What words come to mind when you think of a summer tentpole? "Thrilling?" "Spectacular?" "Thunderous"? When director Guillermo del Toro talks about "Pacific Rim," his favorite description is: "Operatic."
"That was one of the first words I said to the entire team at ILM," says del Toro. "I said, 'This movie needs to be theatrical, operatic, romantic.' We used a lot of words not usually associated with hightech blockbusters."
To get that look on his giant-robots-vs.-giant-monsters epic, del Toro made an unusual request of his visual effects supervisor, cerebral Michigander John Knoll.
"We went for a very, very, very, very saturated color palette for the battle for Hong Kong," del Toro says. "I kept asking John to tap into his inner Mexican and be able to saturate the greens and the purples and the pinks and the oranges."
Del Toro also asked Knoll not to necessarily match the lighting from shot to shot.
"It's pretty unorthodox to do that," says del Toro, "but I think the results are really beautiful and very artistically free and powerful, not something you would associate a big sci-fi action movie."
Del Toro wasn't entirely kidding about Knoll getting in touch with his inner Mexican.
"I do think John can let his hair down," says del Toro with a laugh.
Asked what he's most excited about in the pic's vfx, del Toro first mentions neither robots nor monsters but something subtler: water. Since the creatures emerge from the Pacific, much of the action is in the ocean or in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor.
"The water dynamics in this movie are technically beautiful, but also artistically incredibly expressive," he says. "We agreed on making the water become almost another character. We would time the water very precisely. I'd say 'Get out of the wave (on this frame).' "
Sometimes the helmer would use classic art, such as Hokusai's engraving the Great Wave as a common point of reference. "I would say 'Give me a Hokusai wave,' " says del Toro. "I think (the vfx team) did a tremendous job; we use the waves and weather in the movie very operatically."
Del Toro decided after principal photography was complete to let "Pacific Rim" go 3D, then insisted that Industrial Light & Magic render the visual effects in stereo, eschewing post-conversion of the all-CG shots.
He asked Knoll to go "the full Ann Arbor" and be a strict disciplinarian as he oversaw the 3D visual effects shots. Del Toro was worried that exaggerated 3D would have the unintended side effect of making objects in the frame look small (the technical term is "hyperstereo").
That would be disastrous for a picture determined to establish the huge scale of the monsters and robots. After all, its tagline is "Go big or go extinct." It's a credo the production team took to heart.
"John is pretty adept at keeping the 3D expressive but keeping the optics of it realistic," explains del Toro, "That's exactly why I thought it was imperative that he and ILM were in charge of creating the 3D aspects of the shots, because that's what I wanted."