Godzilla makes people scream, and on the morning this year's Oscar nominations were announced, the team behind Godzilla Minus One were doing just that. This time, it wasn't because of a city-leveling kaiju attack, but because the film made history at the 96th Oscars. Godzilla Minus One is the first Japanese film to be nominated for Best Visual Effects, and the first movie in the Godzilla franchise's 70-year history to earn an Oscar nomination.

"I think Godzilla, as a franchise, is amazing, and the nomination speaks to a lot of what Godzilla Minus One is doing for Japanese films and Japanese cinema in general," says writer-director Takashi Yamazaki, who also oversaw the movie's visual effects. "This was a very small domestic production. We even did the VFX with a minimal team, and everyone did their best."

During Sunday's Oscars, Godzilla Minus One won Best Visual Effects, cementing its place in history.

Set in the aftermath of World War II, Godzilla Minus One sees Japan, already devastated by the war, facing a new crisis in the titular atomic titan. When the government refuses to intervene, it is the citizens — including a contrite kamikaze pilot, Kōichi Shikishima (played by Ryunosuke Kamiki) — who must band together to save their city from Godzilla.

Yamazaki got his start in the visual effects world before making his feature directorial debut with 2000's Juvenile. For Godzilla Minus One, the Japanese filmmaker led a team of 35 artists — including nominees Kiyoko Shibuya, Masaki Takahashi and Tatsuji Nojima — who crafted 610 VFX shots on a budget of less than $15 million. Yamazaki is now the first director to be nominated for a visual effects Oscar since 2001: A Space Odyssey director Stanley Kubrick in 1969. (Kubrick went on to win the Oscar.)

A.frame: Godzilla Minus One is the first Godzilla movie to earn an Oscar nomination. What does that mean to you?

The fact that it's nominated for an Oscar is unbelievable. I'm still recovering from both the shock and the excitement. I know it sounds very cliché, but we couldn't even dream of it or imagine it; however, it's true in this instance. We set out to make a very domestic film that would speak to a certain audience — or at least that was what we thought would happen — and how it has evolved throughout its tenure in the theaters is overwhelming. To receive a nomination for that work was not on anyone's radar. We're very thankful for everyone's open-mindedness and the Academy for its consideration.


What you achieved with the VFX is incredible. Did the script entirely lead the VFX, or were there cases where the team realized it could do something with the VFX that influenced the script?

Given our limited resources, we knew we had to maximize what we could do to put the best possible interpretation of Godzilla on this screen. From a VFX perspective, there was some degree of taking inventory of what the team was capable of. Having said that, I never let that distract me from writing a good story, which is the most fundamental component in making a good film. Once we have a good story, we think about what VFX we can do that would put the best spotlight on that story. In this instance, though, there were some exceptions to your point about the story informing the VFX or vice versa. We had a very young compositor — that was his role inside the company — but it turned out he loved VFX. He did some water simulations at home and brought them to the office one day. We said, 'Oh wow, this is some pretty high-quality water simulation!' That allowed me to write in more scenes that took place on the ocean. But it didn't fundamentally change the story, just the ratio of different shots we took. It also helped that I was the writer, director, and VFX supervisor. That meant there were a lot of efficiencies happening within my head, like knowing the ultimate shot and how it would look on-screen, so at every stage of production, we knew that we were inching ourselves closer to that final product.

How important was it to get Godzilla's first appearance right in the sequence where he attacks the airfield? And how did that younger iteration shape the older, post-nuclear version of Godzilla in the film?

When Godzilla first appears in the smaller form on the airstrip, we wanted to show kaijū, but at the same time, we wanted the audience to feel this fear of an unknown being emerging from the darkness. We played a lot with the brightness of the overall scenes, the direction of how we're going to show Godzilla and the performance of Godzilla itself. Thankfully, there are a lot of good examples of dinosaurs attacking people in many of my predecessors' films, so I had a lot of good material to reference. In the first shot, I needed to establish what Godzilla looked like before the fallout, before the effects of nuclear particles and waste. I wanted the audience to understand that this Godzilla would evolve into the other Godzilla, because of what we, as humans, have done. It was very different in size and movement, but certain Easter eggs and breadcrumbs would lead audiences to understand, 'Hey, this is going to turn into that.'

The second version is a very different, much bigger creature, and we wanted to emulate the rubber suit. We also wanted to pay homage to many of the original Godzilla, so we didn't do any muscle simulation, which is very common in animating creatures. The first, smaller Godzilla was supposed to be more creature-like, so we did muscle simulation in that instance. I also think it's more terrifying sometimes when the creature you're facing is smaller, and you can put it in the same shot as everything else. It increases the sense of reality. You can imagine this creature attacking you.


The visual effects are a vital part of the vision for Godzilla Minus One, but what were the conversations around matching the look of Godzilla with the sound design, especially when it came to powering up his spine and his iconic roar?

The sound team did a fantastic job creating that atmosphere and the film's ambiance. Take Godzilla's roar, for example. We wanted to play it in a vast, open space, so we rented a baseball stadium and brought about 10 sound guys. We set up speakers and mics, used the baseball stadium's own speakers, and played the original Godzilla roar. We recorded that roar as it was played through these speakers. The echo and the way the audio bounced created this sense of a massive creature roaring in a vast, open environment. That was fun and very interesting, showcasing Godzilla's size and scale. In some ways, it was so big that we got a lot of complaints afterward from the neighbors who lived near the baseball stadium, saying, 'There's a massive monster roaring near my house!' What the audio team did for the film speaks wonders in terms of how it fleshed out a lot of that visual experience that the audiences will go through during the movie.

The colors and textures, especially in Godzilla's scales and the color of his fire-breath laser, must have been their own conversations. How did you settle on the ones we see on-screen, and how many tests did you go through to arrive at the final result?

There is a modeler who is really good. He's like this monk in the way he has pursued and mastered the path of modeling. It was up to him to help create Godzilla's aesthetic feel, including the skin's color and texture. If you look closely, it's not a simple black; it's more of a brownish color. If you zoom in even more, there's a very complex pattern happening, and this level of detail, perhaps the resolution of both the color and the bumps, makes Godzilla feel all the more real. He used an incredible amount of polygons to achieve that look. For the head alone, it was 200 million polygons. The chest area is another 100 million. At one point, we were concerned about whether we would be able to render this thing onto the screen, because of the sheer amount of data that needed to be computed. Luckily, we employed various techniques to lighten some of the polygons and ensure Godzilla was renderable.

From my perspective, I knew what we were looking for, but he completely blew those expectations out of the water. He likes to work alone, but in just one day, he made massive strides in developing the look. I personally didn't go through that many trial-and-error or feedback cycles, but he must have gotten it to that level. In this instance, my hat is off to our modeler, who came up with the color, scales, and texture you're referring to.

Takashi Yamazaki, Kiyoko Shibuya, Masaki Takahashi and Tatsuji Nojima (Photo by Matt Sayles/AMPAS)

What did the technology available today enable the team to do that was never possible in a Godzilla movie before? 

What makes Godzilla Godzilla is the sheer scale of what it is. To show that scale, how big and terrifying Godzilla is, you rely a lot on its surrounding environments and how the environments react to whatever Godzilla is doing in that space. Before all the digital technology and what we have access to today, when Godzilla was still filmed using a suit, a lot of the physical limitations of a rubber suit implied that it was only the size of a human. That limited what filmmakers could do with things like the level of detail regarding how Godzilla affects its surrounding water or the destruction of cities. If you get too close, much of the scale starts to fall apart, and you lose the sense of its grandness. In the digital world, if we invest more time into it, we can create higher-resolution imagery, and I think that is what we need to do in this day and age to represent a different angle of Godzilla.

We needed to show Godzilla's surroundings in relation to the Godzilla that audiences see on-screen. It's said that water expression is some of the toughest to tackle in CG and both VFX, but with technology now, we can do a lot, even with a very humble team like ours. The level of detail and resolution we invested in Godzilla's surroundings and how it affects it — whether it's destroying the city or causing waves or ripples in the water — really sells how Godzilla can exist in our reality and what the ramifications would be. The detail also extends to Godzilla itself. With such a high-resolution Godzilla, we can have very close-up shots that the rubber suit could not have handled, because the magic would disappear. We could take audiences way closer to Godzilla and, at the same time, also place actors in the same frame with this massive, imposing creature. That couldn't have been done, again, because of the scale. Through technology, we were able to show Godzilla's almost godlike divine nature.

This article was originally published on Feb. 13, 2023.

A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.


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