Unsung Heroes: Guillermo del Toro Transforms Toronto into Tokyo

Its not often that we get an outside look at how film sets are built into popular shooting locations like Toronto. Sure, you'll get a featurette about it on the DVD or a ton of film set tours from wined and dined entertainment writers right before the trailer comes out, but that's not really an outside perspective. That's the production company controlling how and why people see what's done to develop a set in a real city. Shock Til You Drop found a short news story from CBC News about Guillermo del Toro's new film Pacific Rim, aka Silent Seas or Still Seas. A reporter for the news network actually talked to Toronto citizens about how the transformed cityscape effects their day to day lives.

Pacific Rim Mailbox MaskingFor me, the intriguing part of the video is the focus on the tiny details that often go unnoticed in the final cut of a film. What are the odds that a Japanese-style mailbox will feature heavily into the plot of Pacific Rim? It's a film about humans in robots fighting an alien invasion. At most, one might get blown up during a street battle.

Yet little details like that are what is needed to transform the landscape of a city into a completely different location. You don't necessarily pay attention to the details of a mailbox in a film. You will, however, notice the giant Canada Post signs mysteriously showing up in downtown Tokyo if they aren't masked properly.

Pacific Rim Cherry BlossomsCall it my theater background coming out. I'm obsessed with set dressing. The tiny details, like what kind of dinnerware is in the cupboards to the linens on beds, catch my eye. When this part of set design is done right, every element in the scene adds to the story. It might reveal something about a character, like the startling empty apartment in Young Adult reflecting Mavis' shallow psyche, or provide key details about a setting, like the period appropriate Dick Smith makeup kit in Super 8.

Set dressing is often the only way to finish a film. You probably won't be able to shoot on location inside the White House. However, you can alter the properties of a studio space or rented location to impersonate the oval office for your essential presidential decision scene.

Pacific Rim PosterThe need for set dressing often goes beyond limited access to locations. The reason cities like Toronto attract filmmakers is cost. They offer subsidies and tax breaks to film crews in the hopes of generating revenue through the process of the shoot. All of those actors, crew people, and producers have to eat, travel, and sleep in and around the location. They have to pay for permits, hire locals as extras, and collaborate with city officials to finish their films. What's the inconvenience of putting up fake Japanese signs on a city block for a few weeks compared to the money taken in by hundreds of extra people working and living in your city?

Is it any wonder that a Guillermo del Toro picture will focus so much on the tiny details in transforming a city? The director is nothing without an eye for lavish detail and creating believable environments. It'll be interesting to see how much of this work is noticeable once the screen is filled with actors and effects next summer.

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