Henry Turner delves into the influences and techniques that form Hellboy's style and vfx.
Hellboy is probably the most fun of all the recent comic book adaptations. Ron Perlman brings a sort of awe shucks sensibility to his portrayal of the title creature a devil spawn yanked from the cosmos by Nazis during WW2, but raised by Americans and trained to fight evil in todays world. Though the film is loaded with dark moments, such as when Hellboy faces his inner demons or does battle with cosmic creatures, much of the story is funny and even light-hearted, unlike the quasi-Freudian treatment of the Hulk, and the more conventionally dramatic adaptations of X-Men and Spider-Man.
Indeed, director Guillermo del Toro cites Hellboys gentler side as being one of the elements that first drew him to the material. Hellboy is such a fallible super-hero, almost too human. Normally in Hollywood you dont want to see your hero vanquished, you dont want to see your hero fail, and the great thing about Hellboy is his humanity and fallibility. Before he takes responsibility for himself people even die under his command. He uses his powers for very petty things stealing a beer, throwing a rock at a guy whos talking to his girlfriend. It is a tribute to del Toros artistry that he is able to pull off these contrasting elements, and create one of the most entertaining films in recent months.
For horror fans, Hellboy presents something very special: it is the first film that shows monsters similar to those described by H.P. Lovecraft in the Cthulu Mythos tales.
The Lovecraft style was Guillermos thought in the beginning, explains Edward Irastorza, vfx producer on Hellboy. He always sent people in that direction. Early on, Guillermo had discussions about Lovecraft with me and Blair Clark [of Tippett Studios] and we followed through with it.
del Toro explains that his Lovecraftian vision came from the comic itself. There is an aspect that I enjoy in the work of [Hellboy creator] Mike Mignola, and that is that his vision of hell is a cosmic one, which he shares with H.P. Lovecraft. In the movie a character says, there is a dark place where evil slumbers and waits to return. And that is basically the premise of the entire Lovecraft mythos that there are entities out there that want to return and repossess earth cyclopean entities, to use a Lovecraftian term.
Innovatives in Animation Style
Most of Hellboys fights are against Sammael, a bizarre octopoidal beast that, like the hydra, multiplies when killed. The creatures angular body movements, created by the Tippett Studio, recall the stop-motion work of Ray Harryhausen. Ive always wanted to make sort of a Ray Harryhausen movie for a new generation, del Toro says. I remember as a kid seeing Jason and the Argonauts and just flipping at the creatures. I met Harryhausen two years ago and one of the first things I said to him was, were doing Hellboy and I would love to bring you in as an advisor on the style of movement. But he said movies today are too violent and too full of sex. I laughed and said, come on, in Jason you show a nipple, and in Eye of the Tiger you have a Minotaur that impales a guy. Still, theres a lot of Harryhausen in the movie. For example, Sammael does the Mighty Joe Young move, slamming the floor when hes angry. When we were directing Tippett on the movement, we said, do the Harryhausen thing, where its almost choreographic. Such innovative use of style is one of the first times that instead of relying on realism, effects artists draw on the past, creating monsters that are not only horrific, but also exemplify the rich history of animation a sort of cross-generational approach that achieves truly creative effects, and not just the latest technical fad.
Though the film is lavish as a thrill ride, Irastorza admits that the $60 million budget was quite low for an effects-driven spectacle. Because of the limitations, he was especially thorough in supplying digital materials to the various visual effects vendors. We didnt do any motion capture at all. Cinevation, Rick Bakers studio, built a maquette of Hellboy, and we also had Ron Perlman scanned we had him costumed as Hellboy in a pure white makeup and a white body suit, and he was scanned digitally. The same was done for Sammael and Abe Sapient (Hellboys aquatic sidekick), so all vendors who were going to do a digital character would have the exact same specifications to start with. Some of the vendors said we gave them the best reference materials they ever received.
In some shots an old and potentially gimmicky standby was used for Sammael: There was a guy in a rubber suit for Sammael half the time it went back and forth from a rubber Sammael to CG Sammael; sometimes three rubber ones and three CG ones in the background. It is a mark of the excellence of the Tippet Studios that the CG and rubber Sammaels are blended flawlessly.
Extensive previs helped assure that top-notch effects would be brought in on budget. Sequences were storyboarded and then I brought in an effects editor and he cut things together, Irastorza adds. We did music and sound effects and so forth to show what was going on. A lot of the animatics we did for the bridge scene are pretty close to how the scene was finally done. The same goes for the Westside highway sequence. The storyboards were pretty exact.
Writer/Director Guillermo del Toro (left) and Ron Perlman prepare a shot. del Toro wanted Sammael (right, battling Hellboy) to recall Ray Harryhausens work. Photo by: Jay Maidment (left) and Egon Endrenyi.
An Accurate Adaptation?
Mignola had a laissez faire attitude, to say the least, when it came to exercising creative control over the adaptation of his comic. When I met Guillermo, I said I like what you do, you can do anything with this character, Ive done my version, so go on and make it Guillermo del Toros Hellboy. Really I was looking for a way to let myself off the hook and not worry about the movie. And if he was making something radically different, Id just sit back and cash the check. The truth is Id rather see a director make the movie he wants to make, especially Guillermo, who brings his own sensibility to the material he chooses. But then he said, no, I want to do your character. So I said OK, if were doing my character, then well have to cover a number of specific things. This led to a long working relation between del Toro and Mignola, who participated extensively in the pre-production design, and was on set throughout filming. Mignola acknowledges that certain changes were necessary to make Hellboy a true movie character. We sat down and agreed on what should be changed for the film, on certain things in the comic that wouldnt translate to the screen.
The most probable reason for the two mens excellent relationship was a shared interest: H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft, really the old pulp magazine sensibilities on the whole, were a huge influence when I first created Hellboy, Mignola explains. And though the film features scenes with Nazis that seem to evoke Indiana Jones, these influences were actually drawn from sources closer to Mignolas comic work. I grew up reading Marvel comics, Captain America and that kind of stuff, where the best heroes were hanging out with American G.I.s, and the villains were Nazis. And I wanted to root my story in that world, because to me that was when comics were the bestthe era of Jack Kirby, whos of course another huge influence.
The first 20 minutes is pure Mignola, del Toro says, and then we have a detour of about 30 minutes when we go to an urban environment that the comics never go to. But the ending, where everything becomes almost surreally gothic underground in Moscow, that goes back to pure Mignola.
Heart of a Beast
All the filmmakers agree that no one but Perlman could have portrayed Hellboy. Irastorza: Without Ron it wouldnt have been anything, Ron is so perfect. del Toro: There wasnt any other choice but Ron. Mignola: I always envisioned Ron in the part.
Their unanimity makes Perlman very happy. Hellboy is a character that an actor could play for the rest of his life without growing tired of it, Perlman says or rather growls with a certain glee. Hes got every aspect of humanity that an actor revels in exploring. His sense of humor is amazing. And hes got this heart my favorite part of Hellboy is his heart. What is best are those moments when his heart is revealed when hes around his father or his girlfriend, or when hes asked to make the final choice. Thats when the dialectic that lives within him about evil vs. good is pushed to the furthest point and thats the part of playing him thats most interesting.
One cant help compare Perlmans work in the Beauty and the Beast TV series with Hellboy. The roles Ive gotten to play the beast and now Hellboy, are probably the truest statements I can make as an actor. Im very in touch with the monstrous parts of myself, and have been my whole life. And if one feels that way, one spends ones life either overcompensating for those feelings, or learning to live with them, or overwhelming the feelings of monstrousness by making peace with them.
del Toro also acknowledges the connection between Hellboy and the classic fairy tale. This is a beauty and the beast story where beauty kisses the beast at the end, but instead of the beast turning into a prince, she turns into a beast. The final shot for me is beautiful because it works at the level where youre telling people, its OK to be a monster. Just accept it and make it part of yourself.
del Toro has already written a script for Lovecrafts At the Mountains of Madness. If this is made, it will be the first time a Lovecraft story that is also a literary masterpiece will come to the screen in a faithful adaptation an event that will almost certainly bring an entire reevaluation of horror as a genre demanding serious interest. del Toro points out that the box office success of Hellboy will determine whether he can make this classic. It totally depends on studio financing. If Im lucky enough that the studio understands Mountains, then by all means Ill do Mountains. But it is a tough sell. Its a 1920s period story, with crazy, tentacled monsters that come from another dimension, and theres a moment when a character is praying as a creature approaches him, and the creature says, your god is as young as yesterday, my master was here for eons before. And though most horror movies turn into Aliens with all-out action, this one stays ominous and existential all the way through. Well see if the studio gets it.
Lets hope they do.
Henry Turner is a writer and award-winning filmmaker, whose Lovecraft-inspired horror feature, Wilbur Whateley, won top awards at the Chicago International Film Festival. His writing on film has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Lecran Fantastique, Variety and many other publications. A longtime film festival executive, he has programmed for the Slamdance Film Festival, and currently heads FilmTraffick L.A.