Godzilla is the latest in a series of VFX-driven summer blockbusters where the human characters are very much a secondary draw to an epic battle between enormous fighting creatures. But while the Transformers from their eponymous film series and the giant boxing robots of last year’s Pacific Rim were very much equivalents or extensions of the film’s human actors, Godzilla is his own creature – what the head of the team charged with creating him, Guilliame Rocheron, describes as "a super-ancient representation of the ultimate power of nature”.
Much like the natural world – and again unlike those other films – Godzilla doesn’t fit neatly into the usually clearly delineated character boxes found in blockbusters, marked hero or villain. As with the original 1950s Japanese films – but unlike Hollywood’s 1998 take on Godzilla with Matthew Broderick and a dozen raptors ‘borrowed’ from Jurassic Park, where he was a threat to be destroyed – Godzilla exists completely outside of the human world.
He rises to fight an enemy who threatens the planet as a whole, but has little concern for the humans who are between him and that enemy. In fact, he probably kills more people with a tidal wave caused when he comes on shore in Honolulu than the ‘villain’ MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) creature he’s chasing does walking and fighting – against the US military – its way across the island.
Use the slideshow controls above and right to go behind-the-scenes on Godzilla's VFX with MPC's Guilliame Rocheron.
Godzilla’s character design
The challenge of designing – modelling, animating and rendering – a creature who is both a threat to the main human characters and someone the audience should root for when fighting the MUTOs was given to visual effects house. MPC is best known for being one of London’s top visual effects houses, but the VFX team was lead by Guilliame Rocheron from MPC's Vancouver studio.
The way that Guilliame’s team found the balance of indifferent force of nature and hero was to model and animate him as an animal, but to bring out a hint of relatable humanity in his reactions – especially when he’s injured – that makes the audience care about him.
"In terms of the design, we went for something that that felt like the classic Godzilla look,” says Guilliame. “But he’s clearly not a man in a suit. He’s not a dinosaur or a hybrid lizard either.”
By a 'hybrid lizard', Guilliame means that he didn’t want to borrow elements from other animals and just stitch them together to produce some kind of digital chimera. For the character to work, he had to feel like a real animals – having some commonality with other creatures but designed by its own particular evolutionary path.
“The idea was to really make Godzilla believable,” he says. "We used a lot of animal references for the texture, details and skin – and they way they move. We used reptiles like crocodiles and alligators and the Komodo dragon. We looked at how they these predators look and act when they’re attacking or approaching, and when they’ re in good shape and when they’re [injured].
"But these were references – we couldn’t create a giant puzzle to identify which feature would be appropriate for each body part - that would end up with a crazy design that wouldn’t be real.”
Godzilla’s face drew much from that of fleshy, stretchy visages of Komodo dragons, which gave a lot of scope for expressions – but perhaps too much. Guilliame says that there was always the danger of pushing each facial expression too far – making the mighty Godzilla seem like a rubber mask.
Fixing this required a lot of trial and error to find the right balance between showing emotion and remaining realistic. Where he could ‘let it out’ was when he was fighting the MUTOs in the film’s climax across and through San Francisco.
“We want the audience to kind of root for him here,” says Guilliame. "We wanted the audience to feel pumped and happy for him [when he succeeds], but realise that he can die and get to care about him.
"There are a few moments in the third act where he's got really hurt fighting one of the MUTOs. He gets taken down and then comes back – and we have to help [induce] the different emotional states that you want to take the audience to.”
MUTOs character design
While the two MUTOs creatures (the flying male and the immense female) are as organic in their design as Godzilla, they’ve very different – both from each other and from the titular creature. Partially this is to ensure that the audience is always aware of what body part belongs to which creature when Godzilla is fighting them – a criticism often thrown at Transformers – but it’s also because their concept comes from a different place.
“Their goal is just to procreate and provide [for their expectant young],” says Guilliame. "They’re very different characters [from Godzilla] because they're very driven by pure survival and animalistic instinct.”
Reference points for the MUTOs textures were whale skin and crab shells, providing a sheen that contrasts distinctly with Godzilla’s scales and spines. However, making them too perfect would have made them seem ‘CG’, so the team had to find the right balance between having a sense of detail while giving them a simple, graphic silhouette that makes their position and pose easy to identify on screen.
We weren't able to obtain any stills featuring the MUTOs.
Framing Godzilla and the MUTOs
To show the sheer scale of Godzilla and the MUTOs in a way that makes the audience feel in awe of them meant favouring shots that showed all from the human perspective.
“[The film] very kind of grounded in reality,” says Guilliame. "One thing that was always very important was the positioning of the cameras, so that you get a sense of the scale of the effects. Godzilla is 353 feet tall, and the female [MUTO] is almost equally as big. While the male is a little smaller, you’re still witnessing creatures that are absolutely gigantic – and it was really important that we convey the gigantic scale of the action."
As well as always including day-to-day objects such as cars in shot as reference points so the audience was always aware of the relative size of the creatures, the VFX team also put objects in the foreground of shots to make the audience feel that they were on the ground watching these creatures – and part of the action.
Much of the framing was under the instruction of director Gareth Edwards (shown with actor Bryan Cranston on the set of Godzilla), the British director whose previous film – and his feature debut – was the modestly budgeted indie feature Monsters (costing less than £300,000, vs Godzilla’s £95 million). Monsters, like Godzilla, sees people trying to deal with huge monsters that are beyond their control, though with a slow, mediative feel.
Gareth created Monsters’ VFX himself – using tools such as After Effects and 3ds Max – and previous created feature-quality visual effects for TV shows. In 2008 we interviewed him about building a CG barbarian army for a BBC Two documentary, which he created at home.
Guilliame says working on the film "was a great chance to work with such a great and talented visual director. [Godzilla] has a unique visual style that reminds a lot of classic thrillers. [Gareth] used the visual storytelling to convey emotion, mood and tension – that builds up through the whole film."
He says that working on the film with Gareth was inspiring for him because "you can pretty much do anything you want now in visual effects. So it’s about how you use them.
"Godzilla is a visual effect-driven movie, but they’re all in aid of the story. We were never blowing up a building for the sake of blowing up a building – we would always working on very strong compositions and very clear and powerful images."