Oscar-nominated Writer-Director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Hellboy II, Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone) has given a special NFTS Q&A talk and private preview screening of his latest film Pacific Rim at Warner Brothers in London.
Speaking about his latest film ahead of its release on July 12, del Toro answered questions from students including those on Digital Effects, Production Design and Directing Animation,
When asked what made him want to make Pacific Rim – a sci-fi action movie featuring a battle by human driven robots to save Earth from an invasion of alien monsters - del Toro replied: “I don’t normally do films that I haven’t written but this was an exception. I read a one pager from Travis Beacham and right there I could see the movie in my head. I rang my agent and said ‘how soon can I make this movie?’”
The Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures film was originally shot in 2D but later converted to 3D, del Toro said he called Titanic director James Cameron: “He gave me some good advice and luckily, having come from an Effects background, I made sure that the toughest shots were done to my satisfaction. I am proud; I think the film looks like it was made in 3D.”
Industrial Light and Magic was chosen to create the visual effects for Pacific Rim along with Oscar winners John Knoll and Hal T. Hickel, both known for their work on the Star Wars prequel trilogy and the Pirates of the Caribbean films; Legacy Effects was hired to do the special and practical effects on the film. When asked by Digital Effects students how much attention he gave to the laws of physics in the film, del Toro said he’d spent a lot of time making sure the Sci-Fi environment worked and veracity was important but “…when it comes to physics you have to draw a line between looking good and looking real. In reality, robots of this size would move so slowly it would be like watching the most boring motion movie! And the monsters – no organism on our planet is going to reach that size. There is a point where you have to be willing to believe the fantasy.”
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He said the same was true when balancing the need to give the information and avoiding overloading them with unnecessary details. “If you explain too much, people will tune out. Just dramatise it once. The only rule you really need in a story is ‘…and then?’ If you are a good narrator, your audience will come with you without understanding all of the rules of physics etc. Empathy for your characters, that’s what you need. Explain to me the rules in ‘Spirited Away’? It doesn’t matter so long as you keep the audience wondering what happens next."
However, he added, you have to approach an action genre movie in a specific way: “Certain archetypes are needed to sustain the genre (a scientist, the hero, the guys they are fighting) but you can give them a twist. There are many things you can do to subvert genre, but still make it work.”
And action takes precedence over character: “You cannot do Chekov’s ‘The Seagull’ while filming a monster vs. robots movie. You will fail. Plot is subservient to action. Making an action movie is like a musical. In ‘An American in Paris’, does the film have amazing characters, is that what the audience wants? No, they want to see Gene Kelly dance again.”
Asked how he created the Kaiju monsters in the film, he said “Monster Movies are like beauty pageants; you’re not hiding your monsters – it’s all there on display. So you need renovate the enchantment for the audience.”
Del Toro was keen to avoid his monsters referencing monsters in other films so he looked to art and nature for inspiration: “I directed the designers to look at Japanese pagodas, a bone, a shape, as a starting point. I used Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa as a reference for the film's ocean battles. For the robots we looked to other machines like huge bomber planes.”
When asked how he was able to give the monsters such character, he said creating a silhouette before the detail was crucial. “I remember Ray Harryhausen saying that when you look at a lion it is beautiful but as soon as it’s on top of you it’s going to look terrifying. So I always sculpt a neutral expression on my monsters first rather than making them look constantly angry because then you have somewhere to go with the emotion.
“There’s a psychology to the monsters. I direct them like actors. I discuss the details such as the size of the lens or the camera angles with the animation Director. I also give them little flaws. False gestures that give them a sense of true life because you don’t want monsters being perfect. They’re not superheroes. That’s boring. With my monsters you’ll see a wobbly belly, a shrug of the shoulders, it’ll lose its balance.”
Of directing he said – “If you look to command you need to be part of the troop first. I was a boom guy, a PA, all sorts before.” He continued, “The art of a director is how you negotiate adversity, part of that is what you let go, so you can keep what’s essential.”
The film includes several British actors in lead roles including Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther). Del Toro said Idris Elba was great to work with: “He was my first choice for this role because he can show strength and vulnerability. I wanted someone who is full of moral strength so that when he says ‘Today, we are cancelling the apocalypse’ you really believe him.”
The film's score was composed by Ramin Djawadi who del Toro selected based on his work on Prison Break, Iron Man, and Game of Thrones. Asked how he managed to balance the use of music and digital effects in the film del Toro said: “Music and Effects in a film are like a tango – one has to lead … you will not get a waltz, you have to go with one or the other or it will not work.”
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Picture: NFTS Director Nik Powell with Guillermo del Toro at the Masterclass.