RIP: Godzilla FX director Koichi Kawakita

Godzilla vs. Biollante
Godzilla vs. Biollante

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Koichi Kawakita, the special effects director who updated Godzilla for the ’90s, helping to spur interest in an American remake, has passed away. Kawakita died on his 72 birthday anniversary, December 5, 2014; the cause of death was liver failure. You can read an obituary by August Ragone here.
Kawakita took over the special effects for the GODZILLA series with GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989), a film which saw a new generation of behind-the-scenes craftsman reinventing the character for a new generation. Directors and writers came and went, but Kawakita remained with the series throughout the 1990s, recreating many of Godzilla’s most famous opponents in GODZILLA VS KING GHIDORAH (1991), GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (1992), and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1993). He also directed special effects for OROCHI, THE EIGHT-HEADED DRAGON (1994, aka YAMATO TAKERU) and the Mothra spin-off series that began in 1996 with REBIRTH OF MOTHRA (aka MOSURA).
Koichi Kawakita, surrounded by his beastiary.
Koichi Kawakita, surrounded by his beastiary.

Kawakita helped return Godzilla to his roots, abandoning the comical hijinx of the 1960s and 1970s films in favor of a more serious approach, with the monster depicted as a destructive force of nature, though not necessarily evil. The Godzilla depicted in his effects work was an enormous beast with shark-like rows of teeth and more facial expression than in the older films; the design of the suit remained mostly consistent from film to film, though it did evolve gradually, the bulky proportions helping to hide the human anatomy of the actor inside. Awe-inspiring and sometimes frightening, Kawakit’as Godzilla was an anti-hero – dangerous but sometimes preferable to the alternative – perfectly suited to a series of screenplays that consistently played around with the question of whether we should root for or against the monster.
Though not realistic, Kawakit’as work was imaginative and colorful, and it was filled with spectacular, memorable images: Godzilla decapitating one of Ghidorah’s heads with a blast of atomic breath; the shock wave of Rodan’s flight creating miniature explosions in the ocean beneath him; Mothra’s wings gracefully unfurling as she emerged from her cocoon; and Godzilla himself going China Syndrome at the end of GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER (1995).
Kawakit’s work was filled with a Sense of Wonder. He brought a beloved fantasy character back to life for a new generation, and his legacy lives on in the films that followed, including this year’s American remake.

Cybersurfing: Was Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion more real than CGI?

Ray_Harryhausen_Clash
Ray Harryhausen animates the Kraken model for CLASH OF THE TITANS (1980).

In an article at Boingboing.net. author Ethan Gilsdorf muses on the recent passing of special effects artist Ray Harryhausen, an event which inevitably symbolizes the demise of old-fashioned analog special effects: miniatures, models, and most especially the Harryhausen style of stop-motion puppetry that brought imaginative creatures to life for decades. While acknowledging that digital effects offer their own brand of artistry, Gilsdorf believes these effects lack heft, gravity, and presence.
Gilsdorf’s point is a bit vague in terms of defining realism and its cinematic value. On the one hand, Harryhausen used puppets with texture – palpable objects that could be touched, lending a greater sense of reality – and this makes his stop-motion monsters superior to today’s artificially created computer-generated effects. On the other hand, today’s computer-generated creations are feeding audience appetite for ever greater realism and becoming so convincing that they will soon be indistinguishable from images that were actually photographed – and this makes them somehow inferior.
So, which is more real, and which is best? Though the answer to the former question is unclear, Gilsdorf’s enthusiasm for stop-motion comes through.
Like many people who address this topic, Gilsdorf has a view of modern effects that is tainted by (an acknowledged) nostalgia for older techniques. For him, the death of Harryhausen represents the death of “real” special effects and of the “real” in fantasy films. “Times have changed,” he insists. “And not necessarily for the better.”
Perhaps, but not necessarily for the worst, either. Today’s computer-generated effects may be overused, but they have solved numerous problems that plagued older movies; in particular, CGI has freed the camera from its lock-down, proscenium arch look that often identified effects in Harryhausen films. Today, filmmakers can create effects-laden sequences that fit seemlessly into the live-action, the camera style virtually identical.
The problem, I think, is that the over-abundance of effects leads to a certain carelessness – not in technical matters but in artistic ones. What “effect” – emotional, intellectual, whatever – is supposed to be accomplished by each special “effect” in the movie? When filmmakers were limited by time, money, and technology, they had to make sure that their special effects paid off with emotional effects. Even JURASSIC PARK, the film that spelled the death-knell for stop-motion (switching from that technique to computers during pre-production) was somewhat old-school in this regard, making fairly economical in its use of movie magic, so that each dinosaur shot really seemed to matter.
Harryhausen animates a snake woman.
Harryhausen animates a snake woman.

I, too, miss the demise of stop-motion as a special effects technique, along with models and miniatures; I believe there are stylistic reasons why those techniques are superior in some situations. However, the same holds true for computer-generated imagery, which gave us, for example, the Balrog in LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING  – one of the most convincing movie monsters ever depicted.
Fortunately, stop-motion lives on in films such as PARANORMAN and FRANKENWEENIE. Hopefully, it will continue to enchant film-goers for at least a few more years.

Video: Le Monstre (The Monster, 1903)

Silent movie magician George Melies uses an Egyptian setting for this short subject in which a skeleton, covered with a sheet, comes to life and dances, then transforms into a living woman and back into a skeleton. Typical of Melies, the presentation is stagy (befitting a former stage magician), and the profusion of special effects gags (mostly jump-cuts to replace the skeleton beneath the sheet with live actors) serve to amuse rather than to horrify.
Unfortunately, the picture quality is not great, but you can see well enough to appreciate Melies whimsical humor.
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The Haunted Castle (1896): Video

This 1896 black-and-white silent horror film from George Melies (the special effects pioneer behind 1902’s A TRIP TO THE MOON) probably yields little gooseflesh for today’s viewers. However, it plays like an overture for the next forty years of horror movie imagery; its brief running time encapsulates such soon-to-be-familiar cinema imagery as old dark castles; flapping bats that transform into human figures; and a brandished cross to ward off the evil being haunting the castle. As always with Melies, believability is less important than amazement – and amusement. Although less overtly comic than some of his films, the occasional whimsical gag works its way in. Unfortunately, the ending seems a bit truncated, but you still get the general idea.
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The Man with the Rubber Head: Video

This is one of many amusing silent short subjects from George Melies, the early cinema magician who pioneered the use of special effects to create imaginative and whimsical fantasy on screen. Typical of Melies, there is little story; THE MAN WITH THE RUBBER HEAD is more of an extended sight gag, in which the special effects serve to render the impossible in a manner that is far from believable – and a good thing too; otherwise, the climactic exploding head would be grotesquely horrific!
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Le Diable Noir (a.k.a., The Black Imp, 1905): Video

This 1905 effort from George Melies may not be as famous as A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902), but LA DIABLE NOIR (or THE BLACK IMP) is a perfect distillation of the the silent movie magicians craft and art. The movie tells the simple story of a customer in a hotel room bedeviled by the titular character. (I actually prefer the term “imp” because of the impish pranks that ensue). An amazing series of gags are squeezed into the short running time – I refuse to call them “effects” because the actions really are a series of slapstick sight-gags that build in the manner of a great silent comedy. Filmed from a single camera angle, THE BLACK IMP at first seems dated in its technique, but ultimately the unblinking and unmoving camera becomes a plus rather than a negative, watching as the action unfolds in real time, without a (visible) cut to telegraph to the viewer (however subliminally) that some kind of set-up has been prepared to realize the next magical illusion.
In short, this is four minutes of whimsical fun that should bemuse anyone with a Sense of Wonder.
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A Trip to the Moon (1902): Video

George Melies’s 1902 A TRIP TO THE MOON is a pioneering work in the history of horror, fantasy, and science fiction cinema. Although Melies directing technique is dated (proscenium arch compositions, with no intercutting of different angles within scenes), his whimsical sense of magic and fantasy continue to amuse decades later. Story elements are borrowed from Jules Verne (the cannon to shoot a space capsule to the moon) and H.G. Wells (the crustacean-like lunar beings), mixed together with Melies’ own imaginative and humorous sensibility, creating a unique confectionary.
This particular video rendition may not contain the most appropriate soundtrack, but it avoids the temptation of many other versions, which add even more inappropriate music, not to mention narration!
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The Magic of George Melies: Roundtable Podcast 2:46.2

man with the rubber head
George Melies blows up his own head in THE MAN WITH THE RUBBER HEAD

Following up on the previous CFQ Spotlight Podcast devoted to Martin Scorcese’s HUGO, the Cinefantastique crew of Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski – joined by special guest Andrea Lipinski – blast off into the fabulous fantasy world of George Melies. The special effects pioneer and cinema magician of the early silent era was the first to realize the potential of movies imbued with a Sense of Wonder, using the camera not to capture reality but to create dreams writ large on the silver screen.
Also on the table for discussion during this Round Table: upcoming 3-D theatrical films and recent home video releases.

Check out the links below to see some of the Melies movies discussed in the podcast.
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'Green Lantern's' Tomar-Re

The DailyBlam.com featured this shot of Tomar-Re from Warner Brothers’ upcoming GREEN LANTERN.
 
Sony Image Works via Daily Blam.com
Sony Image Works via Daily Blam.com

Tomar-Re, Green Lantern of  sector 2814 and eventual friend of Hal Jordan, is a fan favorite of the readers of the DC Comics. Bringing the beaked avian to life was a job for Sony IMage works.
See the linked article for a larger picture and more details.
Back in my childhood, my brother and I always called Tomar-Re “Chicken Head”. This verison looks a little less  joke-inspiring, a credit to the artisans.  
But where’s his mask? All his fellow scientists back on the planet Xudar will know his secret identity!
Tomar-Re first appeared in Green Lantern #6 (1961),  written by John Broome, and drawn by Gil Kane.