Following the global success of Godzilla by Gareth Edwards in 2014, comes the next chapter in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ cinematic Monsterverse: Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The film was directed by Michael Dougherty, and stars Kyle Chandler (The Wolf of Wall Street) as well as Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown (TV’s Stranger Things) in her feature film debut. The film pits Godzilla against some of the most popular monsters in Japanese pop culture history, such as King Ghidorah, Rohan and Mothra.
Behind the scenes, Dougherty’s creative team included Director of Photography Lawrence Sher, who shot the additional photograph for the 2014 Godzilla. Also, production designer Scott Chambliss (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Star Trek Into Darkness) and editors Roger Barton (the Transformers films), Richard Pearson (Kong: Skull Island) and Bob Ducsay (Godzilla).
MPC’s Guillaume Rocheron (Life of Pi) was the visual effects supervisor of the 1,535 shots in the film. The principle VFX houses were MPC (630 shots), DNEG, Ollin VFX (400+ shots), Method Studios (110 shots) and Rodeo VFX (120 shots). Rocheron had also previously been a VFX supervisor on the 2014 Godzilla.
The new story follows the heroic efforts of the crypto-zoological agency Monarch as its members face off against a battery of god-sized monsters, including the mighty Godzilla, who collides with Mothra, Rodan, and his ultimate nemesis, the three-headed Ghidorah. The film starts with these ancient super-species rising again, and ends with a massive battle in Boston. MPC handled most of the Godzilla shots, including the end battle.
In the film, King Ghidorah stands at 521 feet (158.8 meters) tall, making him 128 feet taller than Godzilla, who stands at 393 feet (119.8 meters). This is the largest American incarnation of the monster in history, and also the second largest incarnation of the monster ever, being almost 62 feet taller than Toho’s Heisei version, which stood at 460 feet (140 meters).
The MPC team completed 630 shots in the final film. The MPC pipeline was based around Autodesk Maya, with the imagery rendered in RenderMan V21 and composited in The Foundry’s Nuke. While MPC had worked on the previous film, that project was rendered in the previous RenderMan v18, which was pre RIS, so while there was ray tracing, it was not “the full path ray tracing solution, which is always very problematic for a lot of reasons,” Rocheron explains, “For example, previously we had to deal with MIP mapping and how to down res all the textures. We did ray trace the shadows on Godzilla (2014), but it was really slow at the time.” Godzilla: KotM was rendered at MPC in RenderMan V21, which provided “full RIS workflow, which is fully unbiased (algorithm). In terms of the textures and the filtering, the amount of details we could get on the creatures now was significantly higher,” he adds. The massive amount of effects animation and simulation work at MPC was done in Houdini, and also rendered in RenderMan. The team also used Mari, Substance, and Katana in solving the complex texturing and lighting.
The team did advanced pre-viz on the project for almost a year. During that time, while it made no sense to motion capture the creatures, both Rocheron and the director were keen to do what they called ‘monster capture’. The team set up a special shoot and had, “performers play Godzilla and then Dora (Ghidorah) …and it was kind of interesting, we obviously didn’t do a modern version of a man in a suit… but it was a very interesting exercise, and we did get a lot of facial data,” Rocheron comments. The idea behind monster capture was to allow actors to explore attitudes and approaches to scenes, and while clearly they would not be directly referenced for movement, the tone and acting decisions of where to look, how to consider the creature’s motivation and posturing all informed the later key frame animation. The team spent a week in LA doing the monster capture, with one performer for each of Ghidorah’s heads and another for Godzilla.
“We could quickly do say five takes and compare that to the good old days, when five takes of widely different performance, and thus animation, would take two months. Whereas here, we went from the stage to editorial, I was like, ‘okay, what’s your preferred select?’ And Mike (Dougherty) would immediately say what he liked and we would just send it to MPC, or to DNEG, or whoever was doing those shots,” recalled Rocheron.
In terms of the creatures, the team were careful to not make them too human. The rule of thumb they used was 95% animal and 5% human. Clearly the creatures needed to be seen thinking and planning, but there was a strong desire to not make them seem too human, while still getting strong emotional performances from the creatures. Rocheron is quick to credit the animation teams and the work of Spencer Cook, Senior Animation Supervisor at MPC. The creatures had to act, but they could not have human-like faces, or any dialogue, or even human silhouettes, and often their movements needed to be either slow to show scale – or they were in complex fight sequences.
Ghidorah was originally developed to be more dragon-like, to provide muscle support for the long necks, but the director thought the creature resembled a lizard too much and moved the design to that of having the creature with three snake-like heads and necks. This posed unique animation challenges for the team.
Rocheron found the limited control the team had on facial emotions frustrating in the previous film but, “on this one, I think we made the creatures more expressive because we had better rigs and more facial deformations that were much more sophisticated,” he comments. With the more refined tools he found it was, “easier to achieve subtle animation that still conveyed fright, curiosity or attention on something.”
The director wanted the audience to see the creatures almost as sculptures. As such, they lit the shots with a sense of the creatures being mythical or god-like. With that in mind, for the light the team referenced paintings of the Renaissance, and posed the creatures as if they were from Greek mythology. This was very different from the gritty style of the first film that hid Godzilla more with dust and framing. Godzilla in the first film was posed more dimensionality, but here the monster characters are often more on a single plane in terms of composition. “We looked at Rembrandt’s paintings and designed the shots in a much more kind of flat tableau – in terms of their colour and composition – than we did in the previous film, as a way to subconsciously portray that these creatures were really Gods,” he explains.
Discussing the framing that director Michael Dougherty liked, DNEG’s VFX Supervisor, Brian Connor, who worked closely with Rocheron, joked, “There are a lot of strong silhouettes in this film, in fact I joked they should re-title the film ‘Godzilla: King of Silhouettes’.”
DNEG did about 150 VFX shots over 13 sequences. DNEG’s VFX Supervisor Brian Connor (The Meg, Wonder Woman) oversaw the work which was mainly done in Vancouver, with some help from their team in Mumbai.
DNEG did the vignettes of the titans awakening around the world, with the art department providing the basic designs for all the titans and DNEG then working on model, texture and rigging the characters. While DNEG has a clear idea of how the characters would be seen in their shots, they made sure the various titans worked from all angles as DNEG provided these back to MPC for use in the third act of the film.
DNEG worked on shared models for some of the characters but they rendered in Clarisse by Isotropic, which is their standard pipeline now since approximately 2014.
Method Studios produced the initial reveal of Mothra inside the ancient temple in China, under the supervision of Daryl Sawchuck. Then as Mothra goes behind the waterfall, DNEG took over. The waterfall was a fully CG environment, which required massive FX animation simulations. DNEG needed to modify Mothra slightly and retexture it as their shots relied on a bio luminescent quality and lighting solution.
“In order to get Mothra to play and read well, we had to rejig it and re-texture, so that it would look good behind a waterfall,” commented Connor. “Getting the bio luminescence to transfer through water and making the waterfall look realistic made this a challenging sequence.”
“We had a great look-dev compositor on this sequence, really our secret weapon, Eva von Overheidt – who is actually the comp supervisor’s wife! She is just so good at taking various pieces and making it into something based on the concept art. She just brings it to life – even before it’s fully animated,” remarks Connor. “Her husband is Sebastian, he is an amazing guy too – very detailed in his German ways but what a talented couple. She can just bring things to life, I am sure every company has one of the secret weapons who can just solve shots – they can just sell a shot in Nuke.”
Mothra flying over the ocean also required complex fluid sims, clouds and ocean FX sims, as well as careful staging to not have Mothra simply read as a normal, oversized moth. Mothra was made to look more dramatic with backlighting and her framing in shot.
Albert Szostkiewicz was the FX Supervisor for DNEG and he managed all the complex water simulation work. Under the sea, the team needed to also create coral and marine life, thermal vents, rivers of lava, schools of fish, foreground shipwrecks, and particulates.
DNEG also did Godzilla’s underwater lair, complete with complex fallen architecture and murals, and then it’s eventual explosion. The lighting was driven by the rivers of lava, so most of the scene is lit from underneath. This was enhanced with the lights from the drone, to cheat more light into the city.
Post Apocalyptic WASHINGTON D.C.
DNEG had to build a vast set for the storm created by Ghidorah. This meant adding ocean bomb spray, foam, debris, smoke plumes, fire, clouds, hurricane, tornadoes, contrails, tracer fire and explosions – and that was before any of the creatures. The team settled on 10km visibility in the storm.
DNEG had to do extensive 3D builds of the Capital Building, the Washington Monument and Jefferson Building. For Connor, this was perhaps some of the most fun shots the team did, “because who doesn’t want to destroy Washington D.C.,” he joked.
DNEG worked on Godzilla: King of the Monsters for almost a year, but actually finished work on the film last October. The finished film was held over for almost seven months, waiting for a USA summer release.
“Guillaume (Rocheron) is one of the most collaborative client side visual effects supervisors I have ever worked with. He was very open to us adding in our creativity to the shots…we had a great time working on this film, but it was hard work.” Connor remarked that when the film was first shown, he spoke to the other supervisors from the other effects companies and, “every single supervisor commented that it wasn’t a lot of shots, by shot count, but they were all hard.”