Wed 28th May 2014, by Paul Hellard | Production
Recreating Godzilla was an enormous opportunity for every artist who worked on the project, with most knowing creature and story from comics, TV and cinema screenings they remembered fro their childhood. CGSociety spoke to Moving Picture company (MPC) in Vancouver and The Third Floor (TTF) in London about their part in the re-creation of the iconic story. Double Negative also worked on many sequences of the movie.
The overall VFX supervisor, Jim Rygiel worked with Director, Gareth Edwards before pre production on the design of the creaturea and previs. They also created the first, much talked about, San Diego Comic Con International trailer in 2012 where Godzilla is seen emerging from the dust and rubble. ‘He’ of course had to be an upright creature, honoring the original iconic Toho ‘man-in-a-suit’ version seen in the original 1954 Japanese production, while having a certain agility and animalistic motion.
Because Godzilla is not a talking or humanoid character, the team knew there would be very little tolerance from the viewers on how far you can push his facial expressions without looking like a cartoon. “It’s not just a giant lizard,” says MPC’s VFX Supervisor Guillaume Rocheron. “The audience had to believe that this creature could be engineered by nature. It had to look absolutely real but, also had to have some humanistic elements as well.” A mix of subtle facial expressions, combined with precise head angles and adjustments in light direction allowed the team to translate the various feelings and expressions of the creature without breaking believability.
The MPC animation team researched reference material of the movement of bears and reptiles for Godzilla. In the end, the movement of all three creatures in Godzilla are 100% keyframe-animated. No motion capture, no rotoscoping, all keyframe animation. A tremendous amount of detail had to be simulated to convey the 350-foot height of Godzilla, involving some extremely high-resolution simulations of buildings collapsing.
MPC began on constructing the story with Edwards and TTF pitch-viz. Before the script was even green-lit, Gareth flew to MPC in London and worked on a one-minute teaser that would give an idea of his vision for the movie. This would be just a taster of the tone and the mood of the story, and was not even intended tonecessarily show any visuals of the Godzilla monster. The teaser was enough to sway Legendary Pictures to give a go-ahead to the project, and bring the first hint of the project to a vast existing fan base at Comic-Con.
TTF worked for several weeks on previsualisation, helping to develop material for the final studio Pitchviz as well. “What we worked on was for the Hawaii scene, for which Gareth had some initial storyboards,” says Eric Carney, TTF’s Previsualisation Supervisor. “We did some additional boards then moved on the creative previs that was used as part of the presentation.”
Production began in Vancouver fairly soon after this, with creature concepts and location scouting. “All the principle cinematography was shot in British Columbia,” Rocheron explains. “There was also a lot of location referencing down in San Francisco to gather enough visual data to recreate the digital city. The production had a pretty short timeline, going from September 2013 to April 2014, though of course, there was a lot of preproduction required before this. Creature creation, developing all the technology required for CG water, the Golden Gate bridge, and rejigging Kali, (MPC’s destruction simulation tool) so we could destroy San Francisco.”
TTF’s Previs tallied to about 40 minutes of material. Just over half was concentrated on the movie’s big final battle. “We fleshed out the rough ideas in the script to create detailed character and action blocking,” explains Carney. “As a starting point, we cut together a handful of storyboard frames together with title cards on black, with animal attack stock shots.” The different sections of the battle were built out from there. “We tried out a variety of ideas collaboratively as Gareth shaped the story structure for the finale.”
For other scenes, TTF previs was used to represent the look and action in the shot. “In particular, we spent a good bit of time on fight behaviors for both Godzilla and the Mutos. Gareth had a very specific idea that they should fight and behave like big animals and not like cartoon characters. We studied a lot of bear and other animal fight footage and worked with Gareth to find what he liked. We then used this fight footage to do some fight animation tests with the previs versions of the characters.”
Gareth Edwards was very hands-on with the previs process and he constantly interacted with the TTF team. He really wanted to get things right in the previs because he knew that the rest of the production would reference it. He would sit with the TTF previs editor and review the footage and make specific notes on shots and animation and music and sound FX. He would occasionally act out what he wanted the creatures to do as we animated them in previs,” adds Carney.
“We worked with Jim Rygiel on a lot of the movement of Godzilla and the Mutos. One important thing was getting the correct scale and speed of these creatures. We also worked with Jim to figure out the green screen requirements for filming the Golden Gate Bridge sequence. We worked out they could put green screen on only half of the set and flip it to be used for the other side.”
The Mutos are two massive creatures with almost an insect-like build. They both feed voraciously on anything emitting radiation, hence the connection to the nuclear story. One of them is a male, with four legs and wings. The female has six legs, and carries a cargo that I will not describe here as it is pretty volatile spoiler dirt. These two creatures are the antagonists of the story, much more than Godzilla. In fact, as the original story goes, it is man’s misunderstanding of the power of the monster (nuclear power). Most of the work done by MPC, creating the assets for Godzilla, is focused on the third act of the movie. This included the San Francisco fight scenes. They handed the creation of the Muto creatures to Double Negative. The first Muto appears in the underground bunker encased in a cocoon near the nuclear power station in Japan.
Jumping into the darkness always has its risks. Ask any paratrooper about the feeling of dropping out of the back of a C-130 Hercules, either into enemy territory or even on a training run over rough country. The Halo jump scene in Godzilla follows a troupe of special-forces soldiers out the back ramp of a military plane with a sunrise firing back into the camera. This is all practical until the camera pitches to look down past them. They continue down into the fall, with red smoke flares attached to their feet. Fiery scenes of carnage are spread out below. This scene is accompanied by the ‘Requiem for Soprano’ score lifted from the scene in Kubruik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the scientist astronauts are walking into the ditch to record the discovery of the obelisk, half buried in the lunar soil. Like the soldiers jumping out of the plane, they are confronting an unknown entity, and the connection was exceptional.
“Gareth is a very strong visual story-teller,” says Guillaume Rocheron. “The multiple reasons we decided to go with a CG San Francisco was not just to destroy the city, but it gave him the opportunity to fully art-direct the cinematography, but at the scale of an entire city.” In many of the set pieces on the film, Edwards plays a lot with the compositions. "There are always a lot of strong silhouettes, and this is something very strong in his visual style” he says
Godzilla staged an immense battle with the insect-like Mutos, and as Rocheron suggested, this is a very expandable universe. “The way Gareth directed the look of the movie, the production worked well,” he says. “Although it is very self-contained, the story has always had room for expansion. He has created the basis of a greatly modernised Godzilla and it was basically a lot of fun to bring the big guy to the screen.”
There is no sense building something like this without having complete control of the stage you perform on. The MPC artists and designers turned this job into a journey entirely under their control. While the location of the buildings had to be correct, the trick was to devise the stage itself. They also needed to be in control of the camera, lenses, lights. Then it is decided where, how and when each asset collapses. The action was choreographed and played out. Starting with an empty plate, you build a background of the city and retro-fit a lot of the buildings only after the action has been placed.
“It was very important to design the shots specifically for what you are filming, in this case giant creatures fighting each other,” says Rocheron. “But black creatures, backlit at night time aren’t the best subject to wrap a dramatic story around. We still had to make sure the frames were reading very clearly. Gareth has a certain way of building scenes that provide a certain clarity.” Rocheron’s job was to convey to the crew the direction of Edwards. This was to depict pretty much half an hour of fighting and destruction, with creatures and fires all among the streets of destruction. “There was always the risk of allowing the scene to lapse into a digital look,” he adds.“
Sound plays a big part in the Godzilla movie, moreover the level of sound than the distance of sound. There are several instances where spherical wall of pressure waves from the explosive Godzilla and Mutos expand, knocking out power and light. One particular shot makes use of that powerful sound/shock wave, as the recreation of the nuclear blast set off in the lagoon on Muraroa Atoll in Tahiti. Godzilla’s roar is a sensation that kicks out of the screen, reverberating and demanding attention. “It always come down to what will give a unique experience to the audience,” explains Rocheron. “It’s not always about getting more action and explosions onto the screen. It’s about taking the audience away from their comfort zone and giving them a surprise.”
MPC technical artists devised Kali originally for Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. This application was named after the Hindu god of destruction. “The idea behind Kali’s creation,” says Rocheron, “was to allow more realistic destruction along predetermined lines on the assets.” There was a lot of modification for better tetmesh creation and post-processing. Also, major performance improvements were performed to allow faster simulation and rendering. Its application began to assist the visual cues of different CG forms as they are crushed. “If you want to show the destruction of a building or boat for instance,” says Giullaume, “you can program for material properties, like for example, wood; it will bend and shatter and crack before breaking. If it is steel, then it will bend and hold the distorted shape, and if it is concrete, it explodes into dust and crumbles more realistically.”
As the scenes being generated for Godzilla are at such a huge scale, each of the footprints of the monster would trample entire city blocks. The scaling reared immense rendering challenges because a multi-storey mass of masonry falling, must include a lot more detail than say, a one-storey building tipping over. “It’s just an enormous amount of data to simulate,” says Rocheron, “the speed of something falling in the air depends on the constant laws of gravity too. If it is shown to be moving very slowly, the back-of-brain reaction is to believe it is a massive scale.”
There was a fine line being walked by Gareth Edwards, bringing in emotions from within the Godzilla monster. “For this,” Rocheron explains, “we had to take some license to not make him 100 per cent animal, and also not cross that line of him being a fantasy creature. We used a lot of his body language to give him attitude. We played a lot of growls, cheek puffs and subtle facial details so when you watch him, there was a creature that had some deep understanding of what was happening.” Bringing personality to the Godzilla story went in other ways as well. With two against one in this case, the brain-storming went from cage-fighting, to bear-fighting, to World Championship Wrestling. There were 400 artists, spread across the globe in Vancouver, India, Singapore, London and Los Angeles, working to make this a spectacle worthy of the original as well as entertaining, conveying the classic story to a new audience.
Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. © 2013 Legendary Pictures Productions LLC & Warner Bros Entertainment Inc. Godzilla TM & © Toho Co., Ltd.