When director Gareth Edwards hosted a 3-D sneak peak of Godzilla earlier this month on the largest IMAX screen in America, the spectacle on screen represented a gargantuan step forward for the soft-spoken British filmmaker. Five years ago, Edwards was tooling around Mexico in a van with two crew members, operating his own camera and trying to convince villagers to appear as extras in his micro-budgeted sci-fi film Monsters.
"Anything that’s easy to do when there’s just four of you and a camera is hard to do when you’ve got 400 of you and a lot of trucks," Gareth said during a post-screening Q&A. "And everything that’s hard to do when you’ve just got $10 is a lot easier when you’ve have like $10 million dollars. It’s that simple."
For the $500,000 alien invasion Monsters movie, Edwards drew on skills honed during his earlier career as a London-based visual effects artist to single-handedly create CGI mutants on a laptop. For the $160 million Godzilla, opening May 16, he enlisted 800 digital artists at London-based Double Negative and global VFX studio Moving Picture Company to conjure radioactive dinosaurs of uncommon verisimilitude.
When Edwards's photorealistic freak makes his big entrance, it's clear that Godzilla, the monster and the movie, has embodied remarkable strides in special effects since it first shook Japan's movie industry to the core in 1954.
As detailed in the new paperback edition of Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters (Chronicle Books), the original Godzilla rose from the ruins of post-war Japan as a model of ingenuity and sheer physical gumption.
"60 years ago they didn’t have safety protocols," author August Ragone tells Co.Create. "They started filming Godzilla in late summer on a soundstage that had no air conditioning and was not well ventilated. Most of the background smoke in the film was created by setting fire to oil-soaked rags."
Despite the heat, visual effects supervisor Tsuburaya and director Ishiro Honda persuaded 140-pound stunt man Haruo Nakajima to get inside a 220-pound Godzilla suit made from melted-down tire rubber. A second actor, Katsumi Tezuka, served as a second string Godzilla when the burden of performance proved overwhelming.
"The filmmakers pulled all nighters and shot from dusk til dawn, when it was cooler they still had to use very bright lights for the film stock at that time," Ragone says. "It could be as hot as 120 degrees inside. Haruo and Katsumi had a contest of wills over who could stay in the suit the longest without passing out. After every scene, they'd pour a cup of sweat out of Haruo's Godzilla suit."
In 1954's Godzilla, the actors performed against a 1/33 scale miniature version of Tokyo. During World War II, Tsuburaya had been forced to construct models of Pearl Harbor and its battleships. He applied the same attention to detail in his cardboard re-creations of downtown Tokyo.
"Tsuburaya was an incredible stickler for accuracy when it came to real world objects," Ragone says. "If the miniatures weren't completely accurate right down to the building, he’d make them strike the set and re-build." Most international movie-goers wouldn't know the difference but, Ragone observes, "That sense of realism still comes across on the screen. Tsuburaya wanted the individual effects to become a blending of fantasy and reality."
The original Godzilla took inspiration from H Bomb experiments in the Marshall Islands conducted by the U.S. in 1954. The new Godzilla opens with a nuclear reactor meltdown. Edwards says, "We were developing this film when Fukushima happened and there was a discussion that maybe we shouldn’t deal with nuclear accidents. But the 1954 Godzilla and the best science fiction in general, has an opportunity to reflect the period they’re made in. We decided it would be a good to acknowledge these issues in our storyline."
Advances in digital technology might make old-school Godzilla and its 27 sequels look quaint by modern standards but Oscar winner Jim Rygiel, who supervised visual effects for Edwards's 2014 reboot, respects the first movie's primal power. "Godzilla was very well done for its time," he says. "What we wanted to do was to use the design of the original Godzilla and add as much realism as we could to it. We cranked up the atmosphere and lighting to figure out: what would something that's 300-feet tall really look like?"