“Everyone, deep in their hearts, is waiting for the end of the world to come.” – Haruko Murakami, 1Q84
When the last dice has been cast, how will it all end? Humans have pondered this question since before we had words to speak. Will our doom be delivered to us in the form of a burning meteor? What if a terrible outbreak sentenced our collective species to an early grave? What if we destroyed ourselves in a nuclear holocaust? Some cultures believe Armageddon is preordained and the fate of destruction is the emergence of an eternal rebirth. Nobody knows for certain. Personally, I think the end will come on the golden wings of a three-headed space dragon.
Monster Sightings: GHIDORAH is the third installment in a series of short films designed to make the viewer feel like they’re witnessing a kaiju attack firsthand. In this blog entry, I will be breaking down how key scenes were shot using a combination of stop motion, computer graphics, and compositing techniques. I have no compunction about keeping my techniques a secret; my goal is to help you make your dream monster movie a reality.
If you’re just here to watch a fun little short, then please enjoy the show. If you’re an avid filmmaker or you’re curious about how I made this little flick, read on.
Prep: Advice for Beginners
Firstly, know your capabilities. Are you a beginner? If so, don’t sweat it. Start small. It’s nice dreaming about doing a ten-minute video or, Godzilla-willing, a dream feature length project. But every second of your idea will require considerable time and effort. So, I suggest you make your first project a ten-second video. Run a series of tests to make sure you have the basics down. Build up from there.
To make your film, you need equipment. Chief among your tools of trade will be your camera. But not all cameras are equal. They vary in terms of quality and usefulness. To determine what camera is right for you, it’s good to do as much research on this subject as humanely possible. Most of us start on a shoestring budget, so you’ll need to choose your first camera wisely.
Since the objective is to make a monster film, you’ll need to work with monsters. Don’t worry, they’re not as bad as you think. All the monsters I’ve worked with are humble and professional (except Rodan). Are you interested in doing stop motion? Great, consider investing in high-quality action figures with excellent articulation. S.H. MonsterArts, Revoltech, and NECA make superb figurines. If stop motion is not your thing, there are software programs that can help you design computer generated characters. Blender is a good place to start. Maybe you want to
take things into your own hands by donning a rubber suit. I’ve done that and it’s fun/exhausting. Shop around. Touch base with any local costume shops. Consult local talent if you need help in designing a costume, or make your own monster suit. Doing the latter opens the doors to other possibilities. What if instead of designing your own Godzilla suit, you made a completely new monster.
What about a film set? Find space. For my stop motion projects, I designed a green screen set. Other artists have more traditional sets full of miniatures and materials that are easily attainable. You can build a set yourself or buy one. Be prepared to improvise. If you want to add an element of ‘realism’ to your production, shoot on location. Find a city near you and make your day-off a filming day.
Storyboarding is a godsend. Writing a script is essential, especially if you’re working with actors. But when it comes to planning VFX-heavy scenes? Storyboarding goes a long way in visualizing the story you want to tell. It not only shows you what your film could be, but what it might become.
Now we get to one of the most underappreciated jobs in the film industry: editing. Once you have the right computer and video editing software, consider investing in Adobe After Effects (AAE). Adobe has a plan where for only $30 a month you have unlimited access to all their products. There are hundreds of tutorials that can help you master AAE and doing so would be in your best interests. It’s unimaginable how versatile AAE is. If you have money to spare, consider buying exclusive VFX content from Red Giant, ActionVFX, and Video Copilot.
Stop Motion, VFX, and Ghidorah
Composite shots are my forte. Incorporating stop motion characters into real world settings enhances the overall scope. If executed correctly, it can elevate any film regardless of its budget. Through trial and error, I’ve designed an effective green screen studio. Lighting the green screen and your subject is your top priority. For maximum efficiency, make sure you have overhead lighting. It does wonders. Speaking of lighting, fluorescent lights are the right way to
go. Lighting equipment may not be cheap but they are a must-have for any and all green screen endeavors.
Helpful tip: There is an app called Green Screener. If you don’t want to use a light meter, the Green Screener app makes for a fine replacement. I highly recommend it.
Camera, Tripod, and Watch
For video recordings, I use my iPhone X. Its camera capabilities are topnotch and the quality is easily comparable to camcorders that cost tens of thousands of dollars. I’ve used it to film weddings, tutorials, and interviews. For better results, I utilize the ProCamera app for maximum efficiency. When it comes to doing stop motion, it’s best to take photos in high-resolution. I’ll go into more detail on the nuts and bolts soon enough. One caveat about using your smartphone for video productions is how the focus might be offset by constant motion. Luckily, there are ways to counteract this.
I cannot stress the importance of a good tripod. You want a multipurpose tripod that is simplistic, strong, flexible, and durable. Mine has a special little gadget designed to hold my iPhone X steady, with an adjustable top.
If you’re doing stop motion, I’d strongly advise you to have a camera clicker. Pushing your recording device to take a still might shake or distort the camera, compromising your shot. This is why I use the ProCamera feature on my Apple Watch. With one push of the button, I have my shot, and I’m free to continue without missing a beat.
Stop Motion and Working with Ghidorah
Lights, camera, and—be patient. Hours of hard work and labor can result in only a few seconds of screen time. Commit to your vision and follow through with a can-do attitude, and you will create something stunning.
My subject was S.H. MonsterArts’ King Ghidorah Special Color Version. Its attention to detail is magnificent and its articulation met my high expectations. During the pre-production phase, I researched different ways to utilize Ghidorah in the art of stop motion; however, I didn’t find anything useful. Fortunately, I developed techniques on my own that were effective and acquired the necessary materials that helped spur the process. I’m happy to share my findings with you.
I used a Camera Tripod to hold Ghidorah up in a flight position. There are alternative ways to pull this off. Use your imagination. Ghidorah and the tripod were held in place by putty. It’s important to keep your subject as still as possible, so that when you move, say, their arms and legs, their entire body doesn’t shuffle out of place. During the editing phase, I keyed out the tripod using After Effects. When it comes to opening and closing mouths, I use a special little tool. ‘Slow and steady wins the race,’ is a very apt saying when it comes to creating art.
Ghidorah has dozens of articulation positions to shape. I used anywhere between six-to-twelve points of articulation (e.g., heads, wings, tails, mouths, etc.), and it came out rather well. See for yourself.
Everything at this point hinges on the editing phase. First, I merge ALL the images into one comp. Inside that comp is where we take care of the green screen. If I can’t incorporate Ghidorah into my footage then my efforts will be in vain. To chroma key out the green screen, Red Giant’s Smooth Cleaner and Primatte Keyer are excellent assets. If you don’t use Red Giant, don’t fret; After Effects has its own chroma key plug-ins. After removing the green background, my next job is to trim the images down (to two-frames per second should suffice, but there are exceptions depending on what looks right). If everything checks out, I’ll go about adjusting the lighting, color scheme, and brightness level of the subject before working out its position, size, and motion. If everything is not ok, I’ll go back to the very beginning and reshoot. It’s not fun having to do everything all over again but the ends do justify the means.
For me personally, this is where the fun begins. In the scene we’ll be analyzing, Ghidorah is flying over a devastated city. The following screen captures will show the gradual process of mixing together our stop motion subject with the original footage and interlacing visual effects. Here we go!
Final Touches: Sound Design, Score, and Cuts
Congratulations on completing the VFX phase. All your hard work is close to paying off. But the time has come to do something many filmmakers hate doing, and that’s leaving footage on the cutting room floor. I recommend showing your film to a group of trusted confidants, people whose opinions you take seriously. Their feedback has worth so long as it’s honest and constructive. If all they’re doing is telling you what you want to hear (e.g., massaging your ego), find a more neutral group to listen to. I’ve worked thousands of hours on numerous VFX sequences. And despite the amount of pride I have for my accomplishments, I will trim a scene or cut it out completely if it doesn’t belong. Be prepared to do this. The time to be objective is nigh. When your sound design work is completed, don’t be afraid to cut out anything else that hinders the movie. Follow through on your instincts. If it’s a problem that is preventable,
prevent it. Filmmakers will always see their movies as being incomplete works of art. But you can do your future self a solid favor by cutting out things you know you’ll regret to see again someday.
To sell the visuals, you need to make your film as much of an immersive experience as possible, and this can only be achieved through sound design and, if your film needs it, a rhythmic score to add feeling to the story. Whether you’re experienced or inexperienced in doing sound design, the first thing that matters is approaching it with an open mind. Since the beginning you’ve likely been imagining what your film will sound like. If the sound effects are as good as you imagined, then bring your plan to fruition. There is more to sound design than adding to the eyepopping visuals. Visual effects and sound design make wonderful companions. But sound is crucial in many other sectors. If your film has actors with speaking roles, the dialogue needs to be crisp and discernable.
My film didn’t need a score because King Ghidorah’s actions and sound effects moved the story forward. In my personal opinion, Ghidorah’s unique sound functions as a score in itself. Regardless, I’ve used original scores in my projects before. And as much as I’d love to throw in a track from one of Akira Ifukube’s many classics, the truth is I don’t want my film to be taken down due to copyright infringement. That’s why I use companies like PremiumBeat. For $49, I’m free to use original songs for as many projects as I want.
Good sound design is invaluable not just for the reasons we can think of, but for the reasons we can’t think of. You’ll never know how important sound design is to your work until you hear it bring your motion picture to life for the first time.
There are a growing number of talented filmmakers in the online kaiju community. We’re seeing a resurgence in studio monster movies that will inspire generations of new artists. It is a good time to be a Godzilla fan. We are now, more than ever, in a prime position to share our passion for the movies and characters we love. I’m having the time of my life making Godzilla movies.
All else I have to say is welcome constructive feedback. Vow to grow as a filmmaker and storyteller. Connect with your audience. Take pride in what you do and you will go a long way. Thank you.