Hello, readers! This is the first entry in a brand new monthly column I’m debuting here on Daily Dead, Practical-ly Perfect, which is my way of celebrating the world of special effects and the visionary artists who work tirelessly to make the impossible possible for the filmmakers they collaborate with.
Growing up a horror fan, I became entranced with monsters and creatures at a very early age, and it’s a love that I still carry with me to this very day. Maybe it has something to do with my first movie ever, An American Werewolf in London, which became the standard for practical effects in the early 1980s and has remained one of the greatest achievements in the industry for over 35 years, or maybe seeing the behind-the-scenes video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video was another big part of it—I’m not sure. All I know is that for me, one of the biggest reasons I first fell in love with horror and sci-fi movies in the first place was due to the numerous practical effects artists who brought to life some of the most amazing creatures, monsters and everything in-between that made my imagination run wild, and helped foster my love of the macabre.
With this in mind, earlier this year I decided to embark on my very first book project, and now I am thrilled to officially reveal a bit more about it right here. So what exactly have I been working on? It’s called Monster Squad: A Celebration of the Special Effects Artists Behind Cinema’s Most Memorable Creatures, and it will feature brand new, in-depth interviews with numerous special effects artists and makeup technicians who have helped shape the landscape of modern cinema in one way or another. It should be out in early 2017, so in the meantime (and beyond), I’ve decided to create a monthly column here on Daily Dead that continues to showcase these artists and give their amazing talent even more love and admiration.
For my first column, there were about a dozen or so films that immediately came to mind, but I thought it seemed appropriate to kick things off with a film from the man who reignited my love for monster movies, Guillermo del Toro's haunting fairy tale, Pan’s Labyrinth. It may have only come out in the last decade, but his darkly fantastical take on the Spanish Civil War quickly became one of my favorite cinematic stories of all-time. A tragic and gorgeous visual portrait of a young girl (Ivana Baquero) who still believes in the possibilities of magic, despite the unforgiving circumstances of war all around her, Pan’s Labyrinth is a beautiful testament to the power of imagination that also features a cavalcade of memorable creatures brought to life through stunning practical effects (and a bit of assistance from some talented digital artists, too).
Pan’s Labyrinth was del Toro’s opportunity to take the prototypical fairy tale entities most of us grew up reading about—a faun, fairies and an ogre—and give them his own patented imaginative twist. For the project, del Toro relied on the talents of David Martí and Montse Ribé, the duo behind DDT Special Effects in Barcelona, Spain, who he previously collaborated with on The Devil’s Backbone and Hellboy. In fact, it was on the set of Hellboy where Martí heard del Toro discussing some of his ideas for Pan’s Labyrinth, which over time evolved into different iterations that made it into the final version of the film. For example, Pan was originally conceived as more of a goat-like creature with furry legs, while The Pale Man was initially going to be more of a Pinocchio-esque character who would have been very stiff and rigid in both his movements and design.
The design for El Fauno that Martí and del Toro eventually decided on was born out of a naturalist approach, allowing for a Pan who could disappear into the wooded environments and looked like something that had existed in nature for hundreds of years. The design process for Pan began with his legs, and once Martí and Ribé shared their woodland-infused idea for the creature’s appendages with del Toro, that’s when he knew that his titular character needed to be wholly comprised of this look (to get to that final look, DDT SFX went through six design stages in the process).
Martí recalled the very first time del Toro laid eyes on Doug Jones as El Fauno, saying, “The first night we shot the makeup tests for Pan, they were shooting it from above on this hill, downwards into the labyrinth. We had to walk Doug up the hill, while dressed as Pan, and as we’re making our way through all the people, everyone got really quiet as Guillermo walked towards us.”
“He just stopped, looked at Doug, and then gave him a really big hug, and everyone started to applaud. That kind of response from everyone on the crew was a first for me, and to this day, it’s my very favorite creature we’ve ever done.” Jones has also stated on various occasions (and on the special features for Pan’s Labyrinth) that not only was the suit that he had to adorn as the titular character one of the easiest he’s ever been inside, but that it also became one of his very favorite characters he’s ever performed as throughout his illustrious acting career.
The concept behind The Pale Man's look was based on del Toro’s idea of a very, very old man who used to be ridiculously overweight, but who is now literally nothing more than skin and bones, so his epidermis hangs off of his limbs like fleshy, sallowed curtains. It was del Toro’s idea to give the character somewhat of a manta ray-like appearance, and the filmmaker asked Martí and his team to go with a look that removed most of its facial features (save for the nostrils). Before his eyeball hands were conceived, del Toro had a different idea in mind—one that nearly derailed Martí and Ribé from working on the character altogether.
“Originally, Guillermo had wanted The Pale Man to have these lips that would go so wide that the skull underneath the skin would then pop out. Then, a skeleton was supposed to crawl out, and Guillermo then wanted him to go down on all fours and transforms into something else, similar to the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London. This was so he would be able to chase Ofelia, because otherwise, he was a blind character, so that meant he couldn’t traditionally find her.”
According to Martí, when he initially rebuffed the idea and told del Toro that it wasn’t something that could happen at that budgetary level, the response didn’t exactly please the ambitious filmmaker, and the pair went a few weeks without speaking. Realizing that they still needed to nail down this character, Martí headed out to del Toro’s production office to have a meeting a few weeks later, and that’s when the idea of the now-iconic eyeball hands was born.
As Martí was acting out the role of The Pale Man for his longtime friend, using his hands to guide him as he pretended he was blind, del Toro realized that if they incorporated the eyes to the hands, and mimicked the look of eyelashes with the Pale Man’s finger tips, they could simplify the overall character design with just a few tweaks, making for a much easier concept to execute than a full-blown transformation sequence, and thus solving a very big problem for everyone.
“Imagination isn’t about having a lot of money; imagination is about something magical. And sometimes you have to go back and reconsider designs because of your budget, but that kind of challenge gives artists the opportunity to just push harder and come up with something new. And sometimes, what seems like a challenge ends up becoming a real opportunity,” added Martí.
For as successful as both Pan and The Pale Man ended up being, there was one creation from Pan’s Labyrinth that proved to be the biggest challenge of all for both del Toro and his entire crew: the toad who lives inside the tree roots, who holds a special key inside its belly that Ofelia must retrieve.
“The toad was always an issue,” explained Martí, “because it was something that had a specific design, and the way Guillermo wanted to do it, it made it very difficult for that creature to move the way he wanted it to (Montse even got inside the suit herself, and it weighed almost as much as she did, making it nearly impossible to move, let alone jump). He was never designed to jump, because that wasn’t a function I had been informed of, so when we got him to set and realized how limited his movement would be, we had to change the story to where now this frog is stuck inside this claustrophobic tunnel, instead of how it was originally written, which was this elaborate and oversized set.”
The toad in Pan’s Labyrinth ended up getting some computer-generated enhancements, too, which helped bring the gluttonous amphibian to life. CafeFX, who also handled the design of the fairies, helped add believability to the scene when The General (Sergi López) sews the side of his mouth shut, and they also digitally removed Jones’ legs via green screen on his two characters in the film. There are a lot of folks who will turn their noses up at the use of any kind of CGI in modern filmmaking, but Pan’s Labyrinth proves that when it is used properly, and in conjunction with practical makeup, it can be a huge asset to every storyteller.
When Martí looks back on his experiences from Pan’s Labyrinth, there’s an evident fondness you can hear in his voice for the work he created for the project with Ribé, especially since their extraordinary efforts were rewarded in the form of an Oscar the following year. But still, Martí is the first to admit that it all came at a price. “Pan’s Labyrinth was one of the hardest things we’ve ever had to do at DDT; in fact, we even ended the movie bankrupt, and had two of our guys quit on us right after. It was like going through hell, with only a few moments of heaven to be found.”
“All my best moments, really, came from being with Doug Jones in the makeup trailer. He was always singing and smiling, and just doing everything he could to keep everyone in good spirits. When you get to work with someone like that, and also get to work with someone that has an imagination like Guillermo does, it all ends up being worth it in the end.”
*Note: Photos courtesy of The Doug Jones Experience / DDT Efectos Especiales.Next: Practical-ly Perfect: Celebrating the Special Effects of HELLRAISER