When science collides with geekdom, things get niche-y. But creature features have long been part of SDCC, and this year I attended a panel that brought a 1950s favorite forward (“The Science of ‘Godzilla Singular Point'”) and another panel that talked about how new creatures for modern features were made (“The Making of Heroes, Monsters and Villains in Visual Effects”). These were both smaller, uncrowded panels, but well worth attending.
The Science of “Godzilla Singular Point“
An epidemiologist, a geo biologist, a paleontologist, a mathematical physicist and an astrophysicist walk into a room, and give a pretty specific discussion about both Godzilla. This panel was for the crowd that loves Godzilla as he once was and definitely hates the Matthew Broderick 1998 oil that favored a Godzilla that seemed too much like a “Jurassic Park” franchise dinosaur. The point of the anime “Godzilla Singular Point” is that after Shin Godzilla, there was an effort made to make Godzilla more scientifically believable, according to moderator Nikhil Shah. That made sense to me because that Shin Godzilla tail seemed to be a creature unto itself. It made no sense in terms of biological structure and kinetics. You might wonder why it matters because if you love the original Showa-era Godzilla, you’ll already know, as one panelist put it, “The old Godzilla movies were fun but the science was a little off.”
The panelists were: Debesh Das (epidemiologist, @FreshestDebesh) at St. Johns, Cecilia Sanders (geobiologist), Trevor Valle (paleontologist, @tattoosandbones), Spiros Michalakis (mathematical physicist. @quantum_spiros), Erin Macdonald (astrophysicist) and Nikhil Shah (moderator, @grandmastershah). The discussion covered the scientific concepts in “Godzilla Singular Point,“ including the themes of physics, time travel, infectious gases, chaos theory, quantum computing, and the biology of the kaiju on the show.
Das received his Ph.D in 1997 from Jadavpur University and is currently a professor in the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Jadavpur University in India.
Sanders is a Ph.D. Candidate in geobiology at Caltech, in Pasadena. She holds an MS in planetary science from Caltech and a BA in Earth and planetary sciences and astrophysics from Harvard.
Valle is a contract field paleontologist who has served as an on-camera expert and consultant for National Geographic and the History Channel.
Spiros Michalakis is a mathematical physicist at Caltech. He currently is the outreach manager and staff researcher for the Institute for Quantum Information and matter, a National Science Foundation Physics Frontiers Center at Caltech. He was the scientific consultant for “Ant-Man,” “Doctor Strange,” “Captain Marvel” and “Avengers: Endgame.”
Erin Macdonald earned her Ph.D. in astrophysics from the university of Glasgow and is the science advisor for the entire Star Trek franchise and is a writer/producer on science based in Los Angeles.
Moderator Nikhil Shah is an immigration attorney based in Los Angeles whose practice includes asylum and refugee law and federal court litigation. How doesn’t this apply to Godzilla? Ever wonder what would happen to the people displaced by Godzilla and Kaiju destruction? (“Godzilla and the Refugees Created by Kaiju Destruction,” October 14, 2019). Or what about Japanese tourist caught in the US or Mexico during a Japanese kaiju disaster? (“Could Japanese Tourists in the US and Mexico Successfully Apply for Asylum during a Kaiju Rampage in Japan?” November 3, 2019).
Having watched three episodes of “Godzilla Singular Point” (now streaming on Netflix), I can say, you don’t have to understand physics, quantum computing or chaos theory to enjoy the show. But there are deep levels that you’ll appreciate if you do. Michalakis said, “I think ‘Singular Point’ is singularly amazing as a show. The second time I watched it, I thought this was a mix between poetry and mathematics.” I was a top student in math during my first year of high school but I haven’t taken math since then, so I’ll have to trust the guy who is a scientific consultant for Marvel on that.
Sanders noted, the anime was “an interesting intersection with the field of geo biology and geochemistry which I feel is possibly never depicted on screen.” Sanders studied the transition from single cell organisms to more complex organisms. Singular point has a recurring theme that things might not work the same in a different dimension. The one-hour discussion touched on wormhole, time machines, “Jurassic Park” dinosaurs, birds (and their proper cooking temperatures). While I understood Trevor Valle’s point about the T-rex and the swinging balance between the tail and the large head, I didn’t quite follow Spiros Michalakis’ points about worm holes, time machines and anything quantum. There was a disagreement on whether Godzilla should run hot or cold but that’s something that came up toward the end of the panel.
The Making of Heroes, Monsters and Villains in Visual Effects
Jordan Soles, VP Technology & Development, for Rodeo FX took us behind the scenes of the television series: “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” “Stranger Things,” and “The Witcher.” Most of the video and assets shown during the panel were confidential and not to be videotaped.
The previous Pixar panels that I’ve attended at D23 Expo showed a different approach to character development with research, sketches and Marquettes as a progressive development all done in house and refined during different team meetings, but in Soles’ presentation, the studios came to Rodeo FX with the concept art and the team at Rodeo FX which is based in Montreal, Canada worked on 3D concepts and considered different movements that were then shown to the client and developed through trial and error.
First you have an asset that must be modeled. That’s the basic object, but that needs to be groomed, like having a digital hair stylist. Textures and colors are added to the motel. Then shading. Then there’s rigging, where the joints, bones and tendons are defined. All this must be done before testing. For the actual shot itself, that involves a layout or the creation of a digital set. The animation must be blocked. The creature FX department must also create the wind or atmospheric movement caused by the creature’s action. There’s lighting and compositing the scene.
Soles took us through something that didn’t require a creature: the train scene from “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” The fight scene on top of the moving trucks was too dangerous even for the stunt doubles. The actors, including the Falcon, are all CG. Eventually, even the background forest isn’t real in the final composited scene.
Creating exploding rats for “Stranger Things” was also something almost normal, but you need many rats and there are different ways living things can explode.
For “Stranger Things,” Rodeo FX also created new monsters: the Demobats. Studying YouTube videos of actual bats, the animation team created flying patterns. When the Demogorgon was brought back for the pit fight in the Russian prison, the Demogorgon was going to be fully exposed. Remember, previously, the Demogorgon was seen at the end of Season Three in the prison, but it was just a glimpse. In this scene, it would have to fight, kill and move between actors. The original concepts had to be enhanced, and so the face, claws and movement were updated. Rodeo FX received the shot with the actors flying around, and fighting air, giving them a clear picture of the choreography. They played with speed and used snowflakes to illustrate the movement of its arms and its feet.
Similarly, in “The Witcher,” when Henry Cavill’s Gerald of Rivia fights the centipede-like Myriapod (Season Two, Episode Three, “What Is Lost”), Rodeo FX received scenes of Cavill fighting, without even a tennis ball to focus his attention. The team then enhanced Cavill’s performance with a complete CG creation. For Eskel Leshy (Basil Eidenbenz), there was a performer’s face, but that had to become part of a creature. Eskel is a Witcher at Kaer Morhen and a friend of Gerald, but he becomes infected by the Leshy and is transformed into one, forcing Gerald to kill him (in Season Two, Episode Two, “Kaer Morhen”). Both creatures required the animation and rigging departments to interpret how these creatures might walk and interact with their surroundings and how each would kill.
Soles, when queried, noted that Rodeo FX uses the industry standards: Maya, Adobe Substance 3D painter and the VFX and film editing software Nuke. Even though they create things that clients might see, they can’t necessarily reuse them because it is highly likely that the technology has changed too much. In the case of their hippo for Tarzan, when they made a hippo for “Jumanji,” Soles noted “the idea was completely different.” For “The Legend of Tarzan” (2016), it was a matter of realism. For “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” (2017), the hippos were supposed to be “demonic.”
Awards Rodeo FX has received that included at least one employee are an Academy Award for “Rango,” and a Creative Arts Emmy for “Game of Thrones” (Season Four, Episode Ten: “The Children”). This year, Rodeo FX has been nominated three times for the Emmy Awards in Outstanding Special Visual Effects for “Foundation” (Apple TV+), “Stranger Things” (Season Four) and “The Witcher” (Netflix).