Guillermo Del Toro is the original fan boy. The director who has been behind an amazing variation of creatively powerful work, from Hellboy to Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro is passionately engaged in the worlds of fantasy and sci-fi. So much so that he acknowledged his own obsession by dubbing his latest effort, Pacific Rim, “robot porn.”
Robot porn it is. The terrifying Kaiju — huge monsters from the depth of the ocean, each with its own physiognomy and personality — meet the 250-foot high Jaegers, man-made and man-directed battleship-like robots. The immensity of these main characters (who play alongside a cast of human actors with their human dramas) can’t be over-stated. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), a pioneer in all VFX, brought this all to life.
ILM hard surface modeler David Fogler enumerates some of the stats: The Jaeger ‘Gipsy Danger’ is so large that the Statue of Liberty would only reach its knees. It is 10 times taller than King Kong and its feet are as long as two city buses. She (in the tradition that battleships are referred to as females) takes only two steps to cross a football field.
(L-r) The United States’ Gipsy Danger and Australia’s Striker Eureka.
ILM created 21 variations of Gipsy Danger, accounting for its two major upgrades and all the battle damage. “We had to compensate for all those different versions of Gipsy,” says co-VFX supervisor Eddie Pasquarello. “Multiple artists actively worked on the Gipsy Danger model for a full year.”
The Kaiju (Japanese for “strange creature”) had its own challenges. Their power is classified, like hurricanes, on a scale of 1 through 5, 4 and 5 being the most destructive to the Jaegers. Kaiju are organic; they’re not born, however, but grown. And their blood is a corrosive glowing liquid called Kaiju Blue. Onibaba is a Category 2 Kaiju; Knifehead is Category 3; and Category 4 Kaiju include Leatherback, Otachi, Raiju, Scunner and Sydney.
“The Jaegers and the Kaijus are central to the film — not more important than the actors of course, but if they don’t work, the film won’t work,” says ILM Animation Supervisor Hal Hickel. “Normally on a project, we go out and look at whatever we can to provide references. We did that for Jurassic Park, when we went to the zoo and looked at giraffes and ostriches among other animals. But with 250-foot machines, there’s nothing that will help you with that. We had to use our imaginations.”
ILM Animation Supervisor Hal Hickel
The shot count for Pacific Rim was 1566, and ILM split the work up among its San Francisco (432 shots), Singapore (163 shots) and Vancouver (190 shots) facilities. ILM’s John Knoll was the overall VFX supervisor; Pasquarello and Lindy DeQuattro were co-VFX supervisors; and Nigel Sumner was the VFX Supervisor at ILM’s Singapore facility. Although the lion’s share of the VFX were done by ILM, Pasquarello reports that some work was also done by Base FX, Rodeo FX, Hybrideand Ghost VFX.
“I was a very nice mix of companies and workers,” says Pasquarello. “I feel like we cast it well, to everyone’s strength. No company just did rotoscoping; everyone did their shots from start to finish, so everyone shared in the full finalling process. We’re super proud of everyone who worked on it.
Rodeo does gorgeous environments, including some of the establishing shots flying into the Shatterdome in Hong Kong; Base FX worked on Shatterdome interiors using ILM assets and also did work on placing Jaegers inside the Shatterdome; Ghost FX did some interior work as well as a sequence where you see buildings constructed around the fallen Kaijus; and Hybride did all the phenomenal heads-up displays and graphics.”
“All these companies took on unique challenges and did very well,” he concludes. ILM also supervised all these far-flung companies: Base FX is in Beijing; Rodeo FX and Hybride in Montreal; and Ghost VFX in Copenhagen. “We had lots of CineSync sessions together,” says Pasquarello. “We share a pipeline with Vancouver and Singapore mirrors our pipeline. Lindy and I covered all the third party work together and we’d have our own dailies and CineSync sessions as well as online reviews.”
ILM got the Pacific Rim job by completing a test; along with several other contenders, they completed a sequence that was part of the Hong Kong battle between Kaiju and Jaegers. “I read that Guillermo was privately hoping it would be ILM,” says Pasquarello. “Fortunately, our test impressed him, Legendary and Warner Bros.”
From the beginning, Del Toro told ILM that he wanted a look that was gritty and dirty. “He wanted you to see the oil, the dirt,” says Pasquarello. “He didn’t want unrealistic camera moves and shaky cam. He wanted you to feel that you could actually put a camera in that position as opposed to something you couldn’t believe.”
One of the first things Del Toro told the ILM group was that they had to assume that some of the shooting — to be realistic — would have to be from a helicopter. ” He wanted to see the rotor wash in the water below, from the off-frame camera shooting it,” Pasquarello says. “You see flaring and splashing on the lens that isn’t stylistic. He wanted it all grounded in actuality across the board.”
China’s Crimson Typhoon.
The goal of creating realism with such un-real creatures hit its first bump when it came to the push-pull between scale and speed in animating them. “The first thing you do to suggest huge scale is to slow things down,” says Hickel. “But the sequences are action-sequences so you can’t slow it down. We had to figure out how fast we could go and still have it feel as big as we wanted it to feel. Part of it was taking into consideration that they wouldn’t be fighting in an open space but a big chunk in Hong Kong and another chunk in the ocean, so there would be fluid simulations of the ocean reacting to them. We have very sophisticated software to do that to make water and its reactions as realistic as possible. But if we were to animate the characters too fast, it wouldn’t mesh with the realistic water motion.”
(L-r) China’s Crimson Typhoon and Russia’s Cherno Alpha.
“The same with the Kaijus and Jaegers crashing through the city,” he adds. “If they’re trashing through too quickly, it won’t look realistic. We had to figure out how fast we could go, and then it became a challenge to design of the sequence, how to cut from one shot to the next. Guillermo has an awesome sense of rhythm, when to speed up and slow down, when to add the lightning flash. On our end, we contributed ideas.”
The United States’ Gipsy Danger.
“In one scene, Gipsy Danger is throwing a roundhouse punch and if we showed the punch wide, it would feel like slow motion,” he says. “A little of that is nice to give it scale and grandeur, but the way it actually plays in the scene we start on the live actors and we see the Jaegers throwing the punch, then we see Gipsy mid-way through the punch. Then we added a shot that looks like we mounted the camera on the fist of the Jaeger, which creates a visceral exciting shot. Figuring out interesting angles to shoot things and using the standard time-honored editorial tricks of when to cut on the impact and what angle to use worked with what we were doing in animation to make it look fast.”
Pasquarello agrees that ILM was “constantly trying to find weight and show proper scale.” “I think we achieved it better than we could have imagined and at the same time to Guillermo’s aesthetic,” he says. “He knows better than anyone the Toho movies he’s paying tribute to. When you combine that aesthetic with the scale of the movie, it’s unique, something you haven’t seen before. And Guillermo pushed us to that.”
Differentiating the Kaijus from the Jaegers was important. “I had a conversation with Guillermo early on,” says Hickel. “I said, the Jaegers are bipeds controlled by people, so do you want to use motion capture? He said, no, I want to have very intentionally stylized motion so that you can really feel that there is machinery inside, that the Jaeger is doing what the pilots inside do, but it’s machine parts that make this 250-foot machine go forward.”
Director GUILLERMO DEL TORO on the set.
They rejected the idea of a lurching stop-start mechanical look. “We couldn’t go there, partly because it starts looking goofy and not capable of defeating a monster,” says Hickel. “If you imagine all that weight, once you get it up to speed, the idea you’ll get it to stop and then bring it up to speed doesn’t make sense. We had to respect the mass moving. It can’t come to a sharp stop, but we had to find ways within the motion, such as the arm motion, to put in little hard stops and mechanical recoils that was almost a layer on top of the motion that tells the audience it’s a big machines.”
Just as Del Toro was interested in a larger realism with regard to the movie’s look, he also wanted the realism of seeing as many small details as possible. “The Jaegers are pretty simple forms, covered with armored plating,” says Hickel. “He wanted them to feel like walking battleships. But between the plates, he wanted to make sure the audience sensed that it was packed full of machinery, and we see the pistons and gears moving. This thing is enormous, complex and mechanical.”
A walking battleship. The United States’ Gipsy Danger moves a crab fishing boat out of danger.
As Pasquarello notes, Del Toro wanted to see “the small against the large.” “You see the little pistons moving in this 250-foot creature,” he says. “You see the levels of scale that the Jaeger effects when it walks through the ocean. The result is layered and complex, and it all adds up to a very believable war environment.”
“This is just good filmmaking,” he adds. “When you see this large Jaeger, you have nothing to measure against it unless you put something against it scale-wise. Guillermo is a master of the way he composes the shots so, for example, putting a piece of the Shatterdome behind a Jaeger. A lot of our shots were designed to push the envelope of selling the scale of the movie.”
The challenge of creating the Kaijus was different than that of the Jaegers. “We had to make them look organic,” says Hickel. “And that is more familiar to us, since we’ve done so much creature work throughout the years. The design of the creatures guided the animation. Leatherback is reminiscent of a gorilla, so you want to move him like a gorilla. Otachi, who is this smart, wily, mean-looking Kaiju, needed to look like he was thinking and calculating, and he looked more like a dragon with that movement.”
A Kaiju, code name Leatherback.
“Guillermo would give us info about the personalities of the different Kaijus, and, for the animators, that’s the fun part,” he says. “You get a cool creature and some words about the inner life of the creature and then you go to town on it…with the same scale challenges as the rest of the film. But that was less of a discover process than the mechanical language for the Jaegers. The tricky part for us with the Kaijus is that Guillermo loves his monsters and thinks a lot about them. If we were ever vamping with a monster — having it stand there and not do anything with a purpose — Guillermo always pushed us to make the characters always look engaged, never just sitting around waiting for the next punch to come. He wanted them to feel like they’re present in the scene, otherwise it’s bad acting.”
“It’s good to be pushed that way,” Hickel adds. “Guillermo is very literate about animation of all kinds and he really speaks our language and we can have really great conversations with him, which is a lot of fun.”
Russia’s Cherno Alpha
Hickel says another big challenge in the film was the simulations such as the water and destruction. “It was so complex and intense on this show,” he says. “CG water is hard to do and we’ve been doing it on and off since Perfect Storm. And it never gets any easier. We’re getting better at it, but we’re always asking our artists for more. We did some good work with the maelstrom in Pirates of the Caribbean 3 as well as in Battleship. But in Pacific Rim, many scenes take place in or under the water. Or, if not, it’s raining, and dripping off the creatures. All that work is worth noting.”
Pacific Rim‘s pipeline was similar to that of an animated feature. “We wanted to get the animation right before we started simulating, and we tried not to do too many things simultaneously,” says Pasquarello. “When Gipsy Danger is walking through the sea, he’s displacing lots of water, but then there’s the second and third sim of how it splashes back, hits Gipsy and rolls back off. With our pipeline, similar to the way you’d do an animation feature, we’d lock up the animation up front.” ILM used Maya for animation; its main renderer was Arnold but V-Ray and RenderMan were also used. For environments, ILM artists used 3ds Max and V-Ray, Nuke for compositing, The Foundry’s Mari for paint, and a proprietary rotoscoping tool.
(L-r) The United States’ Gipsy Danger and Australia’s Striker Eureka.
In looking back at the work on Pacific Rim, Pasquarello says that scale was perhaps the biggest challenge. “The Shatterdome, where the Jaegers are housed and serviced, was very difficult in the sense that it needed to feel like a little city so there are all kinds of scale issues there,” he says. “You believe it is a city of its own and that proves just as challenging as anything else. Guillermo doesn’t take anything lightly. He’s the perfect client in that sense because everyone here likes to take things to the max, and he pushed us to do that.”
Pacific Rim, in fact, was the first time that Del Toro worked with ILM, and the collaboration was both unique and especially rewarding for all the fanboy-artists at ILM.
“The collaboration with Guillermo wasn’t typical,” says Pasquarello. “He was here on the ground, with us and aware of what everything took he used every effort for the maximum effect on the screen. Having him be such an integral part of the team as opposed to being elsewhere and having us show him shots drove us to new heights.”
Japan’s Coyote Tango.
Then there’s the synergy between Del Toro and the kind of people who are drawn to careers in visual effects. “ILM is full of fan boys exactly like Guillermo,” says Hickel. “People can sense his love for the material, the fun of making monsters which is part of what we do here. He loves that and we love him.”
“It’s a geeky group,” admits Pasquarello. “I keep trying to tell myself I’m not one of them but I have the Kaiju toys behind me on my desk. Guillermo was here a lot and called the whole crew together several times. He wanted everyone here to understand his decisions and what they were doing and to believe in it. So people got more invested because he was passionate. We felt his heart in this and we all bought into it.”
That love of the genre clearly translates to the screen, and critics and audiences are responding to it. It seems a bit surprising that Pacific Rim is the first time that fantasy-loving Del Toro worked with the masters of illusion ILM. Clearly, it was a good marriage.
Photo Credits in order of appearance:
(L-R) The United States’ Gipsy Danger and Australia’s Striker Eureka in a scene from the sci-fi action adventure “Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures PACIFIC RIM,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES. © 2013 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND LEGENDARY PICTURES FUNDING, LLC.
ILM Animation Supervisor Hal Hickel
Industrial Light & Magic VFX supervisor Eddie Pasquarello
China’s Crimson Typhoon in a scene from the sci-fi action adventure Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures PACIFIC RIM, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES. © 2013 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND LEGENDARY PICTURES FUNDING, LLC.
(L-r) Russia’s Cherno Alpha and China’s Crimson Typhoon in a scene from the sci-fi action adventure “Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures PACIFIC RIM,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES. © 2013 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND LEGENDARY PICTURES FUNDING, LLC.
The United States’ Gipsy Danger in a scene from the sci-fi action adventure Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures PACIFIC RIM, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES. © 2013 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND LEGENDARY PICTURES FUNDING, LLC.
Director GUILLERMO DEL TORO on the set of the sci-fi action adventure Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures PACIFIC RIM, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: KERRY HAYES. © 2013 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND LEGENDARY PICTURES FUNDING, LLC.
The United States’ Gipsy Danger moves a crab fishing boat out of danger in a scene from the sci-fi action adventure Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures Pacific Rim, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES. © 2013 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND LEGENDARY PICTURES FUNDING, LLC.
A Kaiju, code name Leatherback, in a scene from the sci-fi action adventure “Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures PACIFIC RIM,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES. © 2013 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND LEGENDARY PICTURES FUNDING, LLC.
Russia’s Cherno Alpha in a scene from the sci-fi action adventure Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures PACIFIC RIM, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. © 2013 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND LEGENDARY PICTURES FUNDING, LLC.
(L-r) The United States’ Gipsy Danger and Australia’s Striker Eureka in a scene from the sci-fi action adventure Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures PACIFIC RIM, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. © 2013 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND LEGENDARY PICTURES FUNDING, LLC.
Japan’s Coyote Tango in a scene from the sci-fi action adventure Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures PACIFIC RIM, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. © 2013 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND LEGENDARY PICTURES FUNDING, LLC.