Special Effects House Spectral Motion's Monstrous Creations

By Wesley Fenlon

Guillermo del Toro's most frequent collaborators discuss their creative process and making awesome stuff for the movies.

The second full-screen image that fades into view on Spectral Motion's website is a minotaur's hairy head being split open by a sword. Right between the horns. It's a fitting image to convey what Spectral Motion is all about: as CEO Mike Elizalde says, they're "a prosthetics, animatronics, and special effects creature studio." as well as a design studio. They've worked on a broad range of movie projects, from Ron Perlman's Hellboy makeup to the eight-foot-tall rock 'em sock 'em robots of SyFy's Robot Combat League.

Needless to say, Spectral Motion's studios are as full of cool stories as they are imaginative props. The Atlantic published an interview with Elizalde from portable media project Venue. Writers Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley talked with Spectral Motion about the ways of the Hollywood movie business, including their work with Guillermo del Toro. The Hellboy director actually reveals an interesting divergence from how Spectral Motion typically works.

Photo credit: Spectral Motion

"For most of the projects we work on, we do, in fact, just get a script and the director says, 'Show me what this looks like.' But we love that challenge," Elizalde said. "I'd actually say that ninety percent of our work is that way...Other times, we'll be working with a director who's very involved and who maybe even has some technical knowledge of what we do--especially someone like Guillermo del Toro. He's completely savvy about what we do because he used to own a creature shop of his own, so working with someone like him is much more collaborative; he comes to us with a much more clear idea of what he wants to see in his films. Lots of times, he'll even show us an illustration he's done. He's the first one to say, "I'm not an artist!" But he really is."

Elizalde described the creative process that Spectral Motion goes through as it pitches and then eventually designs for films. They start by combing through a script and pitching designs and a budget for the look of a film. That process involves creating 2D artwork as well as maquettes, scale models of what a full-size prosthetic or mannequin will look like.

Photo credit: Spectral Motion

"Sometimes, though, we'll do a 3D illustration in the computer before we go to the next stage, just to be able to look at something virtually, in three dimensions, and to examine it a little bit more before we invest the energy into creating a full-blown maquette," Elizalde said. "The maquette, as a tool, can be very essential for us, because it allows us to work out any bugs that might be happening on a larger scale, design-wise. Practically speaking, it doesn't give us a lot of information as to how the wings are going to work, or how it's going to function; but it does tell us that a human being could actually be inside of it and that it could actually work as a full-scale creature. It's essential for those reasons."

Once again talking about their collaborations with Guillermo del Toro, Elizalde spoke about Spectral Motion's work on the upcoming monsters-versus-giant-robots flick Pacific Rim:

"we designed what are called Jaegers. They're basically just giant robots. And we also designed the Kaiju, the monsters in the film. First, we created maquettes, just like the ones here, and we made several versions of each to reflect the final designs you'll see in the film. Those were taken and re-created digitally so they could be realized at a much larger scale."

There's a ton more in the interview, covering animatronics, science, and how physical props help actors deliver better performances. Check out the full piece at The Atlantic.