Yasuyuki Inoue: 1922-2012
Beloved Toho FX Artist Has Died
Special Thanks to Steve Ryfle, Oki Miyano and Ed Godziszewski
The Japanese special effects community lost one of its true legends with the passing of Yasuyuki ‘Taiko’ Inoue on February 19th. He was 89 years old.
In 1954, Inoue was recruited by Toho to create blueprints and build the many of the miniature sets for GODZILLA (ゴジラ, Gojira). He became the head of Toho’s Special Effects Art Department and worked on nearly all of Toho’s science fiction, fantasy and FX pictures for the next three decades.
Inoue and his crew specialized in the hands-on, practical effects work known as “Tokubi”, creating the miniature cities and landscapes depicted in such films as RODAN (空の大怪獣 ラドン, Sora no Daikaijuu Radon, 1956) and MOTHRA (モスラ, Mosura, 1961); the forests of FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (フランケンシュタイン対地底怪獣バラゴン, Furankenshutain Tai Chitei Kaijuu Baragon, 1965) and WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (フランケンシュタインの怪獣 サンダ対ガイラ, Furankenshutain no Kaijuu: Sanda tai Gaira, 1966); and vehicles and spaceships like the Maser Cannons, the Moonlight SY-3 (from DESTROY ALL MONSTERS), the Alpha and the Black Shark (LATITUDE ZERO) and the Super-X (THE RETURN OF GODZILLA). Inoue would also design such monster favorites as Hedorah, Kamakiras and Ebirah, and was even responsible for the famous “Big Pool”, first constructed for the WWII film THE STORM OF THE PACIFIC (ハワイ・ミッドウェイ大海空戦 太平洋の嵐, Hawai Middouei Daikaikusen: Taiheiyo no Arashi, 1960) and used in countless Toho FX productions.
This past December, Japanese publisher Kinema Junpo released the book The World of Special Effects Art Design by Yasuyuki ‘Taiko’ Inoue (特撮映画美術監督 井上泰幸).
Yasuyuki Inoue was a personal friend of the SciFi Japan crew, and we are working on a tribute to run on this site in the next few days. But we thought it would be fitting to first present a look back at Mr Inoue’s career through his own words. In June 2004, he and Akinori Takagi — known as one of the most talented model engineers at Toho — were special guests of the American Cinematheque’s week-long “Godzilla 50th Anniversary” film festival in Hollywood, CA. Steve Ryfle and Oki Miyano interviewed the pair at length for a series of Q&As during the festival, and Yasyuki Inoue and Akinori Takagi provided details and anecdotes that offer some rare insight into working on Toho FX films during the studio’s Golden Age…
Toho Special Effects Art Department
Q: Would you briefly tell us about the structure and organization of Toho’s SFX art department during the 1950s and 1960s, when the classic Toho kaiju eigas were made?
Yasuyuki Inoue: There were about 40 people in the Toho Special Effects Art Department during its heyday, plus another 14 or 15 people who came over from the studio’s carpentry department whenever we had to build sets. I can explain the different sections in the department and their specialties. Those 40 people were headed by four or five assistant designers whose main job was designing the sets, but that was not their only job — they worked on whatever was needed for the special effects. They basically did a little of everything.
The first section was the model mechanics. They built the motors and machinery inside of the models so they would work properly. When I say “model,” I am talking about everything from monster suits to battleships. If there was a model tank that needed to drive across the set, these were the guys who would install the motor inside of the miniature tank. When Godzilla’s eyes needed to move, they would put the motor inside the monster suits.
The next section was metal craft, painting, and backdrop painting. The painting guys mainly painted miniature models, and the backdrop painters mainly painted the sky backdrops, but they would also help each other on a regular basis. For instance, the model painters also painted backdrops when the backdrop painters were really busy. Among them were a guy named Fuchimu Shimakura, who was one of the most famous backdrop painters in Japan. No one could paint better clouds than him.
Another section was pyrotechnics. The pyrotechnicians dealt not only with explosions and other effects involving gunpowder, but also with any kind of effect involving chemicals. For example, when we needed smoke to come out of a miniature factory these guys would put certain chemicals inside the building so the smoke would rise from the chimney.
The plaster section was responsible for creating the miniature buildings that were supposed to crumble when the monsters destroyed them, and also to make the details of the landscape on the miniature sets. The plaster guys also made rocks, and they created the effects for scenes of mudslides and earthquakes like the ones in THE MYSTERIANS. One of the guys who worked in the plaster department was Noboyuki Yasumaru, who later became famous for building monsters. He started his career as a monster suit maker by making the Gorosaurus suit for KING KONG ESCAPES.
The other sections in the department were the wire operators, whose job was to attach the miniature fighter planes to wires and operate them in flight; and the creation section, which was mainly responsible for building monster suits, but also handled surface details. They put the hair on the full-scale model of Kong’s hand in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA and they added trees and other details to the landscape sets.
The carpentry section made miniature buildings that were not supposed to be destroyed and needed to be more stable. As I said, the plaster guys made the ones that were to be destroyed.
This is the group that I was in charge of. There were lots of talented guys in this group. And although the role of each section was different, we all helped each other out when one section was shorthanded. The function of each group in a similar department at a Hollywood studio is probably more specialized and they probably don’t help each other as much as we did then.
Yasuyuki Inoue: The process of designing and making each set was not too difficult; however the production schedule was always very short so we had to work late into the night. Sometimes we slept at the soundstage, and I would send the crew to bed around 4 a.m. On those nights we put plywood on the floor and slept on it, using newspapers for blankets. Even after everyone else was asleep, I still had to work on the preparation of other sets. When we were shooting RODAN, one of the crew members said he envied the old power poles that were piled along the side of the street. He saw those poles on his way home from the studio and he was so tired that he wished he could just lie down on the ground like those poles and go to sleep.
Designing and building sets is like planning and attacking a castle in battle. You put ladders against the wall, set the buildings on fire, and pull down the stone fence. We kept invading castles, one after another… it was like an endless battle. To prepare for this presentation, I watched these movies again for the first time since I worked on them. Back then, we were too busy to go see the movies.
One of the most important aspects of set design is creating an impression of distance. There are layers of haze in the air. To convey perspective, I needed to find a way to express those layers because we had to create an illusion of several miles in only a few square feet of space. I created this effect through color combinations and smoke. I used deeper colors to paint the foreground and lighter colors for the background, and the area in between was covered with smoke. Also, the ground of the set was not flat; I designed the sets so that the background was always higher than the foreground.
I always tried to create an impression of distance. You can see it in all the special effects sets, from RODAN to RETURN OF GODZILLA [aka GODZILLA 1985]. Although I worked for other studios including Toei, Daiei and Tsuburaya Productions, their work never conveyed perspective like we did at Toho. The ground of their sets was simply flat.
The Big Pool
Q: Would you describe the facilities at Toho for SFX shooting, including the big soundstage and the pool?
Yasuyuki Inoue: The main soundstage used for SFX shooting was made in 1957 for THE MYSTERIANS. That stage was called No. 10. They also sometimes used Stage No. 7 and No. 8 for the effects scenes. Each of those stages had a track on the ceiling for operating the wire works, mainly for filming miniature fighter planes in action. But this track could be used for many purposes, including moving and carrying heavy equipment, or for filming flying creatures like Rodan and Mothra. The track could also be used for certain shots in which the camera was suspended with wires for a moving aerial point of view.
The biggest and most famous special effects facility on the Toho lot is probably the big pool where so many great scenes were filmed — everything from Godzilla coming ashore, Mothra’s egg floating at sea, the Atragon submarine, to naval battles and more. It was SFX director Eiji Tsuburaya’s idea to build the pool, and from the beginning it was meant to be a permanent part of the studio.
Somehow, Eiji Tsuburaya got hold of the blueprints for the pool at Dino DeLaurentiis’ Cinecitta Studios in Rome, which was the biggest pool of its type in the world at that time. The big pool at Toho was built even bigger; it was approximately 290 feet wide x 240 feet long. The deepest part of the pool was four feet. The studio didn’t have a good water system, so it took more than 10 days to fill the pool with water.
The pool had four wave making machines. Two of them moved up and down, and the other two slid back and forth. The wave machines were made by a factory at the port in Yaizu, which is a major base for commercial fishing and the construction of fishing boats. On the floor of the pool there is a track with small cars, which are pulled by wires, also for the purpose of making waves.
There was another pool, the small pool, which was on the studio lot until the late 1960’s or early 70’s. During Eiji Tsuburaya’s time they frequently used this small pool. It was approximately 82 feet wide x 82 feet long. This pool had small windows on the side, so that we could shoot underwater scenes. The art department also constructed water tanks for flooding scenes, like in MOTHRA or GODZILLA VS. MEGALON.
GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955)
Q: The big battle between Godzilla and Angilas in GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN takes place in front of a highly detailed miniature of Osaka Castle. Can you talk about the construction of this model?
Yasuyuki Inoue: We had to make the model twice because, when the director said “CUT!” during the fight between Godzilla and Angilas, one of the crew members made a mistake. The model was made of plaster and wires were put inside of it… if you pulled the wire, the model would break. When the guy heard the director say “CUT!” he thought that was his cue to pull the wire and the model broke apart.
But it was easy to fix the model; it took just about two hours to repair it. On later Toho special effects movies they put other materials inside the building to make the buildings break apart more easily. But back when we made GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN we used pure plaster, so if it broke apart you could basically put the pieces back together.
Q: The battle at the climax of the movie between Godzilla and the fighter planes takes place on a snow-covered island. Were there any special problems in the design or construction of this set?
Yasuyuki Inoue: Basically, we started by making a scale model of the set. The difficult part was figuring out the angle of the steep slope because it had to illustrate just how hard it was for the pilots to battle Godzilla. We had to find the correct angle so that the audience would see the steep movements the airplane made while attacking Godzilla.
The ice that Godzilla was buried under was created by using an icemaker; the kind used in a fish market. You can see that some of the pieces of ice are rather large. We really wanted to make the ice into smaller pieces, but that was the smallest size that the icemaker could do. Unfortunately, we really didn’t have enough time to break up the ice chunks so the ice in the movie looks a bit oversized.
Q: RODAN was the first Toho kaiju movie in color. How did that affect your work?
Yasuyuki Inoue: Actually the first color FX movie at Toho was THE LEGEND OF THE WHITE SERPENT [aka MADAME WHITESNAKE], so most of the technical problems were experienced on that film. Green was kind of a difficult color to capture properly on film. We had to make the green much lighter so I added more yellow to the paint. Those green colors in RODAN may have been much yellower in real life.
Q: How did you construct the sets of the mines and caves in RODAN?
Yasuyuki Inoue: Most of the mine sets were built by the live action staff, not the special effects staff. But for the scene where Kenji Sahara watches Rodan’s egg hatch, that was a special effects set combined with the full scale set that had been made for principal photography. In that scene, Rodan eats the Meganuron insects. We actually used live crayfish for Meganurons. Mr. Yoshio Irie [another member of the art department staff] and I went to the Senkawa River and caught some crayfish, so those Meganurons that Rodan is eating are actually crayfish.
Q: Rodan’s attack on the bridge and the destruction of Fukuoka are highly detailed scenes. Did you feel that the design and construction of the miniatures had advanced much since GODZILLA was made two years earlier?
Yasuyuki Inoue: The quality of the miniature models in RODAN are much better than those in GODZILLA. Most of the models were made at 1/25th scale, except for those which would not be in the same shot with Rodan… they were built in 1/10th. It took 40 days to build the sets.
Usually when the crew made a building out of plaster they combined several plaster plates, but for RODAN they built a huge mold of Iwataya Department Store and constructed the entire building all at once. A step was built under the roof of the building to support the weight of Rodan.
The bridge was made of tin. It was precut in the middle and supported by a wire from the soundstage ceiling so that it would naturally collapse under its own weight.
Q: How were the sets constructed to work effectively with the wind effects in the film?
Yasuyuki Inoue: The shingles were made of paper, and the other parts of the houses and smaller stores were made of thinly sliced pine tree. They hadn’t started to use balsa wood at that time because it was an expensive material.
KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962)
Q: Did you watch the original KING KONG to get design ideas for Faro Island?
Yasuyuki Inoue: SFX director Eiji Tsuburaya screened his personal print of KING KONG for the effects staff, and I was very excited to watch the movie. I used the film for reference to design the sets for KING KONG VS. GODZILLA; some examples are the rocks on Faro Island and the big fence that keeps King Kong outside the village.
When I watched KING KONG VS. GODZILLA on video recently, I realized that all the important effects shots were done by the SFX art department. The beach on Faro Island, the rocky hills, the natives’ shacks, the red juice, the raft and the ship in the big pool — we created all of them.
Q: The Diet Building set and the Atami Castle set are both very well detailed. Can you describe how they were designed and constructed?
Yasuyuki Inoue: Actually building the Diet Building was not too difficult because Kong didn’t destroy it. Only part of the entrance is smashed by Kong. To build a miniature model that is going to be destroyed by the monster is much more difficult than to build the ones that are not. We had blueprints for the Diet Building so there were no serious problems.
It took a very long time to build the Atami Castle set because we actually had to make three of them. We built two castle in the same scale; one on a soundstage and another by the big pool. Those two sets did not include the city of Atami; the third one that did was located next to the small pool. That one had hillsides so they could film King Kong and Godzilla falling into the ocean, and it was built in a smaller scale. So, the main fighting scenes were shot on a soundstage and the fighting sequence where King Kong and Godzilla fall into the water was shot by the pool.
Q: Whose idea was it to use a live octopus to fight Kong?
Yasuyuki Inoue: When I read the script, I was concerned about the scene with the octopus. I asked the director about this and he said he had a very good idea. As many people now know, Eiji Tsuburaya’s idea was to use a real live octopus. He had this idea very early, even at the stage when the script was first written.
Q: This is the first movie in which Godzilla’s mouth is motor-operated. Mr. Takagi, can you explain some of the mechanical effects in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA?
Akinori Takagi: In the previous films Godzilla’s jaw was operated by a wire, using a device similar to a bike brake, but for this movie I put a motor in Godzilla’s mouth. However, the motor-operated mouth didn’t work as smoothly at first as we had expected. There was something wrong with a gear that caused it to slip. As for King Kong, there was no electric motor on his mouth. The actor’s face was directly behind Kong’s, so whenever the actor moved his mouth so did King Kong. Several years later, when we made KING KONG ESCAPES, I installed an electric motor to operate Kong’s mouth. The motor was too big to fit into the head of the Kong suit, so I put it in his butt and ran a wire to the mouth. The motor in the butt pulled the wire and the mouth movements could be remote-controlled.
Q: There are also two very memorable scenes in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA with mechanized miniatures: Godzilla chasing the train, and Kong being airlifted by helicopters. Mr. Takagi, what do you recall about those scenes?
Akinori Takagi: I put the fluorescent lights on the model train. It was difficult to adjust the lights, because I had to calculate the timing of the flickering of the light and the number of frames per second that the film would be exposed. I tried my best, but I saw some minor flickering on the final shot. I didn’t use regular light bulbs in the train because it would have required a lot of them and a complicated electrical circuit. The circuit for the fluorescent lights was simpler and the light was brighter. By the way, that train was operated by the wire works crew.
I also handled the miniature helicopters and put the lights on the on the military vehicles around the Diet Building in the scene when Kong climbs on top of it. The lights on those cars were powered by batteries. I had to turn the ‘on’ switch on every vehicle. However, the batteries didn’t last very long and some of them became dim. I had to constantly put new batteries in them and it wasn’t easy to keep all the lights bright.
The helicopters were suspended from wires attached to the top of the propeller pivot. The propeller attached to a pipe, and the pipe covered the pivot so that the pivot would be stationary while the propeller rotated. I was very impressed with this inventive idea. The helicopter motor was battery-powered. I put weights on the propellers to prevent the helicopter from shaking from the vibration of the motor. I had to adjust every helicopter, one by one. Some of the helicopters had red hazard lights on them. Flashing lamps were not yet available to us at that time so I made a special circuit so that the power would go on and off.
GHIDORAH: THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (1964)
Q: What was the inspiration for the design of King Ghidorah?
Yasuyuki Inoue: King Ghidorah is based on an idea from SFX director Eiji Tsuburaya, and designed by SFX artist Teizo Toshimitsu. When Mr. Toshimitsu was almost finished building King Ghidorah he brought it to the soundstage and showed it to Mr. Tsuburaya. That’s when Mr. Tsuburaya came up with the idea to paint King Ghidorah gold. Before that, other artists working in the department had suggested painting the monster red.
Q: Ghidorah’s aerial destruction sequence is one of the best in the entire series. Can you explain the construction and layout of the miniature sets in that sequence?
Yasuyuki Inoue: Ghidorah is a three-headed monster, so we had to illustrate its power so that it would appear three times as strong as a regular monster. We wanted to show fast-paced destruction scenes so we put fuses in many areas of the miniature set, the kind of fuses used in fireworks.
Q: Mr. Takagi, what types of mechanical effects were involved in bringing King Ghidorah to life?
Akinori Takagi: I put motors inside each of King Ghidorah’s three heads, and controlled the movements of the mouths by remote control. Because the heads were small, I needed to find very small motors. The electric wire came out from Ghidorah’s backside, and I operated the mouths with two other operators… each of us controlled one of the three heads. More operators were needed to move the monster’s body, two tails, and wings. I don’t remember how many people in all were needed to move King Ghidorah.
Q: Compared to Godzilla and other monsters, the King Ghidorah suit looks immense.
Akinori Takagi: The wires that supported King Ghidorah were frequently broken by the weight of the suit so shooting took much longer than with other monsters like Godzilla. The costume was supported by thick ropes hung from the rafters between takes to prevent the suit from collapsing under its own weight.
INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER (aka MONSTER ZERO, 1965)
Yasuyuki Inoue: There was a scene in INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER in which the P-1 rocket is launched from the surface of Planet X. The model was 7 feet tall, so if we had raised the floor of the set to submerge the rocket we would have sacrificed the height of the sky. The cameraman would not have been able to move the camera as he wanted because the backdrop painting would not have been high enough. So we had to dig a hole in the floor of the soundstage.
The soundstage was not designed for that, so technically I had to get permission from the production department — but I didn’t. When I was almost done and had dug almost deep enough to cover the rocket beneath the surface of the planet, a man from the Toho production department found out what I was doing. I was called into a meeting and they reproached me. They asked who had given me permission to break a hole in the floor and I pointed to myself. SFX director Eiji Tsuburaya was watching what was going on in the room, and he almost died laughing!
DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968)
Q: There are a lot of interesting sets in this movie, including Monsterland, the Kilaak base, the moon, and all the cities the monsters attack. Do you have any special memories of creating those sets?
Yasuyuki Inoue: When I watched film on video recently, I wondered how we built all those sets on time. But come to think of it, this was the heyday of the Toho SFX art department and there were no technical difficulties in building those sets, although we never had enough time. Luckily, we had previously built miniature sets of New York, Moscow, and Paris several years earlier when Toho filmed THE LAST WAR so we used those old blueprints for the sets in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS.
There is an interesting story about the scene where the SY-3 rocket launches from the moon base. In order to show the rocket taking off from beneath the surface, we had to dig down beneath the floor of the soundstage. It was not the first time we did this. A few years earlier, I basically did the same thing on INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER. This time, to hide what I was doing from the production department I put up a wall to block anyone from seeing the hole. But Sadamas Arikawa, the SFX director, found out and was very concerned about what my team and I were doing since we were not authorized by the production department. Mr. Arikawa told me, “I won’t take responsibility for that.” After we were done shooting that scene at the moon base, my team fixed the floor and it was actually much stronger afterward.
Do you remember the scene where Gorosaurus comes out of the ground under the Arc de Triomphe? We made the set floor about six and a half feet above the ground, and built the arc on top of it. We brought a forklift under the set and put the monster on the forklift. We raised Gorosaurus up through the ground by raising the forklift.
Q: Mr. Takagi, how were Mothra’s and Kumonga’s webs created in the fight against King Ghidorah?
Akinori Takagi: We used a type of glue made for repairing flat tires for the webbing that was sprayed by Mothra or Kumonga. The glue was put in a tank and an air compressor was used to fire it out through a nozzle. We also put an electric fan in front of the tank and shot the glue out so that the web would look like cotton candy. This idea was invented by a pyrotechnician named Kyuzo Yamamoto. He used to be a supervisor of the prop department, and he had previously used this glue for creating spider webs on sets. The glue was relatively easy to remove and clean up because, when it dried, it became string.
Q: There are several mechanical vehicles and tanks in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. Can you describe how these were built or operated?
Akinori Takagi: I built a radio controlled model of the moon explorer car for the scenes on the moon. It was about 12 inches long. I bought a toy tank, took it apart, and used the caterpillars and the motor. I covered it with a body made by one of the miniature builders. It ran pretty good.
There is another scene where you can see a lot of tanks attacking the monsters. One tank is driving near Godzilla’s foot with smoke coming out of its exhaust—it was originally built for KING KONG ESCAPES. The tank was a radio controlled model driven by a gasoline engine, about 27 inches long. It was powerful enough to carry me! This particular model was the first big radio controlled tank at Toho.
Before that model was built, the tanks were usually operated by wired remote control. We used a very thin Nichrome wire to operate those tanks. All the safety regulations I learned in school were totally useless here. I tried to make the wire as thin as possible to hide it from the camera. Many wired remote control models were also used along with radio controlled models. A radio controlled model was used when the model needed to make subtle movements. We also used models that were pulled by wires, but they didn’t have motors inside.
GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH (1971)
Q: On GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH, both the drama and SFX were directed by one person, director Yoshimitsu Banno. How did that affect your work?
Yasuyuki Inoue: I had met Mr. Banno prior to working with him on GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH. Eiji Tsuburaya and the Toho SFX staff worked on exhibitions for the 1970 World Expo in Osaka. I was working on the special effects scenes and Banno was in charge of shooting the live action sequences; he even went to Hawaii to shoot a volcanic eruption as part of that project. That was the first time I met Mr. Banno, and I began trying to push him at the studio so he would become more popular.
I was surprised when I read his script for GODZILLA VS HEDORAH because he made a monster out of pollution. The production was especially difficult because I had to work on both effects scenes and principal photography scenes. Mr. Banno and I communicated really well, but he was still very inexperienced as a film director since this was his first movie. I enjoyed working with him but it was a very tough movie for me, so after this movie I quit Toho.
Q: The night club scenes are fantastic. Is that set based on a real night club?
Yasuyuki Inoue: The nightclub in the movie is based on the design of a real club in the Roppongi section of Tokyo. Mr. Banno found the nightclub, and I went there with my assistant, a young woman, and she started to dance in the club instead of working.
Until I saw the real club, I had no idea what kind of visual Mr. Banno had in mind for those scenes. It was also Mr. Banno’s idea to show the liquid blobs projected on the screen in the nightclub. Every visual element of that movie is based on Mr. Banno’s ideas but it was all created by me.
Q: What did you think of Godzilla flying?
Yasuyuki Inoue: The flying Godzilla was all Mr. Banno’s idea. Tomoyuki Tanaka, the producer, he really hated it! That may be the reason why Mr. Banno never directed another movie. He had an idea for a sequel to GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH but he never got the chance to make it.
Akinori Takagi: We used a lot of chlorofluorocarbon CFC gas for Godzilla’s breath in the flying scenes. At that time, no one knew the gas was harmful to the ozone layer… but that means Godzilla emitted toxic substances in order to destroy the Smog Monster!
Q: How were the Hedorah tadpoles created? In some shots, they really look alive.
Yasuyuki Inoue: Basically we created an “artificial fish.” I carved a piece of balsa wood into the shape of a tadpole’s head, then I put it on the head of a real live fish– a type of fish that is similar to an eel. At first, it didn’t swim like we wanted it to, so we shined lights on it so that it would come out into the light and move.