BURNING GODZILLA INTO OUR MEMORIES! Ernest Farino on Creating the Main Title Sequence for Godzilla 1985!

Ernest Farino directs second unit scenes for Frank Herbert’s Dune for the Sci-Fi Channel. Photo © Ernest Farino.

It’s not every day that the editor and publisher of a magazine devoted to Ray Harryhausen ends up working on a Godzilla film. Ernest D. Farino did just that by designing the opening title sequence for the New World version of Godzilla 1985 (1984). He performed the same job on such blockbuster sci-fi films as The Terminator (1984), The Abyss (1989), and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). He also won two Emmy Awards for special effects for his work on Frank Herbert’s Dune (2000) and Children of Dune (2003). In 2006, Mr. Farino revealed all the details of arguably Godzilla’s greatest opening title sequence to Brett Homenick.

Brett Homenick: When did you first come across Godzilla?

Ernest Farino: I don’t remember exactly, but as a “monster kid” of the 1960s, I was exposed to Godzilla via Famous Monsters and other monster magazines of the period. In fact, only the second issue of Famous Monsters that I bought (new) at that time was #30 (Lugosi cover), which had the “Giants from Japan” article about Toho. I probably saw Godzilla on TV during that time. For some reason, I do remember my whole family watching Rodan on TV and quite enjoying it. Later, a friend and I would always catch the new Toho releases in theaters. I recall seeing Destroy All Monsters on a Saturday matinee at the Irving (Texas) Theater. The Irving newspaper would typeset small display ads for the theater, and trumpeted this showing as: “Destroy All Monsters — starring Godzilla! Ghidrah! Rodan! and Martha!” I’ve been a big fan of “Martha” ever since.

BH: I understand you wrote for Greg Shoemaker’s Japanese Fantasy Film Journal. Is that true?

EF: Yes, although not so much on the Japanese films. I left that to Greg and others who were more knowledgeable. I contributed material just as part of the “fanzine” community at the time, and I believe I wrote an article on 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as contributed the title logo Greg used for a few issues. This logo was a kind of dimensional, mirror-image graphic of the letters JFFJ very much influenced by the slit-scan/stargate sequence at the end of 2001, a film which heavily influenced my interest in visual effects. Just to satisfy my curiosity, I even built my own crude slit-scan machine that filled up a two-car garage — but worked!

BH: How’d you become involved in the movie business?

EF: I had received a Super 8mm camera for Christmas when I was in the 8th grade and immediately starting making movies (Dracula, James Bond, etc). In 1968, when I was a sophomore in high school, I had partnered with another guy, and we were producing/directing/filming/editing local TV commercials in 16mm color/sound for clients, including Pepsi-Cola. Simultaneously, I had been very inspired by Ray Harryhausen and had done a lot of stop motion with clay figures, including a short film about dinosaurs as a school semester project and a fairly elaborate half-hour live action version of Dante’s Inferno for a film course in college. In the early 1970s, I co-published a fanzine devoted to Harryhausen’s work, FXRH. I was living in the Dallas, Texas, area but around 1974-5 decided to shift from writing about films to working on them and decided to concentrate on animation and visual effects.

BH: How did the opportunity to work on Godzilla 1985 arise?

EF: I met Tony Randel during production of Roger Corman’s Galaxy of Terror in 1981 (having moved to Los Angeles in 1979). Tony was the visual effects editor on the film, and I was head of the rotoscope/animation department. Later, Tony moved onward and upward as head of post-production for the “new” New World Pictures, and I was freelancing with animation, effects, and main title design. New World was picking up a lot of independent productions as well as foreign-produced films.

For these acquisitions, they would often designate an editorial/post-production team to re-cut the film to better suit American audiences, as well as do the dubbing, possibly add a new music score, and complete a new, final sound mix. Tony would call me from time to time if they also needed new main and end titles (and occasionally some other effects), as well as trailer titles and effects. By then, I had designed and produced several main titles sequences, including the first Terminator movie (with the big steel letters crossing the screen). It was during this period that Tony called one day about Godzilla 1985.

BH: What were your original ideas for the main title sequence?

EF: I don’t think too many alternate ideas were considered. I’m pretty sure I just mulled it over and finally pitched the concept that ended up in the film. The only component of that concept that was dropped was the idea of a blowtorch flame “cutting” the letters into a sheet of rusty steel (as if from Godzilla’s incendiary breath). The basic animation reveal of the letters was kept, but the steel plate background didn’t work. I had gone to a junkyard and found an interesting-looking sheet of steel and shot some tests.

Unfortunately, when I took it to the editing room and we all looked at the test, it became clear that the background wasn’t recognizable as a piece of rusty steel and, out of context, several people even thought it was an aerial photo of countryside taken at 10,000 feet. Given the schedule and budget, we agreed to drop that element rather than struggle to make it work. So the final the effect plays over a black background, which, in the end, is probably more dramatic.

BH: How were they filmed?

EF: All the title reveals and credits were filmed in the conventional way of using B&W Kodalith negatives taped onto animation cells, placed on an animation stand and backlit from beneath, and shot as “hi-con” elements for optical printing. I was doing the optical printing myself at Fantasy II Film Effects and found the fire elements amidst stock footage and optical elements and wipes that they had acquired when Jack Rabin closed his optical house in Hollywood. Rabin, of course, had done opticals and miniatures for many of the classic sci-fi films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, all the way to the ‘80s. In later years, he was doing most of the opticals for Roger Corman. (As it happened, I worked with Jack on the opticals for Galaxy of Terror and my stop motion vampire bats for Saturday the 14th.)

Prior to my working at Corman’s, director Joe Dante had started his career at Corman’s as a trailer (coming attractions) editor. They would often film special elements for various trailer effects or titles. Apparently, at one point Joe filmed fire elements against a black background because the fire elements I used in the Godzilla 1985 titles were slated as “Director: Joe Dante.” In any case, once I had shot the title graphics onto 35mm high-contrast film and had selected the fire elements, I prepared my own “count sheets” for laying out the composites, shot color tests, and then composited the sequence myself on the optical printer.

One amusing thing came up at the end. On a Friday, just prior to running the final composite on the optical printer, I changed my mind and thought it would be better to pre-comp the fire and main title reveal and then, in a separate step, burn in the cast/crew credits onto that element. That original pre-comp would also simultaneously serve as the textless version of the sequence which, as the name implies, is the title sequence without any cast/crew credits; this was a contractual delivery requirement on all films, a dupe of which would be provided to foreign distributors so they could superimpose the credits in their own language.

(In my various travels in Europe as well as seeing foreign edition videos of various films, I have never seen this done, with the lone exception of Ray Harryhausen’s First Men in the Moon which I saw in Italy in 1971. That had the proper backgrounds but titles in Italian: Base Luna Chiama Terra (“Lunar Base Calls Earth”). I think that was the result of the actual foreign titles being done by National Screen Service, which routinely handled a lot of the foreign delivery requirements for the studios in those days).

In any case, I called Tony Randel that Friday evening and explained my plan: I would run the “textless” that night for a (normal) Saturday morning pickup at the lab. I would then shoot color tests of that and prepare lineup counts for the full main title (using that “textless” as a background element) on Saturday, get the tests back Monday, run the final composite (combining the textless background with the cast/crew credits) on Monday, and deliver that final composite sequence on Tuesday.

Tony then did some quick calculations regarding something I wasn’t aware of: New World needed to have a complete “answer print” (final composite print of the full feature) on Tuesday, which meant that I absolutely had to deliver a final (and perfect) composite on Monday morning. If not, they’d have to make special overtime runs at the lab in order to get the answer print finished on time, and all the extra charges, overtime, etc., would cost New World something in the neighborhood of $60,000 (extra). It was hard to argue with that “logic,” of course (especially since that amount of overage alone was considerably higher than my entire main and end title budget), and even though it was more difficult for me to run the optical composite as I had prepared it thus far, I had to resign myself to doing it that way. So I ran the whole thing on Friday night, as planned, it came out fine, and that’s what’s in the movie. (I later made a separate composite of the “textless” version).

Photos © Ernest Farino.

BH: Who else did you work with on this project?

EF: Camera Graphics in North Hollywood shot all the Kodalith negatives from my typeset titles and graphics. Dave Fiske had a company called Animagic in Burbank, which had a Oxberry/Cinetron computer-controlled animation stand. I did a lot of work with Dave in those days, and the title graphics were shot there. I believe the end title “rollup” or “crawl” was typeset and shot at Title House in Hollywood, where I also did a lot of that type of work. (I remember that being the most difficult end title rollup I ever did from the standpoint of proofreading.

With all the Japanese names, I literally had to compare the original typewritten list provided by the studio with the typeset rollup letter-by-letter all the way down the crawl). My friend Bob (R. J.) Kizer directed the scenes with Raymond Burr. Bob was one of the editors on Galaxy of Terror, and he and Tony and I were all friends. Bob later said that Burr really amazed him — Bob would call “Action” on a closeup and, no doubt from his extensive dialog experience from the Perry Mason TV series, Burr would act out extended moments looking camera left, camera right, higher, lower, and each with a range of expressions: concerned, fearful, relieved, etc.

So in that one take, Bob had amassed a whole library of closeups on Burr that could be intercut as needed throughout the story, complete with a variety of angles and eyelines for editing. (This, of course, in addition to specific dialog scenes and other action).

BH: Do you have any interesting stories you can share about this project, or is there anything else you’d like to mention?

EF: Years later in 1997 when I was working at Sony Pictures ImageWorks on Starship Troopers, I drove down to the big San Diego ComiCon on a Saturday. I had received a free pass from a friend with my name printed on the name tag. While browsing at some of the dealers tables, I detected some movement out of the corner of my eye as someone made they way towards me through the crowd. He came up to me, extended his hand, and said, “You’re Ernie Farino — I know your work!” Which, of course, is flattering, and I’m thinking he must mean The Terminator or The Abyss or something like that, and I said, “Thank you…” Whereupon he continued by saying, “Yes! You did the titles to Godzilla 1985!” And I thought, oh, brother — you saw my name tag and all-those-switches-closed to get you to Godzilla 1985…?!

The following Monday on the set of Starship Troopers, I told the story to producer Jon Davison, who is a friend, and he laughed and imparted a bit of wisdom: “Ernie,” he said, “you can’t choose what you’re remembered for.” Which, of course, in the broader scheme of things, simply means: Never do anything less than your best work because you never know who’s watching!

BH: What did you think of the finished film?

EF: I thought it was OK. Frankly, I don’t remember much about it. At the time, as was customary, I only watched the first 10 minutes in the editing room just to get an idea of how it opened and how my title sequence might transition to the body of the film. In many cases, I would watch the whole film in advance, of course, to get an idea of the genre, tone, visual elements, etc., all of which might influence my design. In this case, that wasn’t really necessary, since we wanted to avoid showing Godzilla that soon anyway and thus settled on the graphic title approach. I later saw the whole film at a screening or in a regular theater.

BH:  This last question is for me. Can you describe your work on John Carpenter’s The Thing?

EF: Rob Bottin’s mechanical makeup effects work was getting down to the wire, and there was some concern over whether it would be completed in time. As a backup, Randy Cook was hired to create a stop-motion version of the final appearance of the Blairmonster. Randy then hired Sue Turner to build miniatures, Jim Aupperle as lighting cameraman, and me to build the stop motion armatures. I spent six weeks designing and building the armatures for the Blairmonster and the dog that bursts from its stomach, consisting mostly of very repetitive “sandwich” joints for tentacles. But I enjoyed it because I had full rein over the machine shop at the Universal-Hartland effects facility (nothing else was in production at the time), which was fully stocked and extremely well-equipped with professional lathes and milling machines and everything else, much of which I hadn’t had the opportunity to use before. So that aspect of the work was quite enjoyable.

There was only one slight mishap that I recall: A shoulder of the Blair figure popped out of its socket because I machined the “cup” of the socket too close to the diameter. But I was able to repair or replace it easily enough. Randy animated the entire sequence, and it was quite nice. However, Rob Bottin and his crew did manage to complete all their work so, in the end, John Carpenter elected to keep most of Rob’s work to avoid any noticeable difference in the character of the movement. Nothing wrong with Randy’s animation, but, as you know, even the best stop motion has a different look or “feel” than live-action mechanicals. They did retain a couple of stop motion cuts of the first tentacles bursting up through the floorboards.

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