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Interview with
Patrick Tatopoulos

- This article originally appeared at EON Magazine -

Reconstruction Godzilla  - Americanizing Japan's most famous monster

Part One: Creature Design

The depiction of larger-than-life monsters in the movies has always been a varied discipline. It has ranged from stiff mechanized dinosaurs and dragons in early silent films, the stop-motion wizardry of Willis O'Brien's silent The Lost World  and King Kong  to Ray Harryhausen's Beast From 20,000 Fathoms  and 20 Million Miles To Earth . This continued on up to the lumbering slow-motion choreography of men in monster suits that brought the original Japanese Godzilla  and his numerous incarnations (as well as Occidental epics like the British Gorgo  and the American The Land Unknown ) to life. Years later, Jurassic Park  upped the ante with its breathtaking digital dinosaurs (although many of that film's most startling shots involved full-size dinos created by Stan Winston). Now the onus is on Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich's updated Godzilla  to set the standard against which all future giant monsters will be measured.

In order to measure a monster, however, you first have to create it. That job fell to production designer Patrick Tatopoulos, who'd got his break with Devlin and Emmerich designing the Egyptian-styled helmets which eventually influenced the entire production look of Stargate . Tatopoulos followed up that assignment up with the duo's Independence Day , designing the aliens and their technology for that film. When first approached with the Godzilla  assignment, the designer interpreted his new job as something of a demotion.

"Dean and Roland came to me and said that the next film they were doing was Godzilla  and they wanted me to do the creature," Tatopoulos explains. "My first reaction was, 'wow, I'm not doing production design anymore---what happened?' My first reaction was disappointment, but then later I said to myself, 'what are you thinking, you have the opportunity to redesign this insane icon that's been in Japan forever. This is a great chance for me.'"

While working on Dark City  in Australia, Tatopoulos began developing ideas for the creature when he began hearing rumblings from Emmerich and Devlin that they were losing their enthusiasm about the project. "Maybe they felt it was too hard to come up with something new for it," Tatopoulos hypothesizes. "I ended up meeting them at Cannes; I finished Dark City  and they were promoting ID4  in Cannes at the time, and when I met them they said they were thinking about not doing it. I said 'oh no, no way, come on! This is the coolest thing we could do together!' I just ended up bringing them two drawings rather than the 40 I'd been working on because I didn't want to get them confused, and specifically there was one that I was really excited about, that was my best one. And they both looked at it and said 'Wow!' and they said they would do it."

Tatopoulos was keenly aware that one attempt to reinvent the classic Japanese monster had already resulted in failure: Twister  director Jan De Bont had seen his Godzilla  feature go down the tubes due to a $100 million+ budget and disagreements with Toho over his approach to the creature's redesign. Tatopoulos actually saw the De Bont production's designs and has his own theories about why Toho rejected them. "What they did which was a mistake in my mind was, rather than going in a new direction they tried to alter and make the old one better," says Tatopolous. "And when you do that, first of all I think it's very disrespectful. It's more disrespectful for me to alter something existing than to take a fresh new direction. It means 'Oh, your Godzilla  is what it is, but we can make it better.' I'm not saying that's what their intent was, but I'm saying that to go to Japan and say 'Well, we made the eyes and the scales more realistic on your Godzilla', they just wouldn't go for that."

Tatopoulos's instructions from Roland Emmerich were to forget about the original Godzilla  and come at the design from a completely new angle. "My first three or four drawings were too close to the original Godzilla , I couldn't get away from it," Tatopoulos admits. "Roland pushed me and said to go wild. 'We want something that will run 500 miles an hour through the streets of New York.' That obviously dictates the design in that it can't be like the old one, which was more slow and heavy. It's really Roland's pushing, telling me not to limit myself and that they would worry about selling it to the Japanese." Nevertheless, selling the concept to the executives at Toho, the custodians of the Godzilla  legacy, was the next part of Tatopoulos's job.

"That was the most insane part of the entire show to me, because I've always been a big fan of the old Godzilla  and I always dug it," says Tatopolous. "It's one of the first things I remember my mother taking me to see. And having a chance to walk into the storage room at Toho and see the old Godzilla  rotting away-it was fabulous! I couldn't believe where I was. After designing my last Godzilla , the one that wound up in the movie, I felt very secure and I believed we had something great. But the day I sat in front of the Japanese I thought, 'what have I done? Am I crazy? They're not going to go for it.' And for the first time, I personally felt I saw Roland trying really hard to get the job. He's used to getting what he wants, and I think before we had the meeting he cared, but he felt very comfortable. Until the day that we had the meeting, I could tell that he was throwing his heart out there and he really wanted them to know how much he cared about doing that project. I felt the same way. So we got there, there were 20 people in there, and we unveiled the creature and they all stood up in silence, headed toward the creature and started looking around with very serious faces, speaking Japanese of course, and I started feeling like, 'man, we f***ed up terrible!' Then they started getting smiles on their faces, and it was the smiles were like they were finding something interesting in there. It seemed like about two or three hours but it was probably just a couple of minutes and then they sat down again and they told us that they needed to show it to more people, and I was wondering if they were talking about the creator of Godzilla , Tanaka, who was sick at the time. At least I hope that it was him, that he saw it before he died. Anyway they said they would give us an answer the next day. So that night Roland and Dean and [producer] Bill Fay and I had to go out and drink, it was just too intense. So the next day we got in at ten in the morning and the head of Toho started speaking to us about how different we had made the character, that we'd taken such a far step away from the old one, but their last sentence was 'We feel you've kept the spirit of Godzilla . The sense of the character is still there; when we look at him, it's Godzilla  and nothing else. So we're giving you the green light.' Everybody applauded, and obviously for me that was the strongest moment of the whole show, at least until I go to the premiere and look at it. The whole process of fabrication and selling it to the Japanese was fabulous."

While Tatopoulos had taken a radically different approach to the classic Godzilla  design, there were certain elements that had to be retained in order to keep faith (and contractual agreements) with Toho. "The first one is that I created the character with two rows of fins on the back," says Tatopolous. "It was funny because the head of Toho said the old Godzilla  had one row of fins on his back and all the other Japanese man looked at him and said 'no no, it was three rows!' It was actually very funny to realize that the head of Toho f***ed up! He was very nice and everybody laughed and it created kind of a more relaxing atmosphere after that. That was after they gave us the green light."

The second alteration involved digits according to Tatopolous. "When I went and had to apply this design to a man in a suit, at least some aspect of it, I realized the creature would have four fingers and a man has five," Tatopoulos explains, "I didn't want to put two fingers into one finger and make everything very bulky, so I told the actor to bend his finger, and we created this sort of bump on the side of his hand with a tiny nail on it. It's like basically when he's born as a baby, he has five fingers but one kind of atrophies as he grows. That was fine and the Japanese went for it, but the toy company started to build toys out of our design and they made the bump slightly bigger, and three or four months later I got a call from Toho saying they had just seen something and that Godzilla  had five fingers. So we wound up removing the nail and adding latex in that area to disguise the finger." One problem remained, however, admits the designer. "The babies had already been shot and they had five fingers," Tatopoulos muses. "But the Japanese had seen that and said it was fine, and that 'they could be born with five fingers but as they grow, the fifth finger doesn't get used and it eventually disappears.' Everything else really stayed the same, the color and everything else they really went for. And I added another row of fins in the center but did it in a way that it didn't distract from the main design, but it's there and you can see it." With the design finally approved and the production given the go-ahead, Tatopoulos took on the second responsibility entailed in being the designer of Godzilla; physically constructing the monster.

"My task was to do the aspect of mechanical fabrication," he says. "I took care of building the suits, about seven baby suits plus a hydraulic baby for fast reactions, snapping movements. We had a bunch of suits made in 1/24 scale for guys to wear in shots where he would burst through the streets, and also the water head, which was built to 1/6 scale-this is the head that comes out of the water in the second trailer. And also we ended up building a 1/6 Godzilla  that was the biggest thing we built on the show, and it turned out to be the biggest hydraulic character ever built. The head was seven feet long, and even the T Rex in Jurassic Park  had a five foot head. The only thing the T Rex had that we didn't do was the tail. The reason for that was our tail wouldn't fit into any studio we know of. There was no way we could make a 1/6 tail so that was CG. A slightly less than 1/6 scale head and tail was also constructed for an early sequence in which the monster had to interact with a miniature tanker ship. The 1/6 head was built that size not for mechanics, but because the models it has to interact with have to be that big in order to look real, like a car and so on. Any smaller and it wouldn't work. You don't need to go that crazy in general, but we needed that head to do tight shots and action shots with models. It was fun, though, because we got to build the biggest thing ever."

While a great deal of miniature and mechanical construction was undertaken, Tatopoulos's models also served as a guide for the film's CGI creature. "The 1/24 scale model we built was actually the one that the CG people would scan into a computer when they were assembling the colors and the scale, to make sure that all of that matched and to set up the look of the creature in the computer at the beginning," Tatopoulos points out. "I also worked early on with motion capture before we pulled away from that, when Roland was experimenting with a man doing choreography with motion capture to see if we could go that way. We did some of that for two or three months and the guys who were wearing my suit were also wearing motion capture equipment because they were learning to move in a certain way and we were trying to pull all of that together."

Despite the efficacy of that approach in supplying virtual passengers for the ocean liner in Titanic , there was a problem employing the technique on Godzilla . "A man still walks too much like a man!" Tatopoulos admits. "Matching it to the legs we designed turned out to be a real problem. The upper torso and head were okay, because our Godzilla  is so anthropomorphic, that if you look at the chest it looks like a human chest. But at the end I think Roland felt that trying to mix all those techniques together would create more problems than it was worth, and when we saw how well key frame was working we decided to go with that. Actually that's why we wound up having a limited amount of mechanical effects, but still I think we have a great deal of that considering how much CGI is being used now. It's mostly used for the babies, and it was also good for the actors to have something there on the set that they could react to after reacting to this big nothingness in space."

Tatopoulos sought numerous influences from nature to create an animal that was almost a chimera. "Once the creature was fully designed I started to look at animals like iguanas and crocodiles: iguanas for the neck movement, that fleshy part of the neck, and crocodiles for the head. The way the teeth are actually sitting outside, I didn't want to have any lip movement, I wanted the teeth to be very solid. And if you look at a crocodile, you know it's alive-you don't need to see it move."

That realization helped Tatopoulos and the CGI crew to avoid creating a creature that was unrealistically expressive. "You don't need to move a puppet all over the place for fifteen minutes to sell the fact that it's alive," the designer explains. "Sometimes we went for this approach where it's so still that it's creepy, that it could leap at you at any second. I like the fact that a crocodile's head is solid, there's not so much expression, although the expression of the creature is translated more by body movement than it is by his lips or eyebrows moving. So we used ostriches as a reference for the leg, because ostrich legs are very close to dinosaur legs, so we used that as a model for how the foot would retract when the foot takes off and the weight lands, how it spreads, and we did a muscle illustration to set up how it would move. But Godzilla's such a mixed thing: the legs are like an ostrich, the chest is a human chest, but then he's got this big tail and you have to decide how this body balances. I thought the coolest thing was the crocodile head because it kept us from over-animating it. At the beginning Roland kept saying it's a character and he wanted it to react to things, and I kept telling him let's not go there, we can do so much else to make it convincing."

Interview by Jeff Bond, source: EON Magazine


This article is obviously the first part of several, but we don't have the other parts. If anyone else does, please feel free to email them to us. Thank you.