Masters of CG: Guillame Rocheron on designing Godzilla

How do you make a classic monster believable for a 21st century audience? MPC's VFX supervisor tells all.

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Creating a 21st century version of the classic movie monster Godzilla sounds like a dream job. But big creatures bring big problems.

Last week Kevin Sherwood told us of the issues posed by Smaug, the supersized dragon in the second Hobbit film. And it was a similar story for Guillame Rocheron, VFX supervisor for MPC, on Gareth Edward's 2014 Godzilla reboot.

MPC were responsible for designing all the creatures, and handled all the shots where Godzilla is fully visible. And they needed to seriously push the envelope to convince an audience weaned on shlocky monster flicks and wise to the 'look' of CG that this 350ft-high creature was the real deal.

Living and breathing

"Gareth wanted to keep everything designed in a way that could have been shot for real, so the effects would never feel fake - even though we were showing giant creatures stomping and fighting," Rocheron explains. "The main challenge was to make sure Godzilla was a believable living and breathing creature, both in his performance and in every single detail and deformation on his body."

That meant detailed research into real-life animal anatomy and movement: "We studied lizards, predators and bear fights to understand and come up with realistic animalistic behaviours," he says. "It was very important that Godzilla would come across as being a creation of nature."

The team carried out detailed research into animal anatomy

But that was only the half of it. "Because Godzilla is a character and not just an animal, we also had to introduce more humanized elements to his behaviour," he adds. "We had to find the right balance to make sure Godzilla was able to emote and have 'attitude' without falling into the realm of fantasy."

Bones and body language

Translating Godzilla from concept artwork to a photo-real living creature took his team of artists seven months, working up each part of his body, from the underlying bones, fat and muscle structure to the thickness and texture of his scales.

With the close-up nature of the camera work and the sheer scale of the monster, a tremendous amount of detail had to be painted and sculpted to ensure Godzilla came across in high-definition in a believable way.

A tremendous amount of detail needed to be painted and sculpted

The artists also drew on a mixture of body language and carefully designed facial expressions to translate emotions and expressions on screen, without breaking the believability of the creature.

And to help convince the audience, what was going on around Godzilla needed to be equally convincing, Rocheron adds.

Battle of San Francisco

"The visual effects shots needed to be created realistically in terms of cameras to help the audience relate to the massive scale of the events," he says. "So for example, the third act battle in San Francisco is made up of shots from the the ground or rooftops - each providing a viewpoint at human scale.

"To re-enforce the sense of scale, we used interactive elements that conveyed a sense of gravity, he adds. "If you see a building collapse, swirling dust or dripping water moving really slowly against something, your brain immediately understand that you are watching something really big."

Environment shots needed to convey a sense of scale

"Scale was our main focus," he emphasises, "so every shot contains an enormous amount of elements to help showcasing that scale. From the CG San Francisco, to the water, building and dust simulations, a large number of elements were required to create cohesive frames, offering Gareth control over virtual cinematography but at a very large scale."

Simulation software

To create the extremely high-resolution simulations of buildings collapsing and swirling interactive dust, MPC's in-house destruction simulation tool Kali was upgraded and given a number of significant incremental improvements to make photo-real destruction. The MPC software team added new tools to Kali for tetmesh creation and post-processing as well as giving it performance improvements, to allow faster simulation and rendering.

All in all, it was an epic challenge - but one aided by the fact that the director has a background in visual effects himself. "Gareth's understanding of visual effects allowed him to embrace the process and put all his focus on the creatures' performances and virtual cinematography," Rocheron enthuses.

And of course Rocheron could draw on his own vast experience, on movies including Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Man of Steel, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Life of Pi, for which MPC won an Academy Award.

A life in movies

An industry veteran, Rocheron's career began by making when he was in high school and he started experimenting with computer graphics and making his own short films. "This is how I got my first job, at BUF Companie in Paris," he explains.

MPC won an Oscar for its work on Life of Pi

"At that time, each artist was responsible for his own shot from start to finish. Because you had to do everything, this taught me how to think first about shot design and best technical approaches." It's a grounding that's served him well. Now in his ninth year at MPC, he's currently working on Batman v Superman, and enjoying his job more and more with every film.

"Visual effects are getting more and more versatile, allowing filmmakers to use them in new and creative ways," he explains. "Being able to offer directors better ways to achieve their vision is making my job increasingly interesting.

"Godzilla was a great experience in that regard, because we could focus along with the filmmakers on the creatures' personality and performances as well as the shot design and virtual cinematography, allowing Gareth to achieve the iconic and singular visual style he was after."

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