Bringing "Hellboy" to life: Talking with effects company Spectral Motion

Fri, April 2nd, 2004 at 12:00am PST

TV/Film
Hannibal Tabu, Columnist

Mike Elizalde is the man at the wheel of Spectral Motion, a special effects company based in Glendale, CA. A passionate mix of artist and technician, he took some time to talk to Comic Book Resources about the magic he performed for "Hellboy."

Their biggest challenge, in terms of resources and time, was creating Sammael, the hell hound who serves as the most common physical challenge for the movie's title character. Of the five Sammael suits they finally created, only one was fully functional, for close up work. "It took four people to operate," Elizalde said, "one to work the tongue, the face servos, one for the eyes, plus two for arms and hands." In addition to the full suit, there were two stunt heads created (foam models that could be "batted around") and two "hero" heads (which had more functionality, such as independently operated tentacles) on the fifty day shoot. All of the Sammael work alone ended up costing $700,000 -- quite a bargain in these inflationary times.

Elizalde's team also worked on Abe Sapien, but admitted that there were CG effects used to supplement their work, animating Abe's eyes. He sent along several images from their workshop and from the set in Prague to illustrate the work that went into sculpting and painting the suit, including creating "articulated servos" for the gills, so they would open in a fluttering sequence.

Elizalde was reluctant to take credit for much of the conceptual or logistical planning. "Guillermo already made the movie in his head," Elizalde said, "he just had to tell us how to make it happen. His pre-planning and coordination of all the different companies made it easy."

There were some roadblocks for Spectral Motion. "We were only allowed to take three people to Prague," he admitted, "but with the help of [production assistant for creature effects] Petra Kucerova and a lot of local talent, we were able to make it work." Elizalde also had praise for Steve Wang ("Steve has built a million creature suits") and Jose Fernandez.

They were also surprised when the gauntlet they were asked to create for Rasputin (with detailed inscriptions based on Mike Mignola's work and more swirly operating servos than you can shake a Samaritan at) had to be shot in the pouring rain.

Elizalde was happy with virtually everything that happened, right until he was told one of his babies wouldn't be making the cut. "Late in the shoot, Guillermo told us our Baby Hellboy was gonna be replaced with a CG version," Elizalde said wistfully, "He said it wasn't expressive enough. It was so hard walking that little guy off the set. It was a complete heartbreak, but it was the right choice."

Finally, he offered advice for any people looking to get into the field. "Definitely a background in sculpture. That'll give you an idea on how things should look and how they'll move. A machining background would be good, illustration, painting. Even skill as a seamstress."

Next up on the radar, Elizalde is in closed-door meetings with Marvel's Kevin Feige and Avi Arad. He wouldn't say what was being considered, but when asked if "Ghost Rider" was on the menu, he smiled and said, "Maybe."

Click the images to enlarge.
This is a life sized mold they made of actor Doug Miers, to pre-fit the Abe Sapien suit when he wasn't around. The Spectral Motion offices offer little in the way of comfort, as their denizens concentrate on the work of making movie magic. They do allow themselves some "creature comforts" like these concept piece busts, adorning their wall. More fun with adornments -- here you see a maquette of the Behemoth, Hellboy's ultimate cinematic challenge, and the Right Hand of Doom, which is scaled for their forsaken animatronic Baby Hellboy.
Here you can see one of the surviving Sammael heads from the shoot, its wires still hanging loose from the remote servos that were used to animate eyes, jaws and more. The gauntlet used by Rasputin to open up a portal to the nether regions was intricately designed. Spectral Motion's Mike Elizalde pointed out numerous Mignola-esque touches, from inscriptions to a miniature form of scorpion within this complex creation. "We told them they couldn't get it wet, and of course we shot in pouring down rain," Elizalde joked, "but it worked." They're as thick as thieves, and having about that much fun -- here Spectral Motion head honcho Mike Elizalde poses with "Abe Sapien" and director Guillermo del Toro.
Spectral Motion created an animatronic Baby Hellboy, which was replaced late in the production of the film by a CGI version, which del Toro thought would be more expressive. "One of the biggest heartbreaks was carrying that Baby Hellboy off the set," Elizalde said wistfully. On the set in Prague, the crew of Spectral Motion were always very close by, to insure their creations would be perfect for the shot. The creation of a special effect like the Abe Sapien suit is an evolutionary process, and like your math teacher always taught you, the crew at Spectral Motion shows their work, keeping versions around for reference purposes.
More images to come later this weekend.

 
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