Why Godzilla Minus One could, and should, win an Oscar

The $10 million Japanese monster movie is so impressive, even Steven Spielberg is obsessed with it

Why Godzilla Minus One could, and should, win an Oscar
Godzilla Minus One Image: Toho Studios

At the Oscar nominees luncheon last week, Godzilla Minus One writer-director-VFX supervisor Takashi Yamazaki had a moment so surreal he wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t dreaming. In a room full of A-list talent, there was only one person in the room he really wanted to talk to. That person was Steven Spielberg, and as it turned out, the acclaimed filmmaker really wanted to talk to Yamazaki, too.

After the nominees had gathered for their group class photo, Spielberg spotted Yamazaki with the Godzilla model he was carrying around and came over to tell him how much he enjoyed the film. “Steven Spielberg said, ‘Oh, you’re the director of Godzilla. I saw it three times,’” Yamazaki said, speaking through an interpreter at a recent event attended by The A.V. Club. “I couldn’t believe it, because Spielberg is like a god to me, just for what he’s done for the film industry. But it sounded very real. [Spielberg went on to say,] ‘I saw it once in my home, and then I had to go see it again in IMAX, then Dolby Atmos.’ You can’t make that up.”

Far be it for us to argue with Spielberg. Godzilla Minus One has already made history as the first Japanese film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Visual Effects. The nomination is also a first for the 70-year-old Godzilla franchise, which has come a long way from the days of stunt performers in rubber monster suits stomping on model cities. In fact, Yamazaki believes that the legacy of the old Godzilla films may have contributed to the film’s nomination. “If you look at a lot of the Academy members, perhaps, I think they’ve seen the special effects transition into VFX, and they may have felt some nostalgia remembering what Godzilla used to be and seeing what it’s doing now.”

What Godzilla is doing now is running circles around big-budget Hollywood epics, and doing it with a fraction of the budget and staff. Even The Creator, with its comparatively modest cost (for Hollywood, at least) of $80 million doesn’t come close to giving the same level of bang for its buck. As for the rest of this year’s Oscar nominees in the category, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3, Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part 1, and Napoleon, they’re all spectacular in their own ways, but if you take economy and efficiency into account, none of them can touch Godzilla Minus One.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that by watching the film, though. That’s the great conundrum when it comes to visual effects—if they’re done right, they’re undetectable. In Yamazaki’s film it’s difficult to tell where the real world ends and digital reality begins (and to be clear, the director confirmed at the event that his team did not use any generative A.I. software in making the film). To get this point across, Shirogumi, the production house that worked on the film, released an official behind-the-scenes video revealing how much visual trickery actually went into it.

The Visual Effects of Godzilla Minus One

We could make an argument that the film deserves to win the Oscar based on its jaw-dropping visual effects alone. Godzilla, who appears in two different iterations, looks magnificently menacing, the period details are stunning, and the water effects are especially meticulous. The film certainly deserves recognition for that, but if you take into consideration the efficiency and effectiveness of what the 35 artists at Shirogumi accomplished, compared to, say, the team of more than 400 from multiple FX houses who worked on Guardians (a film with a $250 million budget), it’s no contest.

How did they do it? For Yamazaki, the circumstances of the production weren’t that unusual. A $10-$12 million budget is actually on the higher end for the Japanese film industry, and he’s used to working with a smaller team. These limited resources inspired them to find creative solutions to obstacles during production, and to set up a workspace that maximized communication and collaboration.

“I was on site where all of our VFX artists were working,” Yamazaki said. “So I could go right up to their desk and tell them, you know, ‘This shot’s good. I like this. Change that.’ Or if they were about to go down a wrong path that I wasn’t imagining I could pull them back right away and say, ‘Hey, try in this direction.’ I imagine a lot of Hollywood productions, the director is not always available, and the VFX supervisor probably goes in one direction. And after spending weeks or months on a shot, they’ll show it to the director. And the director’s like, ‘Oh no, this isn’t exactly what I wanted. Change everything.’ So I think there’s a lot of, perhaps, inefficiencies that happen during that pipeline. But because I was the director and the VFX supervisor, I had a very strong image of what I was looking for, and I knew what was possible, so I could make sure all the artists were applying their time to tasks that would get us closer to that final image I had.”

That image was heavily inspired by Spielberg’s work, especially Jaws and War Of The Worlds. “The main enemy shows up during daytime,” Yamazaki said. “So that was my thought. I wanted to have Godzilla appear during the daytime as well. And when the younger Godzilla shows up in the film, I kept telling myself, ‘Don’t make it like Jurassic Park. Don’t make it like Jurassic Park. But it kind of looked like Jurassic Park. So when I met Steven Spielberg, there was another version of me that was going, well, what if he says, ‘You just ripped off all my films and I’m mad at you?’ I couldn’t say anything back.”

We can only hope that Yamazaki brings some of that charming humility to his Oscar speech if he wins. Which he should. His vision brought an iconic franchise roaring back to life and to worldwide popularity. Even the most recent successful Godzilla reboot, 2016’s Shin Godzilla, of which Yamazaki is a massive fan, was overlooked by the Academy. If his name is called, he’ll be the first director to win an Oscar for visual effects since Stanley Kubrick won in 1969 for 2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s one accomplishment Steven Spielberg can’t claim.

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