By KEVIN H. MARTIN
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By KEVIN H. MARTIN
When, as a youth, Visual Effects Supervisor John ‘DJ’ Des Jardin saw the 1976 remake of King Kong, he was at first unaware that most of the scenes featuring the great ape were done with Rick Baker in an ape suit. “It was only later I found out about how the giant 40-foot ape built by Carlo Rambaldi was only used in a few shots,” he admits, “as it was too big to articulate a practical one, except for the full-scale hand holding Jessica Lange. With our Godzilla vs. Kong, prosthetic monsters would have been even more impractical, given these creatures are nearly 10 times the height of that Kong.”
Godzilla vs. Kong marks the fourth film in the Warner/Legendary Monsterverse – the third with Godzilla, following Godzilla and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and the second with Kong, taking place decades after the set-in-the-’70s Kong: Skull Island. While the premise vaguely matches Toho Studios’ King Kong vs. Godzilla, the plot actually hinges more on human machinations and manipulations. These range from keeping Kong captive in a kind of Truman Show-style menagerie, to arranging for the titular battle, in the hope that whichever creature proves victorious will be sufficiently weakened by combat to then succumb to their own champion when loosened upon him.
Keeping with their approach on previous Monsterverse entries, Legendary’s selection of Adam Wingard to direct reflected an inclination towards low-budget and indie-minded filmmakers. To better prep for the assignment, Wingard rewatched the Godzilla oeuvre in its entirety, re-grounding himself in a film series he had often watched as a youngster, but this time with an eye toward delivering something he hadn’t previously attempted – a feature that didn’t carry with it an ‘R’ rating.
While the storyline was being refined, design efforts commenced. “Some preliminary previs had already been done before I came on,” recalls Des Jardin, a veteran of other genre franchises including The Matrix sequels, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the theatrical version of Justice League. “There was a war room set up with a ton of fantastic concept art developed by [Production Designers] Tom Hammock and Owen Paterson that really put across the intended feel of the show as it was envisioned by the director. They were still working on the script at that point, but things started solidifying soon after. We were aided in our planning in that a lot of the same production crew had done Skull Island, so there was already a pretty good idea of what could be handled on set vs. what would fall to visual effects.” MPC, Scanline and Weta were selected as primary vendors.
Des Jardin contacted Guillaume Rocheron, who supervised VFX on the earlier two Godzilla films – in 2014 for MPC, then acting as Production Visual Effects Supervisor on the sequel. “One of my earliest conversations with him involved finding out what kinds of challenges I should be on the lookout for,” Des Jardin reports. “Guillaume, having just finished King of the Monsters, had a warning for me about being able to animate the creatures, as the filmmakers want to see them in order to tell the story while still respecting and maintaining the proper scale to the motion. If the creatures maintain the proper scale, they feel like they’re moving too slow for the drama. So, the dynamics become kind of crazy, to the point that we once clocked Kong as going 400 miles per hour across a particular landscape!”
The answer lay with a demonstration of Newtonian physics – with respect to everything around the creatures. “We found the trick was to let environmental effects – the ripples in the water, the smoke being disturbed in the air and the damage as things affected by gravity and destruction fall – portray the scale accurately, even while these characters are performing at the speed the drama demands,” notes Des Jardin. “Things falling at speed from a building all observed a similar ‘realistic’ rate, and so by maintaining and respecting those real-world aspects, it grounded the action, regardless of how crazy-fast the creatures were on their rampages.”
The digital model of Godzilla – a design somewhat evolved for King of the Monsters from the first film – was retained for this new entry, while Kong’s Skull Island model was sent over by ILM. The latter had to be aged up, since that film was set back in the 1970s. Wingard has likened the differences in ages for the simian to Clint Eastwood as he appeared in the Dollars trilogy of westerns versus his appearance decades later in Unforgiven.
Des Jardin employed a production-side crew to take all the nitty-gritty data on set. “We had witness cameras to make sure everything got covered for the various set extension work in the movie,” he says, “plus whole environments that included the monsters, so we needed a lot of foundation to make that work. And I made myself available to answer questions from the director and DP, addressing concerns about whether their approaches would work with our post processes.”
Des Jardin appreciated Wingard’s visual approach for the creatures. “He was very specific, wanting the lenses used on our shots to be very realistic and in keeping with what production shot. But he also wanted a lot of the creature stuff to be shot less from the human point of view and more from the height that these two live at, and they’re close to 400-feet tall. I think that was an interesting idea, and by getting up on level with Kong as he goes after the other guy, we can really watch them go at it. Weta did a lot of the more emotional Kong acting bits, which does reflect the strengths they’ve demonstrated with primate and fur animation in films past. It’s easier to bond with Kong since we’re all primates.
Getting inside the head of a big lizard isn’t quite the same, but by getting close in, you do get an idea of how he is responding to what is going on, so we did many over-the-shoulder type views, like what you’d see in a boxing match.”
When the camera was in motion during a battle, the movement was deliberately constrained. “Adam wanted those moves to happen at helicopter speed, not hauling ass through the world in a way that would blow the scale. We reserved really drastically quick moves for special moments and avoided those pull-back-to-infinity moments completely.”
Des Jardin praises the work of aerial DP David Nowell. “We were still shooting on the Gold Coast when David shot the aerials in Hong Kong, so I couldn’t be there with him. He did a great job given the extreme – and to my mind, very arbitrary – restrictions on aircraft in Hong Kong. We used as much real plate footage as possible, then cobbled stuff together when that wasn’t possible. There are a lot of scenes that had to be done with full CG cityscapes, owing to the level of destruction that was taking place. We might anchor it to a plate to get the buildings initially, but then replace and destroy some of those. We’d also have to replace the ocean because X, Y and/or Z happened with the lighting and that part of frame had to reflect these changes.”
Scanline took on the daylight Hong Kong work, while MPC handled the more extensive night scenes there. “They were out there a month-and-a-half ahead of us,” Des Jardin states, “which enabled their team to scour Hong Kong for all useful details in the various locations called for in the approved previs. MPC Supervisor Pier Lefebvre handled that project for us.” This early work utilized the company’s Envirocam process, developed for Man of Steel, to capture and reproduce exceptional levels of visual information from the location.
Since Des Jardin eschews the model of dividing up work within a shot, vendors took on whole sequences. “The big question in our mind at the start was whether Scanline – which has long been known for their huge water sims and being great with fluid dynamics – could do the character work in the big water scenes as well as the environmental aspects. Because rather than parcel out parts of the shots to various vendors and then try to get those pieces to live together, I wanted to have vendors do everything for the shots in their sequences. There was an early test, for one of the biggest shots in the trailer, the big punch Kong throws from atop the aircraft carrier, and Scanline’s work looked totally impressive even that far back.
Selling these full CG scenes required nuanced touches. “A lot of hand animation goes into the character work, and a lot of simulations go into the environment and natural phenomena around them,” Des Jardin acknowledges. “Adam is a huge fan of camera shake, too, so all kinds of lens flares and post tricks to make the image less clean and more in keeping with the panic situation. We had stuff hitting the lens during the ocean stuff, which helped give the impression you’re inside the action.”
In various locations where Godzilla’s fire breath was deployed, production used interactive sources. “Those lighting rigs come on and turn off to give us big lighting cues that animation then fleshes out,” states Des Jardin.
“It’s great to have that on-set interaction with the actors and environment, and it anchors the look of the effect. Even if the timing isn’t perfect, we can usually work with that because you can’t beat those real bits of light interaction.”
Finesse was needed to deliver the breath effect in brighter scenes. “Making sure Godzilla’s fire reads in different lighting conditions was mainly a matter of eyeballing things so it reads in a way that makes sense. If you’re in daylight, the intensity has to be modulated to take into account the brightness. In the main, we try not to be too overexposed, because then you start losing detail to the detriment of the actual effect. In a way, that kind of sums up a lot of our work here – keep things real, but show enough to really deliver the levels of excitement.”