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Guillermo del Toro Built a Four-Story Robot Head for Pacific Rim

By Wesley Fenlon

The monster fights are pretty, pretty CGI, but the cockpit scenes? Oh-so real.

Director Guillermo del Toro's upcoming giant-robots-vs.-giant-monsters movie Pacific Rim looks like a glorious exercise in computer generated effects. It's anime brought to life, or something akin to Godzilla, with elaborate 3D models standing in for guys in rubber puppet suits. But del Toro is known for relying on practical effects--costumes, makeup, and insanely detailed models--for his films like Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth. Even in a movie starring 40-foot-tall robots, del Toro couldn't leave everything up to computer graphics.

For Pacific Rim, del Toro and his crew designed a four-story-tall set for the actors fighting inside the Jaegers, the film's giant ass-kicking robots. They built the entire robot head (called a Conn-pod rig in the movie) that the actors stand inside in the movie, designing it to shake and rock back and forth and drop up to 15 feet in a snap, all to link the actors to the CG fight scene that would be taking place on screen.

Aside from the cockpit's main window, there's no green-screen going on in the set. The actors really are wearing armor and helmets, with their arms and legs attached to a two-ton contraption meant to move the robot's limbs. A short video featurette shows off the entire construction--it's an awesome look at what del Toro casually calls "a torture machine."

A feature in Variety about Pacific Rim details how the cockpit set worked, and it's even more elaborate than it looks. It's one big puppeteering rig:

"The Conn-pod rigs appear to be under the control of the actors, but were actually controlled by [Shane] Mahan and puppeteers from Legacy Effects, who followed the actors’ movements as they operated the apparatus offscreen. 'We had to dress the people into the thing, take care of them, make sure things are working, jump back down, and operate the machine,' says Mahan. 'The hard part was fitting the machines to the actors, making sure that they were comfortable enough to act in them and coaching them through this very difficult time.'

The actors would also be drenched regularly with hundreds of gallons of water to simulate the fictional weather conditions of the film, which meant the entire cockpit rig--full of electronics and machinery--had to be waterproofed to make sure no one was electrocuted on-set.

Adam adds: "I got to visit the Pacific Rim set in Toronto last year and spent a day seeing all the sets they had up. My favorite was the motion control gimbal for these heads. It's enormous. Incredible. The scale is awesome. My second favorite was the 'Armor Trailer' where Shane from Legacy Effects showed me some of the advancements they'd made for wearable armor that they'd learned making three movies worth of costumes for the Iron Man films. It was a film buff's fantasy camp."