MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!
From Warner Bros
With a background in DIY filmmaking, Gareth Edwards plunged into the mammoth production with the same level of inspiration and resourcefulness he brought to his indie film “Monsters.” Gathering together artists whose work he’s long admired, the director found a team of inspired collaborators that both shared and enhanced his vision.
“When you get to make a movie like this, you can write a wish list of the best people in the world whom you’d like to work with, and I’ve been really lucky in that I got everybody at the top of my list,” he says. “All our department heads have changed cinema in their own way, and were all committed to making a profound, emotional, epic cinematic experience in the tradition of the films we grew up with. Those films are the reasons that we got into filmmaking in the first place. Everyone has been brilliant and incredibly supportive. This is my first big movie, and I kept asking, ‘Is this normal?’ It’s just been fantastic.”
Elizabeth Olsen notes that in spite of overseeing a huge cast, seven filming units and a 500-strong crew, Edwards never lost his cool. “He was able to talk to the actors about story, and then, because of his background, really command the technical aspects of the production with his crew. I think it’s a unique characteristic in a director who, on his first big film, was able to balance all of that and not get overwhelmed. His steady leadership and sense of calm really set a tone that helped everyone do their best work.”
Guiding the director was a desire to treat “Godzilla” as a story first. “It was really important to all of us that the audience cares about what’s going on and why, so I didn’t want it to just be spectacle after spectacle,” he explains. “Instead, the idea was to use some restraint to draw out the tension and suspense and really build up to that moment when we finally reveal Godzilla in all his glory for the first time.”
This approach informed every creative aspect of the film and helped carve out a visual language that brought verisimilitude to even its most jaw-dropping onscreen moments. “I don’t like putting a camera anywhere a camera can’t go, so I didn’t want to engineer any camera moves that would be impossible in real life,” Edwards says. “We shot some of the big monster scenes with the kinds of pans and effects you'd see in footage of a sporting event. Those cameramen aren’t psychic, so the footage is never perfect. They set up cameras where they think they will capture the best footage and be ready, and that’s the effect we were going for.”
Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey had seen Edwards’ first film when it played at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and was impressed at his eye for human interaction even amid extreme circumstances. “With ‘Godzilla,’ you’re dealing with a mythical monster, and what’s interesting visually is the juxtaposition of the tiny moments that people experience, and then pulling back to witness the scale of the great monster behind them,” McGarvey relates. “When you see a person against this 350-foot-tall creature, that clash of the micro and the mega, it draws your breath.”
To orchestrate the broad integration of live action and CGI elements, the entire film was mapped out using previsualization (previs), which helped guide editor Bob Ducsay in piecing together sequences, which often involved merging previs with completed shots. “It’s a very complicated movie, but it was great to watch it come together,” Ducsay remarks. “Gareth shoots a tremendous amount of film, which gives us the opportunity to bring a lot of nuance to the most complex sequences.”
The ever-evolving previs was also a vital tool for Edwards to communicate his vision to the entire filmmaking team. “Even watching the previs was edge-of-your-seat tension, and that doesn’t usually happen when you’re looking at rough, blocky animations,” Tull reveals. “There was this sense of foreboding and mystery that made us all really excited to see the finished film.”
Edwards also showed it to the actors prior to big sequences to guide their imaginations and help inform their choices when reacting to their absent mammoth co-star. And with cameras rolling, Edwards used a loudspeaker to narrate the action, like an announcer at a sporting event, often punctuated by an explosion rigged by special effects coordinator Joel Whist, or the roar they'd created for the full effect.
“I'd put the microphone against the iPod speaker, so all these roars would come out at the right times, and it was actually really effective," Edwards remembers. “You can really tell the difference, I think, between the takes where there was no sound being played on set and the ones where we had Godzilla’s roar blasting out, because there’s something really primal about it, and I think you can’t help but respond to that.”
With extensive stunts in the midst of the chaos—orchestrated by stunt coordinators John Stoneham, Jr. and Jake Mervine and 2nd Unit Stunt Coordinator Layton Morrison—the process was exhilarating for the actors. Aaron Taylor-Johnson observes, “Being in the midst of it, chaos is going on all around you, and the camera is right there in the middle of the action, so you have the same feeling watching it as you have experiencing it,” he describes. “The way Gareth is shooting this movie, you’re actually inside that car or on the top of that building, and it’s extraordinary to witness, even without special effects.”
Engineering the film’s alternately emotional, action-packed and haunting sequences using both available light sources and dark, atmospheric lighting design, McGarvey created another layer of visual contrasts by placing C Series anamorphic lenses from the 1970s on state-of-the-art Arri Alexa® digital cameras. “We are at the cutting edge of visual effects and digital cinematography with this film, but the idea was to make the technique invisible so that it won’t be heavy handed but have a vivid quality that will let an audience sense that what we’re seeing is really happening,” McGarvey shares. “We’re using older glass on modern cameras to replicate the classic flares and attributes that Gareth and I both love from the movies of the era. We consciously employed a lot of handheld in a very visceral way, almost as though the cameraman was witnessing these things live. At the same time, we’re shooting in anamorphic and have huge monster moments in the film, so it’s got the big CinemaScope feel you’d expect from a movie of this scale.”
“Godzilla” unfolds across two primary time frames: 1999 in Tokyo and the Philippines, and the present day. Production designer Owen Paterson relished capturing the motifs of different locations and eras that ran the gamut from normal life to total devastation. “We did a massive number of illustrations to concept out our environments, and then ultimately built and dressed nearly 100 sets—which is a lot for a single film—some of which were quite expansive. The idea was to make it both interesting visually and believable in terms of time and place.”
Costume designer Sharen Davis likewise turned to the film’s eras to create costumes that did not call attention to themselves but emerged naturally from the characters and their lives within the story. “We have a major military presence in this film, which involved sourcing or creating everything from 1950s officer attire to late ‘90s Japanese security personnel to the modern U.S. Army and Navy, and it was important to get it all right,” Davis confirms. “But what was equally fascinating was tracing the evolution of these characters. For example, Joe Brody goes through quite a dramatic change over 15 years. Every look in the film was designed not to stand out but to be part of the fabric of everyday life, the kinds of clothes that you sometimes see in news footage of ordinary people who suddenly find themselves in the midst of extraordinary events.”
Maintaining the illusion of the unimaginable pervading the everyday, Paterson designed and built the film’s diverse environments with an eye for what was most natural and real. “Gareth is introducing a very interesting way of telling a story like this,” he attests. “I think he would like to make us feel like a nature documentarian standing in the long grass in Africa watching a Rhinoceros feed, when suddenly it comes charging at you ... except with huge monsters. He’s a terrific storyteller, so it was great to try to create environments for him that felt true while also incorporating the existence of these rather exotic digital characters. He wanted to capture as much in-camera as possible, which translated into detailed sets with a foreground and a mid-ground that could then be extended or fused with visual effects to add scale and relevance.”
The director, who honed his visual effects acumen during his early years in British television, relished collaborating with visual effects pioneer Jim Rygiel, who brought Middle-earth to life in “The Lord of the Rings” films. He also got the opportunity to work on some additional visual effects with John Dykstra, whose legend in the industry goes all the back to “Star Wars.”
“Gareth knows how to create 3D monsters on his laptop, which made my job easier and a lot of fun,” says Rygiel. “With other projects I might have thrown up green screen everywhere, but Gareth wanted to shoot entirely against black to better relate to Seamus’ atmospheric cinematography. Visual effects people hate smoke and dust because we have to paint it all out and put it back in, but when you look at the finished shot, you feel the depth and layers, rather than seeing everything clearly in a brightly lit scene.”
The film’s visual effects demands were split among two effects houses, with the London-based Double Negative enhancing environments, and Canada’s Motion Picture Company handling the creature work. The challenge lay in creating seamless, believable interaction among the digital elements and the real world. Rygiel states, “In our film, we have big monster battles, the destruction of cities, a tsunami, intense military operations, and many unusual elements, and each component had to be absolutely based in reality.”
The final element was the film’s score, which Edwards began conceptualizing prior to enlisting Alexandre Desplat to compose it. “When you work on a film like this, the most inspiring thing to draw on is music,” Edwards says. “The first thing I ever do is create a playlist on my phone with the soundtracks that I’ve loved that I think have the right tone and quality for this film, the haunting emotion of the movie, as well as the sinister horror and darkness that was going to come into play, and Alexandre definitely got a high score.”
Having seen “Monsters,” Desplat appreciated Edwards’ focus on the emotional underpinnings of the characters amid the spectacle, a sensibility that ultimately informed his score for “Godzilla.” “Even though there’s danger, you only share the danger if you empathize with the characters,” the composer states. “With ‘Godzilla,’ what was important to me was emphasizing the great sense of loss surrounding Ford and Joe from the beginning of the film, and that we still feel the trembling of that moment as we follow these broken souls into the present.”
With the great force of Godzilla propelling the action, Desplat also relished the opportunity to make a big sonic impact with the music as he recorded the final score with the Hollywood Studio Orchestra. “I’ve never done a monster movie before, so coming to this with more than a hundred musicians—double brass, double horns—allowed me to open the frame of my imagination to another territory, and that’s very exciting,” Desplat describes. “Gareth is very sensitive to music and that was fantastic for me. When I played back music for him in my studio, I could see him watching the images and listening at the same time. I tried to always keep the tension high, but the trick was knowing when to release the pressure. For example, a scene of people in the streets can be very mundane. Nothing is happening, but instead of letting the tension slip away, you keep it going. That structure is something I tailored with Gareth as the movie and the score were taking shape, so there’s a great sense of continuity between what you’re seeing and hearing.”
The director marvels, “Alexandre is a bit of a hero of mine musically, and the score he created for this film is just stunning. I’m really excited. I can’t quite believe not only that Alexandre composed the ‘Godzilla’ soundtrack, he’s done my soundtrack. It’s the most amazing gift I think I’ll ever get.”
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