Face-Lift? Well, You Still Look Like Hell

This story was originally published on May 9, 2014, in The New York Times.
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/11/movies/godzilla-in-his-many-incarnations.html

By Mekado Murphy

After 60 years of crushing, fighting and roaring, Godzilla shows no signs of stopping. The oversize lizard that has attracted generations of fans returns Friday in a film that harks back to the creature’s roots. The filmmakers behind the latest iteration mainly used the 1954 original, from Toho Studios, as a template for fleshing out the monster’s looks and the movie’s narrative.

Gareth Edwards, who directed the new version, told his designers to imagine Godzilla as an animal that had really existed and that, 60 years ago, some people saw rise from the sea off Japan. They didn’t have a camera, so they described the creature, and Toho made its films based on those accounts. “In our film, people are going to see the original animal that those people witnessed back then,” Mr. Edwards said, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. So his design, to some degree, was a reverse-engineering job: building the creature that inspired the Toho movies.

Mr. Edwards said he figured that designing would be the simplest task, because, “everybody knows what Godzilla looks like.” He soon realized it was the most difficult part: “The problem is everybody thinks they know what Godzilla looks like. But it’s kind of like witnessing the scene of a crime, where your memory of it is slightly different than what you think.”

Godzilla has had many faces (and a varied number of toes) over the years. Here are some of the creature’s cinematic incarnations, with commentary from the filmmakers behind the new movie, the director of the first American effects version and William Tsutsui, a dean of humanities at Southern Methodist University, who wrote the 2004 book “Godzilla on My Mind.”

First Time, It’s Serious

In the original, surprisingly solemn “Godzilla,” the monster was bottom heavy. “It was the first costume they made, so they really hadn’t worked out the technology of it,” Mr. Tsutsui said in a phone interview. The costume’s framework was wire and bamboo strips, with latex around those elements. “There wasn’t much expressive possibility in that early monster, which I think captured some of the majesty of Godzilla.” With dorsal fins and a large tail, the creature was clearly threatening. Mr. Tsutsui said his makers were influenced by illustrations of dinosaurs, including an article in Life magazine. And Godzilla’s skin reminded Mr. Tsutsui of the scar tissue on the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. In writing the new screenplay, Max Borenstein was influenced by the original. “It had all these really deep and resonant themes about nuclear disaster and the fears of the atomic bomb, which were very present only nine years after World War II,” he said by phone. “I thought, ‘We need to do what they did, use this creature as a metaphor for a fear that’s very primal.' ”

No Lover, But a Fighter

As Godzilla grew in popularity, his look changed to a less spiky, more kid-friendly design. One curious detail, which Mr. Tsutsui noticed in his research, is that Godzilla goes from four toes on each foot to three. That change might seem innocuous, but Mr. Tsutsui said there was a significant reason for it. “In Japan, four is a very unlucky number,” he noted. “So it makes sense that at the periods when Godzilla has been the most ominous, he should have four toes. In the period when he was less threatening, he would have three toes.” The campy “Godzilla vs. Megalon” (1973) presents a monster far less scary than originally imagined. By this stage, he is no longer destroying cities, but mostly battling other monsters. Because these fights involve a good amount of wrestling, the costume is lighter and leaner, with fewer embellishments, making the G-lizard look a bit more human. Mr. Tsutsui sees the changes as pragmatic. “It’s hard to have wrestling scenes if your dorsal fins keep falling off,” he said, “or if your tail is too long.”

One Built For Speed

The 1998 version of “Godzilla,” directed by Roland Emmerich, drew big box office but also criticism. It lost the man-in-a-suit concept for a digital monster. “I hired Patrick Tatopoulos and told him this thing has to be fast, because lizards are fast,” Mr. Emmerich said in a phone interview. “He came up with a design, and they told us we had to go to Japan to get it approved.” Mr. Tatopoulos’s design made Godzilla iguanalike, slinking crouched through the city. In taking the design to Toho, Mr. Emmerich timed the visit to when “Independence Day” was opening the Tokyo film festival: “Toho, who had the rights to ‘Godzilla,’ was also the distributor of ‘Independence Day.’ That naturally was in our favor.” As for the Toho reps, “I saw it in their face that they weren’t prepared for that version,” Mr. Emmerich said. “But because ‘Independence Day’ had been a huge hit, they thought, ‘Oh God, we cannot say no to this guy.' ” Mr. Emmerich made his version. Toho used the man-in-a-suit formula in “Godzilla 2000.”

Check Out That Kisser

The 2014 Godzilla is digital, but the team has taken great care to make him recognizable. “It was less about designing something iconic and never seen before, and more about giving reality to a familiar face,” said Andrew Baker, a creature designer at WETA Workshop, which worked on the new monster. The filmmakers wanted an angular and hard-lined face. Mr. Edwards thought rounded features connoted a Godzilla that was too cute. “When you’re designing the face, you end up in this triangle of potential pitfalls,” he said. “If you go too much in one direction, he looks like a dragon; too much in another direction, he looks like a kitty; and too much in a third direction, he looks like a dinosaur.” After seeing the Skeksis creatures from the book “The Dark Crystal,” he decided to employ the appearance of a bird of prey. “There’s something noble about eagles and birds of prey, and it’s mainly because the top of their nose is very close to the brow of their eyes.” Godzilla got deep eye sockets, which accentuate his cheekbones.