The American Society of Cinematographers

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Presidents Desk
ASC Close-Up

Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC, teams with director Gareth Edwards to help Godzilla wreak more havoc.


Unit photography by Kimberley French, SMPSP. Photos and frame grabs courtesy of Warner Bros.

Since Godzilla made his debut in the 1954 Japanese film Gojira (released in the U.S. as Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 1956), the radioactive super saurian has appeared in more than 30 feature films, spawned numerous imitators and established the uniquely Japanese kaiju (“strange monster”) sci-fi subgenre, whose recent Hollywood variants have included Pacific Rim (AC Aug. ’13), Super 8 (AC July ’11) and Cloverfield (AC March ’08). British filmmaker Gareth Edwards reimagined the genre with the low-budget hit Monsters (AC Nov. ’10), which attracted the attention of Legendary Pictures producer Thomas Tull, who was seeking to revive the Godzilla franchise. “Gareth proved to us not only that he had the technical capability to make a truly cinematic picture, but also that he could bring a human element that would help Godzilla speak to a broad audience,” says Tull. “It was our job to support him with the best creative people possible so he could accomplish that.”

Edwards concurs. “My entire Godzilla crew was made up of some of the most talented and creative people in their fields,” he says, “and when Seamus McGarvey [ASC, BSC] signed on, I knew Legendary was doing their best to protect me and the picture.”

After the success of The Avengers (AC June ’12), anyone seeking a cinematographer for a big-budget sci-fi film might have McGarvey at the top of his list, but Edwards says he was actually even more impressed by McGarvey’s lush, atmospheric work in smaller, character-driven pictures such as Anna Karenina (AC Dec. ’12) and Atonement (AC Dec. ’07). “I remember watching Anna Karenina and having the biggest smile on my face, thinking, ‘My God, this is so beautiful, and this guy is shooting my movie!’” Edwards recalls. “I felt incredibly lucky. Godzilla needed to have the spectacle and epic scale people expected, but I also wanted it to have some soul and realistic beauty. I wasn’t interested in anything ultraglossy, and I was keen on having a cinematographer who’s good at finding that.”

“I’d seen Monsters, which is an amazing film made with such meager resources, and I was intrigued to meet Gareth,” says McGarvey. “I’d wanted to do something more indie, but I felt his aim to bring those elements and sensibilities to a blockbuster-type film like Godzilla was interesting. And within the first five minutes of meeting him, I knew it was going to be a good match. Gareth is a real cineaste and has an eclectic, deep background in film.”

Edwards notes that having a strong collaborator behind the camera was vital. “The fear when you’re making an epic movie for the first time is that you’re going to be contending with forceful egos kind of bullying you on set. But everybody I spoke to about Seamus confirmed how I saw him: fun to work with, generous, a gentleman and a collaborator. When I showed up on set nervous and anxious, I would just relax as soon as I saw him. He never lets the pressure get to him, and he’s always looking for a solution that’s better than the one we had coming in on the day.

“I was struggling with finding the right approach to shooting this picture,” continues the director. “As a kid, I always imagined directing a film in the style of someone like Steven Spielberg — locked-off shots and precise dolly moves. But I shot Monsters entirely handheld in a documentary style simply because the budget mandated it, and although it was not how I ever imagined making a film, I found I really liked it. So, as we developed Godzilla, I had this conflict. By the time Seamus came onboard, we had done quite a bit of previsualization [at The Third Floor] on a number of visual-effects sequences, and it was all done in a more considered visual style — little push-ins and swooping crane shots. My dilemma was, do I stay with this controlled, stable-camera look, or do I go handheld and more chaotic? Seamus simply said, ‘Do both. That’s the whole point. Everything is about contrast. You need to be controlled [in order] to then become chaotic and seem more realistic.’ It was a simple solution, but his confidence gave me the freedom to make that choice.”

McGarvey recalls, “There were times when chaos reigned and we went handheld, but there were times when it could seem forced. Gareth is so gentle with the actors and gets such strong performances that sometimes just holding on them with a longer lens and a slow dolly move fit the performance much better than a more kinetic approach.

“These kinds of visual-effects films can sometimes become a scattergun of imagery simply created for its own sake, without real context or meaning in connection with the characters or the drama,” continues the cinematographer. “Our goal was to avoid that and create something terrestrial witnessed from the points of view of the people on the ground. So, these beasts would be shown elliptically, immersed in atmosphere and glimpsed in flashes of lightning, rather than perfectly lit and presented.”

Lightning Strikes units were frequently employed to this end, but McGarvey notes that TruColor remote-phosphor-technology panel sources from Cineo Lighting offered additional flexibility. “Those were useful in a sequence set in a cave where these scientists discover a collection of huge bones,” says McGarvey. “They’re photographing the bones, and the space is lit up by these strobes. Real photo strobes barely register due to the shutter speeds we’re using, but the TruColor units can be adjusted to flash at precise durations, allowing the effect to appear correctly. They’re low-profile, like a fluorescent, but have a high output, and we could build banks of them if we needed more firepower.”

One of McGarvey’s primary collaborators was visual-effects supervisor Jim Rygiel, who oversaw teams of artists at Moving Picture Co., Weta Digital, Double Negative and other companies. “So often on films like this, there’s a disconnect between production and post, even though they are so integral to each other,” McGarvey observes. “Digital effects can become very polished and honed, but Gareth wanted to follow the example of every great horror movie, which is that the monster is only seen in half light, perhaps distantly and certainly never clearly. We really don’t see Godzilla in his totality until this grand reveal toward the end of the picture. So, while Jim could have made our monsters sharp and crystal-clear, he instead often gave the image a distorted feel to suggest they were far away, as they would have to be for you to see them full body. It’s those photographic aberrations that make them look so real.”

McGarvey and Rygiel collaborated to make extensive use of backlight and smoke effects while depicting the CG Godzilla, “and we also frequently played him in silhouette, which was useful, as he has one of the most distinctive profiles of all monsters!” says the cinematographer.

Shooting Godzilla in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Oahu, Hawaii, McGarvey brought on two of his key crew from The Avengers, A-camera operator Mitch Dubin and A-camera 1st AC Bill Coe. Key players from Vancouver included key grip Mike Kirilenko, chief lighting technician Stuart Haggerty, rigging gaffer Sean Oxenbury, 2nd-unit director E.J. Foerster and 2nd-unit director of photography Roger Vernon, CSC. “It was a fantastic team,” McGarvey says. “We had a huge task ahead of us, but it became an enjoyable one.”  


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