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Monarch: Legacy of Monsters’ new titans were inspired by the weird freakiness of nature

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters VFX supervisor Sean Konrad opens up about the challenges of creating new nightmares for Godzilla’s kaiju canon.

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A winged dinosaur-like creature sitting atop the ruins of a wrecked building.
Image: Apple TV Plus

Though Godzilla looms very large in Apple TV Plus’ Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, it isn’t the only gargantuan kaiju whose presence keeps the series’ human characters living in a constant state of fear. Along with the big man itself, and many other classic Toho creatures, Legacy of Monsters also introduces a number of original titans to Legendary’s quickly expanding MonsterVerse franchise.

With Monarch both digging into the MonsterVerse’s unexplored history and building to what’s coming next on the big screen, the show’s creative team knew that it was going to have to think outside of the box to come up with all-new beasts that would wow viewers. When I spoke with Monarch: Legacy of Monsters VFX supervisor Sean Konrad recently, he explained that the trickiest thing about dreaming up new kaiju for the small screen and then building massive set pieces around them is actually figuring out how to allocate the necessary resources over the course of an entire season.

What’s the biggest challenge of crafting Godzilla-size spectacles for the small screen? 

We had a fantastic budget and a really good schedule, and because of that, a lot of the challenges that often exist in the episodic space weren’t really problems for us here. But you’re still talking about eight hours of screen time for a show and then servicing that with a similar overall budget. 

What that ultimately means is you need to be really careful and deliberate about your action set pieces. A big part of the preproduction process is looking at a sequence, understanding how the first cut is going to cost $7 million, and ultimately knowing that’s not plausible because then you can’t do any visual effects for the next two episodes. Also, Monarch’s a human drama at its core, and people aren’t going to tune in every week if that drama isn’t something they can become invested in. People aren’t going to tune in week to week to just see a monster fight. 

I mean, I would watch that.

Maybe a couple of us nerds will, but we want a big audience and for people to come to the show being able to really enjoy it.

What sorts of opportunities did this format present for creative depictions of the titans that might not necessarily be as prioritized in a feature-length film? 

As we were conceiving of and designing our big action in set pieces is where we were thinking of them as the logical conclusions or punctuation marks of characters’ emotional journeys. That means, if you’re physically in a space that’s a little bit smaller, maybe we shrink the creatures down, but we also want to find a way to escalate the stakes there, so maybe there are hundreds or thousands of these monsters on-screen by the end of the scene. Or we integrate the creature into the terrain that a character is physically standing on. Maybe that rock that you’re standing on isn’t really a rock. Maybe it’s the carapace of a giant crab. 

Talk to me about the process of designing so many new titans. What sorts of ideas or features did you want to highlight in them to make them stand out in the large canon of Godzilla kaiju?

Sometimes there’s literally a direction on a page like, “We want to see a star-nosed mole crossed with the pangolin.” But we also looked at what had been done previously in the Legendary movies and used those as some of the guiding principles for how we designed our titans. The natural world was a big source of inspiration for a lot of our new titans, and through them, we really wanted to embellish some of the weird, freaky things that already exist around us.  

Give me an example.

Take the endoswarm creatures from the second episode that come out of the pit to engulf Keiko as she’s hanging precariously. We found this weird undersea creature that had this spiky shell and all these strange legs. We designed something kind of elaborate based on that animal. But as we were going to finish it, our production designer showed me this image of a beetle carapace that had all of these gorgeous, shiny orange flecks. We ended up using that as the basis for the texture to go on top of our creature because it helped make it feel more real.

Did getting those more open-ended directions for creatures give you more freedom to experiment visually?

Yeah, in some instances, the direction we received would just describe, say, “a ship in the middle of a jungle with something coming out of it.” But because that ship is part of how the show introduces a titan, we would want it to feel incongruent or out of place in some mysterious kind of way.

Were there other instances of that that ended up wowing you as you were working on the show?

While we were going through the writing phase of the series, that portal turn in episode eight was actually a really big challenge to realize. In episode four, we needed to give our characters a waypoint and somewhere to go. We kept thinking of ideas, and everything that we came up with just felt too sci-fi.

How so?

Shaw’s been through all these crazy adventures in the past with monsters at that point in the season, and if we’d made things too obviously sci-fi, we felt like he would be asking himself, “Why am I running toward my death right now?”

That’s fair.

But we were doing a scout one Saturday at like six in the morning, and I was on my phone reading the CBC — I’m a Canadian — and there was this photo of this phenomenon called a light pillar. Basically, it happens when you have ice crystals that get illuminated from something below, and they project these big columns of light. 

We took that idea and put it into the background of the shot in episode four, and that became our narrative waypoint. The closer you get, the more and more obvious that it becomes, “Oh, no, this is not a place we want to go toward.” But hitting that waypoint is what leads to our characters finding these portals into another world in later episodes, and that same kind of light effect became a motif we run throughout the rest of the season.

You mentioned a bit earlier how, given the budget that the show has, you weren’t necessarily facing a lot of the challenges that an episodic show would normally face. Looking forward, if you had your druthers, what sorts of big swings would you want to take if you were in a similar position where the confines of traditional television storytelling weren’t a concern? 

Well, I would love to have a little bit more time in the production schedule and maybe get into things like working with an LED volume to give the actors something to really look at and see while we’re shooting. There are so many logistical difficulties and limitations to shooting that way, like only being able to shoot with one camera, and it didn’t make sense for season 1. But maybe, at some point, with something else I work on, we’ll get to do it.