Pacific Rim: a handcrafted mega blockbuster

Pacific Rim: a handcrafted mega blockbuster

Guillermo del Toro’s film turns 10 this week.

Hal Hickel is one of the pillars of the famous special effects company Industrial Light & Magic. Responsible for the animation of the Davy Jones des Pirates of the Caribbean or the eponymous hero ofIron Manit contributes with Pacific Rim to one of the most ambitious projects of his career. We interviewed him during his visit to the last Annecy festival, when he had just finished the film by Guillermo Del Torowith Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchion which he had been working since the fall of 2011. We are republishing this interview on the occasion of the rebroadcast of the blockbuster, this evening on TFX.

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I understand that Guillermo Del Toro wanted the robots and monsters of Pacific Rim are animated only by hand, like a Pixar, and therefore you do not use motion capture.
That’s right.

In these cases, do you carry out a casting of animators, as one does a casting of actors?
Yes. Very quickly, I spot those that are good for action, comedy or more subtle emotions. However, unlike rango, I did not assign a character to an animator. We worked in sequence, with one person supervising all the animation for the same scene. Pacific Rim was such a complex project, that it had to be done in such a way that we could hope to get out of it.

How do you manage to maintain the coherence of the characters by working in this way? You establish a series of rules on their movements for example?
Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time for this type of preparation. We had to tackle the film itself very quickly. So we started with the sequence in which the Jaeger Gipsy Danger takes on Knife Head. This scene allowed us to make our mark: already, it was the first time that we worked with Guillermo and we were able to understand what he expected of us, especially in terms of staging. Then we could see what worked or not in the image. And immediately, we realized that our main challenge on this film would be the speed of the action vis-à-vis the scale of the fights.

That’s to say ?
Usually when you show a gigantic thing on screen, it moves very slowly so that the viewer instinctively takes in the magnitude of its size. However, we had to do fight scenes, and the actions had to be fast to keep them exciting. Moreover, if the robots had fought in a bare space, like a desert for example, we could have got away with it easily. Only, our characters were in the water or surrounded by buildings that they were going to destroy. So that there were constantly around them elements which, moving in a realistic way, recalled their gigantic size. Therefore, if we moved the character too quickly, the relation to the environment no longer worked. Shot after shot, so we had to see how far we could go. It was a very complicated balance to find: we didn’t want to lose visual power, but at the same time we absolutely had to remain credible.

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The Jaegers are not just machines, they are also characters in their own right. How did you approach this?
That was the other big challenge we faced on a daily basis: should we treat them as vehicles, or as characters? Here again, we proceeded plan by plan with, in the end, a preference for the purely mechanical approach. Finally, the empathy of the spectator had to go more towards the pilots of the Jaegers, than towards the Jaegers themselves.

How did this translate in practice?
Guillermo absolutely wanted the Jaegers to behave very mechanically. Unlike the Kaijus, the Jaegers should not have too flexible movements. For example, when their arms stop moving, you can feel a strong inertia: the stoppage of the movement is not clear, there is a slight bump.

The movements of the Jaegers reproduce the movements of the pilots. Consequently, did the sequences shot with the actors in the cockpits serve as a reference for you?
Yes a lot. Very early in the production of the film, we organized work sessions with the stuntmen to choreograph the different movements of the pilots: the walk, the gestures they make when they calibrate the robot at start-up, etc. We filmed them for references when animating. Then, as he shot, Guillermo would send us several fight scenes between the characters: the one between Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky) in a hallway, and the one in which Raleigh confronts Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). In those scenes, the characters were doing some pretty cool fighting moves, and we replicated those moves in some of the fights between the Jaegers and the Kaijus. So when you see Gipsy Danger grabbing a boat to hit a Kaiju, it’s directly inspired by how Mako uses his staff to take on Raleigh.

Weren’t you afraid to find yourself, as on transformerswith robots so detailed, that it is difficult to grasp the general appearance?
Yes, and that’s why we took care to purify the robots, to reduce them to easily identifiable silhouettes. At the same time, Guillermo wanted audiences to understand that Jaegers were extremely complex machines. So whenever the camera angle exposed any part of their inner mechanics, we added loads of detail to make them feel like crazy engineered vehicles. And each of these mechanisms was animated by hand, nothing was automated.

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To what extent have animation films and Japanese Kaiju eiga been a source of inspiration for you?
We studied a little some Japanese anime, especially for the choreography of the fights. But the problem is that not only do these giant monsters move very quickly, but they are also not in a photorealistic universe like ours. And then our robots don’t have a Japanese animation look at all. They are more oldschool. What inspired us a lot, on the other hand, were the old Japanese productions with giant robots, like Johnny Sokko Or Tetsujin 28. Guillermo’s goal was to recapture the spirit of old Japanese monster and giant robot movies, but acclimatize it to the tastes of contemporary audiences.

Do you ever film yourself performing the Kaijus or the Jaegers to use as a reference?
Yes, we even have a small room at ILM with mirrors and cameras that is just dedicated to that. We also have tools that are similar to the Kinect of the Xbox: it is a system that digitally captures the movements in a rough way, and which makes it possible to provide data which serves as a basis for the animators.

It was your first time working with Guillermo del Toro…
Yeah, and I know you’re going to think I’m in promo mode, but believe me when I say we fell in love! However, I was scared when I agreed to work on this film. I knew he was very demanding on special effects and animation in particular. And moreover, from the beginning, he told us: “The bad news is that I’m going to push you to your limits to get what I want. The good news is that I know what I want. » And for us, it’s the most valuable asset in a director: there is nothing worse than working with someone who is undecided, who will ask you for fifteen versions of the same scene before deciding. . Moreover, Guillermo was almost always enthusiastic and in a good mood, which is exceptional for a director working on such a large project that puts him under monumental pressure. In short, despite the mass of work done, it was a pleasure to work on Pacific Rim.
Interview by Julien Dupuy

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