The concept of Manhattan’s School for Visual Arts having a festival to highlight the accomplishments of its alumni seems kind of obvious. After all, it’s a bragfest for its notable alumni, an inspiration for its current students, and a way to give tangible form to the value of said students’ creative arts degree to anyone who might be funding said degree. But 2015 is only After School Special’s second year in existence, after 2014’s successful festival, despite the school opening its doors in 1947. It is by and, ostensibly, for the school, but the SVA was kind enough to open its doors to the general public, for which I was very grateful.
Largely because it allowed me the chance to revisit Pacific Rim for free on the big screen and get to hear one of the film’s visual effects supervisors, John H. Han, talk about his work on the film in a Q&A session following the screening.
I haven’t seen Pacific Rim since its theatrical run in 2013, but that’s not really on purpose. I am very bad at rewatching and rereading things, especially if they’re aren’t the top-tier cheese I take out for guests, like the glorious trainwrecks that are The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Rock of Ages, or The Three Musketeers (1993 or 2011, take your pick). But I have, after spending a year in spitting distance of an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema (I MISS IT SO MUCH), developed a taste for rewatching films in theaters. It makes it more of an event and there’s a much higher chance that I can consume nachos while doing so. And Pacific Rim, with its logline of “robots fighting monsters,” was meant to be seen on a big screen.
Two years later, how does Pacific Rim hold up?
Well—for the most part. The night lighting on the jaegers is starting to make them look a little toyetic, although it is a credit to the entire production that I can look at Cherno Alpha and go “I dunno if that’s how jaegers really look under lights at night,” since giant mechs don’t even exist. (Yet.) Charlie Day’s hyperactive kaiju scientist Newton Geizsler has begun to wear a little thin on the nerves, although I would still pay many dollars to watch Ron Perlman’s Hannibal Chau and Geizsler squabble for a few hours. (Chau’s disbelief that this little nerd covered in his own blood would step to him is unendingly hilarious.) And Mako Mori, while as wonderful as ever, looks a little lonely against a backdrop of DUDES DUDES DUDES in the aftermath of Mad Max: Fury Road.
(Has that crossover happened yet? I don’t care who is going where, I need it.)
But Pacific Rim remains the most stunningly optimistic and humane movie about robots punching monsters ever made. After all, its entire thesis is that the power of love is all you need to save the universe. It doesn’t much matter what kind of love that is; the film even pointedly refuses to define what kind of love Mako and Raleigh feel for each other, having them bump heads where another film might have had them kiss. And for a film that I imagine was greenlit due to the phase “Did I mention the robots punch the monsters?”, the action never feels gratuitous. After all, the whole point is that people would really like to stop using the giant robots to punch the monsters, but will do so as long as there are monsters to punch. (Guillermo Del Toro is a treasure.) The action sequences are well-crafted, well-structured, and well-placed. Even remembering most of the beats from my last experience with the film, I was still delightfully surprised by some of the action beats. (“Why is this a wide shot… OH NO OH NO THAT’S WHY IT’S A WIDE SHOT!”) I even managed to screw up my neck at the screening because I was so invested in the action that I could not physically relax.
After the screening—which earned a well-deserved round of applause—John H. Han and the event’s moderator, an SVA student, sat down to talk about Han’s work on the film and his career. Given that this was a special SVA screening, the Q&A was, naturally, aimed at current SVA students. But I found Han’s perspective very interesting. As an sf fan born after the release of Westworld and who came to cinematic awareness during the Bridge of Khazad-dûm sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring, CGI has always been a major part of my cinematic experience. But because it’s not the simplest thing for a layperson to grasp, even given an understanding of practical special effects, it’s very easy to take for granted the hundreds and thousands of people involved in executing the special effects on any given CGI-laden project.
Let me repeat that: hundreds and thousands of people, often working in isolation from each other. I found this screening really valuable because I was in a theater full of students hoping to join those ranks. Seeing the movie partially through their eyes gave me a much deeper appreciation for their work. It certainly changes the way I look at Pacific Rim’s FX reel, which is already one of the best FX reels I’ve ever seen.
Han was hired to work on Pacific Rim by Industrial Lights and Magic because of his experience with and specialization in water effects. But, as he pointed out, even that specific specialization was often broken down further. On a single shot of a jaeger emerging from the ocean, for instance, several artists would focus on one minute water effect—water cascading off the jaeger’s arm, the white foam of the ocean, and the rain falling on the jaeger, for instance, would all have a single artist assigned to them. Most films, Han said, will feature one or two fancy water shots, but Pacific Rim, of course, sets most of its action sequences in water, with combatants for whom no one-to-one reference footage exists.
Instead, Han said, the visual artists on Pacific Rim studied footage of crumbling icebergs and construction demolition, focusing on how to give the jaegers and kaiju the scope and heft necessary to make us believe in giant robots and giant monsters. He laughingly pointed out that some of the cuts in the action sequences are done to cover up anything potentially sticky, telling us we’d probably find some messes if we looked close enough. I found that charming. Even though you can technically do anything with CGI, there’s still only so much you can do given your manpower and computer power. (A fair amount of the Q&A, in fact, centered around visual effects software.) Interestingly, Han indicated that every project’s level of believability is based, partially, on the intended audience, a point that seems obvious in hindsight but simply never occurred to me before.
Han also praised Guillermo Del Toro for providing the special effects team detailed feedback, often annotating the shots he was given to indicate exactly what he wanted. Despite the fact that hundreds and thousands of people work on these projects, it is supposed to look seamless, and that’s the director’s job. This is why auteur theory exists; it’s easier to give credit—and blame—to one person than negotiate the army of thousands that is modern film production. I find auteur theory useful, but reductive and a little distancing, in a way that puts the director above and beyond everyone else involved. Knowing that Del Toro got involved at every level of the project exposes some of the troublesome fretwork of that concept and further endears his creative process to me. Well, that and Crimson Peak…