Thirty years ago, the King of the Monsters lost in battle to an unlikely foe.
Godzilla had already faced the likes of Gigan, Ghidorah, and Mothra and vanquished each of them, but on September 9, 1992, a new enemy stomped down the streets of Tokyo. In contrast to his previous foes, this new challenger wore a tank top, black basketball shorts, and, most importantly, a pair of white Nikes. It was NBA superstar Charles Barkley, now standing at a startling 160 feet.
Dribbling his basketball, Barkley glares down Godzilla, challenging him to a gargantuan game of hoops. Slipping on a pair of bright pink basketball goggles, Godzilla accepts the challenge and with the swipe of his tail, knocks the ball from Barkley’s hands. The 11-time NBA All-Star catches the ball, though, and proceeds to elbow Godzilla right in the face. As the King of Monsters falls onto a building and crushes it, Barkley dunks the ball into a giant hoop, winning the match.
The Nike commercial “Godzilla vs. Charles Barkley” was one of the biggest advertising events of the early 1990s. Not only did it premiere during the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, but Nike even produced a teaser trailer, which ran for several weeks beforehand. There was tie-in merchandise including posters, a comic book, and T-shirts.
Conceived of by the advertising agency of Wieden+Kennedy and produced by none other than Industrial Light and Magic, the 30-second spot featured tremendous production value and was a slam-dunk for Nike, the 29-year-old Barkley, and, even though he was defeated, Godzilla as well.
Godzilla was at a low point in America at the time, Dan Rogers (who helps run Wiki Zilla) tells Inverse. Charles Barkley’s rising star helped revitalize the franchise. “The early 1990s was a time when there wasn’t much Godzilla content coming to America.”
Thirty years later, the ad has over a million views on YouTube. It lives on in the hearts of monster and basketball fans alike. Most of all, though, it’s remembered fondly by the team that put it together, who are here to tell the story to Inverse.
Warren Eakins (former art director at Wieden+Kennedy): Back in 1992, my writing partner, Steve Sandoz — who has since passed away — and I were working at Wieden+Kennedy and Nike was a client of ours. There was a new product meeting where Nike came to the agency and they were introducing a new product: a big man’s basketball shoe for the Asia market, which they’d never done before. Back in those days, it was pretty simple. Nike divided basketball sneakers into two parts, big men and small men, or “force” and “flight.” In Asia, it had all been low-tops and this was the first time they’d launched a big man’s shoe.
At the meeting, Nike goes through the shoe and how it’s for the big man. As soon as they said Charles Barkley was going to be the face of this shoe, Steve and I instantly looked at each other and both mouthed “Godzilla.” We were both big Godzilla fans and we were looking for an idea to use him in. We were also basketball and Barkley fans. This was just before the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, where Barkley would be on the first Dream Team. So while he was known in basketball, this meeting took place before Barkley was really a big superstar. By the time the ad aired in September, he was already huge from the Summer Olympics and this commercial made him even bigger.
“We took the miniature set they built for Ghostbusters II and rebuilt it to look like Tokyo.”
Godzilla versus Charles Barkley seemed natural. Steve and I were so sure of it, we got up and left the meeting and we went down to Dan Wieden’s office, he was the co-founder of Wieden+Kennedy. David Kennedy, the other co-founder, was there too and they asked, “How’d the basketball meeting go?” I said, “It’s still going on, but we’ve nailed it already.” We told them, “Godzilla vs. Charles Barkley, one-on-one in downtown Tokyo.” They said, “God, that’s great.”
The idea was sold very quickly to Nike. We presented it to them and they loved it. Steve and I and our producer John Adams then got on a plane to go to Barkley, who was on the road. I can’t remember where this was, but I remember laying out the storyboards on the bed of his hotel room to show him and his manager. Right away, he thought it’d be great. Finally, we brought it to Toho, the Japanese company that owns Godzilla, and they liked it. We were off and running. And, of course, we thought ILM would be the best company to pull this off.
Clint Goldman (producer of “Godzilla vs. Charles Barkley”): I managed this project at ILM. Michael Owens was a director and visual effects supervisor in our commercial division. He had both the technical chops and he was a cameraman, so I thought he was the right guy to direct this.
Michael Owens (director of “Godzilla vs. Charles Barkley)': I’m not a sports fan and I wasn’t really into Godzilla, but this idea was such a great concept that I was really excited to do it. From what I remember, the agency presented the idea and some rough storyboards to us, then the ILM art department and I redid the storyboards and presented that back to them for approval. They agreed and we got to building the sets and that incredible Godzilla costume.
Jeff Mann (creature shop supervisor on “Godzilla vs. Charles Barkley”): We took the miniature set they built for Ghostbusters II and rebuilt it to look like Tokyo. As for the suit, we had to go back and forth with Toho quite a bit because they’re very protective of Godzilla. I remember we had to sculpt these two expressions for them out of plasticine clay to show exactly what expressions he’d be making in the ad.
Goldman: Those protective goggles that Godzilla wore in the commercial — which were inspired by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s goggles — also required a bit of conversation with Toho. Godzilla, of course, wouldn’t normally wear that, so they really needed to understand it and understand why he’d wear them. It took some back and forth, but Toho agreed once they understood.
Mann: To wear the Godzilla suit, I hired Ron Thiele, the principal dancer of the Oakland Ballet, because he’s really strong and he had the right endurance to do this part. It was also hotter than sh*t in that suit, which was made of foam and rubber and probably weighed about 100 pounds.
The feet for the costume were actually built off these really bitchin’ Nikes, so they were really comfortable. As for the head, it was worn on top of a helmet that Thiele wore and we radio-controlled the expressions for his eyes, eyebrows, and his mouth opening. There was a bit of a snarl on his lip.
Saga Shoffner (former international advertising manager at Nike): When Barkley was on set, he was a blast. His sense of humor as a broadcaster comes out now, obviously, but even back then he was just great. Very affable, very entertaining, his time was very limited, but he really gave it his all.
Eakins: Charles was a great guy and a good sport, but he didn’t know what he was in for. He was there for two days and the spots he’d done in the past were all just him playing basketball. This shoot was far different. He was forced to hold these uncomfortable positions for 60 seconds at a time, which wasn’t easy and each shot was just a few seconds, so it was almost like animation because it was broken into so many pieces.
“It was almost like animation because it was broken into so many pieces.”
Goldman: At ILM, we set up a basketball court for him to play outside because there’s a lot of waiting around during the shoot.
Mann: We also kept him busy by teaching him how to drive the forklift, which he really enjoyed.
Owens: When it came to filming the spot, the beginning part of the commercial before Barkley arrives, that was pretty straightforward, but we had an issue with Barkley’s first shot. Barkley was being filmed from this low angle and he’s walking down the street, but it just didn’t look right. It wasn’t until we changed the frame rate to make him appear to be walking more slowly that it started to come together. That seemed to give him the size and weight he needed to be the height we were trying to portray.
We also had some trouble with this one shot, where there’s a low angle on the shoe and you can see Godzilla and the Tokyo sign in the background. It’s an important shot because, well, it’s the shoe, so we had to get it right. Barkley wore a size 16, but it just wouldn’t fill the frame enough, so we had Nike specially make a size 22 shoe just for the commercial.
Then there was the shot where Barkley elbows Godzilla. We tried it over and over again, but we couldn’t get the expressions right. Finally, I decided to do it in reverse, with them beginning with those expressions, and then pulling back. That worked.
When Godzilla falls and Barkley dunks the ball, that was a composite shot with Barkley on a blue screen. Godzilla trashing that building was hilarious, it was such a funny shot. I think it was kind of like those old Godzilla movies because it captured the funkiness of them. Did it look real? Maybe, kind of, but it felt like those old movies, and that was cool.
Dan Rogers (editor, writer, and presenter for Wiki Zilla): For the final shot, with Godzilla and Barkley walking down the street, there were two different ending lines. In the U.S., Barkley says, “The Lakers are looking for a big man.” In Japan, Barkley said, “Have you ever thought about wearing shoes?”
Bob Sarles (editor on “Godzilla vs. Charles Barkley”): Once it was filmed, this commercial just cut together like butter. The shoot was so tightly controlled that, when it came to editing, it was easy. The work was done on this state-of-the-art editing system called EditDroid, which was one of the first non-linear editing systems — it looked like a prop out of Star Trek. During some of his downtime at ILM, I remember Barkley was in the editing room and I was showing him this thing and he says, “I’ve got to get one of those things so I can cut my home movies.” I said to him, “It’s like, $100,000,” and he just winked at me and said that wouldn't be a problem.
Eakins: Once we’d filmed it, Nike U.S. asked to see what we’d done. We’d just barely started editing, but we showed them like, 15 seconds of it. Right away, they went ape-sh*t over it and they wanted it too. So, even though it was originally just for Asia, it became an American ad too and was eventually shown all over the world.
Sarles: They also had me cut together a trailer to use in a sales meeting, which consisted of clips from all these different Godzilla movies and just a few seconds of Barkley. They ended up liking it so much they asked me to make it into a 30-second TV spot to play during the NBA playoffs to tease the ad, which was going to air at 9 p.m. on September 9th, 1992, during the MTV Video Music Awards. Strangely, the trailer ended up airing more times than the actual spot did.
Owens: When the commercial aired, it was huge. I don’t even watch TV and I was hearing about it all over the place. My nephews and people like that were saying to me, “That was a great spot!” and they were so excited about Charles Barkley. There was also a lot of media coverage about it. I knew it was a cool ad, but I had no idea the impact it would have and that it would get all this tie-in merchandise.
Eakins: It was amazing. There were posters, T-shirts, a comic book.
Goldman: I still have this cool Godzilla vs. Barkley jacket that I still wear when I go to Warriors games, people always shout it out.
Rogers: “Godzilla vs. Charles Barkley” was especially important to Godzilla fans because it came in 1992, and the early 1990s was a time when there wasn’t much Godzilla content coming to America. More recently, one panel in particular of the comic book, with Godzilla playing basketball, has become kind of a random meme for Godzilla fans. Overall, the ad is kind of a fun piece of Godzilla history that the fans love. There are a lot of weird Godzilla commercials, and this is definitely one of the most memorable.
Goldman: In the years since it’s aired, I’d give a lot of credit to our editor, Bob Sarles, for keeping this project alive. It was Bob who put it on YouTube 16 years ago and helped introduce this ad to a new audience.
Sarles: Yeah, that’s true. On one hand, I guess it’s my own shameless self-promotion, but more seriously, I wanted to make a point to credit Michael and Clint and the whole rest of the team and the hard work everyone did at ILM. Yeah, it’s a fun commercial, but it’s also a throwback to a different era of ILM and special effects in general. Everything in that ad was practical or photochemical. It harkens back to another era that is sorely missed nowadays.