GODZILLA: Ferran Domenech – Animation Supervisor – MPC

Ferran Domenech is in the VFX industry for over 14 years. In 2003, he joined MPC and he is still there. He has worked on several HARRY POTTER movies and supervised the animation for films such as PROMETHEUS, TOTAL RECALL, JACK THE GIANT SLAYER or THE LONE RANGER.

What is your background?
I have over 14 years of experience in animation for visual effects. I began my training specializing in photography and video. After completing my Masters’ degree in Computer Animation, I started my career as a computer graphics and visual effects artist.

How did you get involved on this show?
I’ve been working for MPC since 2002 and I have been an Animation Supervisor for 10 years. Back in 2012 I was offered the opportunity to work on the show. So, I transferred to MPC Vancouver after finishing THE LONE RANGER and PROMETHEUS at our London site.

How was the collaboration with director Gareth Edwards and Production VFX Supervisors Jim Rygiel and John Dykstra?
We had calls and visits to MPC from Gareth that helped establish the vision he had for the creatures; he acted the posture and movements of Godzilla for us. Gareth really is a hands on director and doesn’t have a problem drawing or performing to get his ideas across, which is great since we are all visual artists.
We had continuous meetings via cineSync with Jim and John through the entire production where we would talk in great detail about every aspect of the animation, specially the weight and the speed of the creatures and what makes them real. We had a great creative relationship.

How did you work with MPC VFX Supervisor Guillaume Rocheron?
I have known Guillaume for many years and worked together on HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE. He is a great collaborator and we met multiple times a day to review the animators’ work and provide feedback. We then presented it to the studio during our weekly calls. Guillaume has a great eye for detail and his job is to keep the quality level where it needs to be.

What was their approach about the animation?
We were asked to create three noticeably distinct characters, and to turn monsters into emotive creatures that the audience could root for and even relate to. Each Muto has a different style and attitude. They behave like a couple and they know how to fight together. The female Muto is larger and therefore slower and more powerful, with reproductive instincts that make her extremely vicious when her offspring is endangered. The male Muto is faster and opportunistic, a flying creature with the predatorial sense of a hawk and the stabbing attacks of a praying mantis.

Godzilla is the alpha predator; upright and broad chested with the calm demeanor of a skilled samurai and the physical presence of a bear. He has a remarkable emotional range as shown in the scenes where he displays his thinking abilities to outsmart his foes, as well as during the scenes where he shows extreme battle exhaustion and even sadness. We put a lot of effort on the close-ups to show an almost human range of emotions, including his soulful eyes, characteristics that made him seem more like a wise creature that is aware of his surroundings than a mindless brute. Godzilla is an intelligent and extremely ancient being just woken up from an eon of sleep, and we wanted his age and personality to come across in every shot.

Of course, realism and sense of scale was the base goal. The three creatures are so huge that the old call for palpable weight and mass was even more pressing than ever. CG characters in all VFX studios get the same feedback at one point or another « …needs to feel like it has weight ». Especially for Godzilla and the Mutos, it was in everyone’s mind since the start. We made sure that every move had the correct acceleration so that they are size appropriate, but we added enough build up of speed to every punch and bite to show immense power, making the action epic and not just a slow-motion nature show.

Did you receive specific references and indications from the director for the animation?
Gareth explained his vision for Godzilla to us; majestic and proud, like a samurai, the last survivor of his kind. He has the attitude of an alpha predator with the posture and deliberate movements of a creature confident of his own size and strength.
We went looking for references in nature, we found buffalos charging, alpha pack wolves, but our main inspiration was bears. The size and speed combination, the upright posture, use of the claws and jaws, all of them work for Godzilla. Bears have the most amazing ferocity and attitude when standing toe to toe with one another, and that was something we wanted.

We had clips acted out by Gareth for some key shots for subtle and specific timing cues for turns and roars and we recorded ourselves in the animation floor as a reference. As we animated Godzilla we increasingly got a sense of what felt right. It was a learning process for everyone in the animation department. My Godzilla animation lead Jason Snyman worked for several weeks on different types of walk cycles and action vignettes to refine the language of movements that worked. Because Godzilla’s legs are designed as load bearing pillars of meat and bone, the closest reference we could find were elephants, so we introduced that quality to his walking style, the noticeable squash and splay of the toes on every foot landing with dissipation ripples that waved through the leg muscles. All of this gave Godzilla a very imposing and heavy walk and foot stomp, this was particularly featured on the first reveal in the Honolulu airport sequence.

Speed was something we fine tuned depending on the shots. If filmed from a human p.o.v at a low vantage point, we purposely slowed down the action to emphasize the epic size differential. But, for the few shots where we see them from a higher angle, we allowed the action to play a bit faster as if we were seeing the fight at the speed that Godzilla and the Mutos perceive it.?

For the female Muto we got the brief that the front arms were inspired by gorillas, so we referenced their powerful knuckle stride. Gareth wanted the back arms to reach forward under the front arms in a fluid continuous way as she moves, this created a new and interesting mix of spider and centipede walk that worked well with the insectoid design. My female Muto animation lead, Richard Spriggs, also created an almost bipedal variation of the walk that we used when she charges towards the tour-boat. Because of the greater speed and larger steps used on this shots, she elevates her front arms over the buildings and stomps down aggressively, showing her rage at the soldiers who stole her loot.

The male Muto in contrast, has nervous mannerisms and folding wings like a bug. He also has faster attacks due to his relatively smaller size. Male Muto animation lead Matt Kowaliszyn did a range of animation studies for the flight cycle, takeoff and landing, referencing eagles mostly large bats. We tried to keep the wing membrane from stretching and curving too much because the insect-like design of the Muto worked well with a rigid wing style of animation. When gliding, the male Muto would get into a pose that intentionally resembles the outline of a B2 stealth bomber. We tried to keep some of those straight-line accents of the design even when flapping or folding his wings after landing.

Godzilla is a mythical creature. Can you tell us details about his animation?
Godzilla is iconic. A lot of what makes the animation work is the hero poses and paying close attention to the silhouette. We aimed to be able to pause any action shot and find a promotional poster frame there. To achieve this we quickly learned that the spines of his back are one of his greatest features, without those being prominent Godzilla doesn’t look like Godzilla, so we avoided front on shots if possible. When those were necessary, like the first two roars, we lowered his head and turned his chest in a way that made his back spines show. Gareth called it « Godzilla’s Crown ». This pose made him appear extra menacing with a spined Mohawk above his forehead.
We also noticed his features looked best in profile, if possible showing an outline of his teeth. Godzilla’s arms look the best when they are tucked in, so we tried to avoid the arms and elbows from sticking out too much, otherwise he would look anthropomorphic. We also stayed away from the weak T-Rex arm look, we settled for a square chested pose with his arms slightly tense by the side giving a menacing immovable mountain type frame (like a body guard). The hands look the best when posed into a fan-out curl, creating a layered sharp claw look. Armed with all this knowledge, creating epic shots became slightly more straight forward.
At a technical level, Godzilla’s rig was developed differently from a standard biped. It used the principle of a single chain of joints from tip of the nose to tip of the tail, similar to a serpent rig. This allowed the movement in his tail to affect his body and every head turn would affect his core all the way to the tail end. This new rig design made Godzilla coherent in his anatomy and not look like a human with a practical tail attached. By using as few as five controls we could pose his spined back smoothly and made his movements feel connected.

How did you handle the performance capture process?
Performance capture wasn’t used as a direct source of animation. Mainly because the differences in anatomy and scale between Godzilla and a human performer are quite large. Gravity affects giant creatures differently than it would a normal human, so motion capture gave a noticeably anthropomorphized effect. Since we received the performance clips towards the end of the show, we had already created many shots that established a particular and precise language of movement and scale that had to be maintained. In the end, we used some clips by the Imaginarium as references that Gareth liked, and we incorporated those nuances and timings to our hand keyframed animations.

What was the main challenge with the creatures’ animation?
Long shots with multi-legged creatures that grapple each other while destroying the environment around them are definitely challenging. Physical connection is always hard with computer generated characters because the illusion of interaction is all done by hand. A shot with three characters becomes a complex choreography with many controls to keyframe in parallel, where every move of Godzilla is a source of secondary motion for the Mutos, and their pulling and punching in turn moves Godzilla. Animating those shots became a balancing act.

At a character level we had to show Godzilla as a living, breathing real creature. We worked to get the feeling that he gets tired and increasingly angry as the third act goes on. Nothing is more uninteresting than a fight where the punches do not seem to have an effect or consequence. We kept a close eye on his breathing to make sure the nostrils, side cheeks and chest worked together with every huff and puff. We chose to make his face extra fleshy to bring some richness and expression to his scaly skin. If we had treated Godzilla’s surface like an alligator he would have been too static to convey any effort or emotion. Because of his gigantic size and old age we decided to animated extra fleshiness around his face to accentuate every movement, inhales and exhales, this gave him personality and gravitas.

We also had the responsibility of bringing Godzilla’s secret weapon to life. For the Atomic Breath we wanted to show that he really put all of his body at work when charging and firing the energy accumulated in his glowing spines. We knew that to make justice to this classic effect we had to push Godzilla’s features to the extreme. We approached the atomic breath as the biggest air intake he would ever do, by means of animating a huge anticipation. We showed the effort it took by expanding his rib cage, rolling his shoulder, pushing the neck and breathing controls to the limit then holding this posture for a beat, then a sudden cascading release, as if punching the energy out from his core. We kept his motion and posture forward as the beam incinerates his enemy while secondary shaking happened all over his body. We wanted the buildup and release of energy to be physically taxing, showing the strength needed to use his signature, finishing move. I think we succeeded to make this moment a memorable one in the film.

How did you approach the various fights between Godzilla and the Muto?
We started by matching Previs created by « The Third Floor », but as the show moved forward shots evolved and changed, and new sequences appeared, so we got briefed by Gareth on the new shots and we did quick blocks of the actions and zeroed in on what he wanted.

What was the most difficult shot or sequence to animate and why?
The most difficult sequence was the third act, when the two Muto join forces against Godzilla. And the most difficult shot was the end of the fight, the kiss of death is a long uninterrupted action, with a close up, where Godzilla shows what he is capable of.

How did you organize the work amongst your team?
I divide the sequences by action beats and assigned them to artists by the complexity and the type of animation required. Some animators are better at big creature animation and dynamic shots, while others have a good eye for subtle timing and expressions. I allocated the work accordingly.

What was your feeling to be in the Godzilla universe?
I couldn’t believe my luck! Since I saw the work we did for the Comicon tease in 2012, I was sure this movie would be amazing. The re-design for Godzilla was so right and Gareth had such a passion for the material that I knew we would make a worthy successor to the Toho classics.

What did you keep from this experience?
Cherish your animators, they are the ones that make the creatures truly come to life. Without skilled artists who care about the smallest details, we would not be able to produce work of this calibre.

How long have you worked on this film?
I worked for 12 months on GODZILLA.

What was the size of your team??
We crewed up to 25 animators.

What is your next project?
Can’t say until closer to release, sorry (laughs).

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
As a six year old, I saw RETURN OF THE JEDI at the cinema and loved it (Ewoks and all). Although, I didn’t understand the story until years later when I got the VHS trilogy. I clearly remember loving ALIENS (I saw it when I was eight at the cinema), That truly started my love for Sci-Fi. Then, I watched JURASSIC PARK with my father and thought that they almost made us believe that dinosaurs were really alive. JURASSIC PARK blew me away with the first truly photo real CG characters. When TOY STORY came out, it made me want to learn 3D software more than ever. So, I guess those are the four main films that motivated me to pursue filmmaking and CG animation.

A big thanks for your time.

// WANT TO KNOW MORE?

MPC: Dedicated page about GODZILLA on MPC website.

// MPC GODZILLA VFX BREAKDOWN (SNEAK PEAK)





© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2014

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Vincent Frei

Founder & Editor-in-Chief // VES Member // Former comp artist

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