Complexity and Scale Conquered: The Making of Godzilla

10 September 2014

How to illustrate the concept and story that had been percolating in the director’s brain and then bring it to life.

The huge box-office success of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla illustrates the great affection movie audiences retain for the iconic dino-lizard whose cinematic pedigree goes back to the original 1954 Japanese film directed by Ishiro Honda.

The original Godzilla, at its core, represented a cautionary tale about the foolishness of man’s attempts to harness the atom and manipulate the natural order of things. Edwards’ vision from the beginning was to pay homage to Godzilla’s roots—both visually and in terms of the story’s essence, while still making a believable, modern movie with a visually stunning hero creature at the heart of the action. The problem he faced when trying to develop the film was how to illustrate the concept and story that had been percolating in his brain, to get a greenlight from Warner Bros, and then bring it to life.

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How to illustrate the concept and story that had been percolating in the director’s brain and then bring it to life.

The huge box-office success of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla illustrates the great affection movie audiences retain for the iconic dino-lizard whose cinematic pedigree goes back to the original 1954 Japanese film directed by Ishiro Honda.

The original Godzilla, at its core, represented a cautionary tale about the foolishness of man’s attempts to harness the atom and manipulate the natural order of things. Edwards’ vision from the beginning was to pay homage to Godzilla’s roots—both visually and in terms of the story’s essence, while still making a believable, modern movie with a visually stunning hero creature at the heart of the action. The problem he faced when trying to develop the film was how to illustrate the concept and story that had been percolating in his brain, to get a greenlight from Warner Bros, and then bring it to life.

Among Edwards’ key partners in his Godzilla journey – prior to greenlight, during production, and then all the way to the movie’s finish – were MPC (The Moving Picture Company, Technicolor’s globally-located flagship VFX house) and Technicolor’s Creative Services division.

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Between the two, Edwards found the creative teams and technical assets required to develop a short concept reel to sell the movie’s premise, both to the studio and to a potentially rabid Comic-Con 2012 audience. Later, MPC would take the lead on all the creature-oriented VFX and the climactic battle in the film, establishing a larger collaboration with Edwards, his cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC, and overall VFX supervisor, Jim Rygiel.

Although the industry historically viewed visual effects and color-grading as technically separate creative entities, post- production has evolved, in recent years, into a more collaborative process that joins a project’s creative discussion much earlier, during the pre-production stage.

This new collaborative timeline helps to guarantee that the rigorous demands of a technically complex digital workflow can be met seamlessly without interrupting or slowing down a filmmaker’s creative focus. The Godzilla project perfectly illustrates this new industry paradigm. The close collaboration between the various Technicolor businesses on the movie was central to achieving Edwards’ mandate for the film’s visuals in an efficient and timely manner. Indeed, Technicolor’s ability to simplify communication and the flow of data, people, tools, and other resources permitted seamless participation across multiple facets of the project’s life. In point of fact, during production, Technicolor chose to bring together its two creative divisions into one over-arching operating group.

Concept Reel

Before Edwards had formal approval to make the movie, he realized he had a unique opportunity to create some buzz for the concept with the Comic-Con International audience in July of 2012. He needed a visual tool however to do that, as well as to help seal his deal with the studio, and lure award-winning artists like McGarvey and Rygiel into participating.

So he decided to create something he could use to immediately drum up massive fan interest: a 90-second teaser concept reel to introduce the hero creature and demonstrate the mood he hoped to capture, one that reveals a city ravaged on a massive scale, and the creature that laid waste to it battling other strange, exotic creatures.

Armed largely with his own ideas and a scratch tape of iconic stock footage images, Edwards spoke to a few VFX facilities before he hit it off with London-based MPC VFX supervisor Nicolas Aithadi.

By that point, Edwards had less than six months to put together some kind of effective reel for Comic-Con.

“Gareth knew exactly what he wanted, and had a rough version of Godzilla based on his stock footage (and an embryonic computer model he had been working on),” Aithadi says. “That helped us understand the proposed film’s tone, but we had no time to build full CG images and environments, so we came up with a plan to break down these shots into stages to illustrate a shattered city with survivors surveying the carnage, photo- realistic creatures killed by Godzilla, and about six photo- realistic shots of Godzilla in silhouette. We first storyboarded these six shots and created an animatic using the same sound effects and music Gareth had, and once he approved them, we created paintings and sketches as base reference, and cut a basic teaser for Gareth to give notes on.”

It quickly became clear that because Edwards wanted a moving camera to travel past the massive destruction throughout the city environment, and that because he had no time or resources to shoot any live-action background plates, the MPC team would have to create every element in the computer by altering stock imagery and elements, simple matte paintings, and other existing photography. MPC artists therefore used “camera projection” techniques to alter and animate still photographs, compositing them together in various ways to create the effect of realistic motion-picture footage. “The teaser wasn’t really about the creatures, it was about the chaos and destruction that they caused,” Aithadi elaborates. “And that destruction looked quite real.”

The success of the Comic-Com trailer helped Edwards close the Godzilla deal and move the project from concept into production.

Creatures and Big Damage

By the time Godzilla launched into production, Edwards already had a close working relationship with MPC, and the concept reel had also sold Rygiel that MPC was the proper home for the creature work. And so the gargantuan responsibility of finalizing and executing the design of Godzilla fell to MPC under supervision from the company’s Oscar- winning supervisor, Guillaume Rocheron (Life of Pi), and his team at MPC Vancouver. Technically, the team was starting fresh with new designs, tools, and assets, since their work was meant to be folded into the final product. However, Rocheron reminds that he knows Aithadi well, and “it was easy to have great conversations about Gareth’s visual style and his likes and dislikes. On a project like this, it is always important to understand the minutiae of the director’s vision, and as Nicolas had worked with him for months, he gave me lots of useful information around his style and thinking,”

“We were using massively complex technology to create the title character for visual storytelling,” he adds. “So nuances around creatures, where to position cameras, and silhouettes, how to position lights, composition and contrast, and the like were enormously important. Every element in every shot revolved around the idea of how Gareth wanted to structure frames. Having that kind of insight early on was even more important than the technology we had at our disposal.”

Godzilla’s basic design came out of Edwards’ early concepts, which loosely honors the original, lizard-like ‘man in a suit’ design from the early movies as evolved by MPC concept artist Matt Allsop, designers at New Zealand’s WETA Workshop, and the MPC animation team. MPC’s role involved bringing extremely high levels of detail to close-up shots on the creature, especially where his body textures and facial expressions were concerned. Godzilla was possibly the largest single digital character MPC, or any visual effects’ house, had ever built: standing at nearly 350-ft. tall in the movie. Subtle, painstaking efforts to emphasize his weight, speed, attitude, presence, movement, and expressiveness were central to the project’s success.

The company created a range of new, proprietary tools designed to improve their skin, muscle, and texture capabilities, as well as a combination of keyframe animation and motion-capture data technologies to subtly enhance the creature’s facial expressions and physical movements, making him a more thoughtful and calculating monster than his MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) enemies.

“None of the technology is brand new, but it was all pushed further, to make him more organic, more real,” Rocheron relates. “Realistic animation is very challenging on a creature of this size.” The other huge challenge involved the fact that Godzilla and two MUTOs go to war within the confines of San Francisco, laying waste to the city along the way. In this area, once again, proprietary tools gave MPC a big boost in creating the kind of damage and destruction seen around the battling monsters – destruction that was so subtly hinted at in the original teaser trailer.

The company relied heavily on its element-based simulation tool, Kali (named after the Hindu god of destruction) – a customized Maya plug-in that was specially upgraded for Godzilla to make it easier to build up layers of destroyed elements. The upgrades included more vibrant “TetMesh” volume creation, post processing, and other performance improvements to permit faster simulations and rendering. Such improvements, in the hands of MPC’s artistic team, allowed MPC to generate photo-real imagery of the destruction of the highly realistic city environment viewers are familiar with. This, in turn, helped Godzilla achieve a highly organic feel far different from other, modern, big-budget tentpole VFX pictures.

“With a movie like this,” Rocheron noted, “you improve the technology and the result you get is to have tools that allow you to work with filmmakers like Gareth shot by shot, frame by frame, to create believable details. In our case, we can do that because we have technology and engineering capability to support our artists. These, coupled with our Technicolor relationship, allow us to establish a streamlined color-pipeline and to ensure the filmmaker doesn’t have to worry about shots or data down the line.”
Indeed, as Rocheron suggests, the digital intermediate process at Technicolor was central to cementing the illusion that brought Edwards’ dream of a photo-realistic, believable world in which Godzilla reigns supreme to fruition.

The Big Finish

Technicolor’s “global production network,” called TPN, again proved to be a powerful asset in the final color grading process. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey was working on another project in Vancouver as the DI got underway in Los Angeles, but since MPC’s Vancouver facility sits on the TPN, that technology allowed McGarvey to use real-time video conferencing and collaboration tools to work remotely with senior supervising digital colorist Steve Scott, who was ensconced in his color-grading suite at Technicolor’s Hollywood imaging hub. Scott, using Autodesk’s Lustre color correction platform for the grading work and selective VFX tweaks, was able to set a basic look on sample frames from each sequence in the movie. This methodology, made feasible thanks to Technicolor’s remote collaboration capabilities, gave Edwards and Scott, with support from senior digital intermediate colorist Michael Hatzer, the ability to establish a color foundation directly influenced by McGarvey, even though the cinematographer couldn’t be physically present with them while they supervised the shot-to-shot color grading work necessary to finalize the Godzilla aesthetic.

Scott points out, however, that the DI work also involved a range of subtle effects, tweaks, fixes, and matches that were necessary to fully achieve Edwards’ vision for each shot. As with the photography and the VFX work, the color grading process was all about “making it look grounded, real, and organic … that was a guiding principle and we stuck pretty hard to it. To achieve it is also about where you want to direct the eye? The production gave us great footage to be sure, but it still needed to be finessed so that it always cut-together properly.”

Scott adds that this kind of creative work during the color grading process is all about “looking for opportunities for more clarity for the each sequence. When do we need to see the creature more?

When do we need to see him less? In one example, the camera panned up the street, showing men running up the street and Godzilla in the smoke, but he was too clearly visible. Gareth wanted him more mysterious, so we would bring up more smoke and obscure him.

Or other times, there was not enough ‘glow’ in the frame from raging fires, so we would bring up the glow to create more of a contrast from one side of the building to make it more striking. We did a lot of that type of work on this film.”

There was much more detail and technical complexity to all this work obviously but the Godzilla project exemplifies how a global company can efficiently organize its people, technology, and procedures in order to collaborate for the specific purpose of helping a filmmaker like Gareth Edwards achieve a specific vision in an efficient and creatively satisfying manner, without slowing that creative process down with technical or procedural limitations.

“The goal is always to express the vision of the filmmaker as concisely and elegantly as possible on the big screen,” Sarnoff states. “I think, in our industry the quest for simplicity is becoming increasingly important. It is a quest that has gone through many stages of denial, because it does not mean that the work is ‘simple.’ In fact, simplicity at this level is not easy … it’s hard. But if you can make complex work simpler to communicate and collaborate on, you are invariably going to be able to end up with a clearer picture of the artist’s vision—giving the audience a more transparent view of what the filmmaker is trying to achieve.”

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