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This summer has been filled with filmmakers trying to deliver audiences their definition of “big.” Shane Black filled Iron Man 3 with a legion of self-flying super-suits. J.J. Abrams crashed a giant spaceship down to Earth in Star Trek Into Darkness. Justin Lin wreaked epic destruction across Europe in Fast & Furious 6. Zack Snyder brought back Superman with Man of Steel and leveled Metropolis in doing so. Hell, even Baz Luhrmann threw the greatest, wildest party he could imagine in The Great Gatsby. Next month, however, Guillermo del Toro is taking the summer and the definition of “big” to a whole new level when he puts 30-story robots against 30-story monsters in Pacific Rim. And last year I had the chance to witness it first-hand.

Long before we had gotten even the first still from the movie – let alone trailers, con footage and behind-the-scenes featurettes - I took a flight up to Pinewood Studios in Toronto, Canada along with a pair of other journalists to find out exactly what goes into making a film as utterly massive as Pacific Rim. And what I discovered, rather unsurprisingly, is that the answer is “a lot.”

Based on an original screenplay by Travis Beacham, the story is set in a not-too-distant future when a portal to another dimension cracks open beneath the Pacific Ocean. From this rift emerge humongous, hideous leviathans known as Kaiju (Japanese for “strange beast”), and they proceed to attack coastal cities in the surrounding countries. As a means to protect the world, the United Nations funds the Jaeger program (German for “hunter”), the development of Kaiju-sized mechs that can help defend the planet from the alien forces. With the fate of humanity on the line, two pilots – one a washed-out vet (Charlie Hunnam) and the other an untested rookie (Rinko Kikuchi) – have to team up and drive an obsolete Jaeger to stave off our end.

Visiting the set of your average action blockbuster there’s a very real risk of watching a bunch of actors walk around in front of a green screen, but there was no fear of that going into a del Toro production. The director has prided himself on the use of practical effects over digital for the entire length of his career and has been awarded for it, his films both winning and being nominated for Oscars in Makeup and Art Direction. While it may sound like an impossible practice to continue in a movie of massive monsters and mechs, he does nothing to buck that trend with Pacific Rim.

Ron Perlman, who worked with del Toro on four other features before Pacific Rim, drove the point home when we spoke with him between scenes in his trailer. “That’s always been Guillermo’s preference, is to have as much there practically as is humanly possible, and that digital graphic images are more a punctuation mark than they are a replacement,” he said, still wearing a costume that included a maroon shirt and gold-plated shoes. “He enhances the reality with these things that are juxtaposed against it, rather than replacing reality completely. But there’s always a real base, no matter how fantastical the image is that ultimately ends up on screen.”

As a result I was privy to some pretty incredible on-set sights.

One of the most impressive, amazing things found in the Pinewood soundstages was the cockpit of a Jaeger – the location where, in the movie two pilots would link in and control the metal giants. While it would have been amazing enough for them to just build the cabin on the floor of the building, it was instead built on a remote-controlled gimbal that allowed operators to move the entire set back and forth and from side to side, imitating the Jaeger moving or getting hit. It also provided a perfect set of scale. As I looked at the size of the considerably large cockpit I couldn’t help but imagine how impossibly large the machine it sat inside would have to be.

In creating the look of the various Jaegers del Toro didn’t look to any kind of pre-established pop culture designs for reference, they did look to the real world for influence. While 300 foot robots don’t actually exist in our reality, imagining them practically one can presume that they would have a militaristic-nature about them. And that’s exactly where the filmmaker and his team looked.

“I wanted to bring the language of WWII bombers and tanks,” del Toro told us during a long conversation between takes. “There are airplanes and ships that exist now that are not quite as big as a Jaeger, but almost as big as Jaeger. There are oil tankers that are the size of a Jaeger. We tried to integrate all that language to create something that doesn’t exist.”

It would have felt like an incomplete experience if we had only gotten to see the inside of the Jaegers, but on another soundstage they were happy to provide us with an inside look at a Kaiju (as disgusting as that may sound). Constructed for a scene when actors actually venture inside one of the hellish beasts, the body parts were constructed with a metal grid work, the and covered in a wet-looking, bubbly, blue squishy material meant to be organs and tissue. I wish I could make a joke about how I thought they smelt bad on the outside, but the truth is that it was mostly just paint fumes and sawdust that lingered in the air.

In one of the largest soundstages at Pinewood was the remains of what they called the Hong Kong Refuge, an underground emergency bunker that citizens are meant to flee into during a Kaiju attack. While it wasn’t that large a space we were standing in, we were told that during filming they had squeezed 300 extras on to the set with Charlie Day at the center. Speaking with the It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia star after touring the set he recounted not being very comfortable during those set-ups.

“It was really real,” Day said, driving home the director’s love of practical effects. “I was soaking wet and very cold, like the character would be, and there’s sort of just the general nervousness and tension you might feel. Being in that environment was great. And then, the set looked so real and the ceiling actually physically shook. We weren’t pretending the ceiling was shaking, they found a way to make the lights shake and have dust come down on us. It was great.”

In terms of pure scale, nothing we saw on the Pinewood campus could compare to the politically-named Hong Kong Incident Zone. Built inside one of the massive stages was a few blocks of Hong Kong’s financial district after it had experienced a Kaiju attack – which is a nice way to say that it wasn’t so much a part of a city as it was a football field-sized pile of rubble, smoke and ash. Store fronts were crushed, cars and busses were stomped and shredded, and heaps of dirt, concrete and metal had the entire area standing no less than six feet off the concrete floor. We would also see wheelbarrows filled with blue monster guts, suggesting that the city’s cleanup crews had already begun their work.

The Hong Kong Incident Zone also happened to be the location where we got to see two very short scenes being filmed. The first takes place after the attack and featured the characters Dr. Newton Geiszler (the nerdy/punk rock scientist played by Charlie Day who is interested in studying the other-worldly creatures) and Hannibal Chow (a black market Kaiju parts dealer played by Ron Perlman) have a walk-and-talk chat while injured people around them are being dragged around. The second scene took place during the action Kaiju attack in Hong Kong and we watched as Day took multiple took multiple takes stumbling backwards trying to get away from the monster before falling in the dirt and trying to crawl. After what had to be at least 20 takes I could only imagine what the actor’s knees were feeling like.

The panic that Day had in his eyes as he ran away from a not-yet-realized other-dimensional monster is certainly something that del Toro is going to what to translate to the audience and have them feel as well. The director’s credits in horror are just as strong as his credits in action and sci-fi, and he is aiming for Pacific Rim to be a palpable experience.

“All I want is intensity,” del Toro said. “I really want the battles to be intense, because the Kaiju need to feel like a force of nature. So they need to be always on attack, relentless, they need to feel powerful, like a ramming – like a charging force of nature. So I want the intensity.”

Thinking about everything I saw in the multiple soundstages it’s amazing to think that any person could keep it all straight and organized in their mind – but it’s del Toro’s tirelessness, work ethic and ingenuity that keeps the production moving. We visited the set on the film’s eighty-seventh day of production, and the director and his team were working so hard that the editing team was working at the same pace as the shooting schedule.

“I’m sleeping about four hours a day,” the director told us. “This movie, if you come to the editing room, yesterday’s thing is cut, the movie is cut to the day. I need to manage the movie. We have about 2,000 CGI shots so if I’m not going to use a shot, I have turn over, I’ve been turning over sequences to ILM for the last three months.”

Even though Perlman has worked with the director many times and known him for years, it doesn’t stop him from being thoroughly impressed each time out. Said the actor, “He seems to adapt his visual sensibility to the material and tailor it; so the style he’s shooting this film is very different from the style in which he shot the Hellboy films, and I’m sure whatever he shoots next will be [different as well]. It’s fascinating to watch… I feel like a complete slacker when I’m in his presence; that’s the one thing I hate about working with him.”

Day, who is not only working with del Toro for the first time on this project but also his first blockbuster action film, was also full of praise for the filmmaker. “I think there’s a sense of a guy painting a picture, a true artist. I’m not going to say that the other people I worked with weren’t artists. They were all very great, very talented people, but I think Guillermo will go down in cinematic history as one of our more talented, visually brilliant directors. And that’s different, I don’t know when I’ll get to experience that again.”

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