Godzilla is the cinematic equivalent of a classic muscle car: it's got that old-timey engineering that never really goes out of style. And while it certainly isn't efficient by today's standards—a bit of a gas guzzler—there's still something impressive about the design and accomplishments of the team that put it all together. The whole thing just transcends any particular era's version of awesome.
Hail to the King
Special effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya originally planned to use stop-motion animation to produce the King of the Monsters. He owned an original copy of King Kong that he would watch over and over, studying it to unveil the secrets of its effects so they could be reversed engineered. Unfortunately, that wouldn't come to fruition. While we have every confidence in Tsuburaya's skill, the man was a genius craftsman, he was limited by time and money. Also, no one in Japanese cinema had ever attempted effects like those in King Kong before, so there was a learning curve.
Given these limitations, Tsuburaya went with a man in a rubber suit, and a classic movie monster was born. To give the suit a sense of scale, the special effects crew built impressively detailed miniatures on a set.
Seriously, pause the film on occasion and take look at some of those miniatures. The attention to detail would make even the most dedicated model train enthusiast weep with envy. The Tsugaru Express, to pick just one example, has passenger silhouettes painted into the window.
To maintain the illusion, the film crew shot Naruo Nakajima, the man inside the Godzilla suit, from low angles. This forced the audience to look up at the monster, adding a sense of size, scale, and dominance.
This technique wasn't without its drawbacks though. Nakajima would get so hot inside the rubber suit that he could drain a cup's worth of sweat from it after each day's shoot. And to get the assault on Tokyo just right, the stage was often doused with gasoline and has small explosive charges littered throughout
Accidents were more than a possibility; they were a reality.
In one incident, a stagehand fell through the stage floor and knocked down the miniature National Diet Building before Godzilla could have a go at it. Since the thing was preset to crumble, it went all Humpty Dumpty on them. They painstakingly put it back together, and when they went to shot the scene with Godzilla, Nakajima fell through the stage floor too, taking the Diet Building down a second time. After reinforcing the structure, they were finally able to get a shot, but reinforcements made the destruction look awkward. This is why the crumbling Diet Building is seen mostly through close-ups in the final cut. (Source)
Quality on the Set
Tsuburaya also used old-school composite shots to get images of actors and Godzilla together. A composite shot is when filmmakers shoot two separate shots and layer them together to create a single image, and Godzilla's first appearance provides us a classic example of this technique.
To create the scene, one film crew shot the villagers running down a hill in terror, and another film shot a Godzilla hand puppet, and the two were put together. The result is an image with the villagers running away and a seemingly gigantic Godzilla in the background. Since this was the early days of such effects in Japanese cinema, the shots were done on the same film stock, leaving little room for error.
Another example is Godzilla's atomic breath. To create this illusion, Tsuburaya and his crew hand-drew the eerie light onto each frame containing a long shot of Godzilla's most vicious attack. If you're keeping count, that's hundreds of cells that some guys had to paint, one at a time. Talk about hand cramps.
Finally, let's talk about matte paintings. A matte is a painted location that allows filmmakers to add depth to a set or create a landscape that you just can't get on old planet Earth. Back in the day, mattes were painted on glass sheets and could then be combined with live footage. Examples of mattes in Godzilla include the electrical fence around Tokyo bay, Odo Island from a distance, and Godzilla's footprints incorporated into Odo Village. That last one, in particular, is pretty seamless even by today's standards (Source).
Okay, we've been gushing over Godzilla's special effects, but we'll be the first to admit that some of these techniques can look a little, um, geriatric by today's standards. There are several "see the strings" moments; in fact, when the jet fighters attack Godzilla, you can literally see the strings holding them up.
And that Godzilla puppet with the mist sprayer in its mouth? That isn't fooling anyone.
Yet, despite the age of the effects, the craftsmanship continues to shine through, and the viewing experience remains a pleasure thanks to that hard work. We just can't help bug out over this stuff. And you're welcome to join us.