Appetite for destruction: DP Ueli Steiger captures Godzilla's march on Manhattan


When this issue of Lighting Dimensions reaches your mailbox, you will know a few things about Godzilla that were closely guarded at presstime. You will know exactly what the title character looks like. You will know the secret of his origins and the full extent of his special powers, destructive and procreative. You will know if TriStar Pictures was wise to gamble an estimated $120 million on the rebirth of everyone's favorite lumbering lizard, in the most outstanding example of Japanese-American synergy since Sony bought the studio a decade ago.

But you will not know how director of photography Ueli Steiger, chief lighting technician Jim Grce, and an army of craftspeople readied the reptile for his closeups. Herein, the behind-the-scenes story of how they lit the biggest star who ever was--or never was, from their perspective--and brought Godzilla from Toho to Soho.

Unleashed May 20, the revamped Godzilla is the brainchild of director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin, whose Centropolis Entertainment surprised Hollywood with the success of Stargate, then blew the town away with Independence Day two summers ago. Alien-driven global mayhem is a tough act to follow, but their script for Godzilla raised the creative stakes even higher. The star of this show is almost entirely a CGI creation, loosed upon actual Manhattan locations photographed during a tightly coordinated five-week shoot last May and June that turned ordinarily blase New Yorkers into avid monster-watchers.

With bits and pieces of Godzilla and his digital dominions percolating in the workstations of several Hollywood houses, coordinated by Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor Volker Engel and many of his Independence Day colleagues at Centropolis Effects, there was no creature featured onsite in New York. "We just brought one piece--some webbing in between his toes, which we used as a backdrop for Hank Azaria's cameraman character in one scene," Steiger recalls. "Otherwise, we had to imagine his presence."

Steiger and Grce, who first collaborated on Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot in 1990, have become experts at making something out of nothing. Most of their co-credits, including Soapdish and Singles, are CGI-free. Before reuniting for Godzilla, however, they toiled separately on more elaborate projects. Entering Centropolis' orbit by subbing briefly for cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub, Steiger was then attached to Independence Day's second unit for two months. His followup credit was as second-unit DP on Con Air--its plane-crazy climax in Las Vegas was a dry run for Godzilla's Manhattan melodrama. Grce, meanwhile, amassed experience assembling large amounts of personnel and equipment gaffing Showgirls, Heat, and Starship Troopers--another film with voracious, computer-generated performers.

"A big monster-movie kind of kid," Grce grew up in California. A fan of Godzilla, he earned his first fantasy filmmaking stripes working in the Roger Corman stable after graduating from UCLA. A native of Switzerland, Steiger had a relatively monster-deprived childhood, but remarks, "A lot of people confuse Godzilla with the ape, King Kong."

No longer. Unlike his one-time nemesis from his 22-film career in Japan, the new Godzilla spends more screen time sightseeing in New York in his first foray as an American citizen (for Toho Studios, he slipped into Manhattan long enough to bash the United Nations building during Destroy All Monsters 30 years ago). Trying to depict the 200'-tall (61m) creature's appearance in the city as naturalistically as possible, Emmerich and Devlin make Godzilla's trip much like that of any new arrival's to the Big Apple.

Born in the Pacific Rim, Godzilla strikes out for the fun and glamour of New York after a brief stopover (make that "stompover") in Panama. Politically aware, he attends a mayor's rally in Wall Street, then protests the military as vigorously as any other West Sider. Captivated by urban beauty, he lolls about Central Park, strolls across the Brooklyn Bridge, and takes in (and takes out) the Flatiron Building and other landmarks. Lacking tokens, he finds new ways to beat subway fares, and goes to great lengths to get the best seats at Madison Square Garden. Pleased with his adopted home, he decides to raise his children in the city.

"Roland and I first discussed the tone of the film," Steiger says. "It had to be a blockbuster; it couldn't be a man in a rubber suit anymore. It had to be more realistic than those old films were. Yet it couldn't be all that serious, either; it had to be a fun ride." The DP drew inspiration from the somber menace Gojira (rechristened "Godzilla" for international audiences) represented in Toho's first, black-and-white film in 1954, but was less impressed with later, more toylike incarnations in the 1960s and 1970s. "It's important to see them, for the heritage they represent, but for shooting, we did not use them." (A cycle of Gojira pictures from 1985-1995, largely unseen in the West, returns the character to his roots, and is closer to the US conception.)

A bigger influence on this US attempt at kaiju eiga (Japanese for "monster movie") was films like Crimson Tide, Seven, and Jennifer 8--all memorable for their use of rain. Except for a sequence shot on the Hawaiian island of Oahu (standing in for Panama, where a derelict ship and monstrous footprints are discovered), Godzilla takes place during wet, overcast spring days in Manhattan. "The whole idea of doing the film in the rain came up because we wanted to get as much real diffusion in front of the lens as possible, not as a filter--we wanted Godzilla to be as gritty-looking as possible," says Steiger. "To shoot a whole movie in rain means an incredible amount of work, effort, and money. But Roland thought it would be worthwhile, and I wound up thrilled about it." Adds Grce, "Jennifer 8 in particular has a great rainy scene at the beginning where the characters are at a garbage dump. The high contrasts and really deep blacks cinematographer Conrad Hall got in that scene represented the style Roland and Ueli were interested in."

Some other technical and stylistic decisions had to be made before the cast and crew headed to Manhattan. Kodak's Vision 500ASA film stock, "which has a very good grain structure," was chosen to shoot Godzilla. "It's very wide latitude," Steiger says. "We actually wound up underexposing it a half-stop, because we had such high contrasts. I didn't want to shoot the film wide open; I shot everything between 2.8 and 4. For day exteriors, we used Vision 200ASA; it's a bit sharper and less fast. We were pretty much the first film to try it out. I didn't test it; it arrived on the third day of shooting, and by the second day of exteriors we got used to it."

Steiger elected to shoot Godzilla in Super 35, not as an homage to the widescreen Godzillas of yesteryear, but for practical purposes. "For one thing, you can get a widescreen look and not have to rent anamorphic lenses to achieve it; spherical lenses are easier to get hold of when you use as many Panavision cameras as we did, all over the city, on rooftops and on helicopters. There can be a bit of a compromise in quality, in that you use less negative, but with Super 35 you can use the full frame for the digital effects and the digital composites. You can shoot the full frame, then once the film is digitized, readjust it and do certain movements inside it to adjust for the size of the creature, even in shots with live actors in them. This way we had a little more leeway to play with Godzilla."

The DP got to play with Godzilla well before he was digitized. Steiger shot test footage of models constructed by the creature's true parent, designer Patrick Tatopoulos, another Independence Day alum who, like Engel, was readily available for on-set consultations. "Patrick tried out kind of an iridescent color on Godzilla's skin, so I did a complete lighting test with different types of light and different types of movement of the creature, to see what it could do." Quitea bit more than Japanese designer Eiji Tsuburaya's beloved original, as it turned out; thanks to advances in digital, puppet, and animatronic technologies, the new Godzilla is an agile, fleet-footed beast, capable of burrowing beneath city streets and other feats. Throughout the production, Steiger also checked in with Godzilla's extensive miniatures unit, which for almost a full year created many of the implosions, explosions, and other havoc wrought by the creature; the visual effects DP was Anna Foerster.

Early last spring, the company tested exterior light levels and equipment on a preshoot in downtown Los Angeles, which substituted for New York once photography wrapped on the East Coast. Rather than put the lights on high lifts, it was decided to illuminate streets from the ground up, and to light cityscapes a slight warm blue (with Lee color correction) that would add hues and texture through the rain. The film's first trailer--a museum lecture that Godzilla disrupts--was also shot at this time. The digital effects department cut their teeth on this assignment.

"I did a short seminar for the animators about my lighting approach after we wrapped," Steiger says. "I talked to them about basic principles of lighting, and discussed their lighting tools. They had lighting plans for what we did when they had to match our footage with the animated creatures. Their tools were very crude; the only soft lighting source they had took so much calculation time it was unworkable. Digitally, it was very difficult to get much texture into the creature for daytime looks, because they didn't have that tool. They cheated it by changing the texture of Godzilla's skin, which is a grayish-greenish-brown, for different times of day. Actually, it was very difficult to get any sort of a look for digital Godzilla in the daylight; at night, we could let our imaginations go wild." Combining nighttime or cloudy daytime skies with rainfall gave the filmmakers more freedom to experiment with Godzilla's activities, as these elements divert viewers from spotting any imperfections when live-action, miniature, and digital elements share the frame.

Imperfection was not an option for Grce. The New York shoot required military-style planning that puts the antics of the movie's militia to shame. Grce's field commander was "New York gaffer extraordinaire" Rusty Engels, whose brother, Gene, worked with Steiger on The Jerky Boys. Besides "covering" his West Coast counterpart while in Manhattan, as union rules require, Engels put the local manpower together and sourced the lighting equipment from Paramount Production Services in Astoria, NY, last April, a month before the company arrived. "For the short stretch of time it was one of the largest crews I've ever worked on: 42 on the shooting crew and 20 riggers," Engels recalls. "Godzilla required six to eight generators and 14 lifts a day; that's a man each to operate them. Not since The Warriors or Wolfen, in my experience, has a film crew shot as many blocks in one take as they did in Manhattan."

The Godzilla team had no choice but to think big in Manhattan--size matters, and the star's dimensions allowed no compromises. On location scouts before filming began, the production canvassed the city for appropriate locations, picking the Flatiron Building and Madison Square Park, Wall Street, the Fulton Street Fish Market, the Plaza Hotel and Sheep Meadow in Central Park. "Day to day in New York we had to figure out which streets we had to light, how much equipment we needed, and how to show the rigging crews how we could light Park Avenue one night, then move all of that equipment over to the Flatiron Building the next day," Grce recalls. "We had to have crews working 24 hours per day; we had the strike crew strike the equipment on one street, move it over to the next street, and the rig crew would rig that. We would come in before nightfall and with part of the rig crew and the first unit still working we would walk down the streets--we had already told the riggers where the lights were going to go, and we would finalize light positions and exposures one block at a time."

The lighting team had to illuminate several streets at a time, to properly convey the illusion of Godzilla's size and other fanciful notions: that just two of Godzilla's thudding footsteps (which make cars bounce in the street) can, for example, take him over a block. "We had to light huge amounts to have him properly silhouetted, to stand out on the streets," Grce recalls. "But we couldn't go overboard with equipment; we had to stick to a budget. A lot of what we did was light one big building 10 blocks down the street; that one would always be in the background of shots. This helped us compress the lighting; it always looked like we had lit 10 blocks rather than just four. If you don't do that, it doesn't look real. You have to keep that consistency of lighting up--if you're lighting a whole block, you can't just have the next block go black. You have to find something that's far away in the frame to light, so that you can make it seem like you've lit more than you actually have."

All this had to be coordinated precisely. At night, the streets were cleared for filming after 8pm; everything, from Condor cranes, scissor lifts, cabling, and ramps, to the prop debris that had to be rearranged with each new angle, had to vanish by 6:00 the next morning. "We had two hours to light everything," Steiger says. To accommodate this tight schedule, and because so much of the set was captured by the constantly moving cameras, production designer Oliver Scholl dressed the lights, and costume designer Joseph Porro members of the lighting staff, for "military" duty.

The Godzilla crew, outfitted for battle, spent five nights at the Flatiron Building and Madison Square Park. From the offices of Lighting Dimensions, a few blocks away, it seemed as if the evening sky last May was ablaze with Markalites, the electrical cannons employed against many a monster in the old Toho movies. In fact, the crew had obtained their own versions of Markalites--the top guns from Xenotech, LTM, Mole-Richardson, Musco Lights, and Ultra Lights Manufacturing. In this sequence, Godzilla, lured by 12 dumptrucks of appetizing fish, makes his grand entrance--his prior appearances are more "suggestive and enigmatic, like the creature in Alien," Steiger says.

Much to the disappointment of onlookers, Godzilla stayed in his trailer those nights. Taking his place during the shoot were members of Volker Engel's effects crew, who used the Zeiss counter, a sophisticated architectural surveying tool, to properly position digital Godzilla's appearances on actual streets. Spectators could, however, watch a light show unfold as rain from cranes as high as 170' (52m) cascaded down. Jokes Steiger, "For the first time in my career, there was nothing in front of my lens--nothing except every type of rain deflector in the world to keep the water off."

Under these conditions, battery-powered Xenotech Britelights, mounted on Humvees, were operated by khaki-clad crew members. "They lit Godzilla, and the scene itself," Grce says. "Used as military spotlight units, which gave off a full blue light, the Xenotechs would go through and search for Godzilla, and we could wash them up against a dark building and create movement within the frame." Portable Mole-Richardson Maxi Brute stands that could be photographed, and not removed by the digital artists later, were built for this sequence, as were two Mini Muscos that performed reel and real functions. "We wanted to use a big backlight, as if the military had two worklights lighting up the fish. Wherever we had a large military setup we used those lights--they helped us backlight the rain, and we actually have a shot of them in the film, being extended up, swung around, and brought into position."

Additional color and activity come from Lightning Strikes units, simulating electrical transformers blown up by Godzilla; smoke from oil crackers; numerous fires created with flicker boxes and Rosco gels; emergency lighting; and "anything that moved," Steiger says. "Whenever we had an excuse to put a light somewhere, we did."

Not so in Hollywood. While parts of downtown Los Angeles, made over to recreate the Brooklyn Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel, and other Manhattan landmarks for a month of shooting that began last June followed the New York street lighting prescription, Sony Stage 29 faded to black. Here, Scholl built the remains of New York's 23rd Street subway station, with mangled trains dangling precariously from the stage's 80'-high (24m) ceilings, and Madison Square Garden, which Godzilla hollows out and converts into an incubator. These monstrous sets, built from a forced perspective, were lit as sparsely as possible to preserve the mysteries within.

"I don't think I've ever had two sets so big with so little light," Steiger says. "We did make use of interactive lights--the Britelights again, and many xenon flashlights for the lead actors. They give really nice beams with the oil cracker smoke we use--you can see that there is something in the darkness, but with the interactivity it can also get dark again in between moments of surprise. We could also create a sense of depth in the darkness, and also hide how the sets were built; they were built for very specific angles, but we ended up shooting all around them. With the smoke and the lighting we could get away with it."

"From the very beginning we worked with Oliver on these two sets, and talked about where the lighting was coming from and how to achieve that," Grce says. "We talked about raising the sets, so we could put lights underneath grates. We used lots of Kino Flo KF29s as part of our set lighting (supplied by Sony Set Lighting) and built them into the hallways of our Madison Square Garden. We also rolled around a 20k with a Chimera on it, creating varied looks."

Courtesy of the "best instrument there is," the Technocrane, the DP found room to navigate in the egg-strewn Madison Square Garden set. "This was a very difficult space to move around in," Steiger says. "The Technocrane is a special crane with a telescoping arm and a camera that swivels 360 degrees: you can go straight down a wall, because you can retract the arm; you can pull back in front of somebody, then pan them by, and go up and away above them. You can do all sorts of things you couldn't do unless you build very elaborate tracks, which in that set we couldn't, because of all those eggs and rubble. With the Technocrane we could always keep the camera moving; we had two places to put the chassis, then from there we could go anywhere." The DP was pleased that the production carried the expensive, German-made unit for the entire shoot, resulting in several supple camera moves, including a wide reveal of the Flatiron set.

Two other lighting contributions warrant mention. The small second unit that blitzkrieged through the shoot pressed Burbank, CA-based rental house Towards 2000 Inc. into service when it wanted to coordinate the flashes of the back ends of rockets launched from helicopters in hot pursuit of Godzilla. The firm supplied several High End Systems Dataflash(R) AF1000s, controlled via DMX from an NSI Colortran board programmed by senior systems designer Richard Rutherford, to simulate this effect. Likewise, the Chandler Group of Los Angeles contracted Production Arts in Los Angeles to use large-format Pani projectors to create a continuous scroll of New York buildings along streets for rear-projection sequences.

By now, the verdict is in on the new, improved Godzilla. Recovered from the rigors of a 103-day shoot, Steiger and Grce await possible assignment to the next two parts of a Godzilla trilogy planned by Centropolis, but have other work pending. The two are reteaming for the non-digital Bofinger's Big Thing, to be directed by Frank Oz. And this summer they'll head to Switzerland to teach a technical course in filmmaking. No doubt full of stories about working with Hollywood's biggest new star.

Director/co-writer Roland Emmerich

Producer/co-writer Dean Devlin

Director of photography Ueli Steiger

Chief lighting technician Jim Grce

Second unit DP Peter Krause

Second unit chief lighting technician Donna Vega

Visual effects supervisor Volker Engel

Visual effects DP Anna Foerster

Los Angeles set lighting

Best boy Ron Kline

Electricians Amy J. Alarian, Gary Fredrickson, Duane Katz, David Slodki, David Wood

Rigging gaffers Chris Bateman, Tim Marshall

Best boy rigging electricians Jon Antunovich, Joe Dorowsky

Rigging electrician Josh Bateman

New York set lighting

Chief lighting technician Rusty Engels

Best boy Doug Dalisera

Electricians John Billici, Robert Conners, Jim Mah, Tim McAuliffe, Noah Prince, Walter Fricke

Camper electrician Ron Paul

Rigging gaffer Kenneth Conners

Rigging best boy Bill McGavin

Rigging electricians Harold McClean, Jim Walsh Jr.

Equipment suppliers Paramount Production Services, Astoria, NY; Sony Set Lighting, Los Angeles; Production Arts; Towards 2000 Inc.

Night exteriors equipment list (45) Mole-Richardson Maxi Brutes (12) Ultra Light Manufacturing Dinos (6) LTM 6k PARs (5) Xenotech 1k Britelights mounted inside mobile Humvees (4) Xenotech 4k Britelights (2) Xenotech 7k Britelights (4) Lightning Strikes 70,000W units (2) Musco Lights Mini Muscos

Additional equipment manufacturers Chimera High End Systems Kino Flo Lee Filters NSI/Colortran Panavision Rosco Pani Technocrane