Does anyone watch a monster movie for the human drama? With all due respect to the cast of Godzilla: King Of The Monsters, the thing we’re most curious about in Legendary’s upcoming monster-mash sequel is the creatures: What will they look like? Where will they come from? How will they move, and more importantly, how will they fight?
For some insight into this new incarnation of Toho’s classic kaiju—which, in Godzilla: King Of The Monsters, includes Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah as well as the big G himself—we called up production designer Scott Chambliss, who headed up the team responsible for designing not only the sets and environments for the film, but also making fine tweaks to the monsters themselves under the guidance of director Michael Dougherty. Chambliss has been a production designer since the early ’90s, and has worked with big-name directors like J.J. Abrams, Jon Favreau, and James Gunn, with whom Chambliss created the look and feel of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. He spent a year after that particular project was completed immersing himself in Godzilla lore, and shared some of what he learned with The A.V. Club.
The A.V. Club: When you’re working with an established property like Godzilla, which has a history of design going all the way back to Japan in the ’50s, how do you approach that as a production designer?
Scott Chambliss: It’s interesting, because there’s a lot of history that a whole lot of people have loved over the decades. It’s important to keep that in mind to honor what’s come before, but use that as a foundation upon which to build something fresh and contemporary for today’s audience. That’s how we approached it: we took the source material—the source creatures—we easily identified what the specific integrities were within them, and built a new version from there. I hope that it’s something that comes across: We wanted to make a seriously fun ride from the material, but we were also respectful of where it came from.
AVC: When you said “specific integrities,” can you clarify what you meant by that?
SC: So, the creatures—Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan—all the iterations of them, from the very early ones up until [Toho studios] stopped making movies with those creatures in them [in the early 2000s]—they looked pretty comic. I don’t think [the designers] intended them to from the beginning, but based on the culture and techniques that were available at the time, there’s no way on Earth we could take any of that too literally. So we had to take Ghidorah, this flying, three-headed dragon monster, and say, “Okay, what does that mean to us now?”
Ghidorah is supposed to be incredibly scary, but he’s not scary anymore. That’s something you always have to deal with in monster movies, or horror movies in general. So we took the essence of each of these characters and brought them to what we think is a powerful iteration of the pride in their strength and ridiculous scale, and also the kind of beauty each of them have on their own. That’s what I mean by the integrity of the film.
AVC: Were you trying to make Mothra scary? I think that would be the toughest one.
SC: Yeah, it’s funny; she has a duality that the rest of them do not. On the one hand, she’s terrifying simply because of her scale, but in the movie she has a scary awesome power for sure. She’s our connection to nature at its most essential, pure, and benevolent. That comes across in how we designed her, and how the light itself interacts with her and her with it, and how she appears in each of the different scenarios. When she’s trying to be in badass mode, she’s got fire light coming out of her.
AVC: I’m interested in the granular design stuff. Is that something you’d do with color or texture?
SC: We had an awesome team of monster designers working with us from Legacy and from ADI, and we had a couple of designers who the director, Michael [Dougherty], had worked with on his movie Krampus. My job was to be the leader of the design team, basically. [We were] coming at the process saying, “Okay, let’s talk about the personality characteristics.”
Ghidorah is just an evil motherfucker from some other dimension who’s out to take over, so we know he’s got terrifying badass relentlessness written all over him. He also has a resemblance to the kind of flying dragons we’ve been seeing lately on Game Of Thrones, and it’s important to find ways to distinguish Ghidorah. What’s the skin made of? What’s the color of the skin? We made a point of trying to bring out the inner anatomy of the creatures and make it visible on the exterior in some way, usually when they’re in fighting mode.
So, Ghidorah is electricity. There’s this Japanese photographer named Hiroshi Sugimoto who takes time-lapse pictures of lightning in the sky, and because they’re time-lapse, you get all of the effects of a single lightning bolt. Those were hugely inspirational for how Ghidorah unleashes his power [in terms of] what he creates in nature all around him, the swirling thunderstorms and all that. Just his presence in our atmosphere creates an effect that emanates from him and his hyper-electric power. There’s that in his color, texture, skin, and sliminess.
With Rodan, the concept was that Rodan is a creature who was created, and lives, inside an active volcano. So we’ve got the electric aspect on one hand, and we’ve got the fire-breather on the other. His skin texture resembles lava rocks as much as it resembles anything else. Those are finely articulated, crinkly, iridescent, black as pitch, but also reflective in lighting conditions, and [Rodan] has all of those characteristics.
AVC: So they’re all elemental, then?
SC: Yeah, absolutely. Mothra is air, Rodan is fire, Ghidorah is electricity, and Godzilla is earth and water. He’s a creature who roams the earth and lives underwater.
AVC: When Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla came out in 2014, there was some controversy over whether Godzilla seemed to have gained a bit of weight. What’s your take on that?
SC: Godzilla looks different just about every time you see him. Did you see Shin Godzilla?
AVC: I did see that, yeah.
SC: What did you think of that design?
AVC: I thought that design was more classically Japanese, because like you were saying, even in a more modern interpretation, they still keep it a little action figure-esque. I think the American Godzillas deviate from that in that you’re not going so much for a rubber suit kind of look.
SC: There’s something about trying to make Godzilla look a little more athletically dynamic by our culture’s standards that went on at a certain point. Then the reaction to the 2014 version was that he put on too much weight, so we were trying to take it back a little bit closer to the original. We’ve stayed pretty close to that 2014 [version] in ours, because the whole team did a really fine redesign on the creature for that. Michael had specific tweaks that he wanted to do to refine his vision of [Godzilla], so I think that our big fans will notice some differences there.
AVC: Can you tell me what they are?
SC: When he gets ready to roar, he’s breathing his radioactivity throughout his entire being before he lets it out. That’s distinctive to our version.
AVC: So that was the main tweak Michael Doughtery wanted to do?
SC: He literally came at Godzilla like a high-end clothing designer. He wanted a tuck here and a little add there, and a reshape over there, and all of that. He’s so completely, obsessively in love with creatures and has been since he was a little kid. So it’s kind of his dream to have that power to create and customize Godzilla for the masses. Can you imagine?
AVC: No, I can’t imagine at all!
AVC: If we could back up for a second, it was really interesting what you said there, in terms of seeing the internal anatomy when the creatures moved. Have you ever seen—I imagine you probably have—the illustrations that come from Japan where they diagram the internal anatomy of the monsters?
SC: Yeah, aren’t those crazy? I wasn’t myself, but I bet you the artists who were doing all the variations that we were asking for were certainly referring to them. You would not believe the hundreds of variations that we came up with. Some of the creatures were really big ones, and in keeping with wanting to honor the essence of these guys, we went into wild detail. Sometimes we’d all fall in love with some cool approach that really had nothing to do with who the monsters were supposed to be for our story. That was my job, to always keep character focused. Don’t fall in love with the shiny surface!
AVC: There were a few stills from the film that came out towards the beginning of the year, big action stills that are far away, and they look like epic fantasy paintings. Could you talk about that a little bit?
SC: That’s a part of the monster redesign. The approach Michael wanted to take was to give it the epic sweep of a David Lean movie, and all of the richness. So that brought us to approaching the monster sequences—and all of our tableaus throughout the movie—as these huge masterpieces of 16th, 17th, 18th century paintings. We were referring to everything from Turner’s incredible, rather abstract 1800s water scene paintings to Rembrandt’s portraits to huge heaven and hell [triptychs] from the Middle Ages.
Mostly, we were looking for a really gorgeous classical approach to the environment, and [that gave us] our counterpart visual reference: the incredible imagery you can get now of the massive storms that play across our globe—huge ominous clouds, floods, waves that come in and tsunami all over the place. We were trying to combine the great masters’ painting and storytelling and beauty and epic sweep with the crazy gargantuan effects that can happen in nature itself. We have really controlled color palettes; there’s a signature palette that represents each of the monsters, and that’s the color palette for the show’s centerpieces.
AVC: That’s one of the big reasons I wanted to talk to you. I thought those were so cool.
SC: I’m so glad, really. That’s one of the two reasons I took the job. I wanted it to be a beautiful, epic sweep. And we got to recreate these iconic monsters.
AVC: As a production designer, how do you balance the painterly aspect with clarity, and being able to see what’s going on? Or is that more of the cinematographer’s job?
SC: There’s a little bit of cinematography in that, for sure. As far as I can control it—unless I’m involved in post-production, which I was not on this one—all of the concept sketches we do are guideposts, and it’s up to the director and visual effects people to be true to the concept of the movie. I have been on projects where I have been there for post-production, to get the complete vision on the record supporting the director. That’s, at the end of the day, where we’re going to find out if we can actually see anything on screen.
AVC: How you make bunkers look interesting? Because there are a lot of scientific bunkers in Godzilla movies.
SC: [Laughter] Can I tell you the truth about something? I did everything I could to not have a bunker in this movie for that very reason.
AVC: Were you outvoted?
SC: Yeah. All it took was a vote of one, the director, to outvote me. But we did our best for those moments. We made them atmospheric and claustrophobic and eccentric. Hopefully that’ll help, but who needs another bunker, really?
AVC: It’s got to be the toughest thing: “Here’s a concrete room, make it look good.”
SC: Yeah. So we played with lots of texture and lots of unexpected additions. There’s one bunker room—I think it’s [Millie Bobby Brown’s character’s] room—where my approach was, “Okay, here’s the shell I have to work with.” Then somewhere along the line, somebody did a little partial update. So the concrete structure is from the ’20s or ’30s, and the update was from the WWII-era, and then the final people in there were from the 1960s. So there’s this weird, anachronistic hodgepodge of a space that either will be cool and great to be in, or it’ll be so self-conscious that it’s stupid. But I hope it works.
AVC: It’s like an addition on a house.
SC: Yeah, or too many additions on the same house, and none of it works together anymore, which is exactly what I was going for.
AVC: So far, we’ve only seen what’s in the trailers. What other environments did you make for the film?
SC: We did—miles under the Antarctic surface—the holding cave for Ghidorah, which you see a bit in the trailers. That was fun to design. That was a massive, really dangerous space.
AVC: How do you mean, dangerous?
SC: It’s an untouched ice cave. Spiky, scary. Monarch came in there, and built access to the place, and it’s a big engineering feat that they accomplished—but, you know, there’s no OSHA in there. One false move, and you’re a goner. The monster down there isn’t the only thing that’s scary.
AVC: Was that your favorite set to design?
SC: There were other cool things to do as well. It was really fun [to make the set] when we first encounter Mothra. She’s in China, in another ancient structure you’ll see in the film. That’s got its own backstory. Each monster comes from such a distinctive place on the planet, and they’re all really different. The contrast of environments to create for each of them was a blast to do. That’s always fun for a designer, all of the contrasts.
AVC: Was this all stuff that was being built on sets, then? Or were you working with locations?
SC: It was mostly sets, but we did use a lot of exterior locations. We did some exterior shots in Boston, and then we created an on-the-ground Boston in Atlanta in various neighborhoods. It looked better than I thought it would.
AVC: How do you mean?
SC: Well, Atlanta, Georgia doesn’t look anything like Boston except on one street. It’s so close to the prototypical Boston street, that for the purposes for the scene and our camera angles, we were like, “We don’t have to do this in Boston, we can do this here.” So that floored me.
AVC: So one last question before I let you go: how long is a project like this for you? Years?
SC: This one was typical, it took a little over a year for me from start to finish. The first four months are strictly research and development and designing everything—all the monsters and the environments we made.
Oh, that’s the other really cool environment that we did: Monarch Headquarters. It’s deep under the ocean. [You can see] little bits of that in the trailers, but that was one of my favorite sets to develop. When we start building, it takes months, but as is typical with any film, you build what needs to shoot first and then you keep building as you shoot. Construction and set decoration and all that really doesn’t end until shooting itself ends, because you’re always just a step or two ahead of where the camera is going to be.
AVC: Have there been close calls where you’re not sure if you’ll be done in time for shooting?
SC: Oh, that happens, certainly. That can be for any variety of reasons, and sometimes the shooting schedule gets changed at the last second for reasons of actor unavailability or whatever. We always build a contingency plan where we build a set, or two sets, that are going to be our go-to place if, say, it rains when we’re supposed to be shooting outside, or we’re supposed to switch to [another set] for any reason. We take that into consideration as best we can.
AVC: Interesting. Thanks for talking to me. I love monster movies, they’re my favorite thing in the whole world.
SC: Oh, I’m so glad.