Meet the man who brought Pacific Rim's Kaiju and Jaegers to life
30th Oct 2013 | 10:30
The tech behind Pacific Rim's fighting spirit revealed
A creature towers above a miniature landscape, its upper body stretching beyond wispy clouds. There is commotion underneath, created by the threat of being trampled, but the creature is oblivious. Its eyes trained on something else in the distance, its arms up ready for battle.
This could describe any of the many fantastic battle scenes in Pacific Rim, director Guillermo del Toro's monster bash which heads to Blu-ray in the UK November 11, but it's actually a description of The Colossus, a 19th Century painting by Goya.
According to Hal Hickel, animation director on Pacific Rim, the oil painting was one of the surprising inspirations for the look and feel of a movie that at first glance owes more to pixel power than a painter's brush.
"That was first image he showed us, The Colossus by Goya, and the first words del Toro spoke to us about Pacific Rim were 'operatic' and 'poetic'," explains Hickel to TechRadar.
"He told us to forget about the painting's landscape and imagine it was the ocean and the clouds were sea spray and this figure was coming out."
And that was how the scene was set in pre-production for Pacific Rim, a movie with the achingly simple premise: man-made robots fight giant monsters.
Imagining these amphibious creatures (or Kaiju as they are known in the movie, a description ripped from the pages of Japanese storytelling) and giant robots (called Jaegers in Pacific Rim) takes a lot of computational power, VFX wizardry and, well, suspension of disbelief.
But this is something Hickel is well versed in. His CV is a geek tick-list of VFX laden Hollywood movies.
As animation supervisor at ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) his work can be seen in the Star Wars prequels, Super 8 and the movie that began Marvel's cinematic superhero onslaught, Iron Man.
It was Pacific Rim, however, that proved to be the perfect job for Hickel and his animation team.
"It was a dream come true working on this movie. If you could see my office, I am completely surrounded by toy robots and Kaiju.
"We hadn't worked with Del Toro before but we all knew he had a great vocabulary for visual effects."
Before Pacific Rim, del Toro had already showed the world with Pan's Labyrinth and two Hellboy movies he could successfully meld VFX with humour and pathos.
Much like his contemporaries Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, del Toro came from the practical effects laden world of horror before hitting blockbuster status – a grounding Hickel believes worked well for Pacific Rim.
"The colour, the vibe, del Toro knew exactly the mood to go for with the movie," says Hickel.
"Pacific Rim is a bit like a comic-book film. We were taking on a goofy sub genre but del Toro had the right tone. He didn't want to it to be too adult, he wanted it to be fun."
It's credit to a movie, then, that focuses on lumbering robots that these oversized metal machines close-up looked like practical effects but were practically all CGI. This was due to the 'colossal' scale of the movie del Toro, by way of Goya, wanted to create.
It was a movie that was even too big for the streets of Hong Kong.
"This was definitely a movie that was heavy on CG. Typically you go out and shoot as much as you can in camera but the scale meant we couldn't," notes Hickel.
"While the baby Kaiju scene was typical special effects, the big battles were 100% CG. The action was on such a huge scale. There aren't any boulevards in Hong Kong wide enough for that type of action. There is quite a lot of destruction and water interaction in the movie that we had to incorporate."
Keeping the human element
Being computer generated didn't mean that a human element was lost, though. In fact in creating the movie the practical nature of the creatures harked back to Japan's Godzilla movies of old, where the term Kaiju was coined and many of the monsters were portrayed by men in suits.
"We had a lot of conversations about the 'man in suit' look for the movie. That's what was so great about those Kaiju films. When, say, Godzilla got hit by a rock there is this sort of suit shake – the guy inside the suit actually shakes the suit! It is signature to these movies.
"What we did with our creature effects was pay homage without going all the way."
As for the 250-foot Jaegers, focusing on the smaller details of the suits helped the movie, reckons Hickel, even though Pacific Rim was all about monster bashing on an epic scale.
"It was tough figuring out the physics for the Jaegers. We didn't write tools to exactly replicate what a robot that size would do as it would feel too big, too ponderous, heavy, huge and boring. Some of the size came from editing and clever shot design and camera shots," says Hickel.
"Instead we felt it was important to differentiate the Jaegers. They are are so slow, so we paid attention to pieces that could move without arresting the motion. If you did that stop-start thing it would feel goofy.
"We focused on the smaller incidental details and put little mechanical accents on smaller areas of the Jaeger to help with the scale."
Attention to 3D
On the big screen, 3D helped these little details pop out and Pacific Rim is one of the few movies where this technology works well, despite being an afterthought for the movie. Hickel puts this down to taking time with the conversion.
"Good 3D is all down to attention. As we were rolling into the 3D, John Knoll had already been involved with Star Wars conversion. He knew it was possible to do it well but you have to spend time on it. Fortunately, when it was announced that the movie would be 3D Guillermo became engaged with 3D. Straight away he sought John's eye for the movie.
"The big concern for us was miniaturisation. You shoot these 250-foot tall characters and bad 3D would make them look flat and small. Fortunately del Toro was concerned about this as well and kept an eye on it."
After battling miniaturisation, it's obvious that size does matter for Pacific Rim – which makes the movie's arrival on Blu-ray an interesting one. Will it retain its epic feel on a smaller screen, especially for those who saw the movie on IMAX?
Hickel doesn't think it will be a problem, though he does admit that even though he worked heavily on the movie, he didn't see it on the biggest screen possible.
"I never actually watched Pacific Rim on IMAX, but I am really curious about it in the home. It may not have the same feel but it will definitely be enjoyable," explains Hickel.
"We are in an age where many people are having such big screens in their home and I am dying to see it on Blu-ray.
"It is probably not a good film to watch on your iPhone, though."
Pacific Rim arrives on Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray and DVD on November 11 from Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures. Own if first on digital download from November 4.