The Creatures of Hellboy II

Last week, in Part 1 of our visit to the set of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, we gave an overview of what we saw in Budapest in terms of the sets and filming, and earlier this week, we posted an interview with Doug Jones, who plays Abe Sapien and other creatures.

Before we get to the final part of our tour, enjoy this extended interview with director Guillermo del Toro, who took a lot of time during our visit to come over and chat. As much fun as it always is talking to him, the best part of the tour was certainly saved for last when we were brought to the Hellboy II creature shop and were given our first look at the newest member of the B.P.R.D. (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense), Johann Kraus, as well as a half dozen creatures that Hellboy would encounter in his latest adventure, including the wild inhabitants of the Troll Market who would fit in well with the demons of “Hellraiser.”

Our guide for the tour was Mark Setrakian, the film’s main animatronic designer, and he gave us the run-through of some of the wild things we saw scattered throughout the shop as we walked in, telling us that most of the characters being dealt with in the creature shop had some sort of animatronics involved whether it’s the Angel of Death’s wings or moving mechanical parts on the heads and hands. All of the creatures were designed using a computer program that would be able to figure out the mechanics before they’re constructed in the shop.

Johann Kraus

The primary new character being introduced to the Hellboy Universe directly from Mike Mignola’s comics is the German psychic, Johann Kraus, whose ectoplasmic being was preserved within a containment suit after a séance gone horribly wrong.

The challenges are to create a character who is essentially a suit with a glass fishbowl head filled with illuminated gas without resorting to CG, something that Guillermo talked about when we spoke with him earlier. “The original concept was to go for the old look when the budget was much higher, that empty light bulb look from the comics books. That meant replacing the entire head with a CG head for a thousand shots. That was prohibitive and gladly we went with a more Jules Verne containment suit look, so we used perspective and mirror tricks inside the helmet to keep the head disappeared. We are not using opticals or digital. We just angle the helmet and the reflections, and we created a magnifying glass bubble, so you feel there is more empty space in the helmet than there really is. And then we built the suit to show a fishbowl head and it looks very 19th century.”

In the creature shop, we were able to see what Guillermo was talking about when we were shown Johann’s mechanical head, which looks a bit like the head of Robby the Robot, his mouth replaced by metal flaps that move mechanically whenever he speaks—his voice being provided by German actor Thomas Kretschmann—but then smoke gets pumped into the glass domed helmet with lights inside to create the illusion of Johann’s gaseous state. Controlled by two puppeteers, the heavy head contraption actually sits on top of the head of the actor making it such a challenging suit to wear that the duties had to be shared by two actors, John Alexander and James Dodd, the latter whom we met and talked to while he was being retrofitted with the costume, which was originally designed to fit Alexander’s head. The fact that James is playing a “being made of gas” certainly has made him the butt of a number of jokes, but we could see how it would be tough for him to see and breathe, especially with all that smoke, while playing the part, and they mentioned that Guillermo does like a lot of smoke.

James told us an anecdote of his experience in the suit: “I have to go and rescue a woman who is semi-freaking out from something, and I have to walk around the car, so I walked around one side, crossed the front and back up the other side to grab this lady, and I go up behind her, grab her shoulder and pull her back. (My helmet) had completely steamed up by the time Guillermo had shouted ‘action’ so I went 7 steps forward, 3 steps around the front of the car, and 3 steps back to this woman. Went to grab what I thought was her shoulder and it was square onto her breast. Guillermo shouted ‘cut’ and was killing himself laughing and they pulled me into the tent to watch it on loop. There’s rumors that will be on the bloopers at the end.”

While Johann started out as a concept drawing, his design mainly came together in the computer using 3-D models in a CAD program, which were then translated into C&C language which generated the molds for different parts of the helmet. (Yes, it’s very complicated stuff to make these creatures, requiring as much of an engineering background as an artistic one.) It certainly seems like Setrakian and his team are trying to bring creature design into the 21st Century with so much of what we saw being generated from computers, which is a somewhat different and new approach to creature design than the normal way of getting a cast of the actor and then sculpting onto it from models and maquettes.

Considering that Guillermo wants Johann to play a larger part in the third movie, it’s likely that he’ll become a fan favorite, much like Doug Jones’ Abe Sapien was in the first movie. (At the time, it wasn’t clear whether Kretschmann’s voice would be mechanized or manipulated, since in the script it states that Johann has a “soft German accent.”)

Wink

One of the prominent creature baddies of Hellboy II, which had to be realized by the creature shop was Mr. Wink, a giant cave troll that should prove to be a good match for Hellboy, since he looks related in some ways. Looking like a mutated cyborg ape with tusks, Mr. Wink was designed and sculpted by Mario Torres based on the original concepts by Guillermo, and he’s played by noted creature performer Brian Steele, whose work some might remember from the “Underworld” movies and who is rumored to play the Gillman in the upcoming Creature of the Black Lagoon remake. Quite literally Prince Nuada’s right hand man, Wink’s right appendage is a giant metal fist not unlike Hellboy’s concrete hand, but it was made out of heavy plastic to keep it light with motors to move the mechanical fingers. On top of that, Wink’s entire right fist can be detached and shoot out of his arm barrel like a weapon, while remaining attached via a long, heavy chain so it can be reeled back in after being ejected. Due to the technology used to create it, the hand could still move and gesture even when it’s extended out at the end of the chain, and Setrakian told us the very first use of this appendage was a shot of Wink reeling in the hand, which many will assume was done with CG. Wink’s left-hand is not radio-controlled but it’s an enormous gorilla-like appendage with three large fingers, which in one scene is used to grab Abe by the head, or as Mark stated it, “The fingers wrap around (Abe’s) head like it was an orange.”

The Chamberlain

This is another one of the fascinating creatures portrayed by the one and only Doug Jones, and it’s an odd-looking character with a blobby head that “looks like a thumb with eyes”, but it’s an elegant creature fitting of Jones’ personality, long and gangly, nearly 8 feet tall, wearing silk and velvet robes. In the creature shop, we were shown the Chamberlain’s extended hands with long spindly fingers filled with servos that are controlled using a microprocessor as an extension of Jones’ own hands. Because the hands and fingers are so thin, it would be impossible for someone’s actual hands to fit into them let alone control the fingers, but Mark told us how they designed the Chamberlain’s flourishing hand movements based on Doug’s own performances or as he called it, “The Doug Jones Factor.”

“The first day that I had these available for Doug to try out, I put one on his left hand and let him act with his other hand. He was playing in front of the mirror, and I saw what he was doing on his right hand and mimicked that on the left side, so when he has both hands, it’s a very Doug performance.”

Cathedral Head and Friends

Mark introduced us to puppeteer Kyle Martin who showed us the heads of some of the creatures played by Brian Steele and Doug Jones, including the heads for Wink and Chamberlain, and other minor creatures including “Fragglewump,” a spider-like creature with dozens of eyes, each individually controlled using servos, and “Croney Troll,” who is like the barber in the Troll Market, holding a straight razor.

Easily one of the more unique characters and one certainly in the vein of the creatures from Mignola’s comics Is Cathedral Head, the proprietor of a map shop in the Troll Market whose head is literally a giant church with stained glass windows that light up brightly while his eyes are controlled by servos. It’s unlikely that Cathedral Head has any sort of big speaking role—he doesn’t have a mouth after all—but he’s likely to be one of those cool background characters worth freezing the DVD to admire.

Many of these creatures use a combination of make-up and animatronics, so that Doug Jones and Brian Steele’s mouths are used as part of the performances when the creatures are talking while other aspects of the heads are mechanized, and though most of the characters are mechanical, they mentioned that they also have CG versions of some of the creatures to use during the long shots and fight sequences.

Obviously, our brief foray into the world of Hellboy probably can’t do justice to how amazing these creatures will look when we see them all together on the big screen, but it’s obvious that the amount of new creatures being introduced will play a large part in making the sequel an even more experience than the first movie, considering how much work and time has been put into getting every detail just right.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army opens on July 11.

Source: Edward Douglas