Kaiju of the Rim
When Guillermo del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness adaptation was not approved by Universal due to the combination of a R rating and a blockbuster budget — around $200 million — the director adhered to another ‘off-road’ project, titled Pacific Rim. The director told SciFi Japan: “it was a project that encompassed every single thing on my wish list, visually, atmospherically and emotionally… an unstoppable, thrilling adventure about monsters and robots, the likes of which we’ve never seen.” None other than Guillermo del Toro could handle the project. “he is a master of the genre,” producer Jon Jashni said to Scifi Japan. “He is encyclopedic about the Kaiju and ‘mecha’ cultures, making him uniquely qualified to capture the most accessible and entertaining facets of both. When we shared with him what we were cooking up with Travis, he was immediately on board.”
The basic concept behind the film is seemingly simple: giant Monsters are brought on Earth when a portal between dimensions — the ‘Breach’ — opens in the Pacific Ocean. The ‘Breach’ in the Pacific Ocean is a portal between dimensions; on the other side of it is the ‘homeworld’ of the Monsters, called the Anteverse. Humanity fights back by engineering a new weapon — enormous fighting units called Jaegers (a term derived from German, meaning ‘hunter’). Writer Travis Beacham recalled in a SciFi Japan article: “I remember walking along the beach in Santa Monica. It was a particularly foggy morning and there was something about the shape of the pier in the fog jutting out into the water… An image just kind of popped into my head of a behemoth, a monster, rising from the surf to meet this giant robot waiting on the shore to do battle.” He also commented on the connection with the sea, saying that “you can’t really run from it because they are coming from a place that’s inescapably on Earth. Part of the allure of the ocean is that it hides its secrets so well. There are so many myths about sea monsters and giant serpents and all the other things people suppose are down there. I think there is something elementally terrifying about what can come out of this blackness.”
As conceived by del Toro, the Monsters are “the most terrifying but majestic creatures you could ever imagine.” The film is the director’s love letter to the giant Monster genre, which he is very affectioned to. He said: “I adore Monsters. I think they’re the greatest thing. If you really, really love Monsters, it’s like when you love anybody else or anything else: you want the best for them. So you seek the best for your creature — from design, lighting, color, how they move, where they live, what happens to them. If you have to kill them, you kill them great.” The new military coins a system of classification for these alien entities — around 2020 in the actual chronology of the film. The generic term used to label the Monsters is ‘kaiju’, a word derived from Japanese (怪獣) which literally translates to ‘mysterious Monster’ or ‘strange beast’. Prior to it being ‘officially’ used for Pacific Rim, the word knew wide use on internet message boards when referring to Japanese movie Monsters — due to ‘Kaiju eiga’ (怪獣映画) being the name of the genre in Japan. The ‘Kaijus’ are classified under a series of categories, much like Hurricanes or other natural disasters, using a scale with five grades.
To design the fearsome Monsters, del Toro assembled a group of many recognized creature designers, some of whom had precedently collaborated with him. The crew, in fact, featured Tyruben Ellingson (creature designer of Mimic) and Wayne Barlowe (who designed the Blade II Reapers, as well as Sammael from HellBoy), the head creature designer. Other artists included Rob McCallum, Keith Thompson, Stephen Schirle, Doug Williams, Hugo Martin, Francisco Ruiz Velasco, Guy Davis, David Meng, Simon Lee, Oscar Chichoni, Raul Monge, Allen Williams, Carlos Salgado and Simon Webber.
The Kaiju are bio-engineered weapons created by an alien race, labeled during pre-production as the Precursors. This civilization uses biomechanical technology to create by literally manufacturing the giant Monsters: the Kaiju are clones of a single archetype, meaning they share the same genotype but display a different phenotype from model to model. Hostile and 12 feet tall, the Precursors express “alien madness” according to the director — something so otherworldly that simply looking into their eyes would be terrifying. The director wanted those to resemble Shark eyes: “people talk about [looking] into a shark’s eyes and it’s just this dark, soulless abyss. I think Guillermo wants a similar feeling when we look at one of these [aliens], into its face, for the first time. There’s just this kind of yawning madness that we just can’t comprehend, and aren’t meant to.” The head features a semi-translucent membrane that peels off to reveal the creatures’ eyes. In regards to the rest of the body, the Precursors were mainly based on aquatic insects: “when I was a kid, we used to catch these bugs in the pool,” del Toro said. “They had a translucent, hard shell and you could see their organs. I wanted the design to evoke that. Wayne Barlowe and Keith Thompson worked the final design. We gave the Precursors elements of ecclesiastical royalty, dividing them into cardinals and bishops.” Thompson was inspired by pre-revolutionary french nobility clothes when adding the finishing touches — and added heel-like protrusions on the feet and elongated heads. “The Precursors weren’t going to be just a great eye candy reveal,” he said. “They had to be part of this world that was behind everything that was going on in the movie. They have this heavily developed civilization that you only get a little hint of.” Visual Effects Supervisor Jamie Price found the Precursors to be an interesting animating challenge: “there’s kind of a blurry line between the Precursors and the environment and the Kaiju themselves. It’s almost like the Kaiju evolved out of the environment, and the Precursors, as they work at their machines, are sort of organically almost attached to them.”
As usual, the design process for the Kaiju themselves started with a long brainstorming session — which lasted for several weeks. “We had the singular privilege of working in Guillermo del Toro’s legendary ‘man-cave’,” Barlowe said to io9.com, “a collector’s heaven, and the camaraderie was nearly immediate. [He] encouraged a really rich arc of visual development.” All the members of this crew, from conceptual designers, to maquette sculptors, to CG artists were encouraged to suggest their own ideas to implement into the designs. “I loved seeing the insanity that flowed out of the other artists,” Barlowe said, “and it was, for me, a challenge to push myself to try to go past a design I did only the day before.” Del Toro elaborated the basic concept: “We wanted to evoke the sheer awe and terror that one would feel when coming upon one of these monsters.” Barlowe added that “Guillermo del Toro wanted original designs that would redefine the genre.” Interestingly enough, the artist worked in the short and abruptly-ended pre-production of At the Mountains of Madness, and spent considerable time “digging into Lovecraft” — something he had already experienced when working on his book, Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials. None of his otherworldly studies, however, was ‘recycled’ for Pacific Rim; “I did not superimpose any Cthulhu madness into my designs,” he said. According to Guy Davis, additionally, the inclusion of tentacles “was forbidden in the kaiju designs.”
Reptiles and arthropods — mainly crustaceans and insects — were the main influences on the designs, with more than one artist re-elaborating each creature. “Guy Davis would start a design,” del Toro explained, “and then Francisco took a stab at it. Then Simon Webber rendered it and Dave Meng would sculpt it. Seeing all those iterations of the creatures enabled us to make them all individual.” Guy Davis also elaborated on the process in an interview with Legendary.com: “it usually started with us doing a series of idea sketches to run by Guillermo to see if he liked any of them, nothing fancy just quick shapes and rough characters. If he liked the direction of any of them, we’d work them up to a more detailed drawing. Sometimes a design would be passed to another artist to interpret or add details to, or it would be worked up with the details added to the final maquette sculpt.”
The Kaiju were basically described as “living weapons. They are blind instinct combined with tactical intelligence, capable of making instant decisions in battle.” All the designs followed common, basic guidelines. As ‘living weapons’ they are ‘newly manufactured’ and are deprived of any kind of deformities. “Every element should be used as a weapon,” del Toro said. “If we create a Kaiju with three or four tails, I want to see it use them. If the Kaiju has a mouth on the end of the tail, then I’m going to use it to fight the robot with both ends.”
Each Monster progressively got a crew nickname to be labeled as — something that aided the designers in seeing the creatures as actual characters. According to Davis, it was “just a way of giving the kaiju a quick identity if we needed to reference it or find the design.” The creatures, in fact, had to be ‘actors’ and as such, able to display a range of emotions. “If you see a lion in repose,” del Toro said, “the lion looks majestic, noble, beautiful. But if that lion is on top of you and about to bite you, he looks like that [makes a snarling expression]. Not pleasant at all. And yet, it is the same animal.” Homaging the Japanese cult films, every Monster was to be designed as if it had to be performed by a man in a suit. “One of the rules I gave to the Kaiju designers,” del Toro said in a featurette, “is, I wanted to think how a man in a suit would fit in there. The Kaiju are trying to honor the spirit and the feeling of the classical Kaiju. We are keeping them mostly two-legged, not humanoid, but sort of with a silhouette that reminds you of those classical ones.”
Every Monster also had to display a ‘hidden feature’ that would ‘surprise’ the audience, so that the spectators would never really ‘get used to’ the character. Bioluminescence had to be a common trait: the creators of the Kaiju would thus be able to track and recognize each model. In regards to the creatures’ massive size, Barlowe said that “a while back, when I was working briefly in the paleo-art world, I read a book that delved into this very subject. The conclusion was that, of course, there are structural limits to the size animals can grow to on our planet given its gravity. As you have suggested, the biomechanics simply would not allow for a creature to reach the sizes that re depicted in Pacific Rim. The bone proportions would be ridiculous. It’s a bit like the depiction of angels – to lift a mass the size of a human, wings would have to be roughly 30-40 feet from tip to tip or thereabouts. Not practical to show in movies. In this case, the kaiju are not born of this world and so, we can willfully suspend disbelief and sit back and enjoy the ride.”
To maximize the audience of the film, another rule was that there could not be much blood and gore — despite the brutality of the fights. The solution to this issue was found in colouring the blood of the Monsters of a blue, bioluminescent tint. In turn, this idea inspired the designers into conceiving a residue of the blood, which spreads like mold; it is called ‘Kaiju blue’. It was used to make a set where blue and gold permeated everything — as del Toro desired — for the baby Kaiju sequence. Costume designer Kate Hawley sent Production Designer Andrew Neskoromny a photo of an Asian factory. It portrayed the process of indigo fabric being dyed. Neskoromny said: “everything gets stained: people’s clothes, their fingers, their nails, just everything. I said, ‘oh yeah, that looks great. We’ve got to do a bit of that.'” Hawley further elaborated the concept: “the idea is that the blue blood had got into people’s bodies; and you see bits of blue coming through their breathing masks, like a little subtle poison.”
The Kaiju are also ‘plagued’ by Parasites that live on the external layers of their skin. Practical construction of the creatures was assigned to Spectral Motion. The Parasites, affectionately labeled as ‘Rollie-Pollies’ were designed by Mike Elizalde and Alex Palma. Various arthropods were used as reference, including isopods and crabs; the nickname ‘Rollie-Pollie’, in fact, comes from the colloquial name of Woodlouses (crustaceans of the Isopoda order). The Parasites were built as full-size animatronics — sculpted by Joey Orosco and Mario Torres, and painted by Russ Lukich. The mechanics that allowed the arthropod-like movement were conceived and built by Mark Setrakian.
Pacific Rim marks the first collaboration between del Toro and the digital effects veterans of Industrial Light & Magic. With the exception of Reckoner’s bones and some Kaiju organs, as well as parts of Otachi’s carcass, every Kaiju of the film was brought to the screen using solely computer generated models. Said models were obtained from scans of physical maquettes — all sculpted by Simon Lee and David Meng and painted by Casey Love. Despite there being the possibility of using general muscle systems for the creatures, the visual effects artists decided against it. We chose to do that because the Kaiju were so radically different from one another,” Hal Hickel, effects animator, said to fxguide. “It didn’t seem economical for us to set up an overall muscle system for the show because it didn’t seem portable from one to the next. I thought, we don’t need a huge amount of muscle detail – we need large masses that do certain things at hero moments, so to me that said shapes.”
The first Monster witnessed by the audience is Axehead, labeled ‘canonically’ as Trespasser — being the pioneer Monster to start the war with Earth. The enormous creature is only seen in the prologue of the film, and curiously enough is the last Kaiju to be heard: its roar is audible at the very end of the film’s credits. Axehead’s fundamental in-film purpose is to serve as an introduction to the audience of the design style that the spectators are going to see throughout the film. When it roars, an orange, bioluminescent glow can be seen coming from its mouth cavity. “That’s something that carries across all the Kaiju in the film,” Hickel said. “A kind of interior bioluminescence. And many of them have markings on their skin that are also bioluminescent.”
The creature attacks the Golden Gate Bridge — a landmark destruction that Hickel initially wanted to avoid. Ultimately, however, “it establishes Guillermo’s design imprint and what’s unique about his vision for this film: this big, protruding axe crests from the head, the colouring of the creature, and the bioluminescence. All those things are more unique and less expected, so it hopefully gives the audience both messages: yes, the film is going to have the thing they came to see, Godzilla-size monsters wreaking havoc, and yet it’s not going to be Godzilla; it’s going to be Monsters they’ve never seen before, that look different than they expected.” The Axehead digital model was created starting from Knifehead’s, which was modified in order to accommodate the namesake Axe-shaped crest on the head, as well as different — more prominent — claws on the arms and other cosmetic differences.
Many creature concepts were discarded in pre-production, such as Karloff — a Monster who bears a similarity to Boris Karloff (hence its name), the actor who portrayed the Frankenstein creature and the Mummy in Universal’s classic films. Guy Davis said that “[the nicknames] started with ‘Karloff’ (and that name actually stuck), but that was just because his head sketch reminded me of Boris Karloff.” The design, in fact, features a protruding forehead region (Frankenstein-like) and wrinkled lips (Mummy-like). The back combines features of crickets and jet engines. Karloff’s secondary mouth on its chest proved to be ‘vaguely obscene’ (due to its vaginal configuration) and was thus discarded. The creature is only briefly seen in the prologue of final film.
Certain designs were derived from early incarnations of other characters. Hardship is a Kaiju briefly seen in the prologue, with a distinct protrusion growing from its lower jaw. It is seen first roaring past the camera, and then fighting a Jaeger in a night-vision shot. Designed by Simon Webber, it was originally conceived as the Monster which attacked Sydney and bursted through the anti-Kaiju wall with its enormous blade-like horn; eventually, however, the design developed independently and was nicknamed Bowser — before receiving its in-film name.
Onibaba (whose name references the 1964 Japanese horror film) is a crab-like creature which attacked Japan in 2016 and is responsible for the death of Mako Mori’s parents. Described as basically an armored tank, Onibaba is a ‘charging Monster’: “we wanted Onibaba to be a guy that would charge,” del Toro said. “The sequence is about narrow streets, so I wanted him to charge and destroy the buildings just by not stopping.” The Kaiju ultimately proved to be the most complex to animate, due to the number of moving parts and the supposed malevolent intelligence that had to be infused into its performance.
Hickel commented: “it was tough because this character wasn’t going to have normal eyes with a pupil that you could rotate and get a good, strong eye direction.” It was necessary that the audience would understand that Onibaba was specifically chasing Mako. Hickel suggested putting the creature’s eyes on stalks, whose movement would indicate where it was looking. “It still feels crablike,” Hickel said, “and even kind of alien, as crabs generally do, but it clearly has intention and intelligence, and it looks onto her with its eyes.” Ultimately, however, the final Onibaba design features rigid bony protrusions that house the eyes, instead of stalks. The creature also had elements of ancient Japanese architecture infused into it: “it has this ornamental element where it looks like a Japanese temple,” del Toro said to USAtoday, “and at the same time he’s a crustacean.”
Reckoner is the name given to a Kaiju killed in Hong Kong in 2016. A creature so immense that a town literally rose from its skeleton in the time of 9 years. The skull of the Monster served as the base for the creation of a temple that would house a ‘Kaiju cult’. This has a direct connection with Hannibal’s black market, according to Guillermo del Toro — who said that “the temple and black market speech Hannibal gives are indicative of religious and social changes that the Kaiju brought on society.” Reckoner is actually never shown alive throughout the film, and as such was the only Monster to be literally built as a physical set. Production designer Andrew Neskoromny commented: “it has a bit of traditional Chinese temple architecture combined with some bone. It’s as though they took the bone, carved it out, and put a staircase up through it, so the pieces of the bone skirt the side of it.”
The first Monster design to be approved during pre-production was Knifehead (Category 3), conceived by Wayne Barlowe. The creature is meant to evoke a giant shark, according to the director: “it’s like if you took a shark and you pulled its nose way out until its head became this very sharp, pointy, blade-like shape rather than the blunt triangle that a shark normally is.” The design for Knifehead ended up with an appearance reminiscent of Guiron, one of the foes Gamera fights in Gamera Vs. Guiron. Allegedly, however, it was unintentional. Del Toro explained to Ain’t It Cool: “What was funny is that Knifehead came from a silhouette Wayne Barlowe did, and he had never seen Guiron. I told him, “Go after a goblin shark.” He started doing that, and for him it is guiltless; he never knew Guiron. Then we started riffing on that, and we created Axehead and Bladehead.” Once finalized, in fact, the digital model was also used as the base for Axehead, Bladehead and Scunner — which bore key differences, but maintain the same basic anatomical structure.
Mutavore (Category 4), known as Bladehead during production, is the first Monster to break the anti-Kaiju barrier in Sidney. Designed by Wayne Barlowe, “it has this massive, blade-shaped head it uses to just bludgeon its way through the protective wall around Sydney,” said Hickel. “And it kind of cuts through the wall as if it’s warm butter. It doesn’t actually look like it has a mouth until it opens it and starts roaring. It’s this weird little split line through the front of its blade head. It’s a very, very odd design, which I like a lot, actually. It’s one of my favourites.” The creature always retained certain traits, such as the shape of the head and the eyes on the lower jaw. Early iterations featured secondary mouths and limbs, eventually discarded for the final design. The digital model was, again, obtained starting from the Knifehead model.
Two Monsters emerge from the breach and attack Hong Kong. Otachi (Category 4) is the name given to the flying creature, with a reptilian head and two blade-like crests. “We designed the face to be really, really evil,” del Toro said. “It has a sort of evil intelligence to its eyes.” Otachi was mainly designed by Guy Davis, who based early sketches of the creature on a crawling bat. The protrusions on the creature’s head were inspired by the skull of a Brontotherium. Early iterations of the Monster featured jaw tendons, as well as multiple eyes on the sides of the head and a hammer-shaped tip of the tail.
Otachi is the creature in the film with the most ‘surprises’ for the audience: its front limbs reveal to be wings, its neck can engorge to spit the creature’s signature acid attack, and the snake-like lower jaw splits in two. Another unexpected element is that Otachi’s tail can detach, move and fight by itself — a feature probably conceived by exaggerating the tail-detachment defense mechanism of lizards. The tail was originally part of the discarded Meathead design — Wayne Barlowe and TyRuben Ellingson had suggested the concept of a ‘fighting tail’ with legs of its own. With Meathead ultimately not appearing in the film, its fighting tail was ‘inherited’ by Otachi, although its ability to detach and engage in combat on its own was never seen in the film. This was among Velasco’s final additions to the design, which also include the bioluminescent spots alongside the creature’s hide.
Leatherback (Category 4) is the gorilla-like Monster that attacks Hong Kong alongside Otachi, and the creature of the film del Toro relates to the most. “I really, really respond to him on a visceral level,” the director said. “He’s absolutely brutal but I find him kind of adorable.” Leatherback’s skin is armor-plated, and a specialized organ on its back produces a biological equivalent of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). The twin crests on its head shift and move, revealing a writhing array of bioluminescent tentacles in the back of the head, which move more rapidly as the creature is stressed. Leatherback was designed by David Meng, “one of the best designers of Monsters in the world,” according to del Toro. Meng also sculpted the maquette of the creature.
After a long brainstorming with the director, “we ended up with like a gorilla, which is always fun to animate.” del Toro added: “a design, first and foremost, has to have a clean, distinctive silhouette and then have a personality that makes it unique. Leatherback was birthed having it all.” Leatherback is a brute, with enormous and powerful arms. Del Toro commented on the nature of the Monster, saying that “what we wanted with it was to feel like a bouncer, like a pure muscular charging brute — so its attacks are very ape-like. The fists are used like maces. It’ll jump on top of an enemy’s shoulders and torso and start pounding down on him.” The sounds Leatherback makes were specifically designed to be the most intimidating among the Monsters, according to Supervising Sound Editor Scott Gershin: “Leatherback has a lot of low-end presence. I didn’t necessarily want it to be loud, but I wanted it to be intense. When you hear it, the first thought you have is, ‘ah, shit, this isn’t good’.”
The baby Kaiju, discovered in Hong Kong, is the offspring of Otachi. It bursts out of the mutilated body of its dead mother after the lower half of its corpse falls on the ground; its appearance is ultimately brief, as it chokes right after swallowing Hannibal Chau. It is the element of the film that most vividly represents Guillermo del Toro’s surrealist style: he said: “if you think of a Monster as a formidable thing, you can give it a moment where he’s curious and appealing and kind of cute. Surrealism comes from juxtaposition. The Dalì telephone with the lobster on top. The element that doesn’t work is the element that makes the thing work.” Conceived with a ‘puppy quality’, the creature was given big eyes and a proportionally very large head. “It’s sort of cute and horrible,” del Toro added, “we gave the baby two characteristics that make him unique and beautiful to look at — translucency and iridescence. The skin is translucent and pearlescent, but it’s also wrinkled like a naked mole rat, [or] like an Egyptian cat.” Animating the baby creature proved to be particularly complex, according to Hickel: “messy is sometimes the hardest of all — because there are no happy accidents. The animator is deciding every movement that it’s going to make, every little wiggle and bob.”
The climactic battle of Pacific Rim takes place in the Pacific Ocean when three Kaiju emerge together from the breach. Scunner (Category 4) was designed by Simon Webber and conceived as basically ‘a bull Monster’. During the fight with Gipsy Danger there are shots reminiscent of a Rodeo, and Scunner’s behaviour was based on that of Bulls: it rams its opponent and tries to use its horns as slashing and perforating weapons. The basic body archetype of the Monster is the same as that of Axehead and Knifehead, but sporting differently textured shoulders. In addition, the main arms feature three mole-like claws.
Raiju (Category 4) is the armored creature with the tripartite head armour, which splits open to reveal the Monster’s real foal-like head. Mainly inspired from reptiles (Iguanas most prominently), it was conceived to be an aquatic character. “His feet were sculpted bent,” del Toro said, “so it is not meant to walk [on two legs]. I always told [the designers] to think of the body in horizontal, so it could move like a giant iguana.” Raiju, whose other nickname was ‘Croc’, was designed by Francisco Ruiz Velasco — who gave the Monster the appearance of a Crocodile combined with the armored plates of a pangolin.
The final, most formidable foe faced by Gipsy Danger in the film is named Slattern — the first Category 5 Kaiju. It is allegedly beyond what the Jaegers were ever prepared to battle. Del Toro commented on the character, saying that “I wanted very much the final Kaiju to be the devil. I always loved very much that moment in Fantasia when Chernabog opens his wings in Night on Bald Mountain.” The Monster had to invoke a majestic vibe, inspired by Dragonslayer (which is referenced when the Monster enters the scene). “I introduce it almost like a building coming out of the water,” del Toro said. “It is really, really quite gigantic.” Slattern was initially conceived by Guy Davis, who nicknamed him ‘Executioner’. “My initial idea was that while Slattern would be an executioner,” Davis said on his Tumblr blog, “he would be more agile than a brute. Swift and moray-eel like in the water and almost gremlin-like using the many chest arms to pick apart the jaegers as he fought.”
Del Toro said: “I wanted him to come out from the depths of the ocean, and his head to not be horns but evoke that. It has a real mean intelligence. He is the only Kaiju whose head looks like a real crown, so it has majesty. I wanted very much to have him be clearly the king of the Kaiju.” Davis added: “His head design would subliminally have the feel of a “skull and crossbones”, with the lower jaw shape mirroring the top horns and his eyes clustered in the middle like a face. Guillermo liked the initial form and idea but wanted the eyes moved to the sides, which worked great since now the center spot could be similar to a nose cavity on a skeleton and give the head a hammerhead shape. I also thought it gave him more personality and kinda made him look a bit like a monster caricature of Jack Palance.” The Monster’s main weapon is the group of tendril-like tails. The animators were instructed to base the movements on kung-fu masters using magical canes. Hal Hickel commented: “[del Toro] wanted a similar sort of feeling for the way Slattern swirls his tails around in the water in a circular way. You don’t quite know what it’s doing with them, and then suddenly they can just splash out and strike.” The final design was given crocodile-esque scales, as well as a crocodilian color scheme, and a peculiar, ram-like protrusion on its chest — added by Barlowe — which can be used as a close-range weapon, although it is never used to effect in the film.
“There’s something very pure and full of love in Monster Movies. Even more in Kaiju movies. You just love the creatures. This movie speaks to the kid in me in a way that no other movie I have ever made does.”
– Guillermo del Toro
For more images of the Kaijus, visit the Monster Gallery.