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The 3D Godzilla Movie That Almost Was

By David Konow

Back in 1983 there was an attempt to make a big U.S. version of Godzilla in 3D that was in development for several years before it finally fell apart.

The next big remake of Godzilla is just around the corner, and the buzz from the trailer is pretty good so far. Many fans, myself included, are hoping that this is the Godzilla remake will finally get it right. Many of the right elements are there: nuclear testing, the monster towering over and knocking down skyscrapers (instead of weaving between them), and even hints at other monsters like Rodan. Things that the 1998 film never got. Another difference is that this will be a Godzilla movie released in 3D. But if the news of an American incarnation of Godzilla in 3D sounds familiar to you for some reason, you might recall that back in 1983 there was an attempt to make a big U.S. version of the big G in 3D that was in development for several years before it finally fell apart.

Reports of a 3D Godzilla first started gaining traction in the summer of ’83 when 3D was making a minor comeback. That summer had a big influx of movies in the format, such as Jaws 3D, and Friday the 13th Part 3D, which at the time was the highest grossing 3D movie in history. In fact, the director of the third Friday, Steve Miner, was also going to helm the 3D Godzilla film as well.

Sculptor Shawn Nagle's diorama using William Stout's Godzilla designs.

As Miner told writer Steve Ryfle, “I had always been a fan of Godzilla since I was a kid. Once seeing it as an adult, I realized that this could be remade as a good movie. I had just done Friday the 13th in 3D, and wanted to do a good movie in 3D.” The screenplay for this version of Godzilla was written by Fred Dekker, who also directed The Monster Squad and RoboCop 3. Dekker was honored to get the assignment, it was his first big Hollywood job, but he wasn’t a huge Godzilla fan, and wanted to elevate the monster genre to a higher level. For everyone involved, the whole idea was to treat this movie seriously, and make it on a big, Spielberg blockbuster level instead of lowballing it.

Artist William Stout, who was a production designer on Conan the Barbarian and who also designed the poster for Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, did extensive storyboards for Miner’s Godzilla, and he’s very proud of his work on it to this day. (Stout calls this incarnation of Godzilla “the greatest film project that never happened.”)

William Stout's concept art for the proposed 1983 Godzilla 3D.

Miner wanted a lot of “presentation art” for Godzilla, so the studios could get a good idea of what the finished movie would look like. (A great deal of “presentation art” had to be created for Fox to understand Star Wars.) Stout was very impressed with the screenplay he was helping bring to life, telling us, “We were working from a great script, I think Fred Dekker really outdid himself with it.”

Stout liked the idea of giving a Godzilla film the A-list treatment. “So many times, people want to remake a classic film, and as soon as they’re announcing it, they’re pissing people off,” he says. “Rarely have remakes captured, much less exceed, the quality of the first film. What Steve Miner was doing was so much smarter. He was taking a film that was beloved, but it was really defective when you consider how primitive the special effects were, and trying to remake that. Remake a film with a great idea, a great concept, take Godzilla, and the public’s expectations of Godzilla, and surpass them.”

As Stout recalls, Miner wanted really large storyboards that were 6x8 instead of 2x3, and Stout filled in each panel with a lot of details. Stout made his storyboarding as detailed as possible because “there were FX in almost every scene, and you had to storyboard what needed so you could get accurate bids from FX houses.”

Stout got a crash course in 3D when plotting out the movie by buying every 3D comic he could get his hands on, and watching every 3D film he could. When creating the storyboards, Stout realized you don’t want to crop your images, or it ruins the effect. “You tend to design things where what’s going on in the center is most important,” Stout says. “I really began to familiarize myself with the advantages and disadvantages of the 3D process.”

Miner put together a “dream team” of FX artists he wanted to bring Godzilla to life. Dave Allen (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth) was going to do the stop-motion, and Rick Baker was going to create a giant robotic Godzilla head. “Because we were going to do it as stop-motion animation, we weren’t limited by having a guy in a suit,” Stout says. “What always bothered me about Godzilla were those big, baggy legs, sort of like baggy trousers, that the Godzilla costume had. I was able to make him more realistic, more dinosaur like, while retaining the look of Godzilla with the dorsal fins on his back.”

The biggest hurtle Miner was facing was having to shoot stop-motion in 3D. “That created unusual problems because stop motion works on the opposite principals of 3D,” Stout says. “It’s taking tiny little things, and compositing them with two-dimensional footage. So we had a 3D camera that was miniaturized. The way 3D works is it has two cameras that are the average pupil distance and the separation between them. We thought if we miniaturized that pupil distance for key scenes, we could convincingly convey a stop motion creature that was huge.”

Stout with both his and the original Godzilla designs.

This version of Godzilla would have cost about $30 million, which was a lot of money in those days, and it made the major studios balk. Miner pitched it to every big studio in Hollywood, and all of them passed.

“It was the right project at the wrong time,” Stout tells me. “It was obviously going to be a very expensive with all the FX, and at the time, a numer of big budget movies like Heaven’s Gate had bombed. The studios were gun shy about approving a big budget movie because of that.”

Not to mention there was no way a studio would spent that kind of money on what they considered to be silly kids stuff. Even though Miner already had hits with the Friday the 13th films, they didn’t give him the kind of clout he needed to make a big budget blockbuster.

“That was another part of the problem was the prejudice the major studios had against Steve,” Stout says. “He directed two Friday the 13th movies, and in the view of the majors he was just some hack horror guy, and it would be insane to give him a big budget movie. If we could have come in with a Friday the 13th budget, it would have gotten a green light, but our budget was vastly higher.”

Ultimately, Miner’s Godzilla languished for about two years before the project finally died. There were also plans to remake other Japanese monster movies, and Miner was hoping Stout would direct Rodan for him, but those hopes were dashed once it was clear Godzilla would never get off the ground.

Cut to today. A 3D Godzilla movie with a reported budget of $160 million is about to hit theaters, and audiences couldn’t be more excited to see how it turns out. “It can be painful to be ahead of your time,” Stout says with a laugh. “The trailer looks incredible, and from the coming attraction it looks like a lot of our concepts and approaches were approved. I don’t think people were waiting for a magnificent Godzilla film when we attempted it, because that concept had not been in the air at the time. The public’s expectations were really low because of previous Godzilla films, and we were just going to rock their world.”