Look closely and you might even see bicycles stuck to Kong during the Hong Kong fight

Yep, bicycles.

One of the big action sequences in Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs. Kong is the fight between the two beasts in nighttime Hong Kong. In this neon-lit environment, the creatures smash and blast each other, as well as many, many buildings in the process.

MPC Film was behind the scene. The studio built an array of skyscrapers, street paraphernalia and other assets to aid in the destruction. They even included street props such as bicycles, which at one point get ‘stuck’ in Kong’s fur. That’s just one detail shared by MPC Film visual effects supervisor Pier Lefebvre in this befores & afters interview.

b&a: With a sequence as large as this, what’s the first thing your team at MPC Film did to prepare for it?

Pier Lefebvre: Well, the first thing that we did was, we got some previs work that was done by MPC LA. Some of the iconic shots from that previs are still in the movie. But as it evolved, I think that the sequence become a bit bigger, because the director realized that it was quite a big playground.

We used a simple model of Hong Kong, just to create a basic layout so the previs team could animate with this. And then later on, we went to Hong Kong, to do a full environment shoot capture. After that, it took quite a while to build the city. Surprisingly, the city was a bigger character than the characters themselves. You start to animate with cubes, but as soon as you refine it, you start to realize that there’s quite a lot of props and cars. Everything that creates world noise, like a real city, takes a long time to do, much longer than a hero asset, like Kong, for example.

b&a: Tell me about the Hong Kong scanning and data acquisition. Was that a mix of LIDAR, photogrammetry, photography, everything?

Pier Lefebvre: Yes, a bit of everything. At MPC, we have developed a system we call Enviro-cam. It’s a camera system that lets us take 360 degree super high-res tiles that you line up to geometry. For the geometry, we bought this from a survey company. Meanwhile, flying a drone in a city is not something that is easy to do, although it was done. Basically we had a team on the ground that would get access to some buildings.

b&a: Did you also shoot plates or live action for the sequence?

Pier Lefebvre: Yes, there was some live action filmed for some iconic shots, say, the big roar at the beginning, where he’s looking up in the sky, that was a drone shot. Because we could place a drone high enough above the city, where it was not a trap for aeroplanes and traffic. It all has been reworked to some point in CG, because of the monsters, but the iconic shot where Kong has jumped to the building, and he’s throwing the crane–this camera move was done with visual effects supervisor John ‘D.J.’ Des Jardin and the DOP in a helicopter.

b&a: When you’re building a city and buildings that are going to be destroyed, how does MPC approach that?

Pier Lefebvre: The obvious part is that for the building we destroy, we make sure that the interiors are fully modelled, that there’s walls, dividers, there’s all the wiring, hanging rebar. So when you destroy your floors, they just don’t crumble, they kind of collapse and there’s stuff that maintains a piece together. We also add all the furniture that is being sim’d, like rigid bodies, stuff that can just fall down from the building.

We actually had a tool where we have the animation and then when we load Godzilla and Kong, we do a first pass and everything they would touch, that would get packaged in a special package where it’s basically based on collision. Everything they would touch would need to be destroyed. So, we didn’t try to move stuff out the way or put it in the way. It would just create a special package that would be passed to the effects team. And then it would tell them, okay, this elbow is going through, so we need to explode those floors. The hips are pushing this area, so it needs to start to wobble and collapse. We do all the destruction in Houdini. It would start as a normal Maya building and then it gets promoted to a special Houdini package that’s destruction-friendly.

b&a: In terms of the kind of destruction that Adam and DJ wanted when the monsters would hit these buildings, what ‘look’ were they after?

Pier Lefebvre: We did everything we could to get a great sense of scale. So all the city noise, the props, were there, the interaction with the atmosphere. But because of the relentless fight action, the high pace action, there was some ‘force’ that had to be art directed in a way, because otherwise the building would just completely explode. So there was a bit of re-timed simulation to make sure that we could get the drama out of the choreography, to make sure it was not just pure chaos in the destruction.

b&a: How did the neon aspect of the city impact directly on MPC’s work?

Pier Lefebvre: At the beginning of production, we got some cool artwork from Adam and the studio for a futuristic city. I think it was probably designed before the movie makers decided to have the fight take place in Hong Kong. We ultimately used the neon aspect to self-light the characters. The city is its own thing, and it’s quite alive, and it has those vibrant colors. And when the two monsters are walking through it, they’re not obscured by the buildings—the buildings contribute to their lighting. And I think that was the main goal or the brief of the sequence was to make it a vibrant fight.

Surprisingly enough, we didn’t do a lot of lighting changes. So, we finished the city, then we decided on the design of each building and the neon patterns, and we put the monster in, and it was almost done. It was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is pretty cool!’ They’d move from district to district, and we’d get this natural color palette, which was pretty great.

b&a: For the characters themselves, in terms of the animation, I really love that it was kind of this wrestling match often with some POV views. I’m curious about how that was staged?

Pier Lefebvre: We were inspired by MMA fighters and wrestling, and just giving them a kind of constant aggression. Almost like street fights, too. As for the camera, we did some classic POV cameras from the ground level but then we soon realized that for this movie—for the movie that Adam wanted to do—which was more first person, if you’re inside a building or on top of a building, it doesn’t give you always the best perspective to show the action.

For the first movie, director Gareth Edwards was really realistic. It was as if you were in an office building and looking at two monsters fighting. But this movie is a lot more intimate on the monster. So that’s why sometimes we have almost that GoPro camera type of view on Kong’s chest or over his shoulder. It’s really like an action movie, but being seen from a monster perspective.

b&a: Obviously MPC was behind the original Godzilla model from the first film. Did you have to rework it all?

Pier Lefebvre: I think in every movie Godzilla gets slightly more damage. We did give him a few new wounds. I don’t remember the exact spec, but just for the resolution of this movie, we had to up-res quite a few aspects of Godzilla. You basically rework the texture and the lookdev quite a bit, just to make sure it holds up to 2021 standards. We also used our latest muscle system, latest rigging, we optimized the textures, but also up-res them if we need to. We had some close-up in the eyes, so we had to rework the eyes quite a bit. There’s also his glowing energy ‘charge-up’ that in every movie has a different design.

b&a: And then Kong was a shared asset—how did you approach your Kong? I particularly loved the close-up of Kong as the beam is starting to come towards him.

Pier Lefebvre: We obviously had to re-groom him. If you look particularly at his pupil, the pupil dilating, when the light is getting brighter and brighter, the pupils are shrinking, to adjust to the intensity of the light. And because he was fighting in the city, we definitely add our own flavor of, let’s say, he had some metal rebar stuck in his fur. We even put some bicycles in it.

b&a: Bicycles? Really?

Pier Lefebvre: Kind of like street props. He had pieces of lampposts and car bumpers and stuff like that. If you imagine a dog or a cat that goes in the field, they’ll come back with the little branches and piece of weeds. And we imagined if he was the same type of beast, maybe he had other types of crap stuck in his fur.

b&a: Is there anything else about this Hong Kong battle that you wanted to mention?

Pier Lefebvre: The city stands out quite a bit. Our goal, the brief from DJ, was to make it a relentless fight. I remember when we finished watching the sequence, when we wrapped the last shot, you’re almost out of breath. You’re almost like, ‘Is it done now?’ And that’s when we knew we succeeded.

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