The Angel of Death
It is all the same to me, my heart is filled with dust and sand.
As with many other key characters of Hellboy II, the Angel of Death was first envisioned by Guillermo Del Toro as a notebook sketch. From there, the character went through different iterations at the hands of concept artists like Wayne Barlowe, and ended up being art-directed by Norman Cabrera at Spectral Motion.
Compared to other creatures in the film, the design process for the Angel was relatively linear. “It was really true to the initial design that Guillermo wanted and it didn’t go through many changes,” said Mike Elizalde. “It was just a winning design that really struck a chord both aesthetically and in the storyline.” Cabrera was the first choice to helm the design. He related: “Mike and Guillermo had always intended for me to do the Angel of Death,” said Cabrera, “and in talking with Guillermo, I was really excited, because he basically said, ‘Think of every angel of death you’ve ever seen in movies and don’t do that! Do something that is really out there and bizarre.’” Guidelines included the fact that Doug Jones was to play the character — and that it had to be entirely practical, without digital modifications.
One of Del Toro’s directions was to give the Angel eyes on its wings — a trait inspired by biblical descriptions and illustrations of Seraphims and other angels with wings full of eyes. Del Toro originally conceived the idea for another project — an unmade film titled Mephisto’s Bridge — in 1994. The director explained: “it was inspired by a Mexican painting in a church, where archangels have eyes in every feather. I took a note. I was in a church and I drew it in my notebook and it stayed there. It was dormant until I was able to afford the mechanical eyes and the wings, and all that stuff. I thought, ‘That would be a great Angel of Death.’
Since Mephisto’s Bridge never came to fruition, Del Toro decided to recycle this concept for Hellboy II. Visual reference for the Angel came from ancient German woodcuts and Byzantine-era depictions of angels. Cabrera related: “he kept talking about those old German woodcuts that you see with monsters that have faces in the chest or lion faces in the knees — really out there concepts and I was like, ‘Man, this is really cool!’ They were so wild, and that’s one of the things about Guillermo: he really thinks outside the box, and I was really excited about that — so I actually had all these reference books that had a lot of German woodcuts and stuff and these Byzantine-era designs and stuff and I showed them Guillermo and he said, ‘Yes, that’s it!’ so that was sort of the springboard for the Angel of Death.”
Instead of visualizing the Angel as a series of concept illustrations first, Cabrera skipped such stage and directly sculpted the character into a small-scale maquette. “I did some really preliminary thumbnail sketches of some of my ideas,,” Cabrera said, “but I didn’t actually show them to anybody, because I really like to work out concepts three-dimensionally — so I start with a maquette and Mike Elizalde is totally cool with that. Some people like to work on paper or in the computer and there are some people that design in clay and I definitely design in clay. A lot of really excellent designers aren’t sculptors, so they have to design on paper or in the computer, because they don’t know how to sculpt, but I can visualize an idea fairly quickly in clay so you can see it three-dimensionally, and I know directors really like that too because they can look at it and spin it around and all that stuff. So once a direction was decided for the Angel of Death, after I showed Guillermo these old woodcuts and things like that and we decided on a direction, I went straight into clay and sculpted a 14 inch-tall maquette of the Angel and with his input, honed it in.”
Although largely satisfied with the results, Del Toro applied key changes to the sculpture himself — starting by deforming the upper portion of its face into a fan-shaped bony structure. The director wanted the Angel’s face to be blank, suggestive of the concept of death. “Right off the bat, I did this ornamental-looking stuff on his chest that sort of looked like faces and he was really sold on the chest right out of the gate,” Cabrera related. “The face was a little bit more of a challenge because he didn’t want any eyes, and it’s always really weird to design a character that doesn’t have any eyes. I started doing stuff that had more bone shape to it and Guillermo didn’t even want empty sockets; he just wanted it to be blank, so I had done one version of the head and Guillermo came in for a meeting and he said, ‘Do you mind if I mess around with this a little bit?’ and he has a makeup FX background so of course I fully trust him, so he smushed the eyes down into a really weird flattened-out shape and at first I couldn’t totally wrap my head around it, but after I started playing with it, it came together and turned out to be really cool.”
As for the hands, “we wanted to have these long claws, almost like talons, so he doesn’t have fingernails but the tips of his fingers are really sharp as though they grew into these talon things,” Cabrera explained.
Another key element of the Angel’s appearance is its wings — which Del Toro wanted to be four, and endowed with eyes. Cabrera also had to find a configuration to appropriately incorporate the eyes into the wings. He recalled: “the wings were a challenge, because [Del Toro] originally said, ‘I want not just a pair of wings but a dual set of wings’ — he essentially wanted them to look like four wings and they had to have eyes in them. I was like, ‘wow, how do you do that?’ I was initially kind of stumped because how do you put eyeballs in feathers and still make it look cool, and they still have to move like wings, so it was initially tough to wrap our heads around the idea.”
Instead of sculpting onto the existing maquette first, Cabrera elaborated the eye incorporation in Photoshop. “I didn’t want to just jump into it with clay because wings are thin,” the artist said, “so I did a design on the computer in Photoshop and showed it to Guillermo. When he came in for a meeting and he said, ‘That’s it!’ The impression I got from him was that he was sort of hoping to see something that would strike his fancy — so he had the concept in his head but he didn’t know himself what eyes were going to look like in a pair of wings. It was a very abstract concept and he was hoping to be presented with something that would blow him away. Thankfully, the first design I showed him, he said, ‘That’s it, those are the wings!’”
Cabrera resolved the ‘four wings’ issue by creating a silhouette that would suggest that concept visually, as opposed to having the Angel literally endowed with four wings. “the way I approached that was that instead of having two physical sets of wings, it’s really one base that has a wing that opens up into two, so that’s how I figured out how it would be done. When they’re in the [closed] position, they more or less look like one wing, but when they open up, they actually splay into two and that gives the appearance of four wings.”
Designing the Angel was also a matter of creating its clothing. Cabrera envisioned a robe that upon close inspection would look like dried human skin. “I didn’t want it to be just a fabric robe,” he said, “so what I pitched to Guillermo was — why don’t we make the robe look like dried, cracked skin, like the robe that it’s wearing is actually made of some sort of skin and the whole thing is organic. So, even though it looks fabric-y, it’s actually the skin off a human being or something like that, and he signed off on that right away.”
Once finalized, the Angel design was translated to full size. Cabrera sculpted the body portions that would be applied on the performer — such as facial appliances, gloves, and a chest piece — on a life cast of Doug Jones. The make-up was applied by Thom Floutz. Similarly to Abe Sapien, the Angel make-up involved a vacuform piece that flattened the performer’s nose. The fiberglass headpiece blended in with the foam latex make-up covering Jones’ mouth and lips. Dentures with teeth slightly jutting out completed the appearance of the Angel’s face; Jones could only see through two imperceptible, sculpturally-hidden slits in the headpiece.
Just as they were during the design phase, the wings also proved to be a challenge to build. They had to house a large number of functions and yet be light enough for the performer to wear. All the wing mechanisms were devised by Mark Setrakian, Scott Millenbaugh and Bud McGrew. The wings could fold, unfurl and flap — through knee-like gears — and the eyes on them were designed to change angle as the wings extended or retracted. “The eyes were placed on mechanisms that allowed them to rotate in relation to the wing movement and remain parallel to the ground,” said Elizalde. “Regardless of the wing position, the eyes remained level; and all the eyes could look around in unison or individually. To give it a little extra touch of magic, Mark Setrakian also incorporated a [software] that would make all the eyes blink sequentially, creating a cascading effect.” The wings were covered in polyvinyl feathers with wire armatures to keep them stiff; the feathers were crafted and mounted on the animatronic wings by Fred Fraleigh. The performer could wear them like a harness.
The appearance of the Angel was completed by its bride-like veil and robe, devised by costume designers Carol Jones and Claudia Hardy. “I worked with them,” said Cabrera, “and said, ‘I want this to look like dried, cracked skin!’ so we did a bunch of tests and they really did a phenomenal job of articulating what the maquette looked like.” Since the Angel’s lower body would be entirely covered by the robe, this allowed Jones to wear leg extensions that increased the character’s height — making it more imposing. On set, Jones was partially supported by a wire that took off some of the weight of the animatronics — allowing more freedom for the performance, which incorporated ballet-like movements.
Everyone involved in the creation of the Angel of Death was thoroughly satisfied with the final results. “It was breathtaking to see it on set,” said Elizalde. “Literally. When we walked the Angel of Death onto the set, everybody gasped and stopped what they were doing. It was a great moment!”
Special thanks to Joe Nazzaro, who contributed precedently unused interview content; absolutely invaluable!
For more pictures of the Angel of Death, visit the Monster Gallery.
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