The Art Of The MonsterVerse
In the past few years, there’s been an important change in movie art books as they’ve been transforming into “making of” or “the art and making of” books. It’s more common to see it with non-animated, major studio releases. My guess would be that with the decline of physical media such as DVD and Blu-ray, special features that would once be added to disc are moving to books.
The long and intriguing behind-the-scenes features that used to be a part of home video releases are a thing of the past mostly, replaced by brief YouTube featurettes that don’t go into much detail. So art books have been serving as a replacement, but it’s sadly often to the detriment of the art itself (and the artists behind it) as there are only so many pages you can devote to the filmmaking process or the comments from producers and other people before it takes up space that could’ve been used for something actually art-related.
Some books find a good balance between the “making of” and the content the product is actually selling itself on, but others don’t fully succeed – and it can frustrate when the “behind-the-scenes” parts are little more than PR fluff. I believe this attempt to feed two birds with one seed tends to do a disservice to movie fans and artists alike. It’s not too common to see books like The Art of the Lord of the Rings, which are full of concept artwork, previous/rejected designs, sketches and more, everything with proper credit and commentary from the artists themselves.
I’d like to focus on Legendary’s MonsterVerse and the art books it produced since 2014. Legendary is the film studio that brought us the likes of Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island (2017), Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), and Godzilla vs. Kong (2021). All of which share a connected world similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Toho’s original monsters all share a fair amount of lore and have their respective places in cinema. They’re pop culture icons and to see another film studios iteration of them is fascinating, hence the demand for the art book. They provide a detailed look into the minds of these industry leaders and the thought process of bring some of the world’s largest figures to life.
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Godzilla: The Art of Destruction
Godzilla: The Art of Destruction by Mark Cotta Vaz is a good example of a harmonious mix of movie production material and artwork. There’s commentary from cast and crew of Godzilla but mainly from director Gareth Edwards, who offers interesting insight about all the aspects of the movie from the moment Legendary Pictures got the ball rolling: the writing, casting, sound design, pre-vis, filming and everything that led to the finished product we got to experience in 2014.
No page is wasted – it’s a very in-depth, enjoyable read. You get a proper sense of the massive task Edwards and his team undertook.
Of course, the book’s main attraction is the design process behind the king of the monsters and his ancient parasitic enemies, the MUTOs. We get to see several rejected designs and how the creatures evolved before reaching their final iterations, with Edwards commenting on every detail from the shape of Godzilla’s dorsal fins to his scaly eyebrows.
As for the MUTOs, it’s fascinating to see how they started with more ambiguous, tentacled shapes and skeletal, deep-sea fishlike monsters before settling for a combination of stealth planes and mosquitoes. I thought it was neat that the shape of the male MUTO’s wings when resting was designed to resemble a cape, specifically Dracula’s.
This book is remarkable in the sense that it offers a glimpse at some of the more bonkers ideas the artists worked with, such as the infamous “fish Godzilla” or a version of the big fella that had a more serpentine-like neck. There’s a version that looks like a theropod dinosaur not unlike Roland Emmerich’s creation and there’s also another that resembles Toho’s Heisei design(s) a bit too much.
Cherish that freaky gallery, because there won’t be another quite like it in the following MonsterVerse books.
All in all, Godzilla: The Art of Destruction is a great, well-written book that is positively bursting with information and beautiful artwork. Ideal for an afternoon of reading in a comfortable place.
It’s worth mentioning that the book reminds us (via a picture and a quote from producer Thomas Tull) of a scene with Akira Takarada that has yet to see the light of day.
The Art and Making of Kong: Skull Island
The Art and Making of Kong: Skull Island, written by Simon Ward, is a big hardcover tome that is worthy of the big ape monarch. This book is a compilation of the concept for Kong: Skull Island.
From the moment you see its striking cover with Kong shrouded in mist (or is it smoke?) peering from above at a small soldier holding a green flare, you can’t help but to feel intrigued by the contents and the book doesn’t disappoint.
Much like The Art of Destruction, it’s mainly a “behind the scenes” book that is peppered with artwork more than a proper “art of” volume, but the illustrations that are showcased really infuse the text with life and make it an engaging read – they practically leap off the page with their vibrant colors and level of detail.
Sadly, unlike the Godzilla book, we don’t get to see a lot of original concepts for Kong and the Skullcrawlers. Most of what they show is fairly close to their final iterations. Still very cool, don’t get me wrong, but I really would’ve liked to see the artists’ first attempts at designing them.
Some of it can be found at Artstation and social media, such as this Skullcrawler iteration that was envisioned by artist Dan Baker as a tree-dweller.
We do get a a couple of surprises, however. There’s a section dedicated to the creatures of Skull Island, many of which didn’t make it to the final product. I particularly like the river beasts: there’s one that looks like a Chinese dragon with a long serpentine body and another that is covered in vegetation and is so reminiscent of an island that a group of unfortunate soldiers step right into its open mouth.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts explained he didn’t want to populate the island with dinosaurs and I think that was a bet that paid off, as the denizens of Kong: Skull Island have memorable and imaginative designs. The fact that not all of them are hostile helps to sell them as believable animals, very much a part of their environment.
The second unexpected element is unique to this MonsterVerse book. A chapter about unused material that includes a field of spikes that the Iwi people put together as a deterrent to the dangerous fauna of the island, a scene with a massive, horned tiger monster (the Spirit Tiger) that eventually found its way to the Kingdom Kong comic book and a throne for Kong (an element that was eventually used in Godzilla vs. Kong), among a few other things.
If you loved watching Kong: Skull Island or just enjoy looking at amazing monster illustrations, this art book is surely right up your alley.
The Art of Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Like its couple of predecessors, The Art of Godzilla: King of the Monsters by Abbie Bernstein is a beautifully made “making of” book that comes with awe-inspiring illustrations, but not quite an “art of” one. There’s a selection of wonderful-looking pieces, but there aren’t many glimpses at early design work for Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
Some of the crazier concepts and explorations of the characters’ designs (like this six-winged King Ghidorah by character designer Mauricio Ruiz can be found in the artists’ social media pages or sites like Artstation. It’s a bit of a shame that they weren’t showcased in this hardcover tome, but what we get is nevertheless real delightful.
Following a heartfelt foreword written by director Michael Dougherty (who describes his feelings after achieving the ultimate dream for most Godzilla fans: being able to direct an official entry for the franchise), the book details the development of the movie from the moment of its inception (when it had the working title “Fathom”). There are interviews with the director, cast and crew, giving us a comprehensive tour behind the scenes: environments and set design, pre-vis, special effects and CGI, battle choreography, the characters & story and of course, the design of the Titans.
The elements I like the best are the ideas Mike Dougherty and his team had for the main Titans, including some that didn’t make it into the movie for one reason or another like Mothra leaving a trail of bioluminescence in her wake or Rodan having feathered wings and a temple of his own, where he was worshiped in the past. It makes me happy to read how the monsters were approached as characters and not just as animals or movie props.
I can’t help but to feel a tad emotional when I see pictures like Mothra’s cocoon in the jungle, a double page spread of Godzilla shooting his beam to the sky or King Ghidorah inside a storm of his own making. And when reading about all the work that went behind the creation of my favorite MonsterVerse movie.
Abbie Bernstein knocked this one out of the park – her writing is sharp and keeps things moving with a sense of fun, like it’s a conversation over coffee. It’s informative without being dry or sluggish and is friendly to both longtime fans and newcomers to the Godzilla franchise.
Be on the lookout for the many Easter eggs that hide in the artwork – from references to Pacific Rim to other beloved Toho Kaiju.
If you love the movie or the monsters featured in it, I’d say the book is a must have that should be part of your library.
Godzilla vs. Kong One Will Fall – The Art of The Ultimate Battle Royale
The title of the fourth and final MonsterVerse artbook (for the time being at least) is not just long, but also a bit confusing. “One will fall” is the movie’s tagline, but why it’s included here as part of the title, I do not know. It reminds me a bit of Edge of Tomorrow (2014), which had “Live. Die. Repeat.” as a tagline, but it was also used in a perplexing way in certain products (one just has to take a look at the messy Blu-ray cover art).
It’s unfortunate that the art book companion to Godzilla vs. Kong is the weakest link here. While I’m uncertain, it results from the movie’s production shifting gears after Godzilla: King of the Monsters didn’t live up to lofty box office expectations, I think it’s a possibility.
The same way Disney would rather pretend Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s Solo or Colin Trevorrow’s Duel of the Fates never happened, Warner has buried the movie Godzilla vs. Kong was going to be before the script got rewritten.
As an “art of” book, it’s frankly lacking, since we get told a lot of things but shown very little of what the text is describing.
There’s talk of an unused sequence that had people trying to hunt Titanus Behemoth with shotguns, only to get crushed by the woolly mammoth-like creature. About early iterations of the HEAV vehicle. About Godzilla and Kong fighting in Hollow Earth’s Ancient Temple. But there’s little to nothing in terms of artwork. It’s up to you to imagine in your head what it could’ve been, which defeats the purpose of an art book.
Godzilla and Kong themselves don’t get a lot of love in regard to concept artwork. Director Adam Wingard has stated he didn’t want to alter the designs a lot, but for them to be the stars of the film and having such short sections in the book is disappointing, to say the least.
Mechagodzilla gets the lion’s share of the concept images in a section that’s similar to the unused Godzilla concepts section from Vaz’s Art of Destruction book (sans commentary for each design). There’s a lot to love, but nothing too wild (like the sea urchin-like design or Mechagodzilla City from the Anime Trilogy).
Hollow Earth and the few monsters that appeared in the movie have their own section in the book, with some nice-looking images. Other than Shimidah (a monster designed by Ken Barthelmey), though, nothing else regarding rejected / unused designs.
Honestly, I think author Daniel Wallace did a good enough job with what little he had to work with. Contrary to what my comments might imply, I don’t dislike this book. It’s a lightweight read with great-looking concept artwork (most of which is full page-sized or takes a double page spread). It pales in comparison to the previous books.
Though it’s been a few years since most of these books came out, they’re still relatively easy to find at reasonable prices (both used and sealed) unlike much-coveted rare gems like The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island. Still, it probably won’t be the case forever, so if you’re interested, I’d wholeheartedly recommend looking for them.
Apart from being superb sources of information about the creation of the MonsterVerse, the art inside them is a labor of love that needs to be seen to be believed. Artists have been imagining and painting monsters for hundreds of years and it’s a good thing that the tradition is still very much alive.