It's March 2012 and we're at Toronto's prestigious Pinewood Studios where actors Charlie Day and Ron Perlman are wandering around a section of Hong Kong that's nearly been razed to the ground by what is being referred to as "the Hong Kong Incident." It feels as if we've been transported into a part of China that's literally been built from scratch and then destroyed and as they survey the damage, there's a lot of activity going on around them.
Perlman's presence and the amount of destruction may be somewhat of a giveaway that ComingSoon.net is on hand to watch a portion of filming in what is going to be the first movie directed by Guillermo del Toro since 2008's Hellboy II: The Golden Army. At this point in time, almost nothing is known about his new movie Pacific Rim, except that it's his most high-profile studio movie yet and that it would have Guillermo directing giant robots fighting even bigger monsters. That's more than enough for us.
You can only imagine what it must be like for someone who began as a huge GDT fan almost before he started writing about movies and has slowly become an acquaintance from literally years of interviews, talking to him not only about his own movies but the ones he produced and wrote for other filmmakers. We've been brought to Pinewood, which GDT has taken over for this enormous production, to give us a chance to be the first people outside those making the movie to see anything from Pacific Rim.
They were on the 87th day of a 103-day shoot with 17 days left, and while that might seem like a long shoot for anyone, Guillermo would tell us later that both "Hellboy" and "Pan's Labyrinth" were over 130 day of filming each. Even so, in that time, they had built nearly 100 sets for the movie yet it was surprising how fast they were moving in what had to be an absolutely enormous production.
Over the course of the day, we'd have a couple of chances to talk to the man himself as well as some of his crew in order to find out exactly HOW BIG these robots and monsters and ultimately the movie was going to be. It's something on many minds in the production offices, which you can tell because all of the artists on the production seemed to have a running joke where they would put signs up all over the offices measuring and labeling everything for reference.
If for some reason you haven't watched or you've been avoiding the trailers and don't know the general premise of Pacific Rim, the movie takes place in a world that's been invaded in 2013 by giant monsters or "Kaiju" that come from out of a dimensional rift at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Trying to figure out how to stop the monster attacks and drive them back, the humans design and create giant robots or "Jaegers" with cool names like "Coyote Tango" and "Tacit Ronin" that have the size and strength to meet the Kaiju on their own level. This has turned into an all-out war that's been going on for 12 years as the movie begins.
As one might expect, Pacific Rim mostly focuses on the American efforts to drive the Kaiju back and engineering these metallic giants are pilots within the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, a program run by Idris Elba's militaristic Stacker Pentecost. Much of the human aspect of the story revolves around Charlie Hunnam's Raleigh Beckett, who used to pilot one of the early Jaegers with his older brother before he was killed in a particularly brutal battle with a Kaiju. Rinko Kikuchi's Mako Mori is the young ambitious rookie pilot who has her own reasons for wanting to take on the Kaiju after her parents were killed in a Kaiju attack and she ends up becoming Raleigh's new Jaeger co-pilot after the death of his brother. This is their story as they continue to wage war against the seemingly unstoppable monster invasion.
ENTERING THE WORLD
On arrival at Pinewood, Guillermo's able assistant Ian Gibson gave us an extensive tour through the production art room where we got to see concept art of some of the large-scale sets as well as what would be created using CG. He also showed us a sizzle reel and early pre-vis of a Kaiju-Jaeger battle that GDT had used to help convince Legendary and distributor Warner Bros. what that might look like.
We were walked through the production offices where they had laid out more concept art of the various 25-story Jaegers we'd be seeing over the course of the movie, including the ones that have been built by other countries. There are four "hero robots"—Gypsy Danger, the American Jaeger piloted by Raleigh and Mako, Crimson Typhoon the Chinese robot, Striker Eureka from Australia—the biggest and newest of the Jaegers—and Cherno Alpha the Russian Jaeger, an absolutely enormous walking mass with grey designs based loosely around a Cold War sub. Essentially, the designs of the robot were similar with the same size physical stature, but they each had their own traits based on the country that built them as well as a different color scheme to set them apart.
When the story picks up in the movie, there are very few Jaegers left of the 20 initially built, since so many had been destroyed during the war with the Kaiju, but the movie picks up during a crucial point in that war when most Jaegers are in their Mark IV and V stages. These Jaeger are controlled by the pilots strapped into the Com-Pod within each of the Jaeger's heads, something which we'd have a chance to see later on while visiting the actual sets.
"There was a point in the story—I always joke about it—where 'war was good," Gibson explained. "There's a point in the war with the Kaiju where things were okay. We were losing people, but we were handling it. This story takes place a little bit after that point."
Gypsy Danger is housed at the "Shatterdome" where it can either come out of a giant door in the base or it can be carried by a formation of giant super-Chinook helicopters that carry the giant Jaeger out to the place where it's going to battle with whichever Kaiju is endangering North America at any given time. There was a lot of concept art of this particular location which would be built in sections of the soundstages as well as combined with CG, but apparently they also built some of the "Shatterdome" sets down near Toronto's Air Canada Centre, a giant hangar of a space where the town's popular hockey team, the Maple Leaves, play their games.
Even more fun than checking out the Jaegers and the locations where they're housed was the entire wall of art showing the designs for the movie's many Kaiju, all of them having rather descriptive names like "Knifehead" and "Axehead." There was one that looked like a giant ape that was dubbed "Leatherback," and we got a better look at this Kaiju through a maquette that was also on display. Not all of these Kaiju would necessarily make it into the final movie, but it gave us some idea of the scale of what Guillermo was creating for this movie. We also saw the concept art of people walking around on the inside of a Kaiju, a preview of what we'd see on set later on.
The most impressive Kaiju was something being dubbed "The Bishop." With four arms and webbed wings, this epic-sized creature could be the one on the other side of the rift calling some of the shots. We were told that this Kaiju was one of the "Precursors," one of the Kaiju responsible for the monster invasion of Earth, which creates a much bigger overarching story. We have no idea how much of this will actually be covered in Pacific Rim proper, but there's clearly a larger back story going back to the world where they came from, something Guillermo would hint at more when we spoke to him later in the day.
Visual FX for the movie are being provided by John Knoll ("Pirates of the Caribbean") and Hal Hickel ("Star Wars: Episodes I and II") of Industrial Light & Magic, whose resumés bode well for the creation of these fantastical monsters, robots and locations, as you can probably tell from the trailers so far.
As we walked around the production offices, we also got to peer into Guillermo's office which was literally packed floor to ceiling with books and comics and DVDs and toys, some of which he bought during his time in Toronto, and others which he brought over from Bleak House, his mansion/museum in Hollywood where he's collected all sorts of memorabilia over the years.
BACK IN HONG KONG
After being brought back to the Hong Kong set, we were able to walk around and explore the wreckage and as we watched on, Asian workers in hazmat suits went inside the fallen Kaiju to harvest its organs, each of them coming back out covered in blue Kaiju blood. This was one of the impressive sets built for the movie as they had laid actual concrete on the soundstages to make it look like a real city street scene and there were even a few cars driving around with a lot of visible destruction, including the remains of a giant bank vault, a crane as well as a double decker bus that had seen better days. It had been smashed to pieces and charred black… by something. Underneath the Hong Kong set, they had built a Kaiju refuge bunker using a giant cargo container where the people of Hong Kong would hide when the Kaiju attack but also a place where they would shoot some of the character dialogue scenes later on. We also noticed that a couple of the crew members had found out of the way spots where they could take a quick nap during the production.
As mentioned in our intro, Ron Perlman and Charlie Day were on set that day shooting a scene where they walked around the wreckage and a downed Kaiju. Perlman is playing Hannibal Chau, a crime kingpin who runs a black market Kaiju organ operation, while Day plays the distinguished Dr. Newton "Newt" Geiszler, a scientist who specializes in Kaiju biology who is trying to make some extra money working with Chau. Apparently, the Kaiju blood has medicinal properties that makes it valuable which is why these two individuals from very different words were standing in Hong Kong observing a downed Kaiju and having a conversation.
Considering the scattered characters he's played before, maybe Day would seem like an odd choice for a scientist, but having shaved his beard and donned a pair of glasses that made him look a bit like Sam Rockwell. Perlman also looked very different from the ways we'd seen him over the years including on "Sons of Anarchy" as he had a close-cropped haircut that he'd allowed to go grey and he was wearing a garish outfit that showed him to be a man of style and power.
Day and Perlman continued to work on their scene as Day's character, Newt, peers into the downed Kaiju to get a better look at something inside of it—we heard that he's keen on harvesting a Kaiju brain. Sadly, we didn't get to talk to either actor that day.
INSIDE THE JAEGERS
After spending some time on the Hong Kong set, we were brought over to some of the other soundstages, specifically where they were shooting the interiors of the Jaegers, the "Com-Pods," where so much of the actual acting would take place during the CG Jaeger-Kaiju battles being staged outside. Here we got a good look at the system that controls the Jaegers, each pilot wearing a suit that looked a lot like an exoskeleton strapped together using a variety of mechanical and neural means.
The interiors of these Com-Pods had been built on gimbles to replicate the movement of the Jaegers while being piloted, the first one being a much smaller version that could be used for tighter close-up shots of the actors. On the next stage, there was a much larger version of the interior of the Jaeger, but in this one there was a setup for three Jaeger pilots and we were told this was the interior of the Chinese Jaeger that's controlled by a set of identical Chinese triplets.
On the smaller stage, we watched as a couple stunt men dressed in the full suits were tossed about the limited amount of place they could move while strapped into the Com-Pods as electrical sparks went off around them and water was sprayed down around them, filling the Com-Pods with real steam. We could only imagine how the actors must feel when they were placed in that environment.
TALKING WITH GDT
Even though we didn't get a chance to talk to any actors on the day of our visit, we did get a good 40 minutes with Guillermo, who would come over to chat whenever he had time. You can read that interview, one of the most extensive and thorough interviews you're going to read with Guillermo talking about Pacific Rim, right now over on SHOCKTILLYOUDROP.COM! (No, seriously, this is a long interview but not one that you'll want to miss if you're a GdT fan or someone who really wants to find out more about his love of Kaiju movies and why he decided to make "PacRim.")
Following that interview, we got a chance to talk to the film's executive producer, Callum Greene, who talked about Guillermo's transition from being in New Zealand working on The Hobbit to developing At the Mountains of Madness until it fell apart, before making the decision to direct Pacific Rim for Legendary Pictures. Guillermo actually created the visual FX teaser we'd have a chance to watch earlier for Comic-Con. He used it to help sell Warner Bros. on the idea of coming on board as partners.
Being that "PacRim" also involves giant monsters from another dimension, we wondered how much of the influence of Lovecraft from "Mountains" carried over. "I think on the page you can see that there are similarities, but I think visually he's gone with a completely different palette and while it's unspoken, I'm pretty sure that for him, he wanted this to be different and he's very good at keeping things different. From my uncultured point of view, it's a different colored palette, different tone, different look then what he had started to do with 'Mountains of Madness.' I think that's still a film he definitely wants to make and I think that if that happens he wants it to be as exciting as it would be as its own thing. We have a lot of the same designers—Guy Davis and Wayne Barlowe and Francisco Ruiz—who are part of his team through 'The Hobbit' and 'Mountains' and this and the missive he gives is that this should be a different look, not using the same adjectives that we had for 'Mountains.'"
After that, we'd speak with Jamie Price, the visual FX supervisor on the project who is working on the actual set with Guillermo to oversee visual FX, while everyone else at ILM does their thing back in San Francisco.
"I came onto the movie in June," he told us about how he got involved. "And Chris Ramo, the visual FX producer, had already started the visual FX breakdown so he and I went through that together and as the script was revised, we would continue the breakdown, a shot-by-shot analysis of what potential visual FX are. We were looking at everything in the movie before just the Kaiju and the Jaeger. There was a lot of stuff to support the futuristic nature of the movie, to support the scale of the Jaegers and locations, knowing we were shooting in Toronto and not doing location-based work. We were looking at set extensions and matte paintings in addition to the main action between the Kaiju and the Jaeger."
"In parallel with that, we were doing a design phase," he continued. "Guillermo had a design team that he was putting together and was moving forward on designs for the Jaeger and the Kaiju. As those evolved and we got to the point to award the movie to Industrial Light * Magic, we were able to transfer the design work to them and begin tests."
But even after being on set all day, we were still fixated with how big this movie was going to be and how that was going to translate onto the screen. For much of our visit we were given the scale of the Jaegers as being 25 stories high and we wondered how that might look when the robots are in cities where taller buildings are present. Now you have to remember that this writer comes from New York City where 25 story buildings are practically nothing.
"I'm going to let you in on a very important secret and is that we're probably going to cheat so I think they'll be as big as they need to be for the drama of any given moment, but also done in a such a way that it doesn't pop the audience out of the scene," Price told us. "To answer your question in a roundabout way, there are a lot of things like the undersea environment and the ocean where you can go 'How big is it?' I can probably shoot a photograph of me standing next to a giant rocket and another of me standing next to a pebble really close to a lens and you wouldn't be able to tell. So we'll be adding scale cues whenever we can in those kinds of environments whenever we can to help remind audience how big they are. In the case of the cities, we like the size. There's a lot of practical things that go along with it. The Jaegers have to fight in city spaces. They have to get down streets, they have to right in courtyards and so it turned out when we did our scale studies, it was a nice good way of making it feel massive and big and also in a weird way, kind of intimate, because the people that we see on them—whether they're technicians in the "Shatterdome" or whether it's pilots climbing into the head—there's still a bit of a relationship there that you don't feel like 'Wow, this thing is completely dwarfing the humans that are part of it.' Going back to the story and the mood we're creating, there's still at that scale a good relationship between a human and a robot that makes it awesome but still comprehensible."
He then added one more way they're using the cities in relationship to the Yaegers, "I have to say also that aesthetically the fact that the Jaegers may not always be as tall as a building, it makes for these really really awesome images we're taking advantage of where you might see a Jaeger introduced by being reflected in the windows of a building prior to seeing it in frame, so we're using the city as a backdrop rather than having it towering above it."
So there's your answer of how big Pacific Rim is going to be.
But don't take our word for it.
Pacific Rim opens in 2D, 3D and IMAX theaters on Friday, July 12.
A big shout-out to Don Kaye of Parallel Universe, the sole other journalist who spent the day with us on set and asked lots of great questions of Guillermo and the crew. He was an absolute delight to spend a day on set with.