London and 1/3 Singapore split. London did the MUTO Hatching Sequence, Hawaii Sequence and Trestle Bridge Sequence which is when the MUTO [Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object] smashes the bridge and pulls the train. Everything else was Singapore which was including shots within our sequences that didn’t have large scale effects or creature work in it.” Some assets were shared with MPC. “If one of our shots had a hero Godzilla in it we would share the shot with MPC. They would do the animation, lighting and rendering on Godzilla and give us the elements. If it wasn’t a hero Godzilla, for example, all of the shots of Godzilla swimming those were fully us. We still used MPC’s models and textures but we used our reduced level of rigging and look development to execute those shots.” The ocean is all CG in the high shots where Godzilla is swimming with all of the boats around him. “We still had to do some integration work between the interactive water around Godzilla and the ocean water around him.”
“For our portion of the work we weren’t creating wholesale environments except for the MUTO pit,” remarks Ken McGaugh. “Most of the shots were filmed on-location so we would take our cues from the actual locations that we were filming in. They didn’t film in Japan but most of our Japan work involved the environment having to be destroyed and derelict so they wouldn’t be able to film it anyway. No one has seen skyscrapers that have been abandoned for 15 years and have been through earthquakes and hurricanes. There was some guesswork and a lot of back and forth with the director.” Large camera moves meant that matte paintings could not be relied upon for the task. “We had to build most of the destruction in 3D. The interesting thing about the aftermath was that it started off being at least a day old, sometimes longer. But as the show progressed, and the edit and story evolved the destruction got closer in time to the point where some of the destruction we actually see happening.” Double Negative takes pride in its ability to integrate CG into live-action footage. In Hawaii, the CG elements were typically the monorail track, the creatures and any aircraft attacking the creatures. Everything else was photographic. The airport stuff was all filmed at San Francisco Airport because it was needed for a Comic-Con trailer that was going to be released before they were going to be shooting in Hawaii. Also the airport in Honolulu didn’t quite look the way they wanted the airport to look in the film.” There was little plate photography of Los Vegas. “It was mostly stills photography with the exception being aerial plates which were heavily augmented with lots of post-destruction environment work.” McGaugh reveals, “The big shot looking down the strip was a fairly last minute change where the MUTO is seen in the background causing destruction and battling some helicopters.”
“The fog was a big player in setting the mood for the Trestle Bridge Sequence,” remarks Ken McGaugh. “For us the biggest challenge was making sure that the fog felt realistic and contributed to a sense of claustrophobia. We also had to get this sense that we’re in a valley environment. We had to make sure that the fog was quite patchy so we could see the distant horizon lines and moonlit sky. The bridge itself was CG. Because the scene was night time it was mostly broad stroke lighting. We did opt to go for CG trees rather than matte painted ones simply because the fog was such a storytelling point that it needed to be changed shot by shot. Within every shot we had lots of iterations of how embedded the fog was.” McGaugh states, “The client had decided on some reference of trestle bridges to use as a guide for style but the actual layout of the bridge needed to be able to fit into the environment to help tell the story. Anytime the action is taking place on the bridge that was a set piece of the railroad tracks but below supporting that was all CG. When you’re down in the valley looking up the bridge was always CG except for the poles that the soldiers climb down which was a set piece.” Another practical element was utilized. “The train on fire coming at camera was a real element that was filmed; any of the wide shots where you see it falling off the bridge were all CG.”
“We were given some early concept art for the power plant should look like and we used that as the basis not only for the power plant but also the post-destruction for the MUTO pit,” states Ken McGaugh. “The surrounding buildings were leftover from early power plant days before the meltdown and collapse. We built all of the surrounding buildings. The design and style of the buildings were based off of a paper mill near Vancouver where they shot some of the live-action work and there was a certain design with the big buildings with the green stripes that we replicated and came up with new building designs. From the original concept art they always had three cooling towers. The layout of the buildings and cooling towers we moved around shot by shot because they cared more about composition than a strict adherence to layout continuity.” The camerawork was grounded in reality. “Early on Gareth said anytime we’re doing a shot which is ultimately going to be a CG camera he wanted it to be justifiable. You have to believe that there would actually be a cameraman there. For wide establishing shots it had to feel like it was like an aerial shot filmed from a helicopter.”
“The faces of the MUTOs are quite insect-rigid so it’s more about posture and body position,” notes Ken McGaugh. “It’s posing them for how threatening you want them. Some of the shots we had of Godzilla were the inserts into the news footage when he and the MUTO are fighting. There was quite a bit of back and forth with Gareth, Jim and John Dykstra because he is so low detailed in those shots because they’re heavily degraded mobile phone footage. We had to tell the story through silhouettes. For the close-ups of the MUTOs there was little room for articulating the face. It was in the eye pattern. In how active the eye is on the glowing bits of the eye.” Some artistic license was needed to light 350 foot monsters. “The creatures are so large there are not a lot of cues you can take from the environment that you’re putting them in. The creature has to be bigger than the environment. It becomes a creative process. You beauty light it. You make sure that there is a good rim and key light. Were it gets tricky is with the MUTO at the airport where you have all of the ground lighting that you have to make sure integrates with the plate. The MUTO is taller than the flood lights being used by the airport for lighting the ground so you have to make sure above that it doesn’t disappear. We always pretended that the key light was the moon. We put the moon somewhere where we thought it would look nice and put the rim lighting around it.”
“Peter Chiang from Double Negative was there for the first half of the shoot and I was there for the second half,” states Ken McGaugh. “It was important to be on-set because we collaborated with Jim and Gareth to make sure that we achieved the effect that they wanted. We made sure that the tracking markers were put where we wanted them to best execute the shot to designing the shot itself for it to work best for the visual effects.” Not every visual effect was meant to standout. “Most of the invisible stuff would have been like the Philippines mine that was shot in a rock quarry where we did a big cavern extension, although that is pretty obvious when you see all of the ribcages and giant skeletons of creatures. Up on the surface we extended the rock quarry and added thousands of miners to the hillsides.” The most significant issue was not technical. “Our biggest challenge was time because we had a very short schedule. It was thought that receiving the creatures from another vendor was going to be a bigger challenge than it ended up being. Fortunately, MPC works in a compatible way to the way we work. We were pleasantly surprised by how we were able to use their models and textures.” McGaugh remarks, “I’m proud of everything that we did. The Trestle Bridge Sequence was one from early days that everyone expected to be the favourite because the previs had such a good moody suspenseful feel. It turned out the way that we expected. The Hatching Sequence was probably the one where we’re most proud of in the sense that it was the one we started with the least material and involved the most unknowns.”
“In 2012 Gareth came to MPC London because he wanted to create a one minute piece to present to the studios his vision for the film,” explains MPC Visual Effects Supervisor Guillaume Rocheron. “There were six or seven shots showing apocalyptic vistas. Gareth worked with Nicolas Aithadi to put that reel together which would then help to green light the movie; it ended up being presented at Comic-Con 2012. A year after we entered into proper pre-production here in Vancouver where the creature design was fleshed out and we started to build Godzilla.” Another major task was the big battle between Godzilla and the MUTOs that takes place in San Francisco. “We weren’t doing destruction for the sake of doing it. We used crashing buildings a lot of times as a scale comparison element. Gareth wanted to create a visual spectacle filmed from a human point of view.” Rocheron notes, “We had a completely digital city with digital creatures fighting in there. Most of the frames that you are seeing are completely CG. The movie is grounded in reality and Gareth wanted the monsters whether they’re fighting or walking to have that feeling that they’re really there. All of the camerawork had to be from realistic vantage points. To get natural looking cinematography you need to design the shot to show that you’re filming the characters in their environment and not the other way around. We could have used empty plates of San Francisco, tried to do some camera moves in there and added the creatures but it was much more efficient for the visual storytelling to have full control of that cinematography.” Fire proved to be a useful. “We created areas of the city which were on fire that we could control and position so we could come up with strong and pure framing.”
“Godzilla had to look like a creature that nature created not like a fantasy creature,” remarks Guillaume Rocheron. “We had to create a new breed of animal that looked like it could be made by nature.” Footage featuring crocodiles, alligators, and lizards was referenced to expand upon the concept art developed by Gareth Edwards [Monsters] and the Weta Workshop. “When we build creatures we start with the outer shell to define how they look but then you break it down anatomically to create the skeleton, muscle and identify layers of fat as well as the thicknesses of skin.” Motion studies were conducted involving bears and lizards. “The idea was to make him feel heavy and fluid at the same time.” Reality had to be modified. “Godzilla is the central character of the movie so you can’t make the audience feel like they’re watching an animal documentary. You need to give him some character. You have to have that subtle human element which is the legacy of Godzilla which is him being played by the man in a suit. It was a fine balance because it’s not like you can get Godzilla to smile. You have to find combinations of body language and facial expressions like cheek puffs and nostril flares, and growls. We wanted the audience to cheer for Godzilla when he was winning and fear for him when he gets beaten down. When we were animating Godzilla we often compared him to a brawler; he’s a character with a lot of confidence because of his size and power.” Rocheron adds, “We spent a lot of times on his eyes for example to make sure that they have depth. There’s a moment of recognition in the third act battle where Godzilla exchanges looks with Ford. It was trying to get that personality to translate through without going into the cartoony or fantastical creatures where you have a lot more leeway.”
Previous Godzilla movies were watched when devising the signature blue atomic breath of the title character. “This was the element which was going to get it to cross the line of being a fantasy creature,” observes Guillaume Rocheron. “We were trying to find that mix of something that could happen. We used references from World War II tanks. They had a fire and liquid quality at the same time. You’re dialling the colour to get it to be blue because that’s how it’s supposed to be for Godzilla but not make it too cartoony.” Rocheron observes, “Godzilla’s fingernail is as big as your car; he is definitely a massive character. Just creating the assets, and painting the model took us six months to build up.” The sense of weight of Godzilla came from the style of animation. We ran simulations that simulated the movements of the muscles. When you stomp hard on the ground the muscles in your thighs are going to jiggle. There are areas where you have more fat than others. We take all of that into account. Once the creature is animated we take a pass of the simulating the way the muscles and fat are going to move. Is his skin thick or thin? Are the scales rubbing against each other? You go through the character and find all of these properties. You can’t go over the top because not only is he heavy but is really big so you also need to convey a sense of scale. We worried about how the wrinkles on the skin were going to move because you might see that close-up.” Godzilla is not showcased early in the movie. “Gareth doesn’t throw everything at the screen right away; he uses a lot of visual language to suggest things and get things to slowly build up. Gareth reveals glimpses of the monsters until the final third act where you see the full on creatures fighting in San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. He did a great job of not revealing things too quickly.”
“There’s a male and female MUTO,” explains Guillaume Rocheron. “They’re original creatures that Gareth designed. It was something complicated for us to translate in terms of scale because they have simple and slick lines. They are designed like insects but you don’t want to make them look like a giant insect. The idea was to make sure it looked like a fleshy creature, more like mammals than insects. Once we had the concept design we worked to refine them. You want to make sure that the scale reads and you seen that they’re alive. We used a lot of whale skin as references, crab shells for the harder surfaces, and Orcas for patterning and skin thickness. We put all of that in until we made them not only realistic and fleshy but making sure that there are enough feature details on them for you to realize the scale.” Rocheron remarks, “We treated the MUTOs slightly differently than Godzilla in terms of their behaviour. We treated them as if they’re more like a species that functions on instinct and tries to survive. Anything that gets in their way is a potential threat. The male is smaller and the female has six legs and is much bigger; they are anatomically different like you see in nature. There’s a moment that is great in the battle when they realize that individually they’re not a match to Godzilla. They have to strategize and combine as a force against him. We found that you see quite a lot of this in nature. One goes around studying the target while the other one is attacking. You study the mechanisms of attack and strategy in the animal realm to design what you’re doing. It made the fight more interesting and realistic.”
“We improved Kali to be able to deal with that much larger scale of effects,” remarks Guillaume Rocheron when referencing the proprietary destruction software developed by MPC. “We are talking about destroying entire buildings. You need to be able to manage much more data. We also wrote new tools to improve skin and muscle formation for the creatures to make sure that we were pushing the bar on how believable they were. The same thing with the water; we built up the tools created for Life of Pi . Working with a director like Gareth you have to design and focus your technology around realizing his precise and artistic vision. It has to be art directed.” Assets were shared with other visual effects facilities. We shared the two MUTOs assets with Double Negative and Godzilla so they could do shots where you don’t really see him but you see his fins coming through the water. We shared one shot with Scanline which is the end of the Tsunami Sequence which transitions to a partial reveal of Godzilla which we did Godzilla. Other than that things were self-contained.” Rocheron states, “The biggest challenge was to make Godzilla a living and breathing creature. Then it was the challenge to use the technology so that Gareth could have a lot of control to over virtual cinematography, lighting, framing and composition.” A couple of shots are noteworthy for the Oscar winner. “The first full Godzilla reveal because his scale and attitude works well there. I like the Halo Jump Sequence; it has a beautiful graphic quality to it with the red trails and the stormy clouds. In general I’m proud of the work. Hopefully, when the audience watches the third act they’re going to get the feeling that they’re watching something that doesn’t feel digital; that’s the ultimate goal when you do the visual effects is no matter how complicated it can be you want the audience to believe it somehow.”
“We were brought in to tackle the Hawaii tsunami sequence,” states Scanline Visual Effects Supervisor Darren Poe. “Due to Godzilla’s massive size, his emergence from the water is preceded by a giant wave which crashes through downtown Waikiki. Creating this effect would require complex destruction and fluid simulations interacting with each other. It was a great opportunity to revisit work similar to what Scanline did on Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter , before I joined Scanline VFX. Interestingly enough, that also featured a Hawaii location, though used as a stand-in for an unnamed Southeast Asia country.” Poe remarks, “Initially, Jim provided us with previs scenes for our sequence. These contained the basic beats and blocking for each shot. We did our first water simulations based on these files, trying to match the basic motion and speed of the previs tsunami wave. From there, we would then iterate our simulations and review the progress with Jim. In terms of what he was looking for, Jim wanted something epic and spectacular of course, but grounded by a realistic feel and behaviour; he was quite open to our ideas as well, so it was a great collaborative experience for us.” Settings needed to be constructed. “Our environment was based around the Lewers Street area of Waikiki. We needed to simulate in an area which extended from the beach and waterfront, to about five blocks inland. We used a combination of LIDAR scans, set photography, and satellite date to create the digital environment. For the most part, we were able to retain the original set photography and just augment and extend it. However, we still needed a highly accurate 3D model of the environment to run our simulations.
“The on-set crew, under Jim’s direction, together with VFX Producer Allen Maris, provided us with a large amount of data and reference material,” recalls Darren Poe. For every shot, we had multiple HDR photographs, detailed camera information, and 3D scan data. We were pretty much covered which unfortunately meant that we didn’t get to spend a few weeks in Hawaii doing research, but it made our lives a lot easier when building out the environment.” Digital augmentation was required. “Each of our shots had some kind of background work, ranging from small additions to complete replacement. For example, they had photographed the girl standing on the beach watching the water recede, in front of an ocean with no beach. We had to remove the water, create a 3D beach and then populate it with debris, flopping fish, and simulated kelp as the water receded. For the later shots in the sequence, the backgrounds were entirely replaced with CG and matte paintings. There, we again relied on the 3D scans taken at the Hawaii location, combined with on-set photography, for the basis of our building models. We also used Google Earth to map out the area beyond what had been scanned. We needed to add digital doubles to about half of our shots. Primarily, this was to populate the background with extras, and to add people swimming and flailing in the tsunami wave aftermath. Crowd Supervisor Dan Warom did some motion capture in our Los Angeles studio, with some of our employees acting as bystanders and tsunami victims. We used Massive software for some of the animation, but we also needed to develop techniques to carry the digital doubles along with the simulated waves. In the final shots, there are several hundred instances of digital actors.”
“For our sequence, there weren’t really that many practical, on-set SFX elements,” reveals Darren Poe. “It was primarily about adding CG elements [simulated destruction and water] to photographed environments. The most critical aspect here was to have an accurate 3D model of the scenes where the action took place. Our simulations are physically-based so they rely on this accuracy to have the proper scale and behaviour. Generally, we like to start with a ‘physically accurate’ version and then tweak it from there to get the desired artistic effect.” Technical issues had to be resolved. “Rendering the scenes was a challenge. There were a lot of assets [CG debris, vehicles, characters, palm trees, and buildings] all interacting with each other as well as the water simulations themselves. If any one component changed, it often required re-simulation of the other elements as well, to get the proper effect. In addition, we were often rendering from a point of view looking down into the water. We needed to account for refraction of the objects beneath the surface, which can be quite costly in render time. In order to get the correct integration of elements, we found ourselves rendering most of the CG elements together in one scene file. Getting all of the shaders dialled in to play together nicely, and keeping the scenes renderable with literally thousands of assets and millions of polygons, was a big task.”
“The tsunami wave simulation itself was one of the biggest challenges, as it was the ‘main event’ and would drive all of the subsequent animation and simulation we did,” states Darren Poe. “Co-Supervisor Stephan Trojansky oversaw the main wave simulation, using our in-house Flowline software. We simulated the water across multiple shots, but quickly found that we needed to adjust them quite a bit to get the required action. Our Flowline lead, Saysana Rintharamy, took the base simulation and modified it to account for the different camera angles and the later dissipation of the wave, as well as extra splashes and water interaction with objects. In addition to the wave, we needed to simulate a large amount of destruction and debris. FX Lead Goran Pavles had to oversee everything from palm tree dynamics, tumbling vehicles, debris flows, and digital characters in the tsunami wave. The large number of simulations, and their interdependence upon each other, was the other main challenge. We had to carefully manage the process because changing the water would affect how the debris should flow, and changing the debris would alter the path of the water, and so on. The solution was to come up with a logic about which simulation should drive the dynamics of the next, and to get incremental approval on the basic stages. Here again, Jim Rygiel was very understanding and accommodating of our workflow, so the process went quite smoothly.” Poe remarks, “Our sequence was completely self-contained, apart from the final shot tilting up on a building to reveal Godzilla. This shot was shared with MPC, who handled the second half. We found a good point to do the switch between our work and theirs, and for the final shot MPC provided us with a finished composite which we then joined with ours.”
“It’s always helpful to achieve the illusion of a visual effect, when it can be combined with photographic footage to help ground it in reality,” believes Darren Poe. “Of our shots in Godzilla, one in particular comes to mind in terms of the combination of CG, stunts and practical effects. The photography had a crowd of stunt actors running behind the glass front of a coffee shop, which were about to be taken out by the tsunami wave. The stunt actors did a good job of falling down on cue, but they didn’t have the tsunami simulation available when they shot the scene. To get the actors to react with our tsunami wave, we needed to switch to CG versions of each of them so they could be included in the simulation. To do this, we animated CG characters to match what the actors were doing, gradually blended between the photographic material and the CG version, and then animated their tumbling into the wave. Finally the water fills the frame behind the glass, and begins trickling through the closed doorway in the plate. This was done on-set using practical water effects.” Poe notes, “The best thing to me about the project was the dedication everyone had and the feeling that we were part of making something special. Godzilla is a pop culture icon and one we are all familiar with, and the enthusiasm that director Gareth Edwards had toward the material was something we all could sense. It’s always great to be a part of something like that.”
“During development, we were hired by Legendary Pictures to help create material for the final studio pitch,” explains The Third Floor Previs Supervisor Eric Carney. “We worked directly with Gareth Edwards on previs for the Hawaii Sequence. We first started with simple storyboards to lay out the beats of sequence, and then quickly moved into prevising a seven-minute scene. We later previsualized about 40 minutes of material across seven sequences, with the most extensive work being 24 minutes of fight action in the finale battle.” Gareth Edwards would spend several hours at a time going over the previs. “He’d sit with our previs editor and review the footage and make specific notes on shots, animation, music and sound effect. Gareth would occasionally act out for us what he wanted the creatures to do.” Carney remarks, “I always try to watch some of a director’s previous films to understand their style and what type of camera work they use. I’ve worked with lots of different directors with different approaches. One of the first things when starting to work on previs is reflecting that style. Sometimes that happens quickly and sometimes it takes a little longer. We talked a lot with Gareth to make sure we knew what he wanted.”
“A primary creative concern was the speed and scale of the creatures,” reveals Eric Carney. “It was really easy to make them move too quickly which made them look smaller than we wanted them to be. After we had a good idea of their speed, we worked to define how the creatures would fight and interact with their surroundings. Gareth wanted something that felt like you could be watching a nature documentary: creatures fighting like animals not like comic book characters. After that, it was determining the beats of the fight for the previs, with Godzilla starting out being outmatched by the MUTOs and going on from there.” Choreographing the third act was quite difficult. “The script for that section was a rough outline. We knew what the humans were doing but we really didn’t know what the creatures were doing, but we knew what happened in the creature fight would affect the humans and vice-versa. We started by editing a very basic animatic made up of creature fight footage and a lot of text on the screen explaining what was going on. We worked out the major beats with the director this way, going from humans to creatures and what they were doing at each point. These beats became the ‘segments’ or individual scenes of the third act. At the same time, Matt Allsopp was doing some ‘beat boards’ for some of the key segments Gareth had in mind across the third act. We then started prevising out these different sections and editing them into our animatic. Watching the animatic at any point, you could see whether the layout for the third act was working. It would cut from one section that was animated to text and then to another section that was animated, but you could follow what was happening in the story and refine things as they were needed. All of the text in our animatic was then replaced with previs’d shots over time.”
“The biggest challenge was collaborating to help figure out the creature fights and how the characters would fight,” states Eric Carney. “We did a number of exploratory animation tests. This was before we’d created our animatic so we made little 10 to 20 seconds animated fight moments that weren’t necessarily part of the script. I had everyone on my team take a stab at it so we got a lot of different looks for Gareth to review. We refined our animations and did another pass of tests based on Gareth’s feedback. In the end we had two to three examples of possible fight styles creatures and we used those as reference for the previs animation in the different fight sequences in the third act.” The final version of the third act is shorter than the previs. “Some moments that were in the previs but not in final edit were still filmed. Maybe they’ll show up on the Blu-Ray!” Carney adds, “Working on Godzilla was one of those childhood dreams for me. I grew up dreaming of monster movies so this was definitely a thrill. It couldn’t have been a better working experience. Gareth was a pleasure to work with and very collaborative. Our team of artists was great as was everyone on the production.”
“Gareth had come down to New Zealand for another project and we were able to meet with him then,” remembers Weta Workshop Designer Christian Pearce. “There were already rumours circulating that he was to be attached to the show so from that we did our best to sink our claws into him.” The man behind the camera was well organized. “Right off the bat Gareth had prepared a comprehensive document with the mood and feel for where he’d like to take Godzilla. There was music included as well as voice over so almost every stage of the design process was planned out and referenced in that document. Gareth is a versed designer in his own right so he contributed a lot to the process. There were particularly long Skype calls going up to 8 hours at points going over artwork and nudging back and forth between us and Gareth. At times we were just looking at the sculpture in silhouette with minimal information in the shading to make sure that we were respecting the iconic silhouette. But essentially, Gareth was involved very intimately with the design process, and we feel we were lucky to collaborate with him on the final design.” Toho Studios was involved with the conceptualization process. “There were definite guidelines that had to be included in the design which came from Toho such as four fingers and four toes, short arms, scaly skin and three rows of fins along the back. I think the whole time we wanted to take the design back to the Godzilla we all knew, being the Toho version, we also were challenged with breaking the design to see where ‘Godzilla’ begins and ends as an iconic figure. We were extremely respectful of the original design and never wanted to take it anywhere but there, and once we’d scratched the “crazy” options we felt good to be playing around in that familiar territory, bringing the familiar monster to life for the current audience.
“Although we have designed many creatures here at Weta one of the main differences with Godzilla was accepting the fact from the outset that he is fundamentally an impossible creature,” states Christian Pearce. “The intense internal temperatures an animal his size would generate, the energy and varicose system required to pump blood through such a colossal structure, collapsing bones, his incredible age, the calorie intake required to fuel him, the incredible surface tension on his skin; all of these elements and many more create a creature that could never exist. You hope the audience will make that leap of belief with you and buy into the fact there is a walking mountain stomping through a city. Our job was to make that leap as small as possible by resolving and detailing his design into something as believable as possible. Having such an iconic, well known and brilliant pre-existing design to work with presented its own set of challenges. We were very careful to retain his character and not change anything about his design merely for the sake of change. It was really great to experience the collaboration that occurred on Godzilla. Everyone that worked on him added something to the final look. While we did a lot of design work on Godzilla, it was less about coming up with something we’ve never seen before and rather bringing something we’re so familiar with into current pop culture.” In regards to the visual research conducted, Pearce reveals, “We looked initially at a lot of marine reptiles as well as the original reference of Godzilla which was a T-Rex, iguanodon and a stegosaurus. Of course, we also looked at and riffed off ALL of the designs Godzilla has gone through from the 50’s onwards. Within Gareth’s document he created for us were all the Godzilla designs and some of the biological starting points like marine iguanas and fish fins that Gareth wanted us to play with originally, but ultimately was not going to work for our guy.”
“We were responsible for the overall look of Godzilla focusing mainly on the overall look of the character,” explains Christian Pearce. “We developed some initial artwork and then about half way through we decided to work across each other’s work using 3D sculpting in Zbrush and painting over in Photoshop as well as 2D studies. The Zbrush sculpt was the platform where all the idea’s would be thrown onto and ultimately was what we passed off to MPC to bring to life. We also contributed a number of early MUTO and cocoon concepts.” The longevity of the movie franchise complicated matters. “What would seem so simple once the solution was found was actually our biggest challenge; that was finding Godzilla out of nearly 60 years of varying designs, and defining a single look through it all which retained that icon. There were a lot of possibilities within one character and landing on the right one was always going to be tough. Being fans of the original design, and work-shopping all of the elements that make Godzilla what he is was our only solution to that.” Pearce concludes, “It was an extremely fun, yet challenging project to work on. But ultimately, the collaboration of our teammates here at Weta and with Gareth was a rewarding process, one we feel very proud of our involvement in.”
“We knew going into it that the third act was the climax and it needed to have a healthy shot count and really do some great work,” states Godzilla Visual Effects Producer Allen Maris. “Not only did we have CG characters, but nearly every shot that takes place in San Francisco required some sort of set extension or full digital background. We had previs complete by the time we started shooting, so there was a great roadmap that Bob Ducsay used as a basis while he was waiting on the live-action shots to come in.” There were no dramatic creative changes. “Gareth knew what he wanted, prevised the sequences and pretty much stuck to them; without his desire to do that, it would make it extremely tough. Bob and the editorial team were critical in having shots cut and ready to turn over to the vendors on time, helping to keep on schedule and avoid overages for schedule extension. Legendary’s support allowed us to keep moving forward and their dedication to the project enabled us to make the decisions that were best for the movie. My VFX staff was essential led by Kim Doyle; they kept the information flowing to the vendors and maintained organization throughout the process; without them I’d get buried and would never be able to maintain an overall view and keep things moving in the best direction.” Allen notes, “In an ideal scenario we’d have plates for everything, and we’d be adding in the creatures to shots that were needed. The reality is always more complicated than that. Joel Whist [Special Effects Supervisor] and John Stoneham [Stunt Coordinator] were always willing to try things practically first and get the best action in camera, and then we could build upon that. Joel and his crew provided a lot of standalone elements of smoke, fire, water spray, and debris that we were able to composite into shots, taking some load off the visual effects and effects simulation teams.”
The biggest challenge was the third act and how to destroy San Francisco. “The schedule and budget didn’t allow time for us to re-create a full CG San Francisco, nor did we believe we’d have enough weather cooperation to shoot more than just a few days,” states Allen Maris. “The ideal window for our movie was an overcast sky, no rain, but with plenty of visibility; that would allow us the most flexibility to do multiple pass tiles and not have to worry about having strong sunlight hitting the buildings, essentially making the tiles useless. We opted to shoot time-lapses twice a day, dusk and dawn, which would allow night lighting all the way through full daylight and capturing that sweet spot for us which was just after sunrise when there was enough ambient light but the sun wasn’t hitting the buildings yet. MPC took the lead on figuring out the details of what was required for the shoot. They took the previs, located each building and intersection on a map, camera angles and then did a full document laying out the requirements. I then worked with the Luc, the UPM for SF, and we scheduled out all the teams and who would be doing what throughout the day. Because of the short amount of time in SF, and since we were using the VR Roundshot to work with MPC’s pipeline, we opted for four plate crews on different buildings doing the time-lapse while Jim was up in the helicopter shooting aerials and we had a supervisor from MPC doing the marine unit. All the while we had two units shooting going in Vancouver so Peter Chiang from Dneg and I would split up and supervise those units.”
“The thing that was hardest about Godzilla was the scale and mass of the creatures, not letting them become ponderous but at the same time not getting into the area of making them move at a speed which kicks you out of the movie or the camera move is too fast,” states Godzilla Co-Visual Effects Supervisor John Dykstra. “The solution for that contributed to the complexity. Getting all of the smoke, clouds, dust, live-action footage, and animated creatures to integrate was a tough compositing challenge. In terms of how was this different than the other things that I’ve done it was a study in scope. Trying to figure out how to keep something that big in the environment with people that’s not something I’ve had to do a lot of before. For the most part, the characters I’ve done were on a human scale.” Allen Maris observes, “The Halo Jump was one that really came together nicely. After reading the script, I was thinking we’d be doing lots of CG, some plates, and actors on green screen hanging from wires. At some point, and I’ve forgotten who deserves credit, probably Gareth, but the idea of shooting it for real started to look like a possibility. Patty Whither, our Executive Producer, hired J.T. Holmes, who had done the Transformers jump and they put it all together. In the end, I believe there are only two green screen shots of Ford and we just did background replacements on all of the shots. The dailies were fantastic.” Maris adds, “I’d like to thank all the vendors and the crew that worked so hard on this movie to bring it all together. We had about 1000 people working in VFX alone and unfortunately, not everyone gets the credit they deserve.”
All images © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. & © Legendary. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Warner Bros., MPC and Weta Workshop.
Godzilla is a trademark of Toho Co., Ltd. The Godzilla character and design are trademarks of and copyrighted by Toho Co., Ltd. Used with permission.
Many thanks to Allen Maris, John Dykstra, Ken McGaugh, Guillaume Rocheron, Darren Poe, Eric Carney and Christian Pearce.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.