Learning from Godzilla

Gareth Edwards is probably well-known to many fxguide readers. In past years we’ve covered his work as a ‘do it yourself’ visual effects artist on BBC and Discovery Channel TV shows, and his role as director, DOP and VFX supe on the indie film Monsters. And Edwards was even a professor over at our sister site fxphd.com, where he taught a course on guerrilla filmmaking.

Director Gareth Edwards on the set of Godzilla.
Director Gareth Edwards on the set of Godzilla.

Flash forward to 2011 when Legendary Pictures announced that Edwards would helm a new Godzilla film. For this new assignment, the director would apply with guerrilla instincts to a much larger film production. He quickly assembled a crack team of visual effects collaborators, including overall VFX supervisor Jim Rygiel, who was assisted on the show by VFX supe John Dykstra. The principal VFX houses were MPC (with visual effects supervision by Guillaume Rocheron) and Double Negative (with visual effects supervision by Ken McGaugh).

fxguide spoke in-depth to Edwards about the making of Godzilla, where he revealed how the film’s killer Comic-Con teaser was made, how he came to appreciate previs, why relying on animal reference didn’t cut it, his low-tech approach to shooting insert footage and the prospect of working with your VFX heroes.

Listen to Mike Seymour’s hour-plus long discussion with Gareth Edwards in our fxpodcast.

Watch this exclusive behind the scenes making of footage that we produced for our media partners WIRED.

The Comic-Con teaser

Fans of Godzilla lore were curious and perhaps equally dubious what this re-make of the film would be like. Despite being deep in pre-production on the film, Edwards committed to a teaser that set the tone for his Godzilla – a teaser that would ultimately receive enormous acclaim when it was shown at the San Diego Comic-Con International in July 2012.

But Edwards wasn’t always sure it would go that way. “I spent the whole time in pre-production thinking the film wasn’t going to happen and that it was just all one crazy fantasy dream of mine that I would get to make a movie,” he says. “So when it looked like we were going to do this Comic-Con thing and there was some money put forward for it, I just treated it like, well, OK, if nothing else comes of this, I’m going to have this little short I’ve been able to make with everybody.”

A still from the film.
Godzilla nears San Francisco in this shot with visual effects by MPC.

“I just wanted to do what I thought would give me goosebumps,” he adds, “and I really thought it was going to get rejected.”Working in his own style, Edwards ‘stole’ some shots from an unnamed movie as reference for camera movement then added text, the music Requiem for Soprano popularized by 2001: A Space Odyssey and the ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’ quote from nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Edwards did all this “thinking,” he says, “there’s no way they’re going to do all this – this is where I get sacked. And I sent it (to Legendary) and the email I got back in seconds was ‘Fucking cool – let’s do it!’ And so that was fantastic. It told me they wanted to make the movie I wanted to make. I wanted to make the movie they wanted to make. So it was a really solidifying thing. We went and did it and we didn’t change a thing.”

The power of previs

“When we started this, I hated the idea of previs,” recalls Edwards. “I thought it was going to rob the film of its soul. The idea of trying to pick shots and decide exactly what we were doing six months before we even stood on the location or met the actors – I wasn’t really into that. Even though I used to do computer graphics, I just felt like that was the antithesis of what I wanted to do.”

But Edwards says his attitude to previs changed after working with The Third Floor and an in-house MPC team on crafting Godzilla’s major action scenes. “What I didn’t appreciate was that when you do previs, what you’re really doing is getting a chance to make a mini version of a movie without any interference from anybody – you’re completely given free rein – it’s just you and the previs guys.”

Edwards (right) with actor Bryan Cranston.
Edwards (right) with actor Bryan Cranston.

The director was also conscious during the previs process of ensuring that the animatics would not result in ‘camera gone wild’ behavior that differed from how the rest of the film would look. In fact, Edwards developed and followed a set of rules just on that aspect. “One of them was that the cameraman couldn’t be suicidal,” he says. “So for any shot we got, the camera had to survive the shot. And the camera couldn’t do things that real cameras can’t do.”

“You start getting into this trap,” adds Edwards, “which I feel like films can get into very easily – and I think this is where all those crazy camera moves come into it – is that when you do stuff in previs, you haven’t got as much to look at. It’s simpler models, lighting’s simple. There’s not that much to distract you, so things seem a lot more boring than they are so you move the camera, make shots shorter and make it more dramatic.”

“And then what happens,” he says, “is as soon as you make that photoreal it’s a chaotic mess and you can’t concentrate on anything. We didn’t want to fall into that trap. Condensing it and making it more refined and hopefully allowing for the fact that when it’s photoreal it’s going to be twice as engaging and you’re going to be able to see all the glint in Godzilla’s eye and feel his soul in there a lot more.”

A still from the film.
MPC worked on the VFX for the Halo jump sequence.

Realistic shot design – even in a monster movie – was also something Edwards was clearly passionate about. “In a lot of films there’s so much effort put in by a lot of visual effects artists and companies and software writers to create this most amazingly realistic shot, but then the actual concept of the shot is unrealistic. It’s doing something that shots can never do – they’re flying through or around things in such a way that we know cameras can’t behave.”

The result was that a virtual flying camera was not used to follow the MUTOs, for example, and that the location of the camera operator would always be grounded in reality. “In the third act,” notes Edwards, “we always tried to put in things like the edge of buildings. You pan left and you glimpse a soldier, and you realize that cameraman is embedded with some troops and that’s why he’s up there.”

Animals vs humans

With an opportunity to re-imagine Godzilla – and take advantage of advancements in CG and VFX tech – Edwards initially set out to make his principal star ‘ultra-real’. He began by sourcing hundreds of clips of animals fighting. “I thought, this is great, this will work a treat,” Edwards says. “But what we found when we were copying nature was that it was kind of an anti-climax, because as good as that sounds on paper, there’s a reason that virtually every natural history documentary or wildlife program has narration. Animals aren’t very good storytellers, and if you just watch them you get confused over what are thinking, are they afraid? Are they aggressive? Are they winning? Are they losing?”

A clip from the film.

That meant Edwards and his concept artists and previs and VFX collaborators wound up dialing in more of a human performance to Godzilla’s behavior. The director actually contemplated Godzilla as having the characters of The Last Samurai, suggesting the creature might be “an ancient warrior that had long since died off and he was the last one alive and a lonely solitary noble figure, that would leave us well alone if it wasn’t for the things we did. That was the entry in in terms of the character to grip onto.”

Run and gun

Principal photography for Godzilla was captured by DOP Seamus McGarvey with the ARRI Alexa, but certain special TV and monitor insert shots began as Canon 5D footage taken by McGarvey and Edwards himself.

“I wanted it to look shit,” admits the director. “The problem is when you do this fake iPhone footage and you use a big crew it tends to look lit and contrived and never feels like real footage. So we’d wrap a certain scene and then we just get in a car, and it was me and Seamus with 5Ds. It was the first time in three months that I got that feeling back from when I was filming Monsters. I remember giggling – it was great.”

Actor Ken Watanabe with Edwards.
Actor Ken Watanabe with Edwards.

The approach possibly caught some extras, who had been hired for the Hawaiian sequence in the film, slightly off guard. Says Edwards: “They came along and they didn’t know what they were in for because they hadn’t been told – it was all secret. So when they turned up it was just three of us with 5Ds and we said, ‘OK this is a movie called Godzilla for Warners Bros and Legendary and we just want to film you.’ You could see them look at us like, ‘Fuck off! Like yeah right.’ (We would say) ‘So seriously it is, if you could just stand there and look that way’ and all of them probably thought this is some hoax.”

Working with your heroes

Visual effects supervisor Jim Rygiel came on board the film early on, with John Dykstra joining in post-production to help with the demands of the third act sequences in San Francisco. For Edwards, working with these supervisors whose credits include Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings was somewhat surreal. “To get through doing the Monsters film that I did,” describes Edwards, “I would literally put the making of The Lord of the Rings film on, on loop all day long. I can actually quote that documentary – I know it so well – all nine hours of it. So (Rygiel) was like a hero of mine and what they did on that movie is just so inspiring.”

Behind the scenes of one of the film’s set pieces.

Meanwhile, in review sessions Edwards would sometimes have laser pointer lightsaber duels with Dykstra. The director would also be ‘busted’ doodling Star Wars vehicles during meetings. “My go-to doodle when I’m bored is like X-wings and Death Stars,” he says. So during meetings that go on for hours, my pad would be full of all this Star Wars imagery – as well as MUTOs and Godzilla obviously. So I’d have to ask John a question, and I’d be trying to draw something and there was this really embarrassing moment where I realized the rest of the page was cluttered with Star Wars characters. ‘Yeah, just ignore around that.’”

“I feel like I’ve learnt so much about this,” Edwards says, reflecting on the project and his relationship to the famous creature icon. “About how to make a film, and also about Godzilla and the universe we tried to create. If we got to do another one, I feel like I’d love to have a crack at it and do even better next time.”


5 thoughts on “Learning from <em>Godzilla</em>”

  1. Pingback: Learning from Godzilla | Occupy VFX!

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  5. Jocelyn Deguise

    And the kicker: Edwards will be directing a Star Wars spin-off film ! Yeah !

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