NOTZILLA Interview With Mitch Teemley, Jeff Barklage And Jacob K. Baker
A SCIFI JAPAN EXCLUSIVE
NOTZILLA is a new American monster comedy film set to release August 18. It is written and directed by Mitch Teemley. A parody of kaiju films, particularly those in the Godzilla franchise, the film stars Frederic Eng-Li, Tifani Ahren Davis, Tim Bensch, Samantha Russell, and Michael Bath.
NOTZILLA’s Cinematographer & Special Visual Effects Coordinator, Jeff Barklage, was kind enough to provide his blog entry detailing the film’s special effects…
“The charm of the GODZILLA franchise, in my opinion, is its extensive usage of rubber man-in-suit stomping and smashing his way through beautiful miniature cities! Kicking over miniature trees and artillery and blasting everything in between with his radioactive fire breath. BOOM!! Our approach to the comedy/spoof NOTZILLA strived to follow in the gigantic footprints of GODZILLA in utilizing the same “old school” approach to special effects. Our monster was a man-in-rubber-suit that was designed and built by Rick D. Baker and his son Jacob Kyle Baker, who also wore the suit and played the part of the monster. The concept that Mitch pitched was to have this show look and feel like a mid 1960’s film…utilizing period cars, wardrobe, props, etc….
I approached the lighting and lensing in a similar fashion using a vintage Lomo Anamorphic zoom lens [just like the “Tohoscope” Cinemascope lenses used in these classic films], lit the scenes mostly with hard light and lots of gobo/cookie patterns. With some rough storyboards by writer/director Mitch Teemley, we ran around with a tiny splinter unit to grab both stills and motion footage to use in our rear projection scenes when we would later have the entire cast and crew assembled for our principle photography. We decided to approach this project as mostly an “in-camera” effects film… relying on classic methods to place our principle actors and monster “into” the scenes in front of the camera with very little blue/green screen compositing. This not only allowed our actors to actually “see” the monster and other effects immediately as we filmed. I always believe this helps them emote and respond when looking at an actual object as opposed to a gaffer taped “X” on a green screen. So, to do this, we had to deal with the logistical nightmare of figuring out which elements had to be shot in which order to make this process run smooth. We began production on location for the first 2 weeks which allowed our Production Designer Gabby Leithsceal and her team to fabricate our miniature valley with train tracks, high-voltage power lines/towers, miniature atomic blasters, computer consoles with many blinking lights and knobs, etc….
All this was setup in an abandoned HH GREG appliance/electronic store at a mall. This was a huge 40,000 sq foot room with enough space to not only set up the 20×20 miniature “monster stomping” grounds, but it has ample space to also house our rear projection stage/screen/projector stage as well as a water tank [miniature ship sequence] and several other sets.
The “stomping ground” set has a 25’ sky backdrop that wasn’t of top quality and some time/expense was needed in post to clean up its wrinkles and seams…no matter how we lit this sky backdrop [rear and frontal] it always displayed it’s seam. Gabby crafted a series of low hills that were set in the back of the 20’x20’ grass floor to give the sense of depth and to help cover the bottom of the sky backdrop. She embellished the rolling hillside with miniature trees [courtesy of Entertainment Junction]. Model building and shrubs and miniature cars, pulled by monofilament populated this environment and it was dressed and redressed multiple times for various locals in the movie.
We also had a rather small table top set that really only consisted of another sky backdrop [MUCH better than the large one] and we used rolls of moss for ground cover, dressed clippings from my frontyard landscape for trees and we shot the miniature RC army tanks, jeeps and missile launchers on this rig. Later, this footage was rear-projected on the RP [rear-projection] stage and we shot our actors in front of the screen to place them in the environment with the military hardware. I also took this tiny set home and outside of my garage, I shot the over crank shots [high speed] of the missile launchers and firing artillery, a somewhat more forgiving environment for pyro work than a shopping mall!
Chance Madison, our gaffer, matched the lighting of the images on the RP screen to whatever was positioned in front of it: monster, actress, Army platoon, etc…., he and his crew did an incredible job, especially made difficult with having to light actors that are standing literally 2 feet from the RP screen! If you have ever worked with any projection system, you realize that spill light of any kind will wipe out the contrast of the projected image and pollute the screen.
Flatulence plays a big part in the comedy of this beast. Not only does the monster posses the ability to breath fire, he also produces it from his “other” end… if you catch my meaning! And, of course, fire always plays a big element in these types of monster flicks! Knowing that we could not create actual flames or fires of any sort in our appliance store/studio, we relied on post CG for the flames and on-set reflections of fire on our actors, monsters and miniatures. Our gaffer: Chance brought to set the new LED Asteras and they are incredible and versatile lights! Any color of the spectrum can be created with these units as well as flashes and flickering light, traveling light motion [used in the train sequence] etc. Jim Bailey created beautiful CG flames and with a combination of on-set flickering light and smoke machine, these elements all came together in a realistic and comical way.
One scene that I feel is rather special was the ever-classic “Girl in the Giant Paw” scene! Our lead actress Tifani Ahren Davis was to be picked up and held in the monster’s hand whilst being carried around downtown and she was to deliver several lines of dialogue to the monster. I had to scratch my head for a while on this one as our tiny budget would not pay for a giant “hand” prop, and to simply green-screen her into a shot of the monster’s paw would look terrible. So, we did this scene with several rear-projections of a rear projection, a shot of a shot rephotographed like a “reality sandwich”. Basically we started with a still element of a skyscraper that I shot during pre-pro when we gathered many images for future RP work. We rear-projected this locked-off shot of the building and I rephotographed it in a slightly bouncing manner to replicate the stride of a giant monster. We then took that footage of the moving building and rear-projected it and this time had Kyle wear the monster suit, but we only photographed his right hand with the thumb folded back [a VERY tight shot]. We then took this footage of the hand in front of the moving building and we again rear-projected it and had Tifani stand in front of it. To make it appear that she was inside the paw, we took a large scale thumb, which I had made weeks ago out of a cardboard sono-tube with a skin of sprayed on expandable foam that was painted to match the monster’s skin [also a giant finger nail made from an old funnel] and placed this large thumb up against Tifani on the camera side. It was rigged so that she could rest her arms upon it…so to the camera she had the monster’s palm and fingers behind her and the thumb in front of her! With the addition of a fan to blow her hair and moving light sources, it appeared that she was a hundred feet in the air and being carried down a city street!
The great thing of having the extra space to hold several sets at the same time in the abandoned appliance store was the luxury of being able to come up with quick solutions to FX problems and having the ability to jump 30’ over to a miniature set and quickly shoot an effect, import it into the laptop that controlled the rear-projection projector, and shoot our actors immediately in front of that image!
We had 2 cameras built and ready to go at all times, one on the live action RP stage and the other available to jump to any of the miniature sets or to shoot “B” camera coverage of the live action. This saved up time from having to do multiple retakes and setups as our air-conditioning had to be shut down for the audio shooting and the store would get very hot, our poor actors wearing 1960’s heavy clothing and especially poor Kyle in the very very hot and stuffy rubber monster suit!
During production one day, we were shooting a ton of coverage and Kyle decided to simply stay in his monster costume as opposed to take it off, put it back on a few minutes later, then take it off, etc…. After wearing the rubber suit for several hours, and with our air conditioning shut down and the room well into the 90’s Kyle was seen standing in a growing puddle… it was a puddle of his own sweat and the bulk of it was dripping out of his finger tips and down the pointed monster claws and dropping to the floor!!! The final scene of the film shows several additional monster eggs floating in the river. Gabby made several rubber eggs and we shot this in my Koi pond at home… making sure to frame out any curious fish that wanted to see what was floating in their pond.”
Thanks to Avery Guerra, I was able to get a little more insight about this upcoming monster comedy from Writer/Director Mitch Teemley, Director of Photography/Special Visual Effects Coordinator Jeff Barklage and Notzilla Suitmaker/Actor Jacob Kyle Baker…
Benjamin Chaffins: How did you become a director?
Mitch Teemley: Directing: I started out doing it all: Wrote, directed and starred in a television commercial spoof for the 6th grade talent show. It was all downhill from there. I loved acting, but kept insinuating myself into directing (and writing) acting assignments. It only got worse in college; I was insufferable. I saw a production of “Enemy of the People” in which the director ended the play with citizens parading about in expensive clothes in front of a gleaming city backdrop. I was sure I could do better. Except that my coolest ideas always involved camera angles — I wanted to move into extreme close-up until we could finally see the city “through” the people’s eyes, because — get it? — they’d sold their souls for money. I really wanted to direct movies, but hadn’t realized it yet. I did love working with actors, though; after all, I was one. Finally, after grad school, I segued into film, taking courses at AFI, UCLA, etc., and began making short films.
Ben: What is NOTZILLA about?
Mitch Teemley: NOTZILLA is an affectionate send-up of the classic kaiju movies I watched as a kid at our local movie house matinees. A high school buddy and I wrote a short early version as a dead-on spoof of Godzilla movies. But years later, after moving to Ohio, I began working with a production company here. And together we hatched the idea of moving the story to Ohio. How? By making it about a passionate young paleontologist, Hiro, who is determined to save the sole remaining egg of a kaiju species being killed off by the Japanese military. He escapes with the egg to Cincinnati, Ohio, but accidentally flushes it down the airplane toilet just before the plane lands. A zealous nuclear physicist Dr. Richard Blowheart finds the egg and exposes it to beer. Bad idea. Because this species, the Notzillasaurus Partiontildon, normally only “about the size of a man in a rubber suit,” grows to massive size when exposed to alcohol. Notzilla hatches and escapes the lab in search of more beer! Blowheart vows to destroy him. Hiro vows to save him. Oh, yeah, and Blowheart’s hot, brainy physicist coworker Dr. Shirley Yujest is torn between the two, of course.
Ben: Could you give details about the special effects?
Mitch Teemley: We took a purist approach and did the bulk of effects in the same way they were done in the era when the film is set (early 60s). Forced perspective, Rear-screen projection with actors, additional miniatures, and creature in foreground, sometimes as many as four layers of the above, some greenscreen was used, but only in the same manner it was used back then. Allow me to introduce SFX guru, Jeff Barklage.
Jeff Barklage: Cinematographer & Special Visual Effects Coordinator Jeff Barklage, s.o.c. here. Let me fill you in a little bit about the visual effects for NOTZILLA. Mitch and I shot a “proof of concept” trailer some 5 years ago using my vintage Lionel model train set and some rubber Godzilla “claws” and a rubber mask!! In 2018 he called and said we were “greenlit”! So, we decided early on to shoot as much “in-camera” with a man in a rubber suit, miniature buildings [and Army tanks!] and I talked him into doing process photography [aka: rear projections] for the background and thus ONLY shoot green screen as an absolute last resort. We were going more for the 60’s & 70’s Toho Godzilla style production when they used mostly miniatures with a man-in-suit city stomping! We also shot in Cinemascope with a vintage anamorphic lens set that I own… I am a working cinematographer shooting Sci-Fi Channel movies/Hallmark Films, 2nd unit on a lot of big pictures and many national TV spots.. so I have an enormous amount of camera gear and utilized my stuff on this picture. The pyro work such as the tanks and missiles firing at the monster were all shot in my garage and backyard, the monster with the model buildings and large rear projection system were shot in an abandoned HH GREG appliance store! This picture was a blast to shoot!!
Ben: How long did it take to write the script?
Mitch Teemley: Wow! How to answer that? A high school buddy and I wrote a short version of NOTZILLA (originally called Kraga) as a direct spoof of old Godzilla and other kaiju movies. We were going to shoot it on Super 8, but college got in the way. Two decades later, I wrote a full length version, and it was slated to be the next film produced by a division of Warner Bros. Pictures; but they went under! Another decade passed. I was living in Cincinnati now and had begun working with an Ohio-based production company. We decided to rethink the story and move it from Japan to America, making it something of an American kaiju comedy, but retained the devoted Japanese paleontologist character as the hero.
Ben: Do you happen to remember how much the budget was for just the special effects sequences?
Mitch Teemley: Not sure what the FX budget was, but it was shoestring by Hollywood standards. Our prod. company has asked that we don’t discuss budget. Post effects were mostly pyro, to avoid on-set risks. And so that was part of our overall time and expense as well.
Ben: How long did it take to film the special effects sequences?
Jeff Barklage: We shot the ENTIRE film in something like 18 days??? Mitch, was that about right? The FX were part of those days… I did spend one evening shooting pyro miniatures and another evening shooting giant monster eggs floating in my Koi pond. But the monster suit, projections, city stomping action were all shot during principle photography.
Mitch Teemley: Principal photography was 17 days, plus two days of 2nd Unit and background plate shots.
Ben: Question for you, Jeff. How were you able to come on board with NOTZILLA?
Mitch Teemley: Jeff won’t tell you this, but he’s the most in-demand Director of Photography in this region of the country. So when I asked him to help me shoot a quickie NOTZILLA teaser-trailer a few years back, I figured he’d say no. What I didn’t count on is that he’s as much an old kaiju and monster movie fan as I am, maybe even more! So he said yes! We shot it on in one day and on no budget, but it created a nice buzz on YouTube, so we were encouraged.
I later read excerpts from the script at G-Fest in Chicago, where it was enthusiastically received. I met Jacob Baker there, the master monster-maker who built and “wore” Notzilla for the movie. Those two (fueled by my brilliant ideas, of course) brought our lovable creature to life! After the original NOTZILLA teaser, Jeff and I also did a Doritos ad together.
Ben: With the monster, how long did it take to create the model and what was the process for making the suit?
Mitch Teemley: It took Jacob about two months to build the Notzilla suit, I believe, along with Baby Notzilla and the egg he hatches from.
Jacob K. Baker: Not sure what all I can add, but it took both my father Rick D. Baker (not the other one) and I a month and a week working non-stop to complete the main suit. The hatchling prop was a maquette that I had constructed about a year prior that I refurbished into a puppet. Seems like that took roughly a week to modify it.
Ben: With the monster drinking beer to grow, how tall does the monster get?
Mitch Teemley: Notzilla is roughly 120′ tall — and still growing (he’s just a toddler, after all).
Ben: What was the most difficult challenge when making NOTZILLA?
Mitch Teemley: The most difficult, but in many ways the most fun challenge was envisioning scenes that had to be shot in as many as four “layers”: Using the script and storyboards as our blueprint, we would first gather location background or create miniature background shots.
Then we would rear-project these behind one of several stages: A NOTZILLA stage with movable foreground scenery and props, a Miniature stage, or a Live Actor stage. We would shoot the next layer in front of the blown-up and re-framed rear-projection, using Notzilla or live actors, sometimes placing miniatures in the foreground, creating a “forced perspective” to make them appear larger than the action behind them. A third layer of added elements would sometimes be shot in front of the above. And finally, actors or objects would sometimes be shot in front of a greenscreen for insertion into one of the above shot, often scaled down to appear smaller. Post-production (editing) included adding digital touches like fire or atmospheric effects, but these were used sparingly to keep NOTZILLA period-authentic (early 60s).
Ben: Thanks, guys. Appreciate each of your input and info.
For more information on NOTZILLA please see the earlier coverage here on SciFi Japan:
- Award-Winning Kaiju Comedy Spoof NOTZILLA Releasing August 18th
- NOTZILLA — Trailer Released For Kaiju Movie Spoof