01 December 2016

“Eye protein”: Lessons from giant monster movies

I recently got the chance to rewatch one of my favourite movies of the last few years on Blu-ray: Pacific Rim. It has a fantastic commentary track by director Guillermo del Toro. There is a lot of interesting stuff in the commentary (for a film buff like me, at least), but I was particularly struck by how well he articulated some points I try to get across on this blog all the time.

1. Design is all about making choices. When you listen to the commentary, you soon realize that nothing on the screen – nothing – is there by accident. Everything is a the result of a careful, deliberative process (my emphasis).

We designed everything in this movie and patches in the shirt and uniforms. We designed the banners, badges, all the advisory and doors. We designed the Jaegers to the minimum details. You know, we designed the Jaegers so that if you zoom in into the controls, you would see electrical discharge warnings. You would see ladders; you would see places where you would connect. Engineering this amount of detail mechanically, the amount of detail in design is staggering. We spent about a year texturing this world. And the accumulation of that mosaic of details design-wide gives you the sense of a real world.

People think that world creation, movie, for example, is big gestures. But it is not. It is all these small details. Look at the markings; look at the vehicles that open the doors; look at the banners and this marking, the crawlers that move the robots. Everything is full of detail. We design these. Look at the bomber art on the chest. Gipsy Danger, this robot is designed to resemble a war plane from WWII.

So we have big riveting; we have the majestic lines of article building in New York. We gave the gait of a gunslinger of western fighter. Each of the robots has a personality and Gipsy has that strong personality of gunslinger out of a duel, sort of John Wayne gait.

2. Design isn’t about making this look pretty. Too often, design is derided, particularly by academics: “Serious people care about the content, and don’t care about eye candy.” I love del Toro’s riposte (my emphasis):

It is very important for me to not just design for design, not to create eye candy but to create eye protein. Because I think that 50 per cent of the narrative of a film is submerged in the audiovisual details. And you are not doing this for doing this just because it looks cool. You are actually doing it for a narrative reason.

It is important, for example, to see the two brothers are in white. And we are going to stain this white with a color that I am very careful to use in my design, sparingly, which is red. Red is very fundamental in this film to be used carefully as I will explain it later. It becomes vital for the story of another character. And basically it is going to symbolizing the way of life.

So we stain the white suit of the pilot with red. It is fundamental, it is very dramatic moment. ...

Everything is telling you the story. They are not just aesthetic choices, they are narrative choices. For example, look at this sequence [Fight between Gipsy Danger and Knifehead - ZF], and you realize that it is not lit like a normal movie sequence where everything has fill light and key light. It is mostly lit with the light of the Jaeger lighting the kaiju. Listen to the sound track, there is no music. Look at the way we are, just when the light of the Jaeger hit the kaiju, you see the kaiju. But if you don’t, you are almost in the darkness. We break the line of the water. We stain the lens with water. We deliberately put “mistakes” into shots that are very expensive and very elaborate. Why? Because it is (not only) an aesthetic choice, but also a narrative choice.

I don’t want to make the narrative, regular narrative CG movie that every shot looks super cool. I want to get in the way. I want to give you reality. Stain the lens with water, have error on the operation of the camera, make the images obscured by water, by fog, by… later in the movie, obscured by the compensation in the lens.

And del Toto gets all these points in during the opening scenes, before the title of the movie even appears on screen! del Toro has the advantage of working with a team of creative people to help him realize his vision. But your advantage is that you’re just making a single poster, not a two hour movie. You can use some of the same principles that del Toro does.

External links

Pacific Rim Director’s Commentary by Guillermo del Toro

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