How to make a 250ft tall monster-fighting robot

He'll flip you for real

Casino Royale (2006)
Casino Royale (2006)
Casino Royale (2006)
Casino Royale (2006)

A world away from Pacific Rim's monsters is the more grounded action of a James Bond film, with car crashes and chase sequences that require more understated VFX. Indeed, according to Mark Spevick, senior VFX artist on Casino Royale, the film's producers initially denied there were any VFX shots at all. "There were 700-odd effects shots in Casino Royale, but we weren't allowed to bang on about it because there were supposed to be no effects shots in Casino Royale," he tells Stuff. 

"One of the biggest challenges for that was the sequence where the Jumbo jet lands and takes off again during Bond's car chase, and a cop car gets flipped through the air," he says. 

So, how do you make 2 1/2 tons of American cop car fly through the air like it was blasted by a jet engine that was never there? Through a careful combination of practial physical effects and VFX work, it turns out. "We got this really clever guy, Chris Corbould, involved – he's an absolute legend when it comes to practical effects. He came up with this crazy rig, a 100ft crane that would lift up the car, drag it behind the tanker, and then the cables would be released and it'd flip through the air." But with the car swinging on a rope, says Spevick, "it was quite a challenge to remove all the swing and make it look natural – and put in a CG plane, as well," he notes, casually.

Keeping it real

Practical effects in the original Star Wars (1977)
CGI VFX in the Star Wars Special Edition (1997)

It's interesting to note that where movie-goers argue until they're blue in the face about the virtues of practical effects versus CGI, the industry veterans take a more balanced approach. "We always tell a client, "build whatever you can build, do as a live stunt whatever is safe to do and practical to do, and then we'll handle the rest."," says Hickel. "Don't go into it expecting or wanting to do everything synthetically, because it's much harder to get to a result that feels grounded and real. The more we have to latch onto that's real and actually photographed, the better the work is going to look."

"One of the things I tell my students," says Spevick, who teaches at Escape Studios' VFX academy, "is, "it's not the tool that's important; it's the tool that uses the tool." So it doesn't matter whether you shoot something practically or do it digitally; what you really need to think about is what's going to work for this particular shot in the context of the movie."

It rather makes a mockery of the adulation that greeted the announcement that Star Wars Episode VII would be shot on 35mm film, and would use practical effects. So is director JJ Abrams just fetishising the past to pander to the fans, or is there something to be said for his retro approach?

"They're looking to incorporate the best of what worked then, with the best of what works now," says Hickel – himself a Star Wars veteran. "There's no getting away from using computer graphics and modern visual effects techniques. But hopefully, they'll look back at what was great about the past, and bring that back and get the best of both worlds. I think that's kind of what they're going for – and that's a good approach, generally."

Feeling inspired? Check out our guide to making a short film

Pacific Rim is available on Blu-Ray, 3D Blu-ray and DVD from November 11

The VFX Festival runs from 4-13 November