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Special Effects in Godzilla Movies

Amazing and Interesting Facts about Godzilla Special Effects

special effects director

Special effects director Makoto Kamiya. (Toho Co., Ltd.)

The most remarkable aspect of the Godzilla series is the special effects used to make the destruction of cities and other things look real. We got Makoto Kamiya, the sixth special-effects director for the series, to tell us about these special effects.

The makers of a special-effects film prepare a picture continuity for each cut. A picture continuity is like a pictorial script, showing what appears where, and where the camera is positioned. The filmmakers use this picture continuity in deciding which filming methods to use. Almost all the shooting takes place inside the studio, where the filmmakers can create and manipulate a variety of artificial environments that are not affected by natural conditions such as light changes, wind, or rain. But scenes in which the monsters are viewed from below are shot outdoors, where there are no height limitations and where the real sky can be used as a background. Scenes with an element of danger, such as big explosions, are also shot outdoors.

a mountain scene

Shooting a mountain scene indoors. (Toho Co., Ltd.)

a city scene

Filming a city scene using miniatures. (Toho Co., Ltd.)

In the movies, Godzilla is 60 meters (197 feet) tall, but in real life the "monster" is only 2.2 meters (about 7 feet) in height. The cityscapes to be destroyed by Godzilla are reproduced in exquisite detail in miniature. In order to make the miniature world look real, good lighting is needed; great attention is paid to the direction, angle, type, and balance of the lights used for filming. The creation of special effects requires a faster camera speed and (in order to keep the entire miniature set in focus) more intense lighting than normal. Furthermore, elements that are not present during the original shooting but are added afterward, such as the radioactive flames spewed by Godzilla or the reflective glow from an explosion, must be lighted to match the other elements of the scene. All of this makes special-effects filmmaking an extremely difficult operation.

a destroyed city

Creating a destroyed city in the studio. (Toho Co., Ltd.)

A single second of footage normally consists of 24 frames, so normal camera speed is 24 frames per second. But to shoot, for example, an explosion on a miniature set, the filmmakers set the camera speed about 10 times as fast, at over 240 frames per second. When this super-fast footage is played at normal speed, an explosion that lasted only a moment seems to unfold in slow motion and takes on the character of a large-scale event.


Filming a scene where someone falls off a bridge. The picture of the bridge will be superimposed later. (Toho Co., Ltd.)

So would it be a good idea to shoot the entire film at 10 times normal speed? The answer is no. The proper camera speed varies from one scene to the next. For example, Godzilla is played by an actor wearing a monster suit that is quite heavy. No matter how fast the actor tries to move, it is impossible to create the appearance that the monster is moving quickly. Therefore, the filmmakers use a slower camera speed to create the illusion that Godzilla is moving fast. For scenes that include both Godzilla and an explosion, the two parts are shot separately at different speeds and then combined into a single scene.

In the past, combining the parts was performed by hand, using a machine called an optical printer. Footage of the background scenery and footage of Godzilla or human characters were painstakingly put together, frame by frame. Nowadays, however, digital synthesis is the standard. Digital synthesis involves using a scanner to generate digital data from the film, then using a computer to create the desired image. A machine known as a film recorder is used to convert the digital data into film. Digital synthesis dramatically increases both the number of elements that can be processed and the precision with which they can be rendered, and brings once-impossible technical feats within reach.

a composite image

A composite image from the battle between Godzilla and Baragon. (Toho Co., Ltd.)

computer graphics

This scene of Godzilla spewing heat rays was created using computer graphics. (Toho Co., Ltd.)

Scenes that include movements that are difficult to reproduce using a miniature set or an actor in a monster suit can now be created by means of computers. But even computer-based production is time-consuming, and in the world of Japanese cinema, where only a short time passes between a film's completion and its appearance in theaters, it is still difficult to churn out special-effects films in large numbers.

Even in Hollywood, where computer graphics reign supreme, miniatures were used extensively in Titanic, Armageddon, and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Because the miniature sets themselves are destroyed in the filmmaking process, there can be no retakes of scenes shot using miniatures. Executing an explosion or other scene of destruction requires a lot of time and effort, and miniature filming is a field that demands great attention to detail. Even Kamiya, an expert in the field, says he would like to achieve greater intensity in his miniature filming.