'Pacific Rim': John Knoll on 'Operatic and Theatrical' VFX for Guillermo del Toro

Industrial Light + Magic's Oscar-winning supervisor discusses the "large cocktail of simulation work" and "not repeating" ILM's robots from "Transformers."
Warner Bros. Pictures
"Pacific Rim"

For Industrial Light + Magic's Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor John Knoll, work on Pacific Rim involved steep technical challenges that came with its “large cocktail of simulation work,” as well as creating the “operatic and theatrical” look that director Guillermo del Toro wanted to bring to his robots-versus-monsters tentpole.

“Guillermo’s art director had prepared production paintings and mood studies that were pretty stylized with bold color,” related Knoll, an Oscar winner for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest who recently stepped into the new role of chief creative officer at ILM. “[Del Toro] described it as operatic and theatrical, and it builds throughout the course of the film.”

Pacific Rim includes a whopping 1,550 visual effects shots, the majority of which were completed at Industrial Light + Magic’s facilities in San Francisco, Vancouver and Singapore. Del Toro’s Mirada additionally worked on the movie’s prologue.

Describing some of the looks, Knoll related, “Hong Kong at night is notable for bright LED signs that light up the skyline. We took that and made it bolder with brighter, more saturated colors.

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“Since it is raining in the Hong Kong sequence, you see the signs reflected in the wet roadways, and since rain diffuses the light, you get clouds of colored rain. We used that as an excuse to light the characters with bright primarily colors. It was intentionally theatrical in that way.”

ILM is well known for its work on another popular franchise that involved large robots -- Michael Bay’s Transformers -- and Knoll related that they wanted “to make sure we weren’t repeating ourselves” as they approached Pacific Rim.

“The robot designs came from [del Toro’s] art department. From there we tried to make them more like subs, battleships and other really large mechanical constructions -- not like Transformers.”

For Knoll, the biggest challenge of the production was completing “high complexity and large quantity" of VFX, while staying on schedule and on budget.

“All the big sequences were these battles between the monsters and robots, and they all take place in environments that involved a large cocktail of complicated simulation work. They are either in the ocean [which required] fluid simulations or a city with buckling pavement and dust, rain and blood.”

The digital artists at ILM relied on in-house tools for fluid simulation. “They are constantly evolving,” said Knoll of these tools. “We picked up where they left off on Battleship [for which ILM was also the lead VFX house] and made them better and more efficient.”

For hero shots of building destruction, ILM used in-house tool Zeno, and for “less demanding” simulation work it relied on VFX software Houdini.

Knoll is scheduled to participate in a session on the making of Pacific Rim next week at computer graphics convention Siggraph, which will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center.