Search form

Kaiju VFX Are All the Rage – and Then Some in ‘Monarch: Legacy of Monsters’

VFX supervisor Sean Konrad helped deliver over 3,000 ‘giant’ shots on the highly acclaimed Apple TV+ series with the ‘monstrously’ talented artists on his in-house team and at Rising Sun Pictures, Rodeo FX, Framestore, FuseFX, Outpost VFX, Crafty Apes, Wētā FX, MPC, Storm Studios, Vitality VFX, BOT VFX, Mr. Wolf, Scarab Digital, The Third Floor, Proof, and MPC Visualization.

Kaiju lovers, rejoice! You can find iconic giants like Godzilla and King Kong, as well as new additions to the MonsterVerse such as the Ion Dragon, in the highly acclaimed AppleTV+ series, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters.  Creators Chris Black and Matt Fraction have teamed with Legendary Entertainment, Toho Company, and Warner Bros. Entertainment to respect the timeline established starting with Godzilla (2014) while filling in the narrative gaps surrounding the founding and current state of the mysterious organization, Monarch, mandated to protect the world from Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs). 

Given the task of bringing the series’ monsters to cinematic life was the visual effects department overseen by VFX Supervisor Sean Konrad, who worked with Rising Sun Pictures, Rodeo FX, Framestore, FuseFX, Outpost VFX, Crafty Apes, Wētā FX, MPC, Storm Studios, Vitality VFX, BOT VFX, Mr. Wolf, Scarab Digital, The Third Floor, Proof, MPC Visualization, and an in-house team to create over 3,000 shots across the first season’s 10 episodes.  “Toho isn’t involved in any of the new creatures, but for Godzilla, they give general guidance for things that they think are out of line for the character in terms of behavior or plot points,” states Konrad. “Godzilla is based on the Godzilla [2014] and Godzilla: King of the Monsters [2019] versions of the assets, albeit with tweaks for the environments he’s in.  Legendary gave us fairly free rein to develop our new creatures, mostly giving feedback on things they felt overlapped with other creatures in the canon or might feel redundant or confusing for the audiences and asking for little tweaks here or there to make sure things felt true for the universe.” 

Other points of reference were Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) that assisted in conveying the proper size and scale of the creatures.  “What’s good is that we have four films in the series to reference and pick out what works in given situations,” remarks Konrad.  “I have to give a lot of credit to Guillaume Rocheron [VFX Supervisor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters].  There were a lot of things that he helped us figure out in terms of communicating the scale while still keeping the action readable.  One of the techniques we used to use in comp was, funnily enough, called the ‘iPhone test’ where we would look at a comp scaled down to the size of an iPhone and decide if the action was readable.  A lot of time that meant reinforcing the silhouettes of the creatures with atmospherics and lighting.  From there, we would go in and start detailing.”


Finding the right locations was important… and difficult. “In Episode 101, we fully redesigned the crab creature based on the location we found,” Konrad shares.  “Originally, the scene was going to be something different, but while scouting in Hawaii, we weren’t able to find a location that was going to be shootable in the time we had because of having to jump around the island for different bits.  On our last day of scouting, Matt Shakman [Executive Producer and Director, Episodes 101 and 102] asked the locations team for a few wildcard locations, and we ended up finding Lanai Lookout; while we were there, Matt observed that there were all these crabs running around this great volcanic rock peninsula, so we let our imagination go from there and constructed this crazy rock crab monster.”  Previs was created for most of the creature sequences and was used heavily overall throughout the episodes, including in post. “I’m a big believer in overdoing postvis because it gives your vendors a much more straightforward path and lets your executives coherently comment before changes get expensive,” Konrad notes.

Among the show’s new creatures is the Frost Vark, which went through design tests by Wētā FX and was animated by Framestore.  “The script for this one was pretty clear,” remarks Konrad. “The writers wanted to see a giant star-nosed mole crossed with a pangolin.  The Frost Vark had these appendages that helped it see, and then were used to absorb heat.  We decided to fully embrace the idea of the Frost Vark being predatory, which meant giving it a mouth with big teeth and a bulkier forebody.  Animating a creature like this with hundreds [thousands?] of hard plates that can’t deform is also a big deal.  That meant doing a muscle sim to get body proportions right, a rough skinning pass to make sure things didn’t clump, and then another simulation pass to get collisions working. Ultimately, doing a bunch of hand sculpting to get things looking natural here and there.”

The Mother Longlegs was based on a modified Kong: Skull Island asset. According to Konrad, “In order to make the creature feel appropriately scaled for its encounter with Bill Randa [John Goodman] and the landscape, we cut some of the lower segments off the legs as well as changed some of the leaves/bamboo colorations that were on those segments to make it read in the landscape.  We never really saw the creature run in Skull Island, so that was an interesting thing we played with.  Different spiders have different movements depending on how big the body is versus the legs, so we had to figure out if we wanted slower creepy steps or something that was a little less deliberate. We ended up splitting the difference between the two, limiting how far the forelegs extend in the front and giving the body some bounce, but still keeping its strides relatively long.” 

The creatures had to come across as characters that could display a variety of emotions, rather than appear as mere one note rage machines, “This is true of any digital character, but especially true when you have a limited screentime like we do in a feature, where we need every single shot to somehow characterize the monster,” observes Konrad.  “A great way to give more complexity to the creature is to give it a second to react to things between moments of rage.  As an example, the Frost Vark has a moment where it tracks a flare fired by Kentaro fizzling out into the snow.  I wanted to go full rage with it at that moment, but Chris Black (our showrunner) really wanted to create a punctuation moment in its performance so that it didn’t feel like a nonstop rage factory. That was a smart call because it gives some depth to its performance.  The Ion Dragon has the most screen time [apart from Godzilla] where the creature isn’t in pure rage mode. So, we needed more expressive facial shapes.  Fortunately, Wētā FX artists are experts at facial animation, so there wasn’t a ton of iteration there.  What’s interesting about the Endoswarm is that it’s fairly atypical for the MonsterVerse monsters; there isn’t just a pure rage moment, and they don’t have faces to really sell that idea. That kind of pure instinctive swarming behavior is scarier to me.” 

“One of the things that was difficult about the show was the creature design,” Konrad shares. “Figuring out how you get a strong sense of cadence, weight, and scale. We’ve had people who have done that kind of work a lot on this project, like Pier Lefebvre, who was our supervisor at Rodeo FX. He was a supervisor on Godzilla vs Kong and worked on Godzilla [2014] with me and Godzilla: King of the Monsters at MPC.  We had Wētā FX doing amazing animation as well as Framestore. We had a bunch of people who worked on Okja at Method Studios; they became Framestore Vancouver.  What I’m excited about is our creatures have a sense of personality and feel in the scenes with the people. The action feels like it has stakes within the broader narrative, and that is the thing visual effects people can look forward to on top of everything else.” 

As for which MonsterVerse creature Konrad would like to meet in real-life, he answers, “Well, the biggest part of the equation here is how likely am I to survive?  If it had to be a major one, I would go with Kong because, in general, if you’re not being a jerk, he’s likely to leave you alone, but also if Kong is around, then usually something bad is happening.  The Sker Buffalo from Skull Island though are probably the right answer because they’re cool, even keeled, and the least likely to accidentally step on you; that would be a really awe inspiring and not scary moment.  Of course, I’ll be on Skull Island so that means I have an exponentially diminished chance of making it through the next hour, so mileage may vary there.” 

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.