Pacific Rim pays tribute to classic monster movies and films about massive mechanical gladiators — but at the same time, this movie looks totally different than anything you've ever seen. We talked exclusively to the head creature designer, the legendary Wayne Barlowe, and VFX supervisor John Knoll, to find out why.
The thing that comes across loud and clear when you talk to people who worked on creating Pacific Rim is that this film is like no other giant effects-heavy blockbuster of recent years. When you watch these massive robots and ginormous monsters trashing each other on the big screen, you're seeing a whole different visual approach to this large-scale carnage. And when you read the "making of" book, Pacific Rim: Man, Machine and Monsters by David S. Cohen, you're just blown away by the eye-popping artwork and imagery on every page.
We're lucky enough to feature some exclusive pictures from the Pacific Rim art book, courtesy of Insight Editions, along with our exclusive interviews with Wayne Barlowe and John Knoll. Plus we have a few exclusive pieces of art from Barlowe himself.
So here's why Pacific Rim doesn't look like any other films you've seen:
Del Toro pushed the monster envelope with creature designs
"[Director] Guillermo del Toro wanted original designs that would redefine the genre," says Barlowe, whose creature design has been featured in Avatar, the Harry Potter films, Galaxy Quest and tons of other films. In particular, del Toro really wanted the team of creature designers to steer clear of homages to earlier monsters or other films.
When del Toro was trying to make a movie of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, Barlowe spent a couple of months working on creature designs, and had a lot of fun "digging into Lovecraft," something he'd also done in his book Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials. But none of that work made its way into Pacific Rim, and "I did not superimpose any Cthulhu madness into my designs," says Barlowe.
At the same time, these creatures aren't supposed to look like any Earth creatures at all — even though some early designs have a bit of hammerhead shark or bat wings in them. "It was not Guillermo del Toro's intent to evoke Earth creatures with the kaiju," says Barlowe. When del Toro was doing his monster "American Idol" to choose the best monsters, "the vetting process was based solely on what would look intimidating to the viewer," he says — so if there was a particularly scary creature that had an analogue on Earth, it did get advanced on that basis alone.
"While I particularly like colossal squid, I'm afraid there are no kaiju squid-cousins in Pacific Rim," adds Barlowe.
Del Toro "loves his monsters and they're very important to him," says Knoll. "He wanted to make sure they were all distinctly different and they had their own personalities and looks."
This was totally different from how del Toro approached monsters before
As we already mentioned, Barlowe worked on del Toro's Mountains of Madness, but Pacific Rim was completely different. He also worked on both Hellboy movies, which were "a kick to work on," and required creating a sense of long history rather than monsters that had just sprung out of nowhere. Barlowe explains:
Mike [Mignola]'s terrific property married to Guillermo del Toro's unique visual sensibility pretty much dictated the approach I fell into. There's a sense of antiquity to the Hellboy creatures that is pervasive - their costumes and accoutrements and very forms seemed to me to beg for exotic, occult trappings. Most of those designs were created for intelligent creatures which meant costumes and belongings. Sammael was closer in form but not in spirit — there was always a sense of dark intent with him. The kaiju are beasts. Brutal and pretty much non-sentient. At least that is how it was left when I last read the script. The template was more in line with monsters than trolls, if you catch the drift. There was no sense of a past culture to them of any kind. So, working on them felt different inasmuch as they were animals and not the kind of beings, supernatural or otherwise, that would populate Mike and Guillermo's world of Hellboy.
All of the lighting and camera angles in the fight scenes look real
A major concern in designing the big computer-animated fight scenes between the Kaiju and the Jaegers was to avoid "impossible camera angles" or mysterious light sources, says Knoll, who's also Industrial Light and Magic's chief creative officer.
With a movie like this, that wasn't a sequel or extension of an existing property, ILM's people had some freedom to "develop the look of the film, independent of anything else," without having an existing stylebook imposed on them, says Knoll. Which meant they could push for way more realism than usual with the shots and the photography style.
So for example, this gave ILM a chance to make sure that every CG shot in the film seemed like it was filmed with a real camera. Knoll kept saying, "In theory, this one
is shot from a boat, this is a helicopter shot, [and] this is a guy on the street, so it should have a little bit of a handheld thing." These choices informed the type of lens that was being simulated as well as the motion of the camera.
Likewise, del Toro and the ILM artists were keen to avoid having any light in the shots that didn't have a key source. In some sequences, there are helicopters with floodlights that illuminate the action, like flying key grips. "I'm always looking for motivated light sources," says Knoll.
In the first big fight scene, off the Alaska coast, there's no light except for what's coming from the spotlights and floodlights of the big robot Jaeger itself. "That seemed like a great opportunity for drama," says Knoll. "It's all pitch black, and you're wandering around with a flashlight, looking for the monster. [But] you don't see it until it's right next to you, and it's kind of rearing up in the headlights."
At the same time, in the major fight scenes, often there's lightning providing sporadic illumination, but also rain pouring down and water splashing up from the ocean.
These creatures have no personality other than malevolence
Barlowe has created tons of creatures that exude personality and seem to have a range of emotions — but this time around, he put all of his expressive powers into coming up with creatures that seemed filled with hate. He explains:
I do try to infuse the characters I create with some semblance of relatable personality. I've always had a funny anthropomorphic streak which compels me to put something almost human into the creatures I design. Maybe it's the 'sour note' — the one thing that brings alien lifeforms into a sphere of some form of recognizability. I'm not so sure I want that in all my designs especially if I'm striving for pure 'alien-ness.' In the case of the kaiju, you're right. They are monsters bent on apocalyptic destruction.
Including Barlowe, there were a half dozen top creature artists working on this film from early on, and they worked on generating Kaiju designs for six or seven months. "We had the singular privilege of working in Guillermo del Toro's legendary 'man-cave,' a collector's heaven, and the camaraderie was nearly immediate," says Barlowe. Del Toro "encouraged a really rich arc of visual development." And meanwhile, maquette sculptors, 2D artists and CG artists were all encouraged to throw their ideas into the pot, so that there were as many ideas as possible.
Adds Barlowe: "I loved seeing the insanity that flowed out of the other artists and it was, for me, a challenge to push myself to try to go past a design I did only the day before." But del Toro "kept a steady hand on the tiller" and always had a sense of what would and wouldn't work.
ILM used physics (sort of) to convey the scale of these titans
The physics is definitely not accurate in this movie — early in production, Knoll did the math to figure out how 250-foot-tall robots should be moving, and found that they would be moving about one-sixth the speed of a six-foot-tall human. But at the same time, Knoll, who comes from a family of scientists and engineers, pushed for more realistic physics wherever possible.
There was always a tradeoff between speed and physics — del Toro wanted the monsters and robots to move fast, for exciting fight choreography, but if things moved too fast then the monsters and robots felt weightless rather than massive, and you lose the sense of scale.
"I'm also looking for anything where we can distinguish ourselves" from movies like Real Steel or Transformers, says Knoll. He argued, "Why not embrace the premise? We're creating a world with these 250-foot-tall creations. Embrace the implications of that." And that meant not being afraid to have them move a little more slowly and use clever shot design to make it still look exciting — so if you see the robot fist go right past the camera, it seems to be whooshing past even though it doesn't move as fast as a human-sized fist.
Plus embracing the physics implications of this scale actually made things more exciting at times — like for example, you can show the "swirl of disturbed atmosphere" behind these massive creations as they move. When you think about how much air these creatures are displacing, and how fast they're moving, "you're almost creating a vacuum behind them," and we ought to see a "turbulent vortex" in their wake. "We should embrace things like that, that enhance the premise," Knoll says. "Those were the kind of arguments I would use," to avoid having everything move super fast.
At the same time, ILM's crew tried to create accurate simulations for things like water displacement — when the robots fight in the water, something the size of a Jaeger leg moving around in the ocean at 70 miles per hour, the ocean should basically explode "because the energy is so high." So they had to come up with fluid simulations that showed massive amounts of water being displaced — but enough to make the whole ocean surface displace. One cheat they did was to calculate only about the first 10 feet or so of the ocean surface, not the whole ocean. As if the robot leg was "semi-permeable." That way, the robots still look massive and heavy but there aren't tidal waves going around them.
At the same time, massive amounts of rainfall and ocean spray are running off the robots and monsters, accumulating on their surfaces and running down to low points. When they run, huge amounts of water is flung off.
Likewise, in the city destruction scenes, to compensate for the characters moving so fast, the simulations turned up the gravity a little bit so that debris and other stuff also falls more quickly than it actually would.
Similarly, Barlowe says he thought about what kind of skeletal structure the Kaiju would need to have to support that massive amount of weight — but you had to assume they were from another world, and our rules didn't apply to them:
A while back, when I was working briefly in the paleo-art world, I read a book that delved into this very subject. The conclusion was that, of course there are structural limits to the size animals can grow to on our planet given its gravity. As you have suggested, the biomechanics simply would not allow for a creature to reach the sizes that re depicted in PACRIM. The bone proportions would be ridiculous. It's a bit like the depiction of angels - to lift a mass the size of a human, wings would have to be roughly 30-40 feet from tip to tip or thereabouts. Not practical to show in movies. In this case, the kaiju are not born of this world and so, we can willfully suspend disbelief and sit back and enjoy the ride.
And in fact, Barlowe says this was different than the kind of world-building he did in some of his art books, like Expedition, where he was creating scientifically plausible creatures that could have been shaped by a real process of evolution:
In that book's development curve, I created some initial "scientific" principles — conjectures, really - and stuck with them throughout. It was pure world-building, which I love to do. I felt I had to maintain a visual and biological consistency within those self-proscribed boundaries to give readers a sense of an integrated, environmental world. Most of the ideas came from creatures here on Earth but were enhanced, conflated and tickled to make them more alien. With the kaiju, this was not so much the case. GDT wanted spectacle and carnage. He wanted gladiatorial creatures that kicked robotic ass. And, as I recall, their attributes were primarily a result of their functionality. The script's form initiated their function. That's not to say they didn't have to seem as if the same bizarre hand created them all — it did. But that hand had less of a recognizably scientific nature that we might understand than an attempt, such as EXPEDITION, to create what seemed the result of eons of evolution. That sense of a different logic was, I believe, was what GDT was going for.
Check out some more art pages from the Pacific Rim: Man, Machine and Monsters book below, courtesy of Insight Editions. You'll definitely want to click to enlarge these. The book also includes some amazing pull-out posters and large blueprints, along with tons of insights into the film's creative process. Pacific Rim is in theaters this Friday!