The clash between mega-monsters King Kong and Godzilla began on-screen in the 1960s, three decades after the colossal ape made his movie debut. Back then, the beasts were played by actors in full-body costumes — more kitschy than frightening. Over the years though, both beasts’ aesthetics evolved as each starred in its own VFX-laden film, part of the so-called MonsterVerse franchise from Legendary Entertainment and Warner Bros. Pictures. Kong took a giant leap forward with state-of-the-art CGI in Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong (which pre-dated the MonsterVerse) and once again in 2017’s
Kong: Skull Island. Godzilla, meanwhile, received his digital makeover for the 2014 film, whose title bears its namesake, followed by
Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019).
In the recent film Godzilla vs. Kong, the two titans share the screen once again. But, is the world big enough for two gigantic creatures such as these? In the film, these larger-than-life characters battle it out when the large lizard goes on the attack as it seeks out a link from its past, starting in Pensacola, FL. Adding to the mega-mayhem is that link: Mechagodzilla, a secret, man-made all-metal version of Godzilla, with state-of-the-art laser-beam weaponry, built and controlled by Apex Cybernetics, with the aim of destroying all the titans and bringing a power balance back to Earth. Kong is sent to stop the out-of-control Godzilla, and the two clash in the Tasman Sea and, later, in Hong Kong before recognizing the need to team up against their common enemy — Mechagodzilla.
Godzilla vs. Kong was directed by Adam Wingard, with John “DJ” Des Jardin serving as production VFX supervisor. The feature contains a significant amount of special effects and visual effects, the latter including work from Scanline VFX, MPC Film, Weta Digital and Luma Pictures, among others.
Scanline was the lead vendor, delivering 390 shots across 17 sequences, with work including the design, build and creation of Kong, Godzilla and Mechagodzilla. The facility also participated in the build and destruction of Hong Kong, and produced a significant amount of simulation work to pull off the various battle sequences between the hero characters. Some of Scanline’s main sequences comprise the initial attack of Godzilla on Pensacola, those depicting a fight between Kong and Godzilla both atop and under the water, various skirmishes in Hong Kong among the three beasts, and the post-fight sequence.
For MPC Film, the project continued its work on the Godzilla franchise. The studio created 177 shots for the film, though MPC VFX supervisor Pier Lefebvre says that shot count is a bit underserving considering the length of some of the shots and the 4K resolution at which they worked.
Lefebvre and animation supervisor Michael Langford led the MPC Film VFX team, which spanned locations in Montreal, London and Bangalore. The studio’s work was concentrated to a latter portion of the film — dubbed the “Downtown Battle” — when Godzilla first arrives in Hong Kong, causing incredible destruction while searching for Kong.
No stranger to the MonsterVerse, Scanline contributed to both Godzilla and Skull Island, but none of its work involved the title creatures. Conversely, in the recent film, the studio was charged with the Kong asset, which it then shared with Weta and MPC. The story line of Godzilla vs. Kong takes place about 50 years after the events of Skull Island. So, to maintain a degree of continuity in the character, the artists started with the adolescent and much smaller model of Kong from that earlier film, which was provided by the client, and used it as a starting point, along with real-world references. They then cycled through several concepts before landing on the final “old man Kong asset” that’s in the latest movie.
“The idea was that Kong would be much larger physically and be showing signs of age to reflect the time that has passed,” explains Bryan Hirota, Scanline’s visual effects supervisor on the film. “We bulked up Kong’s model substantially, increasing his muscle mass, and added gray and white hairs throughout his fur, along with various battle scars.”
Early on, a team of artists studied gorillas at the Los Angeles Zoo and gathered photographic and video reference. They also examined images of older gorillas and primates to study how their features change as they age, “keeping in mind that Kong is an anthropomorphized ape and has a lot of human characteristics,” says Hirota. They also studied the physicality of older bodybuilders and weight lifters.
Two setups were used to handle Kong’s muscle simulations. For shots that required fine muscle and tissue detail, they modeled the skeleton, muscles and tissue with thickness for the fascia and skin, and then used Ziva Dynamics’ FEM Solver, a physics-based muscle simulator, which gave a believable physicality to the creatures. For efficiency on shots that didn’t require such hero simulations, the artists developed a body muscle system in Autodesk’s Maya with an anatomical procedural jiggle rig that ran in near realtime for rapid iteration. The artists could mix the results from Ziva with the realtime Maya jiggle rig on a shot-by-shot basis.
Scanline further developed an auto simulation process for the muscles, jiggle and hair, which could run over a series of shots to increase efficiency even more.
On the aesthetic front, getting the right look for an aged Kong required some back and forth between Scanline and the director and studio.
“We needed to get the right amount of beard coverage and aging in the groom,” Hirota explains.
Kong has a number of different groom states throughout the film — dry, wet, oily and burnt — which had to be tracked for continuity. Artists generated his hair using Chaos’ VrayHairNextMtl. The groom was done with Maya’s XGen and the simulation in Maya’s nHair.
“We spent a good deal of effort on introducing the aging and placement of both gray and white hairs in his groom,” says Hirota. “Once we were happy with the base look of the fur, we developed the other variants that are seen in the film, including the various stages of wetness, and a dusty and oily version from his final confrontation with Mechagodzilla.”
Scanline, in fact, completely overhauled its hair system to allow for interactive manipulation of the guide hairs, and created a multi-shot hair simulation tool. All the fur elements were created by sculpting guide curves.
“At the outset, we would start with a smaller amount of guide curves and try to push the groom to about 70 percent completion. We were able to change the parameters of all the grooming attributes on the fly without having to redo everything, as is the case with a purely sculpting-based grooming workflow,” Hirota says. “Although we were using a photorealistic approach, we were still able to utilize some of the purely sculpting-based grooming tool features to add finer details when required.”
As Hirota points out, Kong’s groom was so complex that the team was limited in terms of efficiency and iterative abilities. To solve that, they split the ape’s groom into 10 smaller sections, resulting in faster hair generation and preview times within the viewport. They also harnessed the viewpoint render features in Maya’s Viewport 2.0, which provides full shading for fur, as well as lighting and shadow previews.
“Being able to view something that closely resembled how the rendered fur would look without having to go through render tests meant we were able to iterate much faster,” he says.
In all, Kong has over six million hairs (6,358,381 to be exact) that were simulated in every shot he is in.
One of the more difficult aspects of Kong, according to Hirota, was due to his human-like qualities, particularly when expressing human-like emotions.
“As we knew Kong’s performance was going to be crucial to the story and that he was going to have to convey a wide range of emotions, we dedicated a focused effort into rebuilding our eye model for Kong’s eyes,” he says.
The group worked on accurately replicating the shape of the cornea to refract light and interact properly with the iris, as well as added a thin membrane where the eye veins were so they weren’t simply painted onto the sclera. They further added a tear film and had full control of the meniscus, enabling them to control the mix of oil and water that sits on the surface of the eye.
“All these additions meant we were able to get proper colorization and increased realism into our eye model,” Hirota says.
Kong exhibits a wide range of emotional states throughout the film, from tender moments with the human Jia, to epic moments of rage.
“Especially for moments when Kong needs to express specific emotions, we would motion-capture a full performance for Kong (both body and face),” says Hirota. This was done by implementing a new facial capture system using software from Faceware Technologies, and throughout the process, harnessed the feedback from machine learning to help improve and refine the targeting of the human performance to drive Kong’s face. Additionally, the group referenced a study on primate FACS from the University of Portsmouth to discern the differences between the human and chimpanzee faces.
For this mechanical beast, Scanline received an approved design from the client, but had to turn that into a fully-articulated creature that could function in 3D in all of the ways required of him. According to Hirota, the team started by developing all the geometry and mechanisms for how his joints would function without interpenetration. This entailed creating gimbaling surfaces and sliding metal panels, as well as bespoke mechanisms. Given the creature’s size and scale, the artists further applied additional small-scale details to its surface and internal build to reflect its sheer size and construction history.
They also researched, designed and incorporated various weapons, attack systems and defense systems that Mecha uses in the film, ensuring that those devices worked within the established model. The group then used its in-house Manifest layout system to connect all the Mecha parts together into one master asset, much like a puzzle.
As Hirota notes, given the mechanical nature of the creature, it did not have any need for muscle, fat, skin or hair type of secondary simulation.
“However, we did have a method for some dampened vibration of the larger panels and parts of Mecha to give it a bit of complexity,” he says. “Given his larger size and his non-biological construction, we could immediately give him a strength, speed and flexibility advantage, which opened exciting possibilities we didn’t have with the other titans.”
Scanline used the design for Godzilla from MPC’s King of the Monsters film, receiving the packaged assets containing the geometry and various texture maps, which had to be adapted to work within Scanline’s lighting and creature pipeline. They also incorporated additional details as needed — for instance, an enhanced interior physiology, so when he was struck by Mechagodzilla, glimpses of his skeletal structure and vascular system could be seen through his skin.
“But ostensibly Godzilla remained unchanged,” says Hirota.
Nevertheless, Scanline needed to scale the Godzilla asset down in size since he and Kong needed to be similar in size. And for close-ups, the crew created a new asset referred to as Godzilla Hero, which was re-sculpted to achieve the level of finite detail needed. Additional shading and texturing was done as well, and barnacles were added to his fins. And following his fight with Mecha, the artists had to ensure he was appropriately damaged by adding wounds and scars.
The key to building such massive creatures, says Hirota, is ensuring there is enough small-scale detail to support the sense of scale. But that’s not always easy when building large-scale creatures.
“A giant gorilla — let along an anthropomorphized version like Kong — isn’t simply a scaled-up version of a normal-sized one. You have to take into account how you want to handle the scale of the skin details, how large the pores are, and the size of the hair follicles,” he points out. “Given the increase in skin area, having a similar amount of follicles per square inch will help inform the size of the creature. Additionally, when they are placed in a shot, you need to solidify their size based on their interactions with the world around them. Appropriately-scaled fluid, large-scale destruction, and smoke and dust simulations will help support or give away their scale.”
The ocean battle sequences were especially challenging for Scanline, as they had to account for the reflection and refraction of the light on the ocean, along with the scale of the creatures in the water and all the fur and water interaction. The water sims were done using Scanline’s in-house Flowline simulation pipeline. Due to the size of the characters, the ships in the sequences had to be large as well (aircraft carriers, big transport ships), which made it more difficult to simulate the wakes, splashes and sprays as these huge boats moved appropriately in the water.
The studio optimized its Flowline setups to handle the scale of the large creatures above and below the water surface.
“At such large scale, the general appearance of the overall behavior can appear quite slow, but within that overall structure, the mist, spray and droplets have dynamic interaction and motions of their own,” says Hirota.
The underwater bubble setups were also optimized to allow for creatures of such size and speed to produce similar results. And then there was a furred Kong in the scene.
“We had not done such large-scale interaction of water with fur, and our shots required rivulets of water running down Kong’s wet, clumped fur. We created a system that took a reduced set of the millions of hairs on Kong’s body and allowed the fluid solver to interact with that reduced dataset in a natural way,” Hirota adds.
Building Hong Kong — Scanline
In the final daytime battle of Hong Kong, there are only a few shots that are photographic plates. Nearly the entire sequence is a fully-digital version of the city, although Scanline made heavy use of the extensive drone and helicopter footage taken by production on which to base the CG version. All the buildings were constructed fully, and building materials (glass, concrete, floors, walls) were tagged by the effects group in the layout so destruction simulations could be run accurately, and animation could take that into account when driving the creature movement.
“We wanted to make sure we had buildings that were made with construction histories so that all the individual materials would behave and break apart accurately when struck,” says Hirota, noting that the big challenge in these sequences was the sheer amount of destruction required. For instance, in the shot where Mecha drags Godzilla through Hong Kong, almost four dozen buildings were destroyed in that one shot alone.
Meanwhile, the creatures were scaled relative to the buildings, as they had to be a lot bigger to clear the height of the skyscrapers. (In the ocean battle, for instance, Kong stood at about 300 feet tall, which is three to four times larger than he was in Skull Island. In the Hong Kong sequences, he was scaled up to over 500 feet.)
Most of the fight by Scanline occurred around the Zoological and Botanical Gardens, so the artists concentrated most of their efforts in detailing this area, creating more than 300 individual buildings, in addition to the gardens, trees and landscapes.
“We made a number of more generic Hong Kong-styled buildings that could be used to provide additional detail, and had a procedural system to add smaller details, such as air conditioning units, antennas and streetlights to buildings and roads,” says Hirota.
Scanline further utilized the drone and aerial photography to stitch together a base cyclorama for the deep Hong Kong background, primarily the bay, far mountain and Kowloon sides. Hirota compliments the environmental team for creating the 2.5D setup that was placed behind the 3D city.
Building Hong Kong — MPC Film
Prior to Scanline’s battle, though, was one crafted by MPC Film. The audience sees Godzilla approaching Hong Kong via its harbor. While mostly submerged, his dorsal plates still extends far enough above the ocean’s surface to slice an expansion bridge in half. The shot is where MPC’s work began and continued into the city.
“I worked on the first Godzilla — the 2014 one — and every time we bring him back, we make him a bit more high-res,” Lefebvre explains. “He carries more scars. We add a bit more barnacles — the little shells on his legs — and stuff like this. We try to keep him up to date with the latest technology that we have, whether it’s muscle system or eye design.”
Both Godzilla and Kong are “super heavy” assets, Lefebvre notes.
“For Kong, his groom is very heavy. His hair is a bit coarser than a normal monkey, but he’s 300 feet tall, and his groom evolved in his battle. We have a version called ‘Dirty Kong’, where he is covered in dust and has more debris stuck to his fur. We would put in street props that would get stuck, so that pass was very heavy.”
Godzilla, on the other hand, is complex due to his textures and size.
“You always like to frame his feet because he is so big and stomps on stuff, so there’s lots of super close-ups on his toes and the back of his spine,” Lefebvre adds.
The MPC Film sequence takes place at night, where the audience is introduced to Hong Kong as a modern city, with many of its skyscrapers outlined in bright neon lights. MPC provided previs and postvis services for the film, with Kyle Robinson heading the team as previsualization supervisor. Their primary focus was to establish Hong Kong’s lighting, with its striking colors, which would illuminate the titans throughout the fast-paced, highly-destructive clash.
“That was an artistic mandate,” says Lefebvre of the city’s look. “The director and the production designer had a concept of a very futuristic city, and we kind of made a hybrid of a real metropolis, like Hong Kong, that is quite modern, with lots of lighting and world noise and advertisements. They have a laser show that we were inspired by. And then we did add quite a bit of neon design to make it even more vibrant.”
Without question, building the city was MPC’s biggest challenge.
“It’s a very long process,” says Lefebvre. “We gamble a bit on the look of the city to drive the lighting of the characters. I kept telling my producer, our third character is the city, because it’s such a thing by itself. When we were developing it, there was no monster in it for the longest time. We had thousands of props and cars. Compared to a character, a city is almost impossible to finish. The amount of detail you need to make it photoreal or, I call it ‘world noise’ to make it vibrant, to make it alive, is quite infinite.”
While much of the Hong Kong scenes were created digitally, there are several live-action sequences. Ground plates, with people running for cover, were shot with extras. The aerial pass along the water, as Godzilla approaches the city, was captured using a helicopter, as was some of the aerial footage of the skyline. But city restrictions prohibit helicopters from flying close to buildings, so visual effects had to create that illusion.
Standing hundreds of feet tall, Godzilla causes considerable destruction when entering the city. Kong, at this point, is deep underground in what viewers learn is “Hollow Earth” — a subterranean world where all titans come from, and from where they draw their power. Hollow Earth is part jungle, part mountains and exhibits gravitational forces unlike those found on the Earth’s surface. Sometimes the sky and mountains are upside down, for example, but Hollow Earth’s massive creatures seem to navigate the unusual environment with ease. The team of scientists who discovered Hollow Earth, and its entry point in Antarctica, are able to safely explore the underground world using vehicles called HEAVs, which float and hover using futuristic engines.
In Hong Kong, Godzilla senses Kong’s presence underground and uses his atomic breath to burn a hole deep into the Earth’s core. It’s this hole that brings Kong to the surface, with the crew in the HEAV closely following.
“I think the shot — that was the most challenging,” says Lefebvre. “The HEAV comes out of the hole and goes along a building, and it’s a bit like that adventure ride, with Kong’s mouth — ‘Arghhhh!’ And then the next shot is all one sequence. The HEAV is riding along the beam, and there is a building that gets destroyed. They go through the building and continue to ride along Godzilla, so it looks like a wild ride. It’s quite intense. It’s a long shot.”
MPC’s pipeline consists of Autodesk Maya, SideFX Houdini, Foundry Katana and Pixar Renderman, with Foundry Nuke for compositing. They also created a few proprietary tools, particularly for the interaction between the titans and the buildings of Hong Kong. The Populate HK (Hong Kong) technology is a script, based on PACS, built by MPC Film CG supervisor Joan Panis. Populate HK meant that any updates that were undertaken in the main environment build could be easily integrated into new shots. This included reading any changes made to shots by the animation team. Populate HK would read the base environment and the amended animation, and prepare the city for render. The script also held the capabilities to ensure that the shots were populated based on what sections of the city were visible, making them less heavy to render.
“We had a system where everything that would be touched — either by Godzilla’s beam or elbows, knees — everything that gets destroyed during the fight gets promoted to a special building where it gets its own interior, with office furniture and special glass that we can break,” Lefebvre explains. “We had a cool system, where it was based on interaction. We didn’t cut corners…It became a way we managed to track continuity. When you destroy a building and the shot is three seconds, in reality, the building continues to fall down, so we let the simulation run. That way, when they are doing their ‘up’ and ‘down’ (camera shots) in the city, we can get a continuity of the destruction.”
CG supervisor Timucin Ozger created an automated Houdini destruction workflow scene, which could also render the outputs with neon as the light source in Mantra Renderer. This workflow created similar outputs to those the lighting department would render. This helped to avoid surprises of different looks between departments and keep consistency. MPC also upgraded their parallax shader to make the skyscrapers look photorealistic. The new shader could merge windows into the offices and create parallax rooms that actually looked like offices, not limited to single rooms.
MPC began work on Godzilla vs. Kong in 2019 and was close to completion when the pandemic hit. Its work was pretty evenly distributed among its facilities, with London handling the hero assets, CG being created in Montreal, and compositing split between Montreal and Bangalore.
“In the beginning, every facility was operating as normal,” Lefebvre recalls. “I think it was March of last year when we got the notice from the local government to finish and go home. We [worked from] home from March until June (of 2020). I think we finished in June. It wasn’t that bad to be honest. It took a week or two to maybe set up and [get] everybody used to the different system. I think finishing a movie is easier than starting one.”
So, back to the earlier question as to whether these two titans can coexist, and if not, which would reign supreme? Kong ends up as king of Hollow Earth, while Godzilla returns to the ocean depths as ruler of the surface world. So, it appears that each is master of his own universe and stands ready for a new conflict, should one arise.