So we’re well into summer blockbuster season and one of the first was the recently released Godzilla King of the Monsters a mega budgeted monster-thon with Godzilla et al battering one another and laying waste to most of Boston. For those not in the know we’re sorry to spoil it by saying that none of it is real but is all special visual effects as supervised by the highly regarded Guillaume Rocheron from one of the world’s top international visual effects houses The Moving Picture Company. Guillaume has a enviable reputation that’s rightly deserved having worked on films as varied as Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Fast Five and Ghost in the Shell and won an Oscar for Life of Pi back in 2012.
With the release of Godzilla King of the Monsters our Deputy Editor, Simon spoke to the charming Frenchman in LA about his work on the film…..
AGF: You’ve extensive experience as a visual effects supervisor but I wondered if you have to pitch to provide the effects for the film or do the film makers come to you because of your reputation?
Guillaume Rocheron: Well it’s a bit of both, Simon. When a studio options a movie especially a movie like Godzilla…. they’re looking for an option of tools to tell a movie and you have movie which needs visual effects very early in the process to figure out how to tell the story right? And the main character of the movie doesn’t exist so you have to find your creative partner pretty quickly. It started with me and Legendary (production company) giving me a phone call and asking if I’m interested and to read the script and meet with the director. It’s really a creative partnership before everything. It’s a bit like when you hire a director of photography, you know you have to …obviously your resume gets you through the door and makes you a candidate to apply for one of those movies but you have to click with the director. What was interesting for me was meeting with Mike (Dougherty) who’s also the writer and he’s very interested in the digital creatures and he looks at them as he would a real person. Our first meeting was about how to we bring out the soul of the creature behind the pixels. The core of it is how do you bring this thing to life? So that’s how it all starts, right?
AGF: So what does the role of a visual effects supervisor on a film this big actually involve?
Guillaume Rocheron : Your job is basically to deal with all aspects of the movie that cost a shot. It used to be a very technical job you know with miniatures or animatronics. Now you need a technician to help figure that out. So now it’s about how you execute something you know like Godzilla appears in front of a submarine at the bottom of the ocean, so how do we do this? Do we go in the ocean and shoot a submarine? Do we just shoot water and add the submarine later? Do we shoot the actors on a partial submarine set and then digitally submerge it in water and add the creature? On a movie like Godzilla it’s a lot about collaboration with the DoP , the production designer ,the director, the writers, the 1st AD because when you shoot a lot of what you need to do is to be….well a lot of the movie happens in places that are inaccessible you know so very quickly. What you realise on this movie is figuring out what will be virtual and practical. There’s movie thatyou shoot and then you add the visual effects to it and then there’s movies where the line is a bit more blurred where you have locations which you know is not going to be 100% practical.
AGF: So on Godzilla then it was far more than just the creatures?
Guillaume Rocheron : Yes we shot the movie in Atlanta not in Boston where the movie is based. So a Boston shot is digital. I think there are two shots in the movie which are plates which we shot for the helicopter but the rest of the time it’s a digital city
AGF: So it’s all green screen?
Guillaume Rocheron : Yes absolutely. The reason that we did that is not because we didn’t want to go to Boston but when you’re putting monsters in a city you’re putting something in that’s not there and then they have to interact with everything and the visual style doesn’t really lend itself to shooting in Boston because when you’re there you’re in a storm that you generate. So the lighting might be yellow and the landscape not how you want and it becomes impossible so it’s part of the consideration that you shoot the actors in the lighting that’s correct that’s why you work so closely with the DoP in the studio or the backlot. That’s what happened with the Antarctic sequence because you have to be able to control it all. Its shot inside a warehouse the size of a football field with 70,000lbs of Epsom salts on the ground as snow and then there were a couple of jet engines as fans that we placed around the set so we were able to create extreme conditions by surrounding it with this blue screen. On the movie there’s a process called pre-viz like a storyboard and for this we pushed it because there was a crazy amount of information needed because the lighting continuity was everything. We had a lot to figure out with the choreography which was quite intricate between actor and the monsters you know because 70% of this is digital.
AGF: So how many shots have you had to create digitally?
Guillaume Rocheron : 1535
AGF: Is that a lot for a film such as this?
Guillaume Rocheron : No, but what’s interesting is that the first Godzilla we did in 2014 had 900 effects shots. Shot count is always relative because where you cut fast you end up with a lot of shots right? But in ours because the creatures are big the shots are long. When we did ‘Life of Pi’ we were always joking that there are only 700 visual effects shots in the movie but the whole film was only 900 shots.
AGF; I gather that motion capture was used on this too
Guillaume Rocheron : Yes in a very non traditional way. There’s no one better than actors to bring performances like this. A performer can get the moment so we used it in that way to try to capture moments. We did try actors to perform the monsters because a man in a digital suit is not really our intent so all the creatures are 100% animated, there’s no motion capture used to drive the animation but we used it to capture facial expression. So we get Godzilla’s breathing and angle of his head, his eyebrows you know it was used as a reference. These shots are insanely complicated to put together so for an animator to do these shots would take days just to get one iteration and sometimes you want to explore, you know, ‘Let’s try it a little more aggressive or a bunch of different attitudes’.
AGF: Now these creatures are hundreds of feet tall I was wondering how you achieve the physical weight and mass of them on screen?
Guillaume Rocheron : Well you can argue that there’s a scientific way to look at it you know, how long would it take for a creature this size to accelerate? What’s interesting is the first time we did a test on Godzilla when you see him walk into a cityscape and out of curiosity we wondered how fast the legs were moving and we figured that his legs and knees were moving faster than the speed of sound because his acceleration was so fast it was literally impossible. So if you just obey the laws of physics to do this then you need ten minutes for a creature to do a movement that’s cinematically interesting so what you do is you use your judgement. So what you do is …well everybody knows gravity… so when something falls, it falls very fast but if its big it falls slowly…you know like glass falling from a table falls very fast but falling from the top of a 20 floor building its going to take a long time to film it falling all the way down. So what we did with the creatures is we always gave them elegance which gave the viewer a relationship to gravity, you know, like with falling snow or with rain falling on Godzilla then your brain automatically thinks, ‘Oh its big!’ because the sheets of rain fall very slowly, right? There’s a load of visual tricks like this that provide a relationship to scale. If there’s a building that Godzilla crashes into then the debris falls slowly to give him a sense of scale. There’s a huge amount of logistics with this because you have to simulate it. You know with our company there were pretty much 100 people just to create the natural phenomena.
AGF: So what’s been the most challenging aspect to achieve in the sequel?
Guillaume Rocheron : Well I always joke that there’s not a lot of easy shots. The complexity of any shot with the creature is just huge because it’s not just the creature but you also have to create the environment that it’s in. You have to simulate the natural phenomena around the creature so there’s an extraordinary amount of layers. So it’s things like that that make the work challenging. The first film was different in terms of visual style and what we were trying to achieve with the creatures but with this one Mike told us that they had personalities . It was hard in the first movie without making him look like a cartoon but to try and get a range of emotions and now the technology has come a long way. Now we can get more detail in the eyes and express a lot of emotion in a very restrained way that’s been hard to get with computer graphics. I mean he’s not going to laugh or cry but he is expressive and we can showcase a range of subtle emotions and those are the hardest shots in the film. The thing was with all virtual cinematography and here we wanted to create shots that looked like paintings.
AGF: I think I’m answering my own question here but this is a$200M effects heavy movie with an immense credit roll for the visual effects department. Is that why these films are so expensive to make?
Guillaume Rocheron : Absolutely. I think there’s often a misconception that visual effects are made by computers. It’s the biggest misconception of all…the computer is just a tool so anything you see on screen the computer didn’t really do it, it was a tool that helped you achieve it. Behind every image is someone who created it. It takes an extraordinary amount of people, you know, two seconds of movie can take several people a few months. It’s the complexity of it. There’s the technical and artistic challenge of it. It can takes weeks to get the eyelids to move the way they should. Computers didn’t make those images. Everything that you see someone has worked on for a year or more. You’re not renting computers you’re paying people to be creative.
AGF: So having sat through all the credits for the end credit scene can you say anything about next years, ‘Godzilla vs Kong’ film?
Guillaume Rocheron : I’m not involved in the film as we were still finishing this movie when they were shooting that one. In this movie we open things up with these creatures.
AGF: You’re catalogue of work is impressive but is there anything by your counterparts that you’ve been impressed by?
Guillaume Rocheron : I think the thing is with visual effects is that every year there’s something that raises the bar. What impresses me is not just the technical achievement but the contribution to the story. We tried this on ‘Life of Pi’ you know that if it’s not there, there’s just no story. But over the years I’ve been really impressed with the ‘Planet of the Apes’ stories. They’ve created something that makes you forget that you’re watching actual actors and also ‘The Jungle Book’ I thought was kind of interesting recreating and getting immersed in that world. Every year something pushes the boundaries of what you’re trying to achieve.
AGF: So what advice would you give to someone wanting to get into this sort of effects work?
Guillaume Rocheron : You have to love movies
AGF: But I love movies but there’s no way I could do what you do Guillame
Guillaume Rocheron: (laughs) Well Simon when I started in visual effects almost twenty years ago now it was really technical, the software was very complicated and it was a small industry literally a few hundred people around the globe doing it whereas now it’s more accessible. So if for example you’re interested in lighting then virtual cinematography and you can use a computer then as long as you understand photography you don’t need to understand software you can work round it as we’ve got technicians so for me that’s the big thing with a new generation. For me you have to be artistically motivated …if you want to be an animator, a compositor or an effects artist there’s so many different backgrounds of interest you can be interested in physics or science there’s a place for all of this but your angle is always that you’re producing images that people want to see. The art is going to drive the technology. There are really smart people who will figure out the data to make it work.
AGF: So you’re just finishing up on the new Brad Pitt film ‘Ad Astra’. Can we expect to see stuff in that we’ve never seen before?
Guillaume Rocheron : It’s a very cool unique story. It’s not a big visual effects film but it’s a bold story for sure.
AGF: Thanks Guillaume