How this spectacular clash of the titans was made in episode one of ‘Monarch: Legacy of Monsters’. [SPOILER ALERT for first episode]
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, which starts airing on Apple TV+ this week, begins with a spectacular clash of creatures–the Mother Longlegs and Mantleclaw–on Skull Island (the location of the 2017 film Kong: Skull Island, alerting audiences to Monarch’s existence as part of the MonsterVerse franchise).
Later in the episode we also see glimpses of Godzilla’s attack on the Golden Gate bridge, as first realized in the 2014 film.
These monster moments, along with the introduction of vicious Endoswarmer in episode one, were brought to life thanks to the visual effects efforts of studios including Rising Sun Pictures, MPC and Rodeo FX, all overseen by visual effects supervisor Sean Konrad and visual effects producer Jessica Smith.
Here, Konrad breaks down for befores & afters how some of the key moments of episode one were achieved.
b&a: Tell me a bit about the early stages of designing the Mother Longlegs and Mantleclaw confrontation.
Sean Konrad: Well, it was originally a completely different scene. Chris Black had written this script, and [producer/director] Matt Shakman got involved, and they looked at the scene, and we storyboarded it out, we previs’d it, we designed a creature, an awesome creature that I was really in love with.
And then, we go down to Hawaii, where we were going to shoot all the Skull Island scenes, and some other scenes. We were going around all these different locations, and we’re like, ‘Okay, this part works for this part, this part works for this part, and then, we’re going to have a bluescreen here and a bluescreen here and a bluescreen here.’ And then, we realized we were going to go to Hawaii and shoot into bluescreen for 70% of the scene? It really didn’t make any sense, why not just stay home and do it all CG?
And we didn’t want to do it all CG, it’s not the philosophy of the show, we wanted to give scope and everything. There’s a lot of discovery that happens when you shoot in a real location, like, the camera operator can point at something interesting and find a beautiful framing. And we can do really amazing things [in VFX], too, but letting those people who have that experience and talent drive that creative, I think, is often more successful, especially when you have limited time, a limited schedule.
So we’re down there, and we’re not finding a location that makes any sense. Shakman says, ‘Hey, could we get a couple wildcard ideas?’ And so, basically, the locations team comes back with a few places, we check them out, they’re all problematic, from getting gear down, and all this other stuff. Then we get to this location, Lānaʻi Lookout [on O’ahu]. There’s a parking lot right above, so you can park your trucks, and you’ve got this beautiful peninsula of volcanic rock that stretches out into the ocean.
It’s such a striking image on its own–it’s like, well, you would want to shoot this, even if you didn’t have giant monsters on it! So we were like, ‘Okay, let’s figure this out.’ We were standing on the ground and we’re looking at it, and this ground is amazing, and there’s all these little pools of water and sand and rock, and things scattered around. And we’re like, ‘Okay, well, let’s design a monster around this.’ It’s so much of the philosophy of the Monsterverse, of taking the natural world around you, and finding the scary and creepy and weird thing about it, and embellishing that.
We decided, okay, we’re going to have a giant monster come out of the ground, and it’s going to be this sort of a crab, loosely harkening towards one of the creatures in another one of the films, to give a little bit of an Easter egg. It’s like the legacies of the two ends of the franchise coming together, in a way. And then, visually, it’s just a funny, amusing, but also, epic way to start it off as ‘who would win’: a crab versus a spider? It lets you feel like you’re a kid again, playing with toys, but joyful and still scary and consequential in that way.
And so, we shot out there, a really challenging shoot. That location is like a wind tunnel, so there’s this crazy wind, so we couldn’t shoot certain things on certain days, couldn’t get too close to the edge on certain days, because you might get blown off. We had to digitally change where John Goodman’s Randa character is standing, or shoot Goodman against bluescreen occasionally, just for his coverage, to help sit him in.
Then, Rising Sun Pictures did a great job, and observed a lot of detail about that landscape, as well, and details that we hadn’t even noticed while shooting. For example, we showed the director the first time, and he’s like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even think about that, the water coming off the top of the crab as it comes out of the ground.’ Rising Sun and [their VFX supervisor] Marc Varisco did a phenomenal job bringing that together.
b&a: How much could you board or previs or visualize the actual fight that happens on the rock platform?
Sean Konrad: Shout out to The Third Floor and Jourdan Biziou, who took storyboards that got turned in three weeks before we went to shoot, and managed to get a pass of previs out that was really, really good. We had planned all these oners. I was still in Vancouver at the time, and Matt calls me from the location, and he’s like, ‘We’re not going to be able to get the gear down to do the one-er that we want to do, so what if we break these up into a bunch of shots?’ Jourdan re-previs’d and figured that out without boards.
And then, even when we get into post, we’re watching the sequence, and we’re like, ‘Oh, there’s not enough attrition in it, the crab should just win outright, so we have to give a little moment for the spider to get the upper hand.’ So we’re like, ‘Okay, well, there’s that classic shot in Skull Island where the spider skewers one of the soldiers, so we said, ‘Well, it should skewer the crab in the eye, and then, you can let the crab clip the leg, and then, boom, the leg drops down in front of the camera, in front of Randa, and blood is pouring out of it. It’s one of those exciting, organic things that constantly evolved through the process.
b&a: In this sequence, was there something the team or you were trying to do to help visualize while filming these big creatures in frame? Framing these creatures can be tricky, and I think a lot of DPs and camera operators are experts at it these days, but was there any kind of stand in or stuffy or on-set visualization you were attempting?
Sean Konrad: No, especially because the crab that we had in the Third Floor previs scenes was not the final asset at all. So we thought, if we put a proxy object in, it’s going to create a false impression. So in this case it was more about, once you get the post, figure out the eyelines afterwards, and push the creatures further away or closer if it needs to be there.
Also, one of the really smart things that Gareth Edwards figured out is, the monsters should be too big to capture in the frame, and so, if you only get a little portion of a leg, and something else in the background, then that’s part of the fun, just embrace it. We’re telling a human story, we want it to be from the human perspective, sometimes those things are going to be a little bit messy and harder to read.
b&a: I really love the animation on the creatures by Rising Sun. What were some of the things that you wanted to imbue into the characters?
Sean Konrad: Early on, the spider was one of the more challenging parts of it, like figuring out the bounce of the body while it’s moving. With some spiders, their whole torso is kept perfectly rigid as they step, and then you look at a real daddy long legs and it is so erratic. We went through a number of iterations trying to figure out, what is that bounce, and give it a little lean forward so it all looks a little more direct and predatory. The legs should only go out this far in front, rather than super extending, because then, it starts to look off balance and a little wobbly and weird. You want it to feel aggressive and fierce and engaged the entire time.
With the crab, because we’re so in there with it, you’re right underneath it and you’re looking up, it was really easy to lose track of what’s happening in the scene. You’re doing a handheld frenetic camera move, and when something actiony happens, you need to slow it down, capture it, and then you can go back to being completely crazy. Or, alternatively, you can still have the camera be crazy, but the object needs to follow those camera movements so that you can still clock it and make it readable.
b&a: There are those flashbacks to Kate’s time on the Golden Gate Bridge. How were those filmed? Could you use utilize footage from the Gareth Edwards film?
Sean Konrad: I redid the sequence with MPC. VFX supervisor David Crawford led a team there. I worked at MPC on the 2014 film as an artist, and so, it was nice because you knew where all the bodies are buried. I was super familiar with, okay, there’s this tank that should be here, you guys have a taxi asset that looks brilliant, so we can put that right in the foreground, and all of these kinds of things.
We did talk about using old footage from that movie, but we really wanted this to feel like it was from Kate’s point of view. So we said, let’s take the same assets, let’s take the animation style, let’s take the explosions, the same explosion rigs and stuff, and change it. Also, time has moved on, that sequence was originally rendered in RenderMan REYES, and now it’s RIS. So MPC rebuilt the shaders for Godzilla, for example.
b&a: Were you just filming that on partial sets, or was it mostly a greenscreen environment?
Sean Konrad: We shot in a parking lot. In the original film, they had a little bit more of a set build. We embraced the messiness of the traffic. And then we also had really great rain effects on there that just helped us milk out the background so you don’t necessarily notice that it’s not perfectly identical.
b&a: The other thing in episode one which is super fun is that, I think it’s called the Endoswarmer, that attacks them as they’re going up the rope. That was a very fun sequence, too.
Sean Konrad: That’s the pivotal, emotional end to the episode. This is a show where our set pieces are built around the emotional moments of our characters. I find there’s this tendency, maybe, in some shows and features, that the inverse is true, you design your set piece, and then, you go back. It was about telling this story of these two people exploring this plutonium plant, and they’re walking through the rubble, and then, these creatures come out of the ground and come after them.
— New York Comic Con (@NY_Comic_Con) November 3, 2023
That visual effects was done by Rodeo FX, Khalid Almeerani supervised that sequence, with Pier Lefebvre also helping out. We had a little bit of a set piece for the lower section and a set piece for the upper section, and one of the early challenges was, okay, how do we glue these two things together, make it feel scopey? We only built one quarter of the plutonium plant for the upper section, so we had to extend it left and right.
And then, when we actually get into the creature action, we took inspiration from the natural world. I found some creepy stuff from the bottom of the ocean, and then, our production designer Caroline Hanania showed me an image of a beetle that had this really interesting color and texture to it. We said, let’s give that to Wētā Dev and let them build something, and Wētā came back with this concept image and a rough model, which they gave to Rodeo.
The next thing was figuring out how this creature was going to run. Once we put a run cycle on the concept build, it didn’t really work, so they did a little bit of redesigning on the legs to make it make more sense.
The big challenge was, of course, you’ve got to put 1,000 of them into a shot. So then, you do all the stuff that you do typically with crowd simulation, you do a walk cycle, and then you populate that through, and then you figure out collisions and all that kind of stuff. A fascinating thing that Rodeo did for this scene for the crowd sim was, to get the flow of the crowd to be correct, they basically took a bunch of jellybean shapes, put them into a cone shape, used some sticky attributes and dropped the cone, then played this in reverse to get the sense that the hill is building from the outside upwards, and then added crowd behaviours to that general motion.
But they have 20 legs, you’re not going to be able to make all the collisions of the legs 100% perfect. So then, whenever you see them more close up, you have to do hand keyframe animation on top of that.
Then you’ve got to make dust trickle all through the environment, and you’ve got to make rocks bouncing off, and have them get shot by guns. It’s a hugely challenging sequence, and there’s a lot of things that worked in our favor, like really good lighting from the on-set team, but a lot of this is just pure craft from the artists working there.