BY HENRY SHEEHAN
STRANGE DAYS: Del Toro's wide-ranging vision for Pan's Labyrinth includes
the real world and the world of monsters and a talking faun. (© Picturehouse)
You need to have only a passing acquaintance with the work of Guillermo Del Toro to know that he likes to mystify. From his very first feature, Cronos, the Mexican director-writer has displayed an abiding affection for gizmos. In Cronos, the characters were taken with a watch that becomes a blood-sucking mechanism. Del Toro built the large-scale, tabletop innards of a timepiece, so that his camera could glide through the gears and take the audience on a tour of the infernal machine.
"I love anything clockwork," says Del Toro. "I have an automaton that plays the cello and another that has a little funnel and whistles a tune. I like to open them up and check the mechanisms. And I have, in my day, taken a couple of watches apart."
It's when he assembles the complex ticking of his films, which include Blade II, Hellboy and The Devil's Backbone, that Del Toro shines. But that light never shone brighter than on his award-winning film Pan's Labyrinth. It enveloped both the brutal realities of Spain in 1944—when the Fascists were stamping out the last of the democratic resistance in forested frontiers—and the magical world of a young girl, Ofelia, who finds solace in her imagination.
Given the formidable array of computer tools available to filmmakers today, you might assume that Del Toro built his heroine's fantasy world digitally. But while there are significant CG elements in Pan's Labyrinth, most of it was deliberately fashioned out of solid materials. For example, the movie opens with a shot closing in on the eye of a seriously injured child (who will turn out to be Ofelia). As it does so, it opens up to a fantasy kingdom of marvelous structures, with a voice-over relating the fairy tale of a princess who left her underground kingdom for the surface, only to forget who she is after she gets there. After a tracking shot past some buildings, the camera picks up the silhouette of a little girl mounting stairs. Animation? A bit, but Del Toro wanted some material realism, too.
"What I wanted to do was create a big, big, big miniature of the magical kingdom," he says. "It was a huge miniature. It occupied about an eighth of a full soundstage. Then we animated a little figure of a girl in 3-D animation within [the image of the] miniature. I think the result is very graphic, very beautiful, very fairy tale. We couldn't use things that were very sophisticated, but we used a motion recorder head so that some of the movement could be repeated, the tilt and the pan could be recorded. But we didn't have money to use really complicated motion control or anything."
Del Toro, 43, spent 10 years as a makeup supervisor in Mexico before directing Cronos. He gives the DGA credit for allowing him to use a mixed crew and helping to make his last two films, Devil's Backbone and Labyrinth, look as good as they do. "People sometimes talk about the DGA not being flexible, but every time I've gone to them I've had a really easy, creative and open negotiation," he says. "In my experience they are incredibly aware of diversity and the need to retain creative freedom when you're working on a smaller budget."
ENCHANTED: A fairy tale princess leaves her underground kingdom in
Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. (© Teresa Isasi/Picturehouse)
He approaches a project with a firm idea of what it should say and, equally important, what it should look like. He's never without a small sketchbook that he fills with both written notes and drawings that spring full-blown from a Gothic imagination. So by the time he begins preproduction, his ideas on what sets should be built and what costumes designed, not to mention how it all should be shot, are clearly visualized. As he puts it, "I go in on the basic 100 percent; on the particulars maybe 70 percent."
This can lead to somewhat peculiar preferences. Some of Pan's most suspenseful and ornate action occurs in a precinct of the girl's magic world. She's been sent on a mission into the banquet hall of a dozing monster, a tall, eyeless, white creature called the Pale Man. The Pale Man awakens with a gruesome appetite and chases Ofelia after chowing down on a couple of fairies who were trying to help her. Despite the protests of his production designer Eugenio Caballero, Del Toro rejected the naturalistic logic that demanded the walls and floors be a stony grey. Instead, he ordered them slathered in uneven tones of crimson and scarlet, a reference to blood, which is a significant element throughout the film.
Del Toro was working in Spain on a very tight budget—the equivalent of $19 million in euros—and was limited in the size of the sets he could build. That became a problem in the underground lair because the Pale Man was supposed to chase Ofelia down a long corridor that led from his terrifying dining room to a door in a wall that led back to reality. It was a corridor the budget-minded director couldn't build in its lengthy entirety.
"That's a sequence where we went into slightly wider lenses here and there," he says. "It's not a forced perspective, but it's a distorted perspective. I asked the set designer to make a ramp that actually goes up as it nears the wall and it goes down as it moves further away. The corridor was really not very long, so I had to use low angles or high angles and wide-angle lenses."
The tracking shot that parallels Ofelia as she runs down the hallway also required some ingenuity. "That's the only little section where the thing is completely straight. You could run for exactly the length of the shot and then you couldn't. That's the nice thing about making a set out of repetitive elements. Because then you can make that run last a lot longer by doing it two or three times from two or three angles."
There were two crucial elements in Ofelia's perilous kingdom. One was a muddy, beetle-infested cave that was home to a giant, belching, tongue-snapping frog. The other was the kingdom's main entrance: a very deep, cylindrical cavern hewn out of rock and lined with a staircase. Both tested Del Toro's commitment to establishing a concrete reality.
"We had a mechanical puppet [of the frog] for the beginning, then it's taken over by a digital one. We start little by little. We start with a real frog, then real frog plus a digital tongue, then digital tongue plus digital frog. We mix it and match it so that the eye is never completely at rest with what it is. That is an incredibly detail-oriented exercise when you're trying to match a physical frog with a CG model.
To build the set of the underground kingdom entryway, Del Toro and his crew had to abandon the soundstages they had been using near their locations in Seville for larger studios nearer Madrid.
PEEKABOO: The eyeless pale man awakens. (© Picturehouse)
LOST: Ofelia wanders through a long hallway that Del Toro insisted
on painting crimson to suggest blood. (© Picturehouse)
"The main problem was that you can only build the set to a certain height before you run into the problem that you need a little bit of a distance with the light above," he explains. "The other thing with a set like this is that it has a very narrow mouth on the top—actually the bottom is wider than the top. It is shaped a little bit like a vase. So you have to angle the key light in such a way that it hits most of the set. I think [cinematographer] Guillermo [Navarro] and [gaffer] David Lee came up with a really ingenious system."
In short, Navarro and Lee designed lights that circled the top of the funnel-like set and angled upwards, where their light hit a reflector that bounced it back down inside the set.
Del Toro also figured out that he only had to build half the set. Imagine the vase he described. Now pretend that a sharp knife has split it in half from top to bottom, except for the open, circular top, which is left intact. This preserved not just the entranceway's large, material reality; it also allowed Del Toro to remain true to the fantasy world's visual concept.
"The whole design of the fantasy world was based on circles," he says. "The circle of her eye, the circle of the moon, the circle of the labyrinth. So with half a set, I didn't need to look the other way. The first and most important thing is I don't turn around; I use a single axis. The girl is always walking into the pit the same way; she enters right to left. I have done it before on circular sets, like on Blade II, we only built half a set. You just storyboard it so you don't break the axis."
The film encompasses a magical kingdom with monsters and a talking faun, together with battles from an armed civil war and Ofelia's tense family life in a converted mill. On top of that, there are visits inside the womb of Ofelia's very pregnant mother. So Del Toro's vision might justifiably be described as wide-ranging in its settings, interests and motifs. Ultimately, when it came time to make all these separate parts work in unison, that's when Del Toro the clockmaker went to work.
"The first thing we did was design both the magical world and real world to fit the 1.85 frame. We built the farmhouse with the mill almost like a straight 1.85 so that the composition would go left-to-right, down-up, which is the ideal way the eye travels through a composition. Same with the interiors; we had lower ceilings and we made sure that the sets would fit in a mildly angular lens—in the 20s."
Del Toro doesn't like excessive symmetry, though. "It's too neat," he says. So he insinuated some circles—the hallmarks of the fantasy world—into the grim rectangular design of the farmhouse, even in the bathroom.
"Whenever the girl is involved in a set in the real world, you would find circles in that set," he says. "In the bathroom, you can see several circles behind her—holes in the wall and rust stains where there used to be pipes."
Very clever on Del Toro's part. But will the audience even notice it?
"I think there is power to visual rhyming," he insists. As he demonstrates throughout Pan's Labyrinth, images within images have enough power to shift the audience's gaze, rather then just occupy space on the screen, waiting to be noticed. Summing up his aesthetic and practical strategy, he says, "I think the eye is quicker than the mind."