Man-in-suit, miniatures, mechanics and modern CG: looking back at 20 years since Godzilla

By Ian Failes

Fresh from his 1996 blockbuster hit, Independence Day, a film that combined the latest in computer generated imagery and practical effects and miniatures, Roland Emmerich returned to the big screen with Godzilla. Again, an array of effects techniques would be used to bring the giant lizard to life, including CGI. Back then only a few studios had been able to convincingly craft lead photoreal CG creatures, which made Godzilla incredibly adventurous.

On the 20th anniversary of the film, vfxblog explores the journey of visual effects supervisor Volker Engel, who had also supervised Independence Day, through the practical and digital realms of Godzilla. Today’s audiences might be surprised just how much of the film was realised practically, and how in fact a more bold use of CGI was initially imagined, including via motion capture. Volker breaks down the different approaches, with rarely known insights into Godzilla’s landmark teaser trailer that had been deliberately designed to mock the release of 1997’s Jurassic Park: The Lost World. Plus he provides some key behind the scenes imagery from the making of Emmerich’s film.

vfxblog: Many people would have learnt about Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla via that very famous teaser trailer. Can you talk about how that came about?

Volker Engel: There’s a fun story about that – Roland told me he had a very early meeting with the Sony people, discussing what could be done as a teaser trailer really early on. He said he was not that excited about the ideas that they came up with. Then he said he went into the hallway. Back in the day, he was still smoking and he said he smoked a cigarette and was thinking.

What I don’t know anymore exactly is if this was something that he had earlier discussed with [Godzilla designer and supervisor] Patrick Tatopoulos or if it was just completely his idea. But he said he went back into the room and then pitched this museum idea. ‘Why don’t we just have this T-rex, biggest living predator on this planet, and then the foot comes down, and bang!’

Then, we immediately set out to do it. We had a lot of the guys from Independence Day that we rang back to immediately do this teaser trailer and it was a lot of fun. Everything in the teaser trailer is a miniature except the foot and the tail at the very end.

T-Rex miniature for Godzilla teaser. Photo courtesy of Volker Engel, © 1998 Tristar Pictures.

vfxblog: I remember that it would have come out in 1997, possibly when the second Jurassic Park film was just out or had not quite come out. So, clearly, it was a dig at The Lost World, right?

Volker Engel: I’ll tell you something that not too many people know, we actually shot an additional shot that didn’t end up in the teaser. The foot comes down, smashes the T-rex skeleton, and then the foot lifts out again and in the skylights, there’s a big hole. We had a last shot where you looked down through that skylight onto the smashed T-rex skeleton and it looked very much like the logo from Jurassic Park. That’s when Sony said, ‘That’s too much. We cannot do that, even if it’s meant as a joke.’ But, yes.

vfxblog: I think back then it was a pretty big deal for another visual effects studio – Centropolis – to get heavily into character animation. But even for that teaser, what did you need to pull off for that big foot and even for the windows crashing?

Volker Engel: It was a super fast effort of just building a CG foot and a tail. That was all we needed. You didn’t see anything else in the teaser. I don’t know how long they had for that. Generally, I give a lot of credit to a gentleman who also happens to be from Germany and worked on Independence Day. His name is Steffen Wild. He also became on the whole movie our CG supervisor who was responsible for the creature and everything that had to do with the creature. I’m not talking about the animation itself, but to actually give us the quality.

As you said, back in the day, when The Lost World was coming out, but there weren’t that many other CG dinosaurs around. Of course,The Lost World was ILM and with Centropolis FX, this was pretty much like a startup. Everybody got together and said, ‘Okay, we have to somehow match this CG quality with the dinosaur and the rain and the water coming down off his skin and all these things.’ So, it was very tricky.

Smashed T-Rex miniature for the Godzilla teaser. T-Rex miniature for Godzilla teaser. Photo courtesy of Volker Engel, © 1998 Tristar Pictures.

vfxblog: So, the teaser obviously excited a lot of people. and then the film had to get made. I’m really curious about your methodology going into the film. Can we talk about how things panned out for how Godzilla would be realised because again, as we were just saying, there was actually multiple ways that she was done? He?

Volker Engel: Well, I know that Roland very early on said, ‘I want to keep him hidden in the darkness and the rain a lot.’ During the movie, we actually decided it’s actually a him and a her at the same time. It’s funny. When I recently looked at the movie again, I was like, ‘No, we didn’t really do that.’ You damn well see a lot of him in the movie and there’s not much hidden, actually. I don’t know if he had that plan because he thought, ‘I don’t think the guys will be able to pull it off,’ or what it was.

But what I still like a lot is that everything more in the first half, especially first third of the movie where you don’t see that much, it’s a bit Jaws-like where you have the fisherman on the pier and you only see the upper part of the head and things like that. That was a lot of fun. But otherwise, the decision was to have Patrick Tatopoulos, our creature designer, and his fantastic workshop build a sixth scale upper torso of the creature, which was done. Then also, this man-in-suit approach.

VFX supervisor Volker Engel with 6th scale Godzilla mechanical head. Photo by Isabella Vosmikova, © 1998 Tristar Pictures.

The man-in-suit approach was mainly used for also upper torso shots. My favourite is actually at some point, Madison Square Garden has been bombed and everybody thinks Godzilla’s dead. Then he rises out of the ashes, so to speak, behind our lead actors and that was completely miniature. There was actually our guy in suit with a lot of rubble on top of him and we shot that in slow motion. But whenever you would see him full body and running, that had to be CG. We knew that from the get-go.

vfxblog: I remember reading something about even considering trying some motion capture for Godzilla and maybe that not really panning out.

Volker Engel: Yeah, we did some early tests and on the one hand, we always have to remember that even then motion capture was in its infancy at that time. So, it would have involved the whole cleanup process and then take what you have and change it to turn it into a more lizard-like motion instead of looking like the man in suit was very difficult. After a couple of very early tests, we decided that that effort would just be too much. We were lucky to have a fantastic supervising animator. His name is Andy Jones.

He was able to give the creature weight and at the same time, to make him fast. For every animator dealing with this gigantic creature, you would know that that is an almost impossible task to pull that off. So, that was a decision that was made after the test that it would be completely hand animated because it took just too much time to get from the motion capture to a creature that looked like, or didn’t look like it would be a man in suit.

Sixth scale Godzilla upper torso at Patrick Tatopoulos’ workshop. Photo courtesy of Volker Engel, © 1998 Tristar Pictures.

vfxblog: Now, with those different approaches, a CG Godzilla, a man-in-suit, scale puppets, and Patrick Tatopoulos’ designs, I want to ask you something about any conversations you might have had with Roland or even feelings amongst yourselves about, ‘Can we actually make these different scales intercut, these different puppets and CG?’ Was anyone really nervous about that?

Volker Engel: One thing that is important to keep in mind is once you have a real creature, and that’s what we did, let’s say like the, let’s call him man-sized Godzilla in Patrick’s workshop, it was so incredibly, meticulously, and beautifully built that we took all photographs for our texture work in the CG realm from that creature. So, that is already a step in the right direction of making them look alike.

But, yes, you’re right. There’s always this question about when you cut from the real one to the CG one and is it going to work? Part of the fact that we didn’t use that much of the real one is definitely attributed to that. The sixth scale upper torso, for example, was in a handful of shots, mostly from the neck up because it was built with, I hope I’m not wrong, I think it was with hydraulics, with all these pistons and all of that. Early tests in the studio would already show Roland there’s a limited amount of motion that you can do with that. We didn’t want it to look like some of the creatures in Pirates of the Caribbean. But I think you know where I’m getting with this.

To get a real fluid motion out of a creature that is – remember Godzilla was huge, and these puppets were really already gigantic. It was probably, if you would be on the stage floor, and this would be 25 feet up, something like 25 feet high. To move this thing around and keep a feel with motion was very tricky. At the same time, also don’t forget that that’s why I said Centropolis FX was basically a newly started at this point as a company. I was an independent special effects supervisor, but of course, I would pretty much then spend every day at CFX.

The CG creature got better and better. So, in the beginning, it was a little bit like, ‘Oh, I guess we have to use a lot of the real one. Let’s see how much we can use the CG one.’ Then the CG one, after weeks and weeks and months and months, it looked better and better and the animation got better and better. So, at that point, there’s this decision being made that’s, of course, being made by the director: ‘Let’s use more of the CG one and less of the real creature.’

vfxblog: Let’s talk about getting up to speed with CG. You’d obviously done work in Independence Day and probably other films. But I’m curious, as a visual effects supervisor who had a very practical background, what did you need to learn about what CFX were doing and what it takes to actually build a CG character and how long it takes and how expensive it is? This is really back in the early days where really, not every studio was doing photoreal CG characters.

Volker Engel: Yes, correct. I love to surround myself with specialists and I would never pretend in those days that I knew more about CG than I did know, which was really the basics. We just sit together. I remember long meetings also with Steffen Wild about the potential and the possibilities. Of course, Roland, whenever he had time, was part of that. It was a huge learning experience every single day. Frankly, also from the CG guys themselves. I remember we had a TD, technical director, who was a total genius. Very nerdy in a positive way.

We had a shot where Godzilla is running on the Brooklyn Bridge and the question was, ‘Can we actually show this in a wide shot?’ which was not our miniature Brooklyn Bridge, but a CG version where some of the cables of the bridge are being snapped, basically. I remember how he got us into his office and had a black and white version of this. Then he took the mouse and the cursor and went with the cursor through the cables and they snapped one by one. But they were under tension.

So, they would snap and then they would curl. This was, in those days, a huge deal that it was procedural and this was not hand animated. So, he just took his mouse, went through them like with a scissor, and they would all curl up. We were basically applauding and said, ‘This is amazing.’ So, those were the things where we would set out and say, ‘Hey. Let’s try this, but we don’t know if we can actually do that or if we have to shoot this as an element.’ This was pretty much every day was this learning experience.

We had another shot where Godzilla was also running on the Brooklyn Bridge coming towards us and this was all about the depth fog we would put in there. There were a couple of things we could actually do compositing-wise with our miniature bridge and then also with the CG creature to fake the creature in there with some depth fog. But we had a very specific shot where the camera’s pretty much in one position and Godzilla comes closer towards the camera. So, he’s coming out of the fog and this is more of a three-dimensional thing.

VFX Supervisor Volker Engel in NY miniature. Photo by Isabella Vosmikova, © 1998 Tristar Pictures.

Then I remember Steffen showing me these – today, you would probably call it 2.5D approach – fog layers that he had actually in CG. But they were two-dimensional fog layers and Godzilla’s running through them and gets clearer and clearer the further he comes towards us. So, again, this was stuff where two days before, I said, ‘This is what we need. Can we do that?’ He goes, ‘Let me see what we can do.’ So, it’s quite different than nowadays.

vfxblog: That bridge shot is really interesting because I remember that that was possibly imagined solely as a miniature or practical shot, but ultimately done in CG. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Volker Engel: That was quite a mix, actually. That was a pretty crazy idea, which was my idea, I’m afraid. In effects lingo, we’d call it a buck and it’s just something that represents the creature and pretty much has some of its body details and the guys from special effects combined with Joe Viskocil’s team that, of course, did the pyro.

They put together this green metal Godzilla and the most important part about this shot of Godzilla on the bridge was that on the Brooklyn Bridge, he jumps onto the first tower, he jumps off again, and then the second tower, he tries to just ram through because he’s chasing this taxicab and gets closer and closer. So, he just rams through the second tower, which is really like a gate. That, we did completely practical with this green Godzilla buck that was built in scale to the bridge miniature. We had it on tracks and it was pushed by cable into this bridge tower.

Mock-up for Godzilla bridge scene.

But even more important, after it was halfway through, it needed to rise up again because we knew that our CG Godzilla would lift up its head and try to shake off the cables and so on. So, there was a bit of mechanical magic happening there where when the metal buck was pushed through, it was able to then go up right afterwards. Then it was a very tedious compositing shot to put the CG Godzilla. Basically, we placed the green one with the CG Godzilla so you have an absolute 50/50 mix of a Brooklyn Bridge miniature in the 24th scale and the CG Godzilla being entangled in all these cables.

It was a very crazy idea to do it that way. I really want to apologise to the people that had to pull it off back in the day, which thank God I had very good relationship with. I think at that point, we all knew that to us, this was the best solution, partially because also to keep in mind, everything had to do with destruction and a lot of debris, dust, and all of that was still very, very difficult to pull off in the computer.

So, when I make a big leap forward to the year 2008 where we did the movie, 2012, and everything was about destruction and dust and so on, we had, 10 years later, completely different tools. But that’s why it made a lot of sense to do the destruction of the bridge tower for real with this green buck and have all these stones fly around and the small debris and so on and then integrate the creature into the shot in CG.

vfxblog: Nowadays, it’s just an obvious thing to use Houdini or some sort of effects simulation software to do buildings crumbling or whole buildings coming down or anything like that. But back on Godzilla, you were building miniatures and blowing buildings up, and for great results, frankly. You really get that realistic feel. Was there ever any talk of that being done in CG?

Volker Engel: No, not really. I know that Roland and Dean Devlin had asked me a couple of weeks before we finished Independence Day, they asked me to come on-board as supervisor for Godzilla. So, a couple of months later, the end of ’96, we had these early talks and it was from the get-go that we said, ‘Let’s try everything we can with miniature,’ which was also a bit of a nod to the Toho movies.

By the way, I had the chance when we went over to the Japanese premiere, Patrick Tatopoulos and I, we got a tour of Toho’s studio. They were actually in the middle of producing, it was a King Ghidorah project. Something that I remember very fondly was they had an archive where they were storing old stuff from movies and they showed us the train wagons from the 1950s black and white Godzilla. It’s this infamous shot where he has this train in his mouth. So, we got to see things like that. Of course, that made me feel like a 12 year old again.

vfxblog: I feel like sometimes when you shot miniatures you had to really lock in camera moves, and you could also really only move the camera in certain ways. When it’s all CG, obviously the camera can move anywhere. I kind of feel that having miniature buildings made some of those New York scenes more realistic, at least from a camera movement point of view.

Volker Engel: Yeah, although, funnily enough, back in the day, internally, well, mostly from the director’s side, there would always be a complaint that the camera would not be able to move as much as we wanted! Then later, I remember discussions with Roland on other movies where we were a lot more CG, like in 2012 and also in the Independence Day sequel, to restrain ourselves. I have to say, I might be part of the discussion when we do previs and so on and suggest things. But if Roland wants something more dynamic, then we’ll make it more dynamic.

But at the same time, he always kept his personal rule that it either needs to be, one, able to be shot from a helicopter or from a car or the lead track or whatever. Roland’s favourite example would be a couple of shots from Lord of the Rings when we fly across the landscape and then fly into these open mines, which was also beautiful miniature work. But there, you can actually see that even if it was miniature, you had the chance with a capable motion control rig to do motion movements that could not be done in the real world. Roland had his personal rule, ‘I actually only really want to do moves that could have been done for real.’

vfxblog: It feels most apparent in the helicopter chase in Manhattan where Godzilla is dodging in between the buildings. Perhaps if that were done today it would be a lot more frenetic. But I feel like you almost get these nice, gentle helicopter moves amongst the miniature buildings. Tell me a bit about the design for that and what you could pull off with miniatures, as well as the CG Godzilla going through.

Volker Engel: Well, we were, of course, limited to everything you could do with your motion control crane and fitting it through these narrow street miniatures, but it was exactly that. It was a mix of a couple of shots that were shot from ground level where we even had to put a big hole into the street so the camera could be low enough, so it would actually look like you’re on street level. Other things were, like I said, limited with the motion control rig. You couldn’t go three times around the corner or something like that. Just physically impossible.

At the same time, when we, again, jump to the future, I remember me having discussions with our CG animation supe on White House Down where we had also a lot of helicopter shots and shots that needed to look like they were shot from a helicopter, even though we had very, very limited access to anything real that had the White House in it. So, the discussions would be, ‘Try to put this little bit of bevel in there, this little bit of hovering feel in this shot, even if you don’t know you’re actually in a helicopter, but it needs to look like it was shot from a helicopter, even if it’s all CG.’

vfxblog: I want to talk about that shot that you mentioned of Godzilla coming out of Madison Square Garden. It’s actually also one of my favourite shots. I’m just really curious about why you think it works so well.

Volker Engel: To put a little anecdote in there first, Patrick Tatopoulos, after we watched the movie later, thought it was our CG Godzilla. He didn’t realise it was his and, of course, was happy to hear that. But I think it’s just this dynamic looking shot and I vaguely remember that we shot it about three times until it looked good, which had a lot to do with painstakingly putting all this rubble on top of our man in suit and then have him perform this motion that is incredibly dynamic.

Madison Square Garden miniature. Photo by Isabella Vosmikova, © 1998 Tristar Pictures.

The first couple of times, it looked rather boring of just him coming up. But it needed to have this, it’s almost like your typical shot you have in some hair product commercial where the lady shakes her hair in slow motion. Out man-in-suit needed to do that too. So, that was a performance that was very important. We worked very closely. His name was Kurt Carley. He was able to do these, let’s call them dance moves that needed to be done.

I’m emphasising on painstakingly putting the rubble on there because there’s not just somebody standing there with a shovel and putting stuff on top of him. You want to make sure it looks like exactly the stuff that had fallen down. That was something I was always very keen on making sure whenever we had any destruction happening that you’d probably see me going in there last and then do a bit of more dressing and the couple of things I really wanted to see flying through the air.

I already did that in the first Independence Day. The cars would tumble towards camera, then I would be the one who would put the little additional bumpers and car pieces on the back of the miniatures when they were blown towards us with an air cannon and shot in slow motion. But it was the same thing with that shot. You might look at it and think, ‘Oh, that’s pretty random.’ But everything in the movies, it was very, very well rehearsed and, in this case, also shot a couple of times until it was right.

DP Anna Foerster with interior Madison Square Garden miniature. Madison Square Garden miniature. Photo by Isabella Vosmikova, © 1998 Tristar Pictures.

vfxblog: Overall, what are your memories about the things that you were really happy with, or things that maybe didn’t go the way you wanted?

Volker Engel: Well, two things come into mind. One is from the realism point – the most ridiculous scene in the movie is the one with the submarines in the river and Godzilla swimming away from the submarines and the submarines shooting the torpedoes. I had so much fun doing this, but our research told us if Godzilla jumps into this river, he would not even be halfway underwater because neither the Hudson nor the East River is that deep. We had these nuclear subs going through these rivers, but anyway, this was just movie making.

One thing that I am very proud of, and it was very straining to get it in the can, was the fishing boats sequence. It was a night shoot. We shot it at Universal at the infamous Falls Lake. The lake had to be drained and we put tracks in there, pretty much like dolly tracks, so that our fishing boats would actually be able to be sunk in the right way, which was the trickiest part in that scene. At the end, Godzilla pretty much takes the nets off these three fishing boats and you never see it on the water. You always see it from above the water.

I’ve forgotten the scale, I have to admit, but it was probably also something around sixth scale or so. They were pretty large, these boats, and everybody who works with water knows how difficult it is to get the scale even somewhat right. So, we had to build pretty big. Everything that takes place on water, you can plan whatever you want. It always takes twice as long. You have divers around and the security is twice as high and so on. That was a very, very tricky one.

I also vividly remember an editing trick that Roland did, which I, to this day, find so fascinating because we had one real fishing boat and Roland needed a shot where the captain, and there’s three fishing boats next to each other, and the captain of the middle one, who seemed to be the boss of the whole undertaking, yells over to the boat on his left and then yells over to the boat on his right. He was just on a little set piece that would double as his bridge that he was standing on on his boat.

Sinking of fishing boat miniatures. DP Anna Foerster with interior Madison Square Garden miniature. Madison Square Garden miniature. Photo by Isabella Vosmikova, © 1998 Tristar Pictures.

You see him over shoulder yelling over to the boat in the distance, which was the real fishing boat that we had on the lake. Everything, of course, was with wind machines and rain machines and making the water choppy and all that stuff. Then he turns to the other side and he’s supposed to then talk to the other fishing boat. I think he always wanted to, I have to look at it again, but he always wanted this as an over the shoulder. But the thing was us having only one fishing boat and it could be only shot on this one side, Roland just reversed the film.

So, he basically shot the action twice showing the one fishing boat, changed out the crew of the sailors on the large fishing boat in the distance, and you just see how the guy yells to the one boat, then he turns around and then he yells to the other boat, which again, is the same boat. It’s just the film reversed. Of course, today, we’d always say, ‘Well, that’s easy. You can just flip it in post.’ But we didn’t have the whole film digitised, as far as I remember.

vfxblog: I’ve also always loved the scene of Godzilla coming into that pier with the guy running and the thing breaking.

Volker Engel: That was a fairly large scale miniature. It was also shot at Falls Lake at Universal. I think I’m going to stick with sixth scale on that one. We had a Godzilla, it’s only the upper part of the Godzilla head and his shoulders with the spikes looking up because you only really see those spikes in the water, or they look like fins when they come towards you. Everything was shot for real with a sixth scale miniature and, of course, we had an additional set piece with the guy with the fishing rod performing for real. But then it completely gets switched to the model at some point.

Lead SFX Technician Joe Heffernan with jetty miniature. Photo by Isabella Vosmikova, © 1998 Tristar Pictures.
Destruction of miniature jetty with Godzilla head. Photo by Isabella Vosmikova, © 1998 Tristar Pictures.

The head was also underwater on rails and it was pulled over a lever system by a very powerful pickup truck because the head had to be pulled through the water and give this little tsunami wave. Then when it comes closer and reaches the pier, Joe Viskocil’s team had it rigged with explosives, literally on a nail board. He would watch the sixth scale head move through the pier and destroying it and he would trigger his explosions accordingly so it was always exactly at that point. Then we had, of course, the fishing guy shot on greenscreen and run towards us and composited.

vfxblog: Twenty years ago, how were you reviewing work done by the visual effects studios? Did you need to go to their premises? Could they transfer anything via data?

Volker Engel: It was very painful. Los Angeles is a big city. Nowadays, it would, of course, be so different because we’d have 15 companies all over the world and in this case, we were, at least the main companies, were definitely in Los Angeles. To review material and also work with the artists, which I, especially in those days, pride myself of having done, of having the time to especially sit with compositors, also for several hours and get the shots at least on the right track, which was, to me, as you were asking earlier about the digital experience for me coming from the practical side, those were my biggest lessons to work with those ladies and gentlemen.

I remember that I would, for example, start my day on Godzilla at a company called Digiscope in Los Angeles and at 9:00 in the morning, have my bagel and my coffee and sit next to a gentleman called Grady Cofer, who is now a sought after visual effects supervisor – he was a compositor back in the day. I spent hours and hours with him on Godzilla shots. But then I’d hop in the car and drive to the next facility.

At some point, when we had to be especially effective, I remember that myself, Karen Goulekas [associate visual effects supervisor], and Fiona Bull [digital effects producer] – the three of us had a little van we would drive in with a driver we had from the studio. Then we’d map out the rest of our day, the afternoon. We’d go from this company to that company to that company. Sony Imageworks was always one of our parts of the tour. But that’s what we did.

Patrick Tatopoulos 6th scale Godzilla upper torso. Destruction of miniature jetty with Godzilla head. Photo by Isabella Vosmikova, © 1998 Tristar Pictures.

vfxblog: Were you reviewing shots just on monitors? Were they screening it in film?

Volker Engel: Boy, yeah. The film outs, thinking back to that, it feels a little bit like Jules Verne or something from pre-industrial times somehow because I remember how difficult it was to rock and roll the projector to have it run forward and backward because you want to see a shot five times or more. But back in the day, it was quite some strain on the projector and from time to time, the film would snap. Then it was like, ‘Okay, lights on, everybody. Time for a, whatever, coffee break or smoke break. Come back in 10 minutes when we fix the film.’

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