SAN FRANCISCO — Guillermo del Toro's initial reaction to seeing the script for "Pacific Rim" was that someone must have made a movie like this before.
"I sat down and rapidly shuffled through my geek memory and realized they hadn't," del Toro says.
There have been plenty of movies and TV shows where robots and creatures fight. The problem has been that these stories about giant creatures beating each other provides plenty of action but no heart. Once del Toro came up with the idea that the robots would need two pilots who share the same thoughts and memories, he had the emotional core that had not been done in similar projects.
"What led me to know there was a fun story to tell was that there was someone in those robots driving the robots. And their relationships matter in how the robots work," writer Travis Beacham says.
The biggest problem was how to make the movie. Even with an estimated budget of $180 million, creating realistic-looking robots and creatures that don't look like there's an actor wearing a creature suit was a tall order.
The solution came from Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the special-effects shop founded by George Lucas.
The process started with Paul Giacoppo, ILM creature supervisor, and his team, who got excited about the project as soon as they saw the initial sketches from the director.
"We call it Christmas in creature modeling heaven," Giacoppo says. "The wonderful thing about Guillermo is that unlike other directors, he comes from the same background as us, so he invited us into the creative process in a very warm way."
Artists also were encouraged to offer any and all suggestions. Giacoppo stresses that while the process is often called "computer generated images," there's no button on the computer that an artist pushes and out pops a beast that stands 900-feet tall. It was a long process of trying to base the creatures in some laws of nature while giving them the otherworldliness that del Toro envisioned.
Digital models were created, then refined once animation director Hal Hickel and his team turned the models into on-screen creatures.
"Pacific Rim" was a different type of project for the ILM team because in most movies, they are given footage shot on a set or in a studio and told where creations are suppose to be. Because "Pacific Rim" was so massive in scale, it made no sense to shoot real footage.
"Instead, the big battle scenes are 100% CG, whether they are in the ocean or on land," Hickel says. The computer-generated scenes were edited together with normal height scenes of the actors shot in the real world.
Another mandate from del Toro was that the fight scenes had to be lit naturally. This was accomplished by cranking up the artificial light of the city, mounting large lights on the robots and even having a few passing helicopters shine a spotlight. The lighting was affected by the almost endless rains that del Toro used to create a dark mood. Having the fights take place in the water helped cut down on the cost as only portions of the robots and creatures had to be animated.
The team knew the process was going well by watching del Toro. The director rarely finds a reason to smile while making a movie because he's so critical of his work.
"I can say this: In this movie, ILM gave me at least three times a week a big grin. I've never had that in any other movie," del Toro says.
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, email@example.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.