Godzilla City

Why Everyone Needs to Watch Godzilla: King of the Monsters

With the recent Godzilla reboot hitting theatres a couple of months ago, there came a desire to once again revisit one of my favourite movies growing up, the American release of the 1954 Godzilla.

King of the Monsters Poster
Over the past 60 years, Godzilla has become one of the best and biggest examples of foreign pop-culture crossover. A movie character that became so popular world wide, there was very little need or desire for international adaptation. And much like cinema, Godzilla evolved with the times to meet the fan base that the fathering production company, TOHO had created with the Godzilla franchise.

Through those 60 years, we’ve seen multiple costume changes (including performers), development in the titular character and his motives as a monster, and crossover movies pitting Godzilla against other Japanese movie monsters (Mothra, Rodan, Gammera, etc.).

Mothra Vs Godzilla
With that much content, it’s easy to forget that original Godzilla film, was considered to be an artistic statement and form of cinema, rather than hokey sci-fi films where monsters beat the crap out of each other.

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At the time of the monster’s conception, the pain derived from nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was still fresh. Godzilla became a cinematic metaphor for nuclear weapons, and told a really great story at the same time. The film instantly became a cult favourite in Japanese theatres throughout North America and Europe, which lead to the eventual North American release of the 1956 Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

Godzilla Poster

Although I’ve seen the original 1954 Godzilla (Gojira in Japan), Godzilla: King of Monsters is what resonates the most with me in remembering the classic. The difference between the two films would be the splicing of footage shot with an American protagonist Steve Martin (played by Raymond Burr), an American reporter following the destruction of Japan as Godzilla, a result of nuclear testing. As Godzilla rises from the Pacific Ocean, he lays wake to everything in sight. With the introduction of Raymond Burr’s character in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the film is provided with a narrator, as well as an observing perspective to the story as it unfolds. Throughout the film, the character Steve Martin provides sympathy and insight to Japan’s destruction and admits his inability to stop such a force, which at the time could have been considered an apologetic response to the metaphor Godzilla represented. What also comes from the American footage spliced into the film is the overall feeling that there is a force bigger than humanity itself. Although Steve Martin would be considered the film’s protagonist, because of the limitations of Raymond Burr’s ability to interact with many of the characters from the 1954 Japanese film, a lot of his screen time is through cut-away medium and close up shots showing him as an observer. Because of this, we’re fed a story through a character’s perspective where their input and actions have no affect over the way the plot unfolds. However what helps re-enforce this effect was the perfection in Special FX that Godzilla: King of Monsters introduced.

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The Godzilla everyone remembers is the man in a monster suit who rampages through a miniature cityscape, tearing shit up.

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Fun. But nowhere near as amazing as the visuals of the original. With everything in the film industry moving towards a digital and DIY approach, a lot of filmmakers and people interested in Special FX have a basic understanding of how things work. For example, using a green screen to impose characters, objects, or add to environments. It’s nearly common knowledge at this point that the subject is lit separately from the green screen, so later the green can be removed digitally. What is left is your subject with no background, becoming a component to another shot. All of this knowledge is a click away, and is not only done in the majority of film and television, but is also practiced by those wanting to learn and those with limited resources. In 1954, not only was it impractical to shoot in front of a green screen (black and white 35mm would make that hard), working digitally with a film was many years away.  Instead, the filmmakers would shoot the exterior shots where Godzilla would stand, then later superimpose him into the shot by layering film together.

Godzilla Hill

During sequences, Godzilla would be seen large as he walks through cities. Cut into the scenes were multiple close up shots of both sets and buildings collapsing and falling apart. This made for seamless editing, as well as the notion that Godzilla was not just a man in a suit, but something larger than life. Another great effect used through out the film is the flame breath Godzilla is famous for.  Right before Godzilla unleashes a torrent of fire beams upon innocent people, the spikes on his back glow in a display that can only be described as badass. Once again, another special effect that could be done easily on the computer today. With stock footage, you throw in some overlay fire particles in a program such as After Effects and you’re in business. However in 1954, there wasn’t After Effects. The effect was created through optical projection, and creating overlay through exposure. As the film was exposed, it was overlaid with drawings of the fire that would then cause Godzilla’s spikes to glow before bringing death to everyone.

Godzilla Train

Simply put, Godzilla: King of Monsters takes some of the Special FX we take for granted in a digital world and flawlessly executes through in camera and editing room tricks.

Lastly, Godzilla: King of Monsters is a staple in cinematic history and for good reason. The giant monster not only headlines a franchise that has been going strong for 60 years, but also helped create and develop the Kaiju genre (basically giant monsters/robots fight each other, breaking stuff in cities). If you haven’t seen Godzilla: King of Monsters yet, now is the perfect chance to. With the recent release of the reboot, not only will you see how one of the biggest movie characters has developed and changed over the years, but you’ll also see the evolution in storytelling and how 60 years can make a difference.



The Scholarly Filmmaker: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Not many filmmakers can imbue ordinary life with drama the way Hirokazu Kore-eda can. The modern master of Japanese cinema, Kore-eda is a naturalistic filmmaker known for getting great performances from children. Roger Ebert once labelled him as the successor to Yasujiro Ozu, which is about as great a compliment as a director can get. Like Ozu, Kore-eda believes in an unobtrusive camera that allows the drama of his films to unfold quietly. That doesn’t mean he’s a sloppy, mumblecore-like director unconcerned with visual style. Kore-eda is hyper aware of visual style. He constructs his shots so as to reveal the mindset of characters that are often psychologically impenetrable.

What his subtly and reliance on visual storytelling does is make the power of his films sneak up on you. You’ll be watching one of his films and notice how the natural lighting and lack of musical score makes the picture resemble a documentary, but then before you know it your eyes will fill with tears, and you’ll realize that what you’ve been witnessing is subtle magic.

Kore-eda started his career working for the Japanese documentary production company TV Man Union, assistant directing and learning the ropes of professional filmmaking. In the early ’90s he directed a number of documentaries, before he made his feature directing debut with Maborosi in 1995. A domestic drama about a widow confronting her husband’s death, the film won Kore-eda the Best Director prize at the Venice Film Festival. He followed up Maborosi with another documentary before directing After Life (1998), which became a critical favourite.

After Life should hold special resonance for any filmmaker. The film takes place in a way-station in the afterlife, where newly dead people are tasked with picking one memory of their life to cherish for the rest of eternity. The workers at the way-station then make a film of the memory, which the dead person takes with them into some form of heaven. The visual style of After Life is full of harsh, natural lighting and static shots that allow the action to play out uninterrupted. Kore-eda also borrows from his documentarian past with various interviews scattered throughout the film. The interviews are meant to be the workers of the way-station interviewing newly dead people on their favourite memories, but Kore-eda opts to interview non-actors in many cases about their real life memories. In some ways, this makes After Life a literal version of the documented memories depicted in his film. It demonstrates film as memory and explores whether a single moment of cinema can capture the essence of a life in its totality.

Kore-eda’s next film was the little-seen Distance (2001), which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. In 2004, perhaps his most celebrated film, Nobody Knows also premiered in competition at Cannes. Nobody Knows was inspired by a real-life event from 1988, where a mother abandoned her five children in a cramped Tokyo apartment. The children went unnoticed by the world for months before the world got wind of them and the story blew up in the media. In Nobody Knows, the fictionalized version of the story, a young, immature mother (You) abandons her four children in a small apartment. The oldest of the children, the 12-year-old Akira (Yuya Yagira), takes charge of his three younger siblings, Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), Shigeru (Hiei Kimura), and Yuki (Momoko Shimizu), paying the bills with money left by his mother and making sure the younger siblings stay inside the apartment and don’t alert the landlord and the authorities to their situation. Nobody Knows is a disturbing film, full of troubling moments of children in danger. The mother, Keiko, is one of the most frustrating characters I’ve ever encountered in a film. She’s completely oblivious to the inappropriateness of her behaviour as a parent, blind to her selfishness and uses humour to trick her children into submission.

What makes Nobody Knows so powerful is how it couples its darkest moments with instances of childlike innocence. Late in the film the youngest girl, Yuki, severely injures herself falling off a chair in the apartment. Just as the close-up of Yuki’s feet teetering on the chair make it clear it’s about to fall over, Kore-eda cuts to Akira in the park watching a little league baseball game. Over the previous two hours we’ve learnt that Akira pines to play baseball and that a baseball glove would be his ideal Christmas gift. The coach of the one of the teams audibly complains about his lack of players, until he spots Akira watching and asks him if he wants to sub in for the game. Akira is clearly delighted to play a full game of baseball, despite the fact that he hardly knows how to throw a ball and can’t swing the bat properly. But that doesn’t matter as it’s one of the few moments in the film he’s allowed to be uncomplicatedly childish. However, as the scene unfolds, the memory of Yuki’s accident lingers in our mind. The sweetness of Akira’s gleeful moment is undone by the knowledge that he is unaware of his sister’s predicament. Soon his happiness would turn to grief.

Not all of Nobody Knows is full of such sadness. There are moments of uncomplicated joy interspersed throughout, such as when Akira finally lets his siblings leave the apartment with him and they go on a shopping spree at the local confectionary, grabbing as many toys and candies as their shopping basket will hold. Kore-eda’s camera swings about the store with the children, capturing the excitement on their faces and the energy of their movement. The joyful guitar score, composed by the guitar duo Gontiti, amplifies the happiness of the scene. It’s a brief moment, but it stands out even more for its isolation amid all the sadness of the film. This coexistence of childlike happiness and grief is what gives Nobody Knows its power. In the film Kore-eda captures the complications of life and how no moment of happiness or sadness exists in an emotional vacuum.

Nobody Knows won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for its 14-year-old star, Yuya Yagira. It remains the best instance of Kore-eda coaxing naturally powerful performances out of non-professional child actors, a talent he would rely on in later films such as I Wish (2011) and Like Father, Like Son (2013).

In 2008 Kore-eda made perhaps his greatest film, Still Walking. An intimate family drama taking place over the course of one day, Still Walking bears the most direct resemblance to the films of Yasujiro Ozu. One of its many strengths is how it conveys so much information through its many cooking scenes. The communal aspect of cooking and eating is very important to the Yokoyama family at the film’s centre. Some characters who are incapable of confessing their true feelings resort to expressing themselves through their reactions to the food or the way they help cut vegetables. Kore-eda is not a director who relies on dialogue to deliver exposition. Instead he trusts viewers to watch the physicality of his performers or notice the composition of his frames in order to glean the necessary information. Such formal control and subtle exposition is also on display in his most conventionally-plotted film, Like Father, Like Son (2013), which won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of the world’s best filmmakers. His films encompass a broader visual inventiveness and emotional spectrum than most other purely dramatic works. He doesn’t rely on typical manipulative filmmaking to give his films their impact. The power of his films is drawn from Kore-eda’s attention to reality, and the way he is able to make his films speak to the universal experiences of his viewers. Kore-eda understands that often the most effective way to connect with a viewer is to remove all the artifice that blocks them from engaging with a film: hyperactive editing, garish camera movements, and manipulative plotting. All that’s left then is simple humanity.


In Conversation with Jay Ferguson – Part One

These days everyone has a web series. All the cool kids are doing it, which probably makes Jay Ferguson the coolest kid on the block. As the creator of Guidestones, he’s been in the digital realm for years now and has had his share of success. As with any story, it all started with an idea.

This guy is Jay Ferguson.
This is the guy: Jay Ferguson.

“The story of Sandi Rai is really inspired by a woman I actually met and her story was so fascinating,” says Ferguson. “I thought, ‘I really want to make a documentary about this,’ and when it looked like that wasn’t a possibility I thought, ‘Well you know, sometimes you can say more in fiction.’”

With the switch in direction, Ferguson didn’t just go to any regular old format. He went to the web. “Right at the time I was exploring this story, I was also exploring the idea of creating the content for online distribution,” Ferguson explains. “I thought this would be a really interesting way to do it, and because of the mix between reality and fiction, it posed another opportunity which is to have an interactive element to the content.”

If there is one thing that stands out the most about Guidestones it’s the interactivity. You can subscribe by submitting your email and you will be sent the episodes personally and in real time as the characters are experiencing it. If it takes them two days to travel somewhere, then you have to wait two days for that episode and join them on their journey. But wait, there’s more: “Every episode of Guidestones ends with a cliffhanger and then somewhere in that episode we’ve hidden clues, like it could be the license plate of a car, and if you google that, it’ll take you to something that we have created to get you a little ahead of the protagonist.”

With the success of the first season, Ferguson and team were able to push not only the story but the interactivity further into the world of second screens. “The clues are popping up continually throughout the series, and the idea is that you could be watching it on your computer and you can be googling stuff on your phone or your iPad.”

guidestones 1

But let’s go back to the writing for a moment. Ferguson was starting this project back in the day when YouTube was brand new and web series weren’t really a thing. “Season one took a very, very long time to build because none of this had ever been done before. There was no road map to follow, it was just like making it up as we went along,” Ferguson says.

To make it an even bigger challenge, the first season roll out had 50 episodes. “So it was 50 beginnings, middles and ends; 50 cliffhangers… Storytelling is difficult and to have to do that 50 times in a row was a struggle.”

Ferguson seems to have learned that lesson. “The second season, Sunflower Noir, is 18 episodes but they’re ten minutes long so in a way it was a little more manageable. Eighteen times instead of 50 times, it’s okay.” Or maybe not. “Actually Season Two has multiple storylines; it’s much more complex in other ways.”

With a thriller like Guidestones, a challenge became making people on their smart phones interesting to watch. “If we didn’t make [the technology] visually interesting, we would be dead in the water,” Ferguson explains. “So I spent a lot of time literally during post production on Season One, a year, and then several months on Season Two, with a macro lens and phones and computers shooting that stuff so it was really beautiful to look at, captivating, and it would work seamlessly into the rest of the storytelling.”

Despite the challenges inherent in any storytelling and with the blending of technology, Ferguson always set the standards high. “With this show, we’ve always tried to push as far as we possibly can to really punch above our weight and I think that we’ve done it in the first season and I think so in the second season as well. We definitely push ourselves until we’re about to fall over.” And I think many others would agree that they’ve been doing so successfully.” We won what I call the triple crown of digital content: we won a Canadian Screen Award, a Digi and a Rocky. And we also won the Emmy of course.”

Not too shabby.
Partying at the Canadian Screen Awards.

Now this interview will be continued  on Sunday, August 3rd where we look at how funding for Guidestones worked and its influence on the story. Storytelling is all well and good but money still makes the world go around. And if you haven’t already watched the show (shame on you), you can check out both seasons here. So check back in two weeks for the thrilling conclusion.