In 2019, I covered Godzilla: King of the Monsters for Cinefex. The film’s battling behemoths reached the screen thanks to the digital artistry of the visual effects team at MPC, supported by DNEG, Method Studios and Rodeo FX. However, concept designs for the film’s three new monster characters — Ghidorah, Mothra and Rodan — first took shape in a variety of media, including traditional clay sculpture.
Interviewing for my Cinefex article, I chatted at length with Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. co-founder Tom Woodruff Jr. — who directed design development for Rodan — and Legacy Effects co-founder Shane Mahan; led by show supervisor Lindsay MacGowan, the Legacy Effects team was responsible for Mothra and, building on earlier work by concept artist Simon Lee, Ghidorah. As Godzilla: King of the Monsters director Michael Dougherty told me:
“I want to emphasise that we utilised a lot of traditional methods for designing the creatures. For Rodan, it was a traditional clay sculptor who cracked that design. We utilised every tool possible — CG, traditional sketches, everything. Even with our previs sequences, we started with very simple storyboards, just black and white line drawings. I don’t want to give the computers all the credit. I want to make sure those artists are acknowledged.”
As an online sidebar to the main magazine story, I assembled some of my ADI and Legacy interview outtakes into a round-robin discussion reflecting on what it takes to conceptualise monsters in the modern movie world. I’m delighted to republish this online article here at The Illusion Almanac.
GRAHAM EDWARDS — So, are there any Godzilla fans in the room?
TOM WOODRUFF JR. — I love the original 1954 Godzilla. I thought that was superb. But honestly I never thought those films of the ‘60s and ‘70s were that great. By the time it got into Mechagodzilla and all that crazy stuff, the fun to me was just watching these intricately built miniatures get destroyed by guys wearing monster suits! I don’t want to be dismissive — I think I was just a bit old for them by that point. So it was great to join Michael Dougherty’s point of view and see these monsters in a totally renewed sense. Not just the look of them, but the power of what these creatures are and what they mean to the story.
SHANE MAHAN — I remember watching the Japanese films on the creature feature television channels on Saturday afternoons. There was a magic to those movies. If you watch the original Japanese Godzilla — especially the un-Americanised one without Raymond Burr in it — it’s a very serious movie. It’s touching upon fears about the atomic explosion, the horror of it all and what Godzilla represented. As they got further along, they were more childlike, and in some of the later films the costumes and the effects weren’t quite as good. But the original Mothra movie is pretty great. With all due respect to Toho for what they did, it was great having the opportunity to go in and fix those costumes a little bit!
GRAHAM EDWARDS — You both cut your teeth in the very physical world of creatures and special effects at Stan Winston Studio, and have continued to fly the flag for practical effects ever since. On this show, your involvement was purely with the concept design. How did that come about?
TOM WOODRUFF JR. — We got a call from Legendary Pictures inviting us to join the design team for the film. My understanding was that came directly from Michael Dougherty, because we had been involved with him on a couple of shows. Most recently, we had turned in a bid and a proposal on Krampus. Ultimately the studio went in a different direction, but Michael told us he had been a fan of our work ever since he was young. I loved everything he did on Krampus, so I was very happy that he got us involved with Godzilla. He said, “I want to put you to work.”
SHANE MAHAN — We’ve known Michael Dougherty for a long time, and we also tried to work with him on a couple of things in the past, like Krampus and Trick ‘r Treat. He really understands creatures, so we knew he would offer a lot of insight.
GRAHAM EDWARDS — So you don’t mind that you didn’t get to actually build any monsters?
SHANE MAHAN: You know, in this day and age, for a studio like Legacy Effects to be on the ground floor of visual effects development is something we’re proud of. We’re not just a creature effects house. I really consider what we do to be just another branch of visual effects.
TOM WOODRUFF JR. — I was just really happy that Legendary gave ADI a chance to be part of the design team, knowing that everything was going to be digital in the end. In addition to that, for me personally, it was great to work more as an art director, where I wasn’t out there pushing clay around. I wasn’t doing anything other than working with talented artists, pointing to things, and saying, “Try this, try that.” It really was an incredible feeling, just letting these guys go off on their own.
GRAHAM EDWARDS — I believe Simon Lee did an early Ghidorah sculpture in clay, and Tim Martin did a physical Rodan model at ADI to consolidate various design strands. But, in general, all the concept artists were sculpting digitally in Pixologic ZBrush. What’s the advantage of that?
SHANE MAHAN — You can always do a clay piece or study quickly, for gesture or form. But what we supply to visual effects has to be super-tight and complex, with really fine detail. ZBrush is a miracle for that sort of thing, and also for quick changes. In today’s world, we get notes and they expect them to be done in three hours — I’m not kidding! That’s just what you have to do.
CINEFEX — In the original films these are guys in suits. Is there any way there could be a human performer inside your monster designs?
SHANE MAHAN — We did try to incorporate some of the man-in-a-suit idea with Ghidorah, in that he has some human anatomy. I think Michael was very much after that familiar silhouette. It was a fine line of modernizing the look but not going too far from your childhood memory of these things.
GRAHAM EDWARDS — How about Rodan? Could you squeeze a guy in there somewhere?
TOM WOODRUFF JR. — No. In fact, emphatically no. If you could, I would have been begging for a chance to be the guy inside the suit. They were very clear to make sure I didn’t go down that road. Everything was always going to be digital.
CINEFEX — They just knew, didn’t they: “Uh-oh, we’ve got Woodruff on the books here, better not encourage him to get inside this thing.”
TOM WOODRUFF JR. — That’s true! I’ve done my duty.
CINEFEX — You’ve given up suit performances?
TOM WOODRUFF JR. — Oh, absolutely not. We did a gorilla thing a couple of months ago. It was a goofy thing with a lot of dancing and running around. But, I’ve got to say, it’s not as easy as it was 30 years ago. Of course, I say that hoping no one’s going to read this interview and say, “Hey, remember that phone call we were going to put in to Tom about this movie? It sounds like he’s too old!”
This article first appeared in slightly different form on the Cinefex blog. Content copyright © Cinefex 2019. Republished with permission. Photographs copyright © 2019 Legendary and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights reserved. Godzilla TM & © Toho Co., Ltd.