Godzilla has come a long way from the heavy rubber suits used in the productions of the 1960s. In 1998, Roland Emmerich directed the creature’s big-screen return, and in 2014, he rose from the depths once again in a film by director Gareth Edwards. Now, five years later, Godzilla reemerges in King of the Monsters, the new Warner Bros. film from director Michael Dougherty.
Visual effects supervisor Guillaume Rocheron (pictured) knows the creature better than anyone, having worked on both the 2014 and 2019 releases. For the new film, he coordinated visual effects between a number of leading studios, including MPC, Dneg, Method Studios and Rodeo FX, completing 1,535 shots (up from 900 on the 2014 film) for its May 31st release.
The new film challenged effects houses to not only further develop the signature creature, but also bring other characters from the ‘monsterverse’ to the big screen. Mothra, Rodan and Ghidorah all make appearances and vie for supremacy, while simultaneously endangering humanity.
“I work with the director, editor and producer, and really kind of design the movie,” says Rocheron of his role as VFX supervisor. “We storyboard the film and do previsualization, and decide how we are going to shoot the film.”
Rocheron is part of the MPC team, but was called on by Legendary Pictures to handle the film’s overall VFX supervision. He worked closely with fellow VFX supervisor Robert Winter at MPC, which served as the film’s lead effects house.
Like many VFX-heavy films, previs played an important role, but in this case, it went beyond serving as just a place holder.
“Often, the previs is not very nice to look at — not very compelling,” says Rocheron. “It’s purely informative. In this case, it was [Michael Dougherty’s] first version of the shot that he was happy with.
“We were all looking at the previs and iterating on it,” he continues. “Not only from an informative standpoint, but from a shot-design standpoint and the performances of the creatures…A lot of the movie happens on partial sets, and there is a lot of interaction between the creatures and the live action. We wanted a seamless blend between the two…We made a conscious decision to push the initial steps of shot design much further than we would in general so the photography could be done to spec within that bigger picture.”
Previsualization was provided by The Third Floor (http://thethirdfloorinc.com) and Day For Nite (http://dayfornite.com).
The new release is different than the 2014 film in a number of ways. The first conversation Rocheron had with director Michael Dougherty focused on the personalities of the creatures, and how they were not to be portrayed as just animals.
“Mike was always reinforcing the fact that we see those creatures as ancient gods,” he recalls. “They have been around for much longer than us. They were the first gods, who were worshipped by some civilization…They are not just big monsters lumbering around, destroying things and smashing buildings. They have a history.”
The 2014 film had a hand-held camera feel and muted tones, giving it somewhat of a graphic, documentary feel, he adds. “This one, it’s the same world and same universe, but we are trying to design shots to have very strong silhouettes and colors, and bold composition, so as a viewer, the visual language reminds you of mythical creatures.”
DETAILING A 400-FOOT-TALL CREATURE
Thanks to the 2014 film, the VFX team already had a CG model of Godzilla that they could use as a starting point.
“We didn’t go back to square one,” Rocheron explains. “We started with what we had and built on top of it. The original Godzilla that we did for 2014 — it took us five to six months of just texturing,” he recalls. “Think about the level of detail for these creatures? If you imagine Godzilla is 400-feet-tall, his toenail is the size of a school bus!”
Considerable time was spent improving the lead character’s textures and tweaking his rig.
“We did a few design adjustments at the director’s request. We adjusted the dorsal fins a little bit to resemble the classic star shape. We gave him a slightly more aggressive profile. Obviously, we updated the muscles and creature rigs, so that had to be re-done — all the muscles and facial animation control to get that extra level of subtlety.
“Also, since the first Godzilla, we changed the way we rendered stuff. We switched to Renderman RIS, and it’s a full ray-tracing, path-tracing solution. That gives us the ability to get material quality and lighting that is more sophisticated and realistic. That required an upgrade in our shaders and textures. Even though we started with what we did in 2014, we took at least three months to get new Godzilla for the new movie.”
As lead VFX house, MPC (mpcfilm.com) handled almost all of the creature animation. “They are one of best places in the world you can go for this,” he says of MPC. “We worked with the character lab to finalize the design of the creatures and they handled most shots with Godzilla, Ghidorah, Mothra and Rodan — the big action sequences.”
Specifically, MPC created the Antarctica scene where Godzilla first sees Ghidorah, the scene where Rodan emerges from the volcano, and the shots where Rodan interacts with the fighter jets and fights Ghidorah. The studio also created VFX for the whole third act, in which a massive battle takes place in Boston.
MPC’s Montreal location headed the effort, with contributions from its London, Bangalore and Los Angeles teams.
Method Studios (methodstudios.com) handled the opening of the film. “It’s a smaller sequence where Mothra is still in her larva and she kind of hatches,” Rocheron explains. “We gave it to Method because it’s a self-contained sequence that required great quality animation and great rendering and effects…Method also handled the sequence where our heroes go in one of Monarch’s underwater rigs. They go to a giant facility underwater to monitor Godzilla. They did the really beautiful sequence where you first see Godzilla in the depths of the water. People look through a window into a deep, murky [water] environment, and see Godzilla flashing.”
Dneg’s (dneg.com) work mostly focused on underwater sequences, says Rocheron. “Probably 15 minutes of the movie, where they are completely underwater and they discover that new civilization.”
The studio also handled the ‘Mothra reveal’, before the audience sees her completely. “She hatches behind a waterfall,” Rocheron explains, adding that it’s the first time the audience sees her fully extend her wings. “You never see Mothra fully, but you see her silhouette and color scheme.”
Dneg also handled the visual effects sequence where Mothra appears in a cloud above an oil rig.
Rodeo FX (rodeofx.com) created the Ghidorah sequence in which the three-headed, winged creature is trapped ice. “They handled about 100 shots there,” Rocheron recalls. “Digital environments and a lot of effects simulations for the destruction of the ice wall.”
INSIDE THE TOOLBOX
Rocheron says all of the studios have similar toolsets, though there is some variation. “Everybody is using a combination of Maya, Houdini and Nuke,” he notes. “The renderers vary. MPC is using RenderMan, where as Method, I think, is using Arnold. Dneg is using Clarisse.”
MPC’s proprietary muscle system allowed the team to achieve more life-like results than the 2014 film, be it for Godzilla’s facial expressions or Ghidorah’s body control.
“You have one creature, three heads…two tails, a set of wings and a body,” he says of Ghidorah. “All of that requires incredible, sophisticated muscle-deformation technology and facial-animation technology that is very proprietary. MPC has some amazing tools for that.”
Upon the film’s completion, Rocheron points to a number of VFX accomplishments — scale being one.
“The effects simulation just for the rain, in some shots, it’s literally square miles of simulated rain! MPC has an effects team that is purely there to simulate natural phenomenon — snow, buildings on fire, rain, any sort of interaction with the creatures — the physics. I think it was the biggest scene ever assembled for a movie. It was close to 100 people simulating natural phenomenon. Not the animation. Not the rendering. The rain and snow, and the interaction, the breath and the steam, and the water and the destruction! Logistically, it’s incredibly-huge scale. That’s how I like to look at it. In terms of achieving scale, we did it on such a large number of shots. Every shot was complex because of all the layers that were required.”