Godzilla: The Cinematography of Seamus McGarvey

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“I think people just see cinematography as being about photography and innovative shots and beautiful lighting. We all want our movies to look great visually, to be beguiling and enticing, but I think that what really defines a great cinematographer is one who loves story.” – Seamus McGarvey, IFTN

Seamus McGarvey was contacted by an executive producer he had recently worked with on The Avengers; she told him about a project she had been involved with, being directed by a guy named Gareth Edwards. Seamus took the time to watch the only other film Gareth had done at that point: an small-budget indie film called Monsters. He was not just impressed by how well the director executed the making of the film while also being in charge of the visual effects and cinematography; he was impressed by the storytelling of the film, as well. For Seamus, it was refreshing to see a monster movie that approached monsters in such a suspenseful manner, like the classics it was so heavily inspired by. The cinematographer signed up and got on board to work with Gareth Edwards on his second project: Godzilla.

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Though he’s been nominated twice for Best Cinematography by the Academy for Anna Karenina and Atonement, Seamus McGarvey’s had his fair share in shooting blockbuster epics, as well. When he shot The Avengers, the crew started off shooting in real 3D. The problems that format brought up, however, resulted in the idea being short-lived. Each time the lens needed to be changed, the process took 45 minutes, and aligning the cameras up proved to be a complete burden. According to Sean, even Samuel L. Jackson and Stellan Skarsgård threatened to leave if the crew didn’t get their act together in time.

While The Avengers and Godzilla were both post-converted into 3D for release, Seamus now speaks actively against the format. Moving away from the technical difficulties it brings up, the cinematographer also notes that he prefers shooting film with the inherent flatness it already brings. He likes being able to work with lighting cues, depth, and tone; shooting in 3D ultimately diminished the process. Though Godzilla was released in 3D, Sean and Gareth filmed it without that in mind.

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This was the first time the story of Godzilla was truly being approached from a Hollywood perspective (yes, including the one with Matthew Broderick). Gareth Edwards, a young director who had never done a big-budget film before, knew the pressure that came with taking on a project like it. What he had going for him was not only his ability to prove that he knew how to approach a story for a monster film, but that he was a nerd at heart. As a fan of the Japanese films, Gareth decided to make this project the Godzilla movie he’d always dreamed of being able to see. Seamus McGarvey, a cinematographer who puts storytelling at a high level of importance when it comes to working behind a camera, shared that vision. At that point, it was certain that the two filmmakers would approach Godzilla in a way that many don’t go towards anymore when it comes to movies like this. Gareth and Seamus wanted this film to feel completely different.

“I love the enhanced naturalism in the cinematography of Haskell Wexler, ASC; Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC; Chris Menges, ASC, BSC; and Chris Doyle, HKSC. There is deceptive simplicity in their approach, which always promotes the story rather than being spectacular or beautiful just for the sake of it.”

What sets apart Godzilla from other monsters? Why is it that Godzilla has been an icon for sixty years now, even receiving a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame? When the original 1954 film was released, it came merely years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Back then, film producers weren’t allowed to depict the bombs at all. What resulted instead was Gojira; the monster served as a direct metaphor to the bombs themselves, and became a harrowing symbol of destruction. Godzilla was a reminder of the consequences that can come from the arrogance of human nature.

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Countless scenes are shot over the shoulders of onlookers in the film. And each shot that’s taken puts the people in scale to what’s happening in front of them. In reverse, we’re shown shots of people simply staring in a mixture of amazement, wonder, and horror. Everyone we see in the film is helpless, and fate is ultimately in the hands of what results from a fight between the forces of nature that we call monsters. At the end of the day, that’s how Gareth and Seamus wanted to approach their film: Godzilla is an unstoppable beast, and all we can do as people is look on in fear as our world is destroyed by the clash of titans who may not even be aware of our existence.

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The size of the beast itself is why the film is shot from only human perspectives. You’ll notice, watching the film, that almost no shot is taken of Godzilla or the opposing monsters from an outside point of view. When we see Godzilla, we see him from the ground. When we see him in the air, we see him like we’re the helicopter circling around him. What Seamus McGarvey wanted to evoke from the cinematography he implemented was not only amazement, but panic. What we’re seen is disaster that would scare us; it would make us run only after pausing in sheer disbelief at what was going on around us.

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One memorable moment in the film is a sequence in which soldiers are sent into the city via HALO jump; while falling into the city, we see the main character’s point of view: below him is complete hellfire, and he’s headed straight into it. he makes his landing, we don’t see clear shots at all: we see ourselves falling straight past the mouth of Godzilla himself, fire and flares being the only thing lighting him up as he fights two giants. When the soldiers land, we find ourselves in the middle of the monsters themselves, and see the titular character behind a wall of smoke; the clear look at him gone as soon as the soldiers get out of the way and onto their mission.

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A notable thing to mention here is that the film was shot in anamorphic. Normally, for a movie like this, it’s more preferable to shoot in a fuller-screened format. The Jurassic Park films were filmed in 1.85, themselves, keeping in mind that the dinosaurs would be pretty large when a person is in the shot. Instead, Gareth Edwards chose to film anamorphically because he rathered the idea that Godzilla be shown in fragments. From when the soldiers landed into the city and onward, what we’re given of the monsters is through the perspectives of the soldiers: only fragments of the chaos happening above us, which as all that can be seen from the perspective of someone so small.

“Even when we were in close proximity, we were shooting anamorphic via a letterbox, cinemascope frame, which prohibits a tall shot of close quarters of Godzilla. But Gareth really loved the idea of having Godzilla truncated in pieces so there was a lot of mystery. For the night photography, we actively employed fuse and smoke, lighting effects, fire, so that Godzilla was revealed elliptically and sporadically. The big reveal of the beast actually comes relatively late.” – Seamus McGarvey, IFTN

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Another shot heavily used in the film is the main point of focus being seen through windows. Along with Godzilla comes another element: complete disaster. Many of the shots we’re shown are seen the same way many people witness public catastrophes: through the windows of their homes and offices, or through the screen on their television set. (SPOILERS: There’s a notable moment in the film where the first fight between Godzilla and a monster itself is hilariously only shown through a CNN report on the TV).

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My personal favorite moment of the film was its sequence at the Golden Gate Bridge. An army of soldiers are shooting at Godzilla, at that point towering over the bridge from the water, and we’re shown the entire thing from the window of a school bus; the roars of the beast are nearly drowned out by the screams of frightened children.

“When we see things from the human’s perspective on the ground, there’s a sense of urgency and anticipation about what is going to happen, so the camera has a kind of personality as it too is in shock and awe at it all. There wasn’t grace to the photography, it was panic.” – Seamus McGarvey, IFTN

What ended up being the most challenging part of the film for both Seamus McGarvey and Gareth Edwards was the fact that while shooting it, Godzilla didn’t exist at all. For every one of his shots, they had to be practical with how to angle and position the camera; they had to measure out how tall he would be at a certain distance, and they had to measure how the camera would be focused for the actual shot. Along with storytelling, another thing Seamus held important was keeping on the same foot with visual effects artists. The cinematographer worked on the CGI with the artists every step of the way; in order to make the final image come to life, the lighting and – well, cinematography of the monsters themselves had to be in line with the cinematography of the actual footage. The fact that Gareth Edwards was a cinematographer as well as a director for his last movie only pushed his involvement there, as well.

What surprised Seamus was the fact that even though the film called for some heavy CGI, considering the titular monster itself was animated, the shooting process had a lot less green screen than he thought it would. The most demanding sequence in that regard was the Golden Gate Bridge sequence; because of how kinetic the shots would be from the panic on the road, the scene had some heavy CGI work implemented into it; even then, the road itself was built by hand.

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Ultimately, Godzilla was a film shot differently from the disaster-ridden footage we see in blockbusters today. When the plot of the film took to nightfall, scenes were shot with flares being thrown to light the chaos that happened. Lighting and fire were all that would be used to reveal the beasts as they fought at the film’s climax, and in the daytime we would see the footage of the aftermath. What we didn’t see, and what many people complained of, was the destruction as it took place. What we instead saw, for most of the time, was what was left behind by the destruction that Godzilla and the monsters caused; the same images that we’d see on the news when Katrina happened, or when the earthquakes of Haiti and Japan occured. Godzilla was a monster movie shot by Seamus McGarvey from the perspective of people at the mercy of a force of nature; and when confronted by nature itself, we are small and insignificant.

Further reading:
Rope of Silicon
IFTN
Wikipedia