Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was an epic love-letter to the classic Japanese monster. It washed away the memory of Roland Emmerich’s disastrous remake to truly pay tribute to a genre icon, while channelling the spirit of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. While the film may have had an incredible cast, it was Godzilla himself who was the real star.
We talked to the film’s VFX supervisor Guillaume Rocheron about bringing the legend to life, why they spent hours studying bears, and why the pay-off is always worth the wait.
Gareth Edwards’ love of the creature is well-known, but were you a Godzilla fan before you joined the film?
Yeah, it’s one of those things were, especially when you work in visual effects, those movies are part of our history. The Godzilla movies were really the icons of the genre, the monster films genre. And from those movies so many other movies got created and so many other filmmakers got inspired and that sort of thing. I think as an audience member and someone who loves visual effects and works in visual effects, it’s really something quite iconic and that’s just part of our film history.
Was it exciting to be working with someone who’s got that kind of incredible passion for the movie?
Yeah, definitely. Gareth really had an incredible passion for the movie and he was very communicative about it. You could see how he really embraced and loved the original material and for him it was a bit of a dream come true, to get to put Godzilla on the big screen again and really be able to tell the story he wanted to tell with the new visual effects and all the modern technology.
And because he has a background in visual effects it was really interesting to work with him, because he would really treat visual effects as a storytelling tool and he knew, “I know I can create big monsters, I know I can do all these things, what is my vision and how do I want to really translate those things on screen?” For us it was a very interesting relationship and opportunity because Gareth, with his background and he comes from the independent scene, he would really approach set design and how to feature the monsters and how to put together a scene from the very artistically driven point of view, because for him there was no barrier really, in what you could do with visual effects.
So he really had that enthusiasm, like “OK, we’re going to design a shot like this and I want to make it look iconic by not only framing the characters like this but lighting it in a certain way and showcasing them in a certain way.” So for that it was just very, very exciting for us, to not only create an iconic character because that’s obviously a big thing, but also to work with someone that has an enthusiasm and a real understanding that you can use visual effects as an artistic tool.
As a fan, was it a relief to know that you’d be making something that really looked like the classic design?
It was, when we really started on the project Gareth had already spent a few months working on the design with concept artists and he already had something pretty locked for the look of Godzilla. We did some early concepts and things like this but then he went away and spent a few months figuring it out. I remember seeing the design and being like “Wow, this is classic. It’s modernized but you feel like he’s definitely understanding the material, he’s working with it. And he’s really going for it.”
And obviously one of the great things about Godzilla is that he’s a real character, he’s not just a mindless monster.
Yeah, definitely. And it’s something that we worked on pretty much all the way through the film, is we wanted to make Godzilla as real looking as possible and generally what we do when we make monsters or creatures or digital characters is we always try to get inspiration from reality, because that’s the only thing you can study and try to reproduce, and you can understand rules and mechanics and how things work. Early on we really started, not only for design but the rendering, how he would look and how he would move, we studied a lot of animal references like bears and predators and lizards.
All sorts of references and we spent hours and hours and hours watching those documentaries and those studies to really get a good sense of “How do predators and animals behave in the real world?” And once we had the rules kind of laid down, like “OK we’re going to use a bit of bears when Godzilla fights,” and we kind of identified a lot of references to make our own. Then as we were creating the shots and designing the shots with Gareth this is where we started to introduce a little bit of the more humanised elements to Godzilla because historically he’s not just a monster.
There’s a personality to make sure we translate and read through the character, so Gareth did as we were doing the project did a lot of study with motion capture artists and in the end the motion capture, it’s not that we used motion capture for Godzilla because it would be the equivalent of just doing the modern version of the man in the suits and we wanted to really animate him to make him feel like an animal. But it was a very interesting study to be like, “Oh, there’s something interesting in human behaviour when Godzilla does this, or there’s head movements and eye contact,” so these were elements that we worked through as we were creating the elements to refine and polish Godzilla’s attitude.
Yeah, absolutely. That’s where working with Gareth and his experience of working with visual effects was interesting because it’s not like “OK, I’m making CG monsters, I need to show them on screen as much as possible and destroy as many things as I can.” It’s really like “OK, it’s a storytelling tool.” And his storytelling style really was to build up tension and build excitement and it’s not because you can show everything that you have to, right?
At the time when you look at Jaws or Jurassic Park, the early Spielberg movies or even Aliens, filmmakers had to work around the fact that you couldn’t show an hour of creatures on screen because you just could not do that so you had to come up with clever ways to tell your story without having to feature an hour of creatures, and I think Gareth’s culture is very much influenced by that. And that’s something that he tried to communicate in Godzilla, is, well it’s the story of all these monsters but you really want the audience to build up for it. And I remember being at the premiere or when I went to see the movie in theatres with friends, and it’s one of those movies where Godzilla shows up for the first time on screen and you get a chance to see him, and you have the entire room clapping and cheering, and when you see the battle at the end it’s the same thing and I think that’s extremely great.
The audience is used to seeing a lot of CGI and a lot of things that are impossible and you can just put it on the big screen, and I think it was one of those unique experiences where you’re like, OK. The audience really waited for it and when they finally get it there’s that excitement that I think Gareth did a great job with.
Finally, are there any creatures in particular you’d like to see in sequels?
Yeah, the Godzilla franchise has a lot of interesting monsters and creatures, and it’s a big, big universe that they’ve built over time and there’s a lot of stories to tell with those characters and there’s a lot of visually interesting things to do with that so I think that movie was definitely the starting point and the foundation and who knows what the future is going to be made of, right? Not only as a visual effects artist but as an audience member, I’m really keen to see more stories based on that where filmmakers really embrace them as creating stories around those characters.