Creature shop supervisor Guy Himber lived the dream of all Godzilla fans. After growing up as a dedicated G-watcher, he became deeply involved in the film industry and ultimately landed a coveted job — supervising the amazing animatronic effects seen in TriStar’s Godzilla (1998). Mr. Himber’s other SFX credits include such popular titles as Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), Stargate (1994), Independence Day (1996), and I, Robot (2004). In 2006, Mr. Himber was kind enough to discuss his trade with Brett Homenick.
Brett Homenick: When did you first discover Godzilla?
Guy Himber: Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, my friends and I used to have these great shows on Channel 5 (KTLA, I believe). On the weekends (remember, this is before the time of DVDs and easy-to-obtain VHS), we used to gather around the TV to watch two things — old Shaw Brothers kung fu movies and Godzilla! Sometimes they would have grand festivals of nothing but the classic Godzilla flicks. This is where I got to know King Ghidorah, Mothra, and all the other monsters. I loved the cheesy Gamera movies, too (and War of the Gargantuas scared the crap out of me!). We used to ride the school bus singing, “The words got stuck in my throat!” But the Godzilla movies were always my favorites.
BH: What are some of your favorite Godzilla movies?
GH: As a kid, any of the Godzilla movies that had multiple monsters were the best. I get confused as to the official titles, but the one with Megalon, Gigan, and Jet Jaguar was just about perfect. Plus, the idea of Monster Island was always a big deal as a kid. I kept missing the one with the hipster evil alien guys (Destroy All Monsters, I think), and I had to suffer through all of my classmates describing these incredible stories (“Did he just say ‘Baby Godzilla’?”) and having missed it myself the day before. The first time I saw Mechagodzilla, I must have been drooling for a week. And — say it with me — Smog Monster!
Later in life, I started getting bootleg copies of all of the new generation Godzilla films from Japan. These higher-production-value, more recent films were really phenomenal. Lots of respect for my Japanese brothers who put these amazing films together. Some really beautiful creatures in there. I think I have just about every Godzilla film score on CD and the great CD with all of the various creatures, Howl. My son and I have watched the latest Godzilla (Final) Wars film about three times. It was nice to see Zilla (a.k.a. “Tuna-eater”) featured.
BH: How’d you get started in the movie industry?
GH: I read all of the classic mags growing up (Fangoria, starting with issue #1, Cinefex, Starlog, and Cinemagic). I always found the MUFX (makeup effects) work and animatronic articles to be fascinating. I am also a huge fan of stop-motion animation and the Gerry Anderson TV shows. I did innumerable personal projects inspired by these magazines and programs, but never thought I could do this stuff for a living. In college, I was studying industrial design, and a co-student of mine had a connection at Stan Winston’s old shop (when they were in Northridge, I think), and they were working on Leviathan. I took a tour of the facility, and it blew my mind. I made a decision that day. I was going to leave school for a while and see if I could work in the film biz making cool stuff. A week or so later, I brought my portfolio back to Stan’s for Richard Landon to see (one of the nicest guys in the biz, by the way). He didn’t have any work to offer, but he gave me a list of all the shops in town. List in hand, I just started making the cold calls and going on interviews. Soon, I got my first job and haven’t looked back since!
BH: When did you find out you’d be working on the TriStar Godzilla picture?
GH: We were just finishing reshoots on Independence Day when Patrick (Tatopoulos) came walking in with a big grin on his face. He called me aside and said, “I think we just got your dream job” (working on Godzilla).
BH: Were you at Toho when Patrick Tatopoulos’ design got approval? If so, what was that like?
GH: Patrick and Roland Emmerich made the pitch at Toho in Japan. It was a really big honor (many companies had tried and failed before us). Roland was coming off of the enormous success of ID4 and Stargate, and Patrick had rendered these four beautiful design pics that he brought for the presentation. He also went armed with a beautiful maquette (sculpted by Jake Garber, who co-supervised the show with me) to show the execs in Japan. Needless to say, approval was had, and the show got the greenlight from Sony.
BH: You handled the initial budgeting of the film, and Jan De Bont famously left the TriStar project because he thought the budget was too low. How much of a concern was the budget to Centropolis? What kind of decisions were made to keep the budget as low as possible?
GH: After some initial script breakdowns, we knew that we were going to be building some huge stuff. I did a budget based upon a number of items (in assorted scales), and when the dust cleared, we had the following build list:
Mom Godzilla suit(s) in 1:24 scale (based upon man-in-a-suit proportions)
Baby Godzilla suit(s) in 1:1 proportions (these were to interact with actors live)
Baby Godzilla waist-up hydraulic puppet (for crazy strong/fast motions)
Mom Godzilla waist-up hydraulic puppet in 1:6 scale (scale was driven by two factors — needed to support big-scale miniatures for close-up work, and had to be bigger than the hydraulic T-rex from the first Jurassic Park!).
I had lots of talented and experienced folks that I consulted as part of realizing the budget for the show. I don’t recall anyone putting a limit on our creature budget beyond, “Make it great.”
BH: In a twist of fate, it turned out that the Centropolis version of Godzilla cost more to make than De Bont’s would have. Do you know why that happened?
GH: Godzilla is a big movie, (and) needs a big budget! I think Sony pretty much handed Roland a blank check.
BH: You also handled the script breakdowns. What does that involve?
GH: Typically, we are handed a script that a writer has written. It’s easy to type, “Hundreds of Monster Xs come screaming down the hill and do battle with 10,000 army tanks and 100,000 crack troops.”
Now the reality of taking these words and translating them into attainable effects within time and budget constraints is where the breakdowns begin. I try to pull all of the potential MUFX out of a script and refine a list of questions for the producers and directors.
Based upon these meetings, I create a bid description (specific quantities and details of the needed effects). I then put them all in spreadsheets to estimate the labor and material costs of the individual effects. This MUFX budget will get kicked back and forth a few times until we come up with a final build list and cost, and then we contract the show.
BH: What did the shop start-up entail?
GH: We rented a huge facility in Culver City close to the Sony lot. We had to build it from the ground up. Included paint booths, freestanding foam ovens, 3-phase power, etc., etc., etc. We were there for over a year. We also rented a number of nearby facilities during the course of the build as needed. At one point, we had to crane the entire 1:6 Godzilla frame over to the Hughes plant for final shooting (that makes for a fun/scary afternoon). At one point, our creature crew was nearly 200 employees.
BH: What were your duties there?
GH: Scheduling, budgeting, hiring and firing, providing a shoulder to cry on (or looking for someone else’s shoulder for myself).
BH: Describe your work supervising mechanical/animatronic aspects of the film.
GH: In effect, it was like we were working on four or five movies at the same time. Granted, they were all from the Godzilla world, but they all had such different needs and constraints that they each had to be handled as unique problems from one another. We visited a number of potential “experts” to help us with the 1:6 animatronic, but most of these were theme park folks who couldn’t build anything as fast and big as “Big Momma.” In the end, we worked with Bob Gurr for the basic frame and hydraulic design and Don Anderson for the actual construction. We also had tremendous help from the guys at B&T Hydraulic in the design of the hydraulic systems.
For the Babies, we created custom motor drives and controller cards. Dave “G. B.” Kindlon was the lead mech designer, and he is an evil genius that will one day take over the world. He developed some physics-defying cable/motor drives (and pushed the technology of these suits) to some amazing places. Again, a long list of talented folks made my job much easier. I had countless meetings with all of the department heads to deal with numerous problems and concerns that had to be sorted out every day.
Some days were the best ever. Many days were just me yelling into a phone for 10 hours.
BH: What was your working relationship with Patrick Tatopoulos like on this film?
GH: We used to ride Patrick pretty hard on Stargate (it was his first show in charge of a group of crazed MUFX folks). But by the time of Godzilla, he was a pretty seasoned shop owner. He had Stargate and ID4 under his belt and knew that he could let us run the nuts and bolts of the show for him. One of the many things that I like about Patrick (beyond being a phenomenal artist) is his gift to make artistic decisions quickly (and he gets it right 99% of the time). This is a rare trait to find in such a creative guy. It makes everyone’s job so much more smooth. He’s just an easy guy to work with. And he’s very sexy.
BH: Do you have any interesting stories from the set to tell?
GH: One of my favorites involved the hydraulic Baby Zilla. The shot (which you see in the film) involves Matthew Broderick trying to close the elevator doors after they open to a lobby full of Zillas eating popcorn. We pre-programmed the move of the Mech Baby trying to push into the opening doors so that the timing and reactions could all be predictable over and over each take. The one thing we couldn’t program, though, were the reactions of the grip manually opening the elevator doors. On take 5, the grip must have fallen asleep. The doors didn’t open. Needless to say, in the battle of “Mech Godzilla vs. the Elevator Doors,” Godzilla was going to be the winner.
Baby Godzilla came slamming through the elevator and ripped the doors off the elevator tracks! Matthew had this amazing look of terror on his face as the now-real-life-threatening Baby tried to plow its way into the elevator and nibble some Broderick. To Matthew’s credit, he didn’t break character, and there was talk of trying to incorporate the destroyed elevator shot into the final cut (sadly, didn’t edit together).
BH: What did you think of the completed film?
GH: I have a love/hate relationship with the film. I am tremendously proud to have been a part of such a great creature design. We really built some amazing suits and animatronics. How much the audience got to appreciate of our efforts is hard to say. (A great book was put out in Japan that shows all of the behind the scenes sculpting, molding, painting, etc. Get your hands on it if you can.)
The film itself is a little hit-or-miss in its story focus. A lot of sub-plots just didn’t go anywhere. And among some of the great actors in the feature (Hank Azaria, Jean Reno, etc.), there were some questionable casting choices for key roles (in my humble opinion!).
When Godzilla was about to be released, Sony sort of over-hyped it by not showing Godzilla (just sort of teasing everyone with bits of the design) , and I think it worked against them in the end. No film was ever going to live up to the hype-machine monster that Sony let loose on our city.
BH: Can you tell us anything about the sequel that was going to be made?
GH: I don’t recall ever seeing a completed script, but I remember talk of having Big G face a new monster threat (more like the traditional Godzilla format).
BH: What did you think of the experience overall?
GH: Any chance to build cool stuff is going to be a great experience.
Rarely are we given so many resources at our disposal (and so much talent to realize our build with). Sadly, I think the golden days of big hydraulic characters are probably through, so it was nice to get a chance to build something so big when we did. The suits themselves are still some of my favorites.
We have also had the privilege of hosting many a visiting Japanese creator (from the original series), and it has been great to have them show so much interest in our “Zilla.” I am glad to have been a small part of the Godzilla universe.