Capturing A Changed World
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
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 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
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
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 Moving
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
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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