A monster challenge for special effects

Last updated 05:00 11/07/2013
Warner Brothers

Pacific Rim Trailer

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The robot on the computer monitor stands about 30 centimetre tall. For visual-effects wizard Hal Hickel, the mission was simple: Make audiences believe the metallic creature was real and soared to a height of 75 metres.

"Our No. 1 challenge on this movie was scale," says Hickel, one of the key members of the Industrial Light & Magic team tasked with bringing Pacific Rim to life. "We've animated big before, but not this big."

If ever an effects house needed to earn its keep on a film, Pacific Rim was it. Virtually every frame of director Guillermo del Toro's apocalyptic showdown between subterranean beasts (Kaiju) and man-made robots (Jaegers) is a tech-generated world with a few bellicose actors dropped in for good measure.

Right from the start, the team at ILM - George Lucas' fabled Star Wars-inspired effects company that is now under the Disney umbrella - faced problems.

First, there was the fact that giant dinosaurs fighting massive robots would be a rather slow duet, given their size.

The movie threatened to wither under the lumbering weight of slow-motion battle scenes.

"So we had to get creative," says Hickel, teeing up a shot on his monitor that places the virtual camera on the fist of the movie's US robot, Gipsy Danger. When Hickel hits "play," the viewer rides along that fast-moving fist as it smacks the jaw of a Kaiju.

"That's where we were able to convey speed," he says. "A fist-cam shot has you riding onboard at 150 miles an hour, as opposed to a wide shot that would show you the action at a slower pace."

The second problem: making sure audiences bonded with the robots enough to care about the outcome of a fight. To tackle that issue, animators made sure Jaegers walked with a gait that was reminiscent of a human's without crossing the line into disbelief.

"These robots have shoulders and hips, like we do, but we had to dive deep into their joints and make sure everything in there moved as it logically would for a machine," he says.

That meant making sure that all the machine-like pistons and connecting rods that animated a joint actually moved whenever a Jaeger took a step, even if those movements are barely discernible to the human eye.

"One of our questions was always, 'Could somebody manufacture that?' And if the answer was no, we started over," says Alex Jaeger, a senior visual-effects art director on the project.

"If you think about these robots as battleships, that's where we were going. Every rivet and plate had to make sense. And all the battle damage also had to be reflected on those panels."

That same verisimilitude applied to the steroidal creatures.

Some of them recall animals we know - from gorillas to lizards to serpents - and ILM staffers kept zoological images handy for reference. But from there, things got a bit crazy, with director del Toro stipulating that some creatures would spit acid, while others would create electrical firestorms. And each had to have a set of distinctive glowing eyes.

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"Guillermo was all over almost every aspect of this film," says Jaeger with a laugh. "Some directors tell you, 'Let's just get it done.' And he'd come to a meeting and say (of a scene), 'Can we make this room feel like it's a hothouse filled with steam?'"

Del Toro readily admits he was like a kid in a toyshop. Although he put the project up for bid, he not-so-secretly hoped ILM would get the job.

"I come from an optical effects background, and I've always had immense respect for what these guys have done," says del Toro, whose surreal sensibilities are on display in movies such as 2006's Pan's Labyrinth.

"Often, people working with effects are scolded, 'You care more about the effects than the characters.' But in this case, the effects are the characters."

The Mexican director says working with ILM was "a true partnership, much like the one a director might have with an actor or cinematographer." He pushed the team hard to nail digital effects such as speed of motion, camera angles and hyper-real Jaeger and Kaiju surface details, "from ripped skin to scarred metal plates."

But his ace in the hole was making sure Pacific Rim was rife with deliberate flaws. "Making movies is a lie," he says. "It only works if you fill it with details and mistakes."

So del Toro requested, for example, that the faux lens "shooting" the visual effects be tampered with, sometimes reflecting the impact of water spray, light and even damage.

"In one scene, a Jaeger goes to the edge of the atmosphere, and for that, the lens gets hit with frost," he says. "That's the kind of detail that I wanted. And that's the kind of detail that ILM loved. Rather than them feeling directed by me, it was just me geeking out with them. It was a revelatory experience."

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