Two of greatest icons in motion picture history, the fearsome Godzilla and the mighty King Kong, battle it out with humanity caught in the balance. New Zealand cinematographer Ben Seresin BSC ASC frames and grounds humanity into Adam Wingard’s epic monster movie Godzilla vs. Kong.
Interview by Darcy Yuille.
Some films you think about long after you leave the cinema. Others give you a hit of adrenaline and leave you exhilarated and satisfied from the ride. Godzilla vs. Kong knows it falls squarely in the second camp. One of the first, large scale (pun intended) cinema releases post worldwide Covid-19 lockdowns, Godzilla vs. Kong has almost single-handedly been credited with bringing audiences back to the cinema experience.
AC – Ben, how do you end up working on a film like this?
BS – I shoot a lot of large-scale television commercials. I was on a massive six-week shoot for Emirates Airline – those were the days – and I got a call from Eric McLeod, the line producer on Godzilla vs. Kong. We had worked before on a few projects. Luckily enough I was in Los Angeles for a few days and squeezed in a meeting with the film’s director, Adam Wingard (V/H/S, The Guest). He had started making smaller independent movies like me and that background was really appealing to me. We developed a great connection.
We already had a common language and within a few hours they called me back and asked me to come on board. On these massive productions, having a personal connection with key people is really important. Having a familiar face, and a director who has shot and edited films before, was used to not having a lot of resources and being innovative with his projects made the process a lot easier.
AC – This is a big-budget monster movie. How do you even begin to get your head around a project like this?
BS – Studios have these things budgeted to a large extent before the project is even crewed. When you’re working with large numbers – and I think the budget of this movie was around $180 million – they tend to allocate a number to the visual effects’ budget and start with what they can achieve in the computer-generated area, to ascertain how ‘big’ they can go. Then the challenge is to see where physical production can marry alongside this scale.
Often the danger is, because of the cost of building things in the computer relative to an actual crew of 300-400, computer-generated imagery (CGI) is often seen as easier or more manageable. You end up with films that are predominantly built in the virtual world; the human element becomes an afterthought. The challenge with a film like Godzilla vs. Kong where the two main characters are these huge CGI creations, is how do we get real set pieces with actors to integrate into the computer-generated world.
AC – What makes a project like this work?
BS – The projects like this that succeed are the ones that get this interaction between the two worlds right. That’s where the process becomes complex because then you have to have a high-degree of planning and you really have to have worlds where the CGI and human characters can interact and convey the scale. We’ve all seen the films where characters are put in small spaces, then they look out a window and they see the large CGI world.
For a film like this to work, you need to plan in detail for every scene and setting so that you are reaffirming the scale of the world and the characters consistently, and that each interaction is a different version of that scale. The first thing I generally do is start grappling with this scale, talking to the Director and the Production Design team about that integration, what is real and what will be done in the computer.
AC – This wasn’t your first large-scale, CGI-heavy production. How does a project like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) prepare you for a project like this?
BS – It does help a lot because you know how things can work. It’s a daunting process, you’re creating characters and imagery that are one-hundred feet tall, and it’s not as simple to pre-visualise every sequence before going out and shoot it. You need the ability to ground the shoot on the basis of real filmmaking, almost like you have a camera with you and you are filming stuff for real.
My approach is to imagine I have a little hand-held camera; no crew, no lights, so what would I do? Where will I put the camera to capture the action in the most interesting way. Not to limit myself to that but use it as a true starting point. The Transformers experience was very much from that point-of-view, because we had a tonne of physical effects and special effects that really helped integrate that world and marry it to the human element. I learned a lot in that production.
AC – The film shifts multiple environments; on ships at sea, in the jungle, snow and finally in Hong Kong itself. What was your technique for maintaining scale?
BS – The first thing you have to realise is you can cheat stuff a lot, and you kind of have to. The creatures aren’t the same size as each other, and they are battling. They have to feel like they have an even chance of winning. In a sense, Godzilla has a massive advantage in any way so we ended up arming Kong with a massive axe.
A lot of this is dealt with by the visual effects department department. Once you start building a shot, you realise one of the characters could overwhelm the other, so with the lensing you end up cheating. They are characters that move incredibly slowly to the human eye, so that also needs to be cheated to create momentum and keep up the kinetic energy.
AC – With what equipment did you film?
BS – If I had my way I’d shoot everything on IMAX! We filmed Godzilla vs. Kong on an ARRI Alexa 65, a larger-than-large-format 65mm digital cinema camera, along with DNA lenses. I had used this package recently on a Doug Liman film called Chaos Walking (2021). I love the format, for IMAX’s ‘poor cousin’ it’s amazing. There are lots of lenses available now and the sensor’s beautiful. We also had an Alexa Mini with lenses that recreated the DNA’s feel, a lot of vintage glass.
The Alexa 65 and those lenses really lent themselves to a large-scale film like this. To me, the large-format sensor is just a beautiful way to create imagery. I just love it and the way it emulates the human perspective is a big deal. The way the imagery is communicated on a big screen is hugely important and when you are dealing with a story of this size it really does lend itself to the ‘cinema experience’.
I fell in love with the large format on Transformers, and it would be a pretty particular picture I would not consider using it for. It’s pretty close to becoming an industry standard for this kind of film, and we shot some tests and showed them to Wingard, some comparison tests, and once you see those it’s difficult not to come on board.
AC – Where did you shoot?
BS – We did a bit of pre-production in Los Angeles and then some filming in Hawaii, but did most of the location work in Hong Kong before moving to the Gold Coast for studio shoots.
It was interesting because while we were shooting in Hong Kong, the production team was setting up in the studios on the Gold Coast. It was one of those arrangements that made sense on paper to make those decisions, but with time we found that, even with Zoom and the amazing communication tools we have, there is no substitute for being in the same room as key creatives, or standing in the space. Ultimately it worked, sometimes it was a little frustrating, but we worked through it. I think many people have found adapting to remote work is really challenging, especially now.
AC – Was your camera department local?
BS – I had my U.S. crew mostly, the camera crew travelled with me throughout the job, and then I had an Australian crew in Queensland. I had worked with all my Australian crew before and I would have them on the whole job if I could.
AS – I noticed in your bio that you worked on the classic Australian film Coolangatta Gold (1984) as a focus puller?
BS – That’s going back a few years! It’s funny though, we were shooting on a Gold Coast beach for Godzilla vs. Kong and it was the same one from Coolangatta Gold all those years ago!
AS – Was there a specific look you needed to adhere to from the preceding films in the series such as Kong: Skull Island (2017) or Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)?
BS – No, not really. What’s good about these films is that the studios are somewhat supportive about letting each of these films go in its own direction. Wingard and I were both influenced by Godzilla (2014), and we wanted to ground the audience in experiencing these monsters in the human perspective as much as possible. Being actively engaged in fight sequences was important; it was paramount we had a sense of being anchored with the humans.
AC – Were you involved in the grade?
BS – A lot, I did it all. We went through Company 3 in Los Angeles and Stefan Sonnenfeld (Wonder Woman, A Star Is Born). I spent seven weeks doing the Digital Intermediate (DI), which is unprecedented for me, I’ve never spent that long on a film. It was really a consequence of what happens more and more on these films is the huge editorial changes that obviously affect and impact the visual effects and CGI teams’ work in a huge way.
Productions can sometimes bring changes to a film’s visual effects right up to the last minute, and the consequences of this is sometimes the look of a sequence isn’t quite as polished as it could be. The DI ends up being the last port of call for being able to smooth over any bumps. That said, I do think the huge amount of work you can do in a DI to help integrate the photography with the CGI is often undervalued.
AC – Are there any shots or sequences that stood out for you?
BS – Unfortunately my favourite sequence didn’t make the edit! It’s a great opening sequence with components of the Mechagodzilla character. Dramatically it just didn’t quite find a place in the movie. But in terms of a sequence that I’m really fond of, I really love the opening with Jia (Kaylee Hottle), the little girl, who was connecting with Kong for the first time at the beginning of the film. It really speaks to the marriage of the human element and the monsters. I felt pleased that we got the connection between them, she’s holding up the doll to share with him. It’s a very simple sequence but to me it’s the most interesting part of making these films, building a scene that gets the two worlds together.
At the end of the day it’s actually a really simple film. It was important not to show off with the camera. There is so much going on in the frame, you really want the audience to feel part of the action. For my money, it’s more important to have a sense of grounding and if we achieved that I’d be really pleased.
Ben Seresin BSC ASC is a New Zealand cinematographer best known for his work on ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ (2009), ‘Unstoppable’ (2010) and ‘World War Z’ (2014).
Darcy Yuille is experienced in all facets of film production, from loading to directing and everything in between. He runs a production company in Melbourne.