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.

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