Godz and Monsters: the look of Godzilla
When making a Godzilla movie, the conclusion you are going to come to pretty quickly is that size matters. For director Gareth Edwards there was only one way he wanted to go with the size of his Godzilla and that was upwards.
"We wanted to make Godzilla as big as you possibly can – he’s actually technically 350 feet in the film," said Edwards at a recent world’s first showing of Godzilla footage in London.
"The way we arrived at that was quite simple, we wanted him tall enough to see him in a city but small enough so he can be obscured some times. Otherwise there is no fun.
"We went through all the permutations and it was quite clear for us that the 350 foot mark worked. And especially because that makes him technically the biggest Godzilla ever – so we were like, let’s do that!"
Dealing with size is something Edwards has been doing for the past three years now.
With only one other film under his belt as a director, he has had to learn very quickly about the economies of scale that come with big-budget moviemaking.
His first film Monsters was a superb low-budget alien invasion movie. It was made for £500,000 which is peanuts in movie money and all the effects were created by Edwards on his home computer.
Although it was special effects laden Monsters’ focus was very much on the characters. But when the aliens were shown, they looked far bigger and better than the budget should have allowed – thanks to Edwards’ previous job as a visual effects supervisor.
At the time of release, Edwards explained to film critic Mark Kermode his thoughts behind Monsters’ effects.
Making CGI real
"The whole point of CGI is realism," he said. "That is why you spend all that time, the pain of doing creatures and lighting. So why would you go to all that trouble on CGI and not spend the rest of time going to the same trouble for the movie?"
The changes in computer effects software in the home allowed Edwards to create his monsters from his own mass bundle of sketches. Using Adobe’s After Effects, he could create more organic-looking creatures from what was essentially digital clay. He abused the software as much as he could, taking particles from myriad plug-ins to make his monsters work.
Skip to 2014 and he now he has a budget of $150 million to work with, and the small task of creating perhaps the world’s most well-known and well-loved creature.
You would think with 28 films from the legendary Toho Studios – and one frankly embarrassing Roland Emmerich remake – coming up with the look of Godzilla would be easy but Edwards admitted it was a challenge.
"I thought it was going to be a really simple task to design Godzilla. He is already designed, you just copy him right? But it became a process that took over a year trying to get the look right," said Edwards.
"It is like when you witness a crime and the police ask ‘what did it look like’ and you go ‘well he had this thing…’ and they ask you to draw it but you just can’t. It was a lot of trial and error.
"Weta did the design for a lot of Godzilla and it was this constant back and fourth thing until we got to a point where we could rotate him from every angle and get a proper look at him and feel like we didn’t want to change him.
"In the end we are really proud of the way that he turned out."
With British VFX giants MPC (Moving Picture Company) and Double Negative also handling the visual effects for Godzilla, the whole thing is a far cry from Edwards in his bedroom sweating over After Effects. But sometimes bigger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to the creative process.
"You can very easily get seduced by CGI. My background is visual effects but I think the honeymoon period is truly over for me and visual effects," he says.
"With Godzilla it is as much about the story and creating characters that you genuinely care about."
Story, Edwards notes, is the hardest thing to get right regardless of your budget.
"The real difficulty in any filmmaking process is to try and tell a gripping story that you really care about and that doesn’t matter if you have got 10p or 300 million. It is just as hard for anybody and that is what we focused a lot of our time on to get right."
Godz and Monsters: busting budgets
Having come from the world of no budgets, Edwards did have some advice about how to tackle a film of Godzilla’s magnitude and that is to spin everything you learn as a low-budget filmmaker on its head.
"If you wrote a list of all the pros and cons when making a low budget movie, when you make a high budget movie just swap that list over," he explains.
"Everything that is easy to do when there is three of you is really hard to do when there is 400 of you. Everything that is really hard to do when you have only got £10 is really easy when you have millions."
For some, Godzilla will always be known as being portrayed by a man in a suit, though, and while the franchise’s humble beginnings simply wouldn’t work in a Hollywood movie today, Edwards tried to retain some of the original’s passion in the filmmaking process.
One way we will see this is, according to Empire magazine, in the motion capture of Godzilla. Andy Serkis – he of King Kong and Gollum fame – will be the man in the digital suit for certain scenes. This will help to "control the soul" of his creation, according to Edwards.
Getting more from the roar
Another way is with the sound. Or, more importantly, how Godzilla’s famous roar was recreated.
"We decided that we wanted to embrace the original roar but obviously do it in Dolby 7.1 and Atmos," says Edwards.
"So we got the original recording of the roar but it just doesn’t do justice in the cinemas of today so our little brief was the same as with the design of Godzilla: imagine Godzilla was this real animal in the 60s and somebody from Toho Studios in Japan saw this animal and recorded its roar."
It is this quest for realism that is threaded throughout both Monsters and Godzilla. Regardless of budget, Edwards wants to make sure that storytelling entwines with the visual effects so that Godzilla isn’t just another dumb blockbuster movie.
In the footage we saw, Edwards has managed just that. While Godzilla looked breathtaking, his slow movements offering up both excitement and terror, there was real empathy in the human characters, showing that it wasn’t just buildings and forests being devastated but lives too.
In the four years since Monsters it’s clear that Edwards career has catapulted him to blockbuster status but the emotional resonance in his storytelling thankfully remains in tact.
"The last three years have been the hardest, most exhausting, most intense, most exciting years I think anyone could ever have.
"But somehow we have created a film that I am really proud of," said Edwards at the end of the Godzilla sneak peak.
After witnessing what we did, we have every feeling that he has done just that.
Godzilla is out on May 16, courtesy of Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures.
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