Robots vs. Monsters: Guillermo del Toro takes the matinee horror film into uncharted waters with 'Pacific Rim'

For Guillermo del Toro, Pacific Rim is a chance to revisit his earliest influences. The first in a planned series of films about Kaiju, or giant monsters, the Warner Bros. release opens July 12 in IMAX 3D.

Talking from Los Angeles, where he is overseeing final touches, del Toro has just finished previewing the film. Despite the added pressure the process brings, the director insists that he enjoys test screenings. "Filmmakers never like to actually show movies," he says. "We love making them, but we hate showing them. And in testing, you end up 'finishing' your film two or three times. But I've never had a bad experience with tests, I've always benefited from them."

A writer, producer and director, del Toro may be one of the hardest workers in the industry. In a career that stretches back more than 20 years, he has shown a mastery of genre films, reworking themes and formulas while showing an understanding and respect for their sources.

"I try to bring everything to both my independent movies and the commercial ones," he explains. "I'm trying to renew the form, do it differently, and bring in all my influences, theatre, music, whatever. So it's not just subtle references for fans, the geek side of the genre—you know, wink, wink, nudge, nudge. I'm trying to reformulate what the audience finds familiar in a genre."

For Pacific Rim, del Toro drew upon movies and television shows he watched as a child: Ultraman, Gigantor, Ambassador Magma. "Curiously, I made it a point not to rewatch any anime or Kaiju films," del Toro says. "I worked from my heart, from what I remembered as a kid. Ishiro Honda, who did Godzilla and The War of the Gargantuas, he was the poet of the genre. He said that the tragedy of the Kaiju is their size, that they are not suited for this world. With Pacific Rim I tried to find that tragedy and beauty."

The director admits that the screenwriting process was difficult, in part because he had to create a world, one foreign to Western tastes, and define its rules. "The first movie is the hardest because you're setting up everything," he explains. "I had to find a way to present hundreds of facts in as entertaining a way as I could. What I decided to do is lead with the explanation, open the movie with a sort of glossary. Viewers will always forget some of the science, some of the logic, but I have the story, the set-pieces, the technique to keep them interested."

Pacific Rim pits the Kaiju creatures against Jaegers, giant robots built to battle the monsters. The movie's success depends on how well del Toro can build believable characters from pure special effects.

"I have to be as involved with an effect or animation as I am with live action," he insists. "I direct animation—the angles, the lenses, how it is lit. I try to 'root' the image or effect, build an atmosphere for it. In Pacific Rim I use rain, or snow, or a little bit of dust. Something that the creature moves. It can be a piece of furniture, debris on the floor."

The next step is lighting. Del Toro uses light to build volume and translucency, at times backlighting a creature the way he would an actor. For the first Kaiju/Jaeger fight, the director had Industrial Light & Magic keep the creature in darkness, illuminating it only in brief snatches with the robot's beam. He also added virtual scratches and water drops to the lens, trying to place viewers in the middle of the action.

"The last thing we did was to repeat camera angles," he says. "Normally you don't do that in a digital movie because everybody's trying to make every shot a 'really special' shot, with impossible camera moves. I asked visual-effects supervisor John Knoll to use the same angles because viewers will subconsciously think, 'This must have been shot for real, they are using the same camera over and over.' With a camera that flies all over the set, you are basically telling people, 'Don't worry, this isn't real.'"

Del Toro began his career in Mexico as a makeup designer, partnering for ten years with an optical-effects house. As a result, he has a thorough grounding in animation and effects. "When it comes to effects, how I treat them, I don't have any fear. Great respect, but no fear," he says.

And he is the first to admit that he can be difficult. "You ask any digital company I worked with, I am a pain in the ass," he laughs. "And I am a micromanager. To me, any great image depends on a very strong base of black. But black isn't pure. You can have cyan black, magenta black—to put it another way, warmer or cooler blacks. And a lot of times effects houses can be very sloppy with these blacks."

Del Toro remembers a shot in Hellboy II that he sent back 90 times. One effects shot in Pacific Rim had to be done 65 times until the director was satisfied.

After tests, del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro decided to shoot Pacific Rim on RED digital cameras. "I love the hyper-crisp color saturation the RED gave me," he says. "Pacific Rim has 20-minute passages that are incredibly bold, color-wise. Outrageous, crazy saturation, like anime or the Heavy Metal comic book."

Del Toro shot Pacific Rim with the equivalent of two units, although as he explains it he was directing the main unit while overseeing the "C camera" unit nearby. "It takes too long to reset a stunt, to wait for an insert of a hand pressing a button," he says. "I show up on the set two hours before anyone, and I start the day with the C camera, which is ahead of my main unit by about two hours."

One of del Toro's concerns was that because of the their size, it would be difficult to establish the parallax necessary to give 3D depth to the creatures. The director agreed to post-convert Pacific Rim only after producers promised to fund native 3D effects work at ILM. Up to 40% of the film will be native 3D.

"Editing is what I like most," del Toro says of filmmaking. "Basically all the noise of the shoot drops away, all the doubts of preproduction end, and you are left with a vocabulary on a table that you have to piece together like a ransom note."

The director still bristles over a production schedule that forces him to deliver a picture eight weeks before it opens. "That's indecent," he laughs. "I should be delivering it twelve days before it opens. With the American system, they pry the movie away from you."

He wonders if Hollywood will ever let him make his pet project, an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness. His next announced project is the horror film Crimson Peak. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. plans to release a reboot of Godzilla, one of the original Kaiju stars, next year, even as del Toro works on a sequel to Pacific Rim.

Asked if he worries about the competition, the director answers, "Stephen King said that all storytellers walk a very fine line. There's always somebody ahead of you and somebody right behind, all with the same idea.

"When I made The Devil's Backbone, The Others and The Sixth Sense came out, and everyone was telling me, 'Oh my god, children and ghosts!' And with Cronos, a slew of vampire movies came out at the same time. I just had to say, 'What are you gonna do?'"

What del Toro does regret are what he sees as missed opportunities. "Let me put it this way," he says. "I'm 48 years old. I've written 24 screenplays. I've directed only eight movies. If you've written a screenplay, you know the months and months of anguish, structuring and struggling and hassling with the page. Imagine doing that 24 times. It takes a toll on you, on your resources, both emotionally and creatively."

Still, del Toro admits, "I'd rather not make a movie if I feel it will go the wrong way. The only power a director has, at the end of the day the only real power any director has, is to say, 'No, I'm not doing it.'"