I Was A Baby Godzilla!
In the Pittsburgh vintage toy store Groovy, Preston Simpson is going gaga over some plastic Godzilla action figures. His enthusiasm for the mighty lizard extends further than your average moviehound's.Simpson recently appeared in the new Godzilla film. He didn't have much of a speaking part -- in fact he doesn't actually say a word. And even though he gets a lot of screen time, you wouldn't recognize him no matter how many times you see the film.Even Simpson isn't quite sure how to describe his role. "My contract listed the part as 'Baby-Zilla,'" he says. "In the credits, we're listed as puppeteers, and in some of the press materials we're called suit performers."Kurt Carley, also from Pittsburgh, played Momma Godzilla, and Simpson's brother Brian played another Baby-Zilla, making a total of three native Pittsburghers earning livings as gigantic reptiles. Brian was the original stunt double in the Predator movies, and has done extensive stunt and suit work. Carley was the plant in several stage versions of Little Shop of Horrors, and that credit got him into the film.Simpson was visiting his brother for what was intended to be a week-long vacation when Brian told him the film needed another Baby-Zilla. He joined some others at the audition, which required being videotaped moving around on the stilts used for the costumes.A bit of friendly sibling rivalry helped him snag the part. "I was with my brother there, being very competitive," he explains. "He had been on the stilts before so he was running around. Of course I'm running around, on my first day, jumping on things, and they say, 'Hire him!'"With recent advances in technology, the process of creating Godzilla has become more complicated. Gone are the days when you can zip an actor into a suit and have him tromp around smashing balsa wood reconstructions of Japan.First there was research into the physicality of the movement -- which was not, by Simpson's admission, all that strenuous. "We actually got paid to watch video tapes of different lizards," he recalls. "Some we watched at home, some we watched there with feedback."Soon actual participation began. "During our training, we did all kinds of tests and practice. Someone would try out a movement, then everyone else would imitate it."Although the idea of a handful of grown men coaching each other on reptile simulation techniques sounds like one hell of a party, the fun and games soon evolved into incredibly hard work. The full costumes each weighed in at 180 pounds, and the actors inside stood on stilts cast to their legs, made by a one-legged man who constructs prosthetics for a living. During rehearsal, the actors trained with poles to get gradually accustomed to the weight.Once in the costume, video cameras were used for instant feedback, because, says Simpson, "when you're in the suit and you move around, you don't know what it looks like until you get out of it."Getting inside the suit with the help of several dressers was a 30-to 45-minute process-"when we were really fast"-and getting back out took 15 minutes.For filming, there were a few variations. "We had lockdown legs-two legs set into position-and we would sit inside and move the upper body around, and then we also worked with one leg set and one leg that would move for different shots so that we could stay in there longer," Simpson says.The fully movable suits were even more complex. Covered in handpainted rubber, the main section contained a large backpack with equipment. This made up the head, torso and tail, with stilts fitted into the legs, and a stand for the actors to rest on.The tail held the battery pack and motors, for the puppeteers to enhance the motion beyond the actor's range. The feet had rubber pads with movable toes controlled by a spring, and the arms were long gloves with cables, which the actors animated themselves.The heads were three meters long and cast to fit each actor. Inside was a video monitor, enabling the actor to see himself in the camera shot with one eye. The other eye saw through the breathers in the costume down to the floor."You can see the shot and you can see the floor, but you can't see right in front of you," says Simpson. "It's kind of like writing your name backward in a mirror, and it takes a while to get used to that."But that wasn't the only tricky part. "You're up on stilts, so your feet are a few feet off the ground. Instead of the stilt going straight down, it goes at a 45-degree angle. The position you're in is kind of like this." He stands, with knees bent, body bent at the waist with his chest above his knees. His elbows are bent and his hands by his chest. Kind of like someone getting ready to dive into a swimming pool, except with arms curled up, and inside a 180-pound rubber costume for hours at a time.Inside the suit was a breathing tube with a fan that sucked in air-although, says Simpson, "most of what it sucked in were the smoke effects from the set." There was also a walkie-talkie system with the microphone always on, so everyone could hear lots of "Oh shit, this damn costume!" from the actors.Simpson spent his first day of shooting inside the suit for five and a half hours. "It takes an awful lot of energy and patience, plus you're on stilts. That's the longest you ever went without a break, a break meaning they open up the back and give you some air."The film shot from last June to September, with five to 10 seconds of film requiring up to 80 takes. After the grueling shoot, Simpson headed off to backpack in Peru. And that's where his brother tracked him down to tell him he was wanted back to do the motion capture work.Motion capture is a computerized form of animation, used in many CD-ROM video games, where the animation is done over tapes of an actor's movement. For Godzilla, new software was created by Vision Art that animates the movements instantaneously."I wore a unitard with 72 different strobers [devices that translate movement from the body to the computer] and had a visor so I could see the computer monitor," Simpson says. The running shots were done this way, as the suits were too heavy and awkward to allow for much acceleration. They spent a month perfecting things."I was on a giant treadmill all day," says Simpson. "It's very exhausting; you have to be crouched down in that low position, with your hands curled up, and your head making lizard motions, while you're running."Besides the physical exertion, he adds, "It was a fascinating experience because of the technology. While you're running, you're looking at your own image as the Baby. It looks like you're inside the suit." The motion capture work is not seen in the film, but serves as the guideline for the computer graphic imagery.Spending months running on a treadmill or stuck inside a sweltering, 180-pound suit with rubber three inches from your face isn't most people's idea of a great time, but Simpson enjoyed his work. "The entire crew and everyone involved was wonderful. It was my first time on a big film, and it was a great experience," he says. "When you have a crew of people working together, there's a relationship. Everyone's concerned for everyone else. They want us to make the suit look good, so they want us to be comfortable so that we can do our job."He says he's happy with the results, although he hasn't yet seen the complete studio release. "For people who are old Godzilla fans, obviously it's not like old Godzilla, it's like a real living creature. I don't think anybody will be able to tell there are guys in suits. If you know it you know it-but to watch it, you would think it's all computer animated."Though he had fun with Godzilla, Simpson admits it's not going to be his artistic statement to the world. He went to NYU for theater and Point Park College for dance and attended Nikolai Lewis Dance Lab in New York for choreography. He also worked on Sesame Street Live-his only experience in suit performing before Godzilla. He did Starlight Express on the national tour and in Germany and helped direct the Vegas show. Most recently he directed in Berlin. Given these credentials, one wonders what brought him back to Pittsburgh."My family's here, I love Pittsburgh, the people here are great and there's a lot of really good things happening," he says. "Just because you're in New York or L.A. doesn't mean you're good."