How to make a 250ft tall monster-fighting robot

We talk to the VFX gurus behind Pacific Rim and Casino Royale about the challenges of creating giant robots, flipping cars and whether practical special effects are doomed
Pacific Rim

If you're making a film nowadays, you have an almost limitless canvas to paint on.

Where film-makers used to be constrained by the limits of special effects technology, today's visual effects artists can create pretty much anything you can imagine – whether that's a photo-real car crash or an outlandish scene like a giant robot battling a monster and laying waste to half a city.

Pacific Rim director Guillermo del Toro's imagination tends to the outlandish – so when he envisaged 250ft-tall Jaegers battering gruesome kaiju with oil tankers, he turned to Industrial Light and Magic.

"Guillermo has a great vocabulary not just for film, but for visual effects and animation," says ILM's Hal Hickel, animation supervisor for Pacific Rim. "He's a student and a practitioner of both, and he's very knowledgable about visual effects in general, so it makes it easy for us to communicate with him."

Monsters vs Robots

Pacific Rim

Hickel's worked on everything from Star Wars to Rango – but Pacific Rim's monster mash presented some entirely new challenges. "I think the creative challenges were more difficult for us than anything technical," he says. "We've done really complicated mechanical robots and things, for the Transformers films and the Iron Man suits. And we've done lots of great creatures, so just in terms of constructing and animating them, we have a handle on that."

"But I think it was the scale of the action and the scale of the characters that was most challenging, creatively. Making them look huge, but at the same time most of the sequences that feature the Jaegers and the kaiju are action sequences and you want those to feel fast and exciting. But when you're trying to make things look huge, the first thing you do is slow them down, to give them that sense of scale and mass.

Then there were the realistic water simulations and the "really complex destruction" of buildings – and the challenge of differentiating the organic kaiju to the mechanical Jaegers. "We definitely ruled out motion capture because we wanted them to feel mechanical," Hickel explains. "But you think about mechanical things, and what makes robots feel mechanical – frequently it's a sort of start-stop action. We couldn't really do that with these guys, because they're so enormous that it doesn't make sense." Instead, ILM used keyframe animation to give the massive robots a fluid, yet still man-made look.