The Arrow interviews Mike Elizalde
On my last trip to La-La-Land, I was lucky enough to drop by the "Spectral Motion" special effect shop. In case you're not aware, they're the company who were the leading effects team on Guillermo del Toro's "Hellboy". They also just wrapped up some work on the upcoming "Blade: Trinity". I had the chance to talk with Mike Elizalde, one of the company heads and here's what came out of it.
ARROW: Hey Mike. So from what I understand, Spectral Motion were always subcontracted.
MIKE: Yes, that's right.
ARROW: Now with "Hellboy", it's your first gig as leading effects team on the project.
MIKE: Yes, that's correct.
ARROW: Congrats on that, man!
ARROW: So how did the company start up, if I may ask?
MIKE: My wife Mary initially began the company as a way to market model kits. When I first started in the business back in 1987, I was a sculptor and that's what I did for several years in the business. It just got to a point where I wasn't feeling satisfied by doing that anymore. You know you get handed a design and you're restricted by parameters and you're pretty much doing somebody else's design with your time. So what I thought we'd do is sort of migrate in the animatronics design world because you really get to invent your own designs where you're basically told what it's supposed to do.
But in the process of delivering those requirements, you also invent new things and you turn in something that gives a little extra. So creatively, it was more rewarding. But then we also found that I was missing sculpting a lot. So what I did is that I sculpted and marketed model kits and that's when my wife and I said, "You know, we should really start our own company to put these on the market so we have a moniker, we have a name that people will recognize the product by..", and that led into subcontracting work in the animatronics, sculpture, etc... field. That's how Spectral Motion was first born.
ARROW: Creatively speaking, did they let you "run with it" on "HellBoy"? How limited were you?
MIKE: You know we never felt any limitations. The source material is so rich with interpretive design already. It wouldn't be possible to take Mignola's drawings and to make those exactly the same as a 3D incarnation without some modifications just for practical purposes, so you have a very cool, clean design to work with and start from and then we have a very deep pool of artists and technicians that we draw from and they're able to interpret things very cohesively. What we ended with is that Guillermo Del Toro would tell us what we needed to build. How I started is that I read the script and wrote a breakdown of the effects that I thought we should build, then Guillermo looked at that and he agreed on everything I put down except for some minor changes.
ARROW: What kind of changes?
MIKE: For instance, I suggested that we make puppets for some characters, puppets versus makeup, puppets versus a guy in a suit and ultimately we broke it down and found out that some of those things weren't necessary because most of the things we wanted to achieve could be done with just a person in makeup or just a guy in a creature suit so it was reduced to some degree, not dramatically reduced by any means. We had a very extensive build list and once it got finalized, I brought in a design team and we submitted maquettes.
The first time Guillermo saw the maquettes he was totally enamored, he just loved them so we were already on a good note there. Most of the guys that worked on the movie know the source material and are fans and they knew how to interpret it with a little bit more knowledge as opposed to somebody that didn't know the source material at all trying to figure out what does Ape Sapien looks like.
ARROW: Were you a fan of the source material before meeting Guillermo?
MIKE: No. As a matter of fact, when Guillermo first mentioned HellBoy, it was during Blade 2 and that's when I also first heard the name HellBoy. And at the time I didn't think very much of it; that didn't sound very interesting; little that I know! After hearing Guillermo talk about it and when it seemed like he was really considering making a movie based on these characters I did a lot of research and as a result I became a fan of Mike's (Mignola) work and went and bought everything I could find. As a matter of fact, last night I read the Amazing Screw On Head to my son.
ARROW: (laughs) Very kool!
MIKE: Yeah, it was great. He really dug that! So yeah, we're very much into his work at this point in time.
ARROW: What would you say is the ratio in terms of CGI and practical effects in the film?
MIKE: The number that Guillermo quoted was 80 percent practical and 20 percent digital.
MIKE: But I don't think that's the case based on what I've seen. I think it's more like 60/40. I think that's about the right ratio. But Guillermo was very adamant about using a lot of practical effects and we did. We shot so many days on that shoot. We were on set, I would say 80 to 90 percent of the time, throughout the whole shoot. So we did do a lot of practical and I did see a 2-hour rough cut of the film and our stuff is very, very high profile.
ARROW: Very kool. What would you say is the most impressive makeup or effect that you and your team created for the film?
MIKE: You know, I'm biased, I really think that every single thing that we put on that set looks really great. I think that Abe Sapien is a very beautiful visual character. I think people will really remember him; he's very elegant, very strong and very smart and the persona behind the makeup really sells everything, it really comes though. The actor, Doug Jones, did a spectacular job of bringing the character to life. Again, it's very beautiful makeup...nothing like I've ever seen before.
ARROW: Was the character of Abe Sapien CG enhanced?
MIKE: Yes, he was. There are some scenes where Abe is swimming in the water and we couldn't have an actor in the water with this kind of makeup where we couldn't hide the tanks to help him breathe, so we didn't go that route. So most of the underwater stuff has Sapien in CG, but there are some practical dry for wet shots too. There are scenes where Abe is swimming and floating in the water and he looks really great.
ARROW: So he doesn't look like those CG aliens swimming in "Alien: Resurrection"?
MIKE: (laughs) No, no, no Tippet did a very spectacular job. I think the problem with a lot of the CG is the animators want to put a lot more movement into something than it would realistically have, so it winds up looking unrealistic. I think Tippet really pulled the reigns back on this and he thought, "This has to look real, this has to look exactly like a real person swimming in the water-- which is strong enough to propel himself that quickly, of course".
ARROW: So what's next for you guys?
MIKE: We just wrapped up working on "Blade: Trinity"...
MIKE: We worked with David Goyer on that. That was a very nice experience, it was good in several ways. It was good in the sense that we had a very small build list. The second I got off the plane for "HellBoy", I was back here starting Blade 3, no rest period, no break...so thankfully it was a smaller job and the set experience was great. We shot in Vancouver; all the people there were just great. Everybody was very impressed and happy with the stuff that we brought up.
ARROW: What kind of effects can we expect from that film? Can you give me something here?
MIKE: (laugh) I can't. I just talked to New Line because we have a comic convention coming up and I wanted to bring some of the stuff and they said "No, not yet". They didn't want to release information and David isn't talking either.
ARROW: Is it taken further than "Blade 2"? I mean, that film blew my mind in terms of effects!
MIKE: It's different. It doesn't have that Guillermo signature to it...it's a different animal and that's all I want to say about that...
ARROW: (laughs) I gave it a shot!
ARROW: Apart from Blade 3 ,anything else on the horizon?
MIKE: Yes, we're talking to 3 different producers for 3 different projects that can be happening anytime soon. I don't want to disclose what those are just yet.
ARROW: You don't want to jinx it until the papers are signed.
ARROW: Fair enough. Thanks a lot for the interview, Mike.
MIKE: No problem, John.
I'd like to thank Mike for his time and for taking me on a tour of his mucho impressive shop. Now that's what I call expert work! ART BABY! ART! Keep rocking and rolling Mike! NOTE: Thanks to Joe Venegas for making my visit happen.