Guillermo del Toro’s penchant for intricate, elaborate, almost fantastical production design means his movies are never in demand of a visual personality. His movies speak to us and to each other through form and function. How they look is just as important as what they say. We pick up how a character must feel, or how a deliberate portion of the plot must unfold, from the way his sets embrace the action that unfurls in front of them. From rooms as intimate as boudoirs to atriums as vast as banquet halls; you step into a del Toro film and, like Ofelia (Pan’s Labyrinth), you step over the threshold into another dimension.
Damaskinos’ Lair – Blade 2 (2002)
Del Toro made three films before Blade II, but they all had tight budgets and were set predominantly in real spaces, in our dimension. Their stories had no need for complex sets or heavily designed backdrops. Blade II is the prototype. The bridge between two del Toro universes.
The movie is set on Earth, but introduces fantasy in the form of leather-clad vampires. The production design mirrors this by setting most of the action in front of standard, nondescript canvases and cannily slipping subtle design choices in, like the lair and abode of Damaskinos (Thomas Kretschmann), king of all vampires.
You might look at this set and think little of it – indeed it is humble when put beside Crimson Peak – but all the future visual cues of a visionary director are in place. The ceiling is low and pressing. There are archways that lead to unknown chambers in the dark. Morbid figures move about its passageways. In fact, the entire lair could double as a room in Crimson Peak, if Crimson Peak also happened to shelter the withering undead.
Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence – Hellboy (2004) & Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
This is one of del Toro’s most understated, elegant sets. A tasteful library of books and scrolls, ancient artefacts, culture and music, and, of course, Hellboy (Ron Perlman). It marries colour with restraint, and looks very much like an office I’d want to babysit for a year.
The Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence is a hub, a base of operations from which both Hellboy movies function. This is the beautiful set, the one that’s both practical and edgy. It’s not fantastical like Pan’s maze, or crummy like Crimson Peak; it is surefooted and homely.
Off to the right is a large aquarium for Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), the intellectual fish-creature, and the cool blues of the water complement the gold trimmings and the regal red of the large carpet that darts from the entrance to the book-filled fireplace at the back. In movies where fire and violence are the name of the game, the BPRD is a gentle reminder that not everything in the Hellboy universe is made of ash and brimstone.
Royal Underworld – Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Picking out great sets from Pan’s Labyrinth is like that old McDonalds commercial of Ronald swinging open his closet and having to decide between twenty identical jumpsuits of yellow, red and white. It is a treasure trove of remarkable production design. The entire film has the look and feel of an enchanted medieval garden, where vines strangle stone monuments, tree trunks creak and contort themselves into gnarly apparitions, and fairies zip about like fireflies in the moonlight. But beneath the gardens of the world lies one of the most audacious, slightly odd chambers – the great hall of the king and queen of the fairy underworld.
This for me was the set I remembered the most after seeing Pan’s Labyrinth for the first time. I remembered its brightness and character, the way it filled the frame and dwarfed its subjects. It may not be a suitable place for an eleven-year-old princess, but as a cinematic backdrop there are few better.
The Banquet Hall – Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Only Guillermo del Toro could dream up a location as delicious and dastardly as the banquet hall in Pan’s Labyrinth. Just to reach the dinner table, you have to draw a small doorway on the wall with chalk, squeeze through, switch dimensions, and inch down a dimly light corridor to the end. And then you have to deal with one of the creepiest figures in cinematic history.
But it’s the way this set bears down on both Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and the audience that makes it stand out. Never mind the eyeless grotesque slumbering at the head of the table, the entire space has about as much levity as a morgue, and the way the table is set up, with food from all over the world, suggests peril instead of hospitality. We know something sinister is afoot. We just don’t quite know what it is yet. The design draws us in and sets up the suspense, and then those hands begin twitching…
The Shatterdome – Pacific Rim (2013)
A mammoth movie requires a mammoth set, and the Jaeger headquarters in Pacific Rim is about as large as it is multiracial. Of course it has to be large – it houses kung fu robots that could use the Statue of Liberty as a toothpick – but in its enormity lies a kind of melancholy grandeur. The world has united in its bowels to coexist and fight for the survival of mankind. It is not just a military installation. It is a refuge. A haven from which the fate of the human race will be decided.
It doesn’t exactly look beautiful, and it lacks the kind of ethereal detail del Toro usually injects into his locations, but boy is it a magnificent space to behold. Yes, most viewers will more readily recall the cockpits of the giant Jaeger robots, or the rainy, dirty streets of The Bone Slums in Hong Kong, but all the action in Pacific Rim stems from the base, and with ceilings that high, hangars that voluminous and stakes that grave, it is a mighty fine base indeed.
Crimson Peak – Crimson Peak (2015)
Okay, Universal botched the marketing for Crimson Peak. Everyone was sure they were going to get a gothic horror movie with ghosts and goblins and creatures to keep them up at night. What they got instead was a dark romance tragedy with sinister currents that could barely keep them awake during the day. But not for me. I enjoyed this movie, perhaps because I walked into it without expectation and walked out re-energised by del Toro’s lust for enveloping visuals.
The centrepiece of the movie is the eponymous mansion. A towering edifice of snow, terrible dangers, and hidden secrets so foul the very walls seem afraid of company. It sinks into its own swampy grave, and creeks and moans like a willow in the wind. It is a ravenous location. Dark, twisted, evil. Del Toro hardly ever has it any other way. Twenty-two years on, and he’s still got it.
Images courtesy of Roadshow Films, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures and Entertainment One Films