How Guillermo del Toro made his dreams (and monsters) come true

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Oct 9, 2017

Guillermo del Toro was born October 9, 1964, in Guadalajara, Mexico. Due to the constant bullying he endured from his peers (and extremely religious grandmother), young del Toro spent his childhood with his head buried in books, comics, and films. His love of monsters and art pushed him forward into becoming the creative force he is now. He'd spend hours drawing all of his favorite monsters from films like Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Armed with a Super 8 camera and those beautiful, grisly inspirations, he'd create mini-films with his brother; many of those early films he mentioned in his book Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions. The star of these films were often anatomically correct figures sculpted by del Toro, who would film them being thrown from his family’s roof to splatter gorily to the ground below.

It was in 1985 that a young Guillermo received what has called the best advice of his life. He was working on the film Dona Herlinda and Her Son with Mexican filmmaker and his mentor, Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, who told him that "If a road is not presented, build one."

 

So, del Toro went off and created Mexico’s first special effects make-up house. To learn more about the art of FX makeup, del Toro decided to fly to New York to take a class with legendary FX makeup artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and many other film classics). Del Toro often spoke about soon after seeing The Exorcist as a young boy, he ran out to buy Dick Smith's makeup kit. He often credits his career to Dick Smith, who became not only his mentor but also his close friend until Smith's death in 2012.

In Jason Wood's book, Talking Movies: Contemporary World Filmmakers in Interview, del Toro reveals what lead him to the career of special effects makeup: sheer necessity. Without having anyone to help him, del Toro did everything, becoming a one-man movie making machine: he did his own sound, lighting, editing and directing. So when it came time for his debut feature film, Cronos, he took it upon himself to learn the skills needed to create the special effects he wanted included in his movie. During the short time allotted, Dick Smith helped him perfect his sculpting and appliance making, which made it possible for him to convince the producers of the film that he could indeed do the special effects needed.

For ten years, while leading Necropia as a makeup artist, Guillermo also was the  supervising  makeup artist for several films and television shows in Mexico, such as Bandidios (1991), Cabeza de Vaca (1991), and twenty-plus episodes of La Hora Marcada (1986), a Mexican take on The Twilight Zone. Guillermo's work with Necropia gave him the experience he needed to pursue his directorial career; so when he began filming Cronos, he decided to shut down the special effects studio, saying that it had served its purpose.

Cronos went on to gain critical acclaim, winning the Critics Week Award (1993) at Cannes Film Festival and nine Mexican Academy Awards.

 

Del Toro went on to use his fantastical makeup skills in his next features. One of his most popular films to date, Hellboy, was based on the comic by Mike Mignola, about a big red demon who comes to Earth via Nazi magic rituals (you know, the way it always happens). The demon baby was adopted by the Bureau of Paranormal Research Department as their head agent and main mystery. Making this movie was a passion project for the director, so much that he turned down several films, including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Blade Trinity, to make it.

It took a while, but he ultimately found a studio willing to take a chance on his vision, teaming up with Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker, another Dick Smith mentee and the artist behind Men in Black (1997), Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983), Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), The Ring (2002) and many other classic films. Together, del Toro and Baker came up with the face and full body appliances worn by Hellboy himself, Ron Perlman. The FX makeup was so well done that underneath those horns and red skin, Perlman’s face was still recognizable. Attention to the smallest detail, like the intricate patterns drawn on Hellboy's chest and arms, is what makes the makeup creations in del Toro's films and worlds that he creates so memorable and immersive.

 

In Pan’s Labyrinth, a film about the stepdaughter of a crazed army officer in 1944 fascist Spain who runs away to a magical realm, del Toro's love of monsters and horror shines. Before the filmmaker starts any film, he compiles an encyclopedia of notes and drawings on all of the creatures and then gives this creative book to his makeup department to bring his vision to life. Doug Jones plays several of the monsters in the film, including Faun, a character that not only required FX makeup but also machines controlled by an engineer. The machines were placed in Faun's ears to make them move and emote as Jones acted out his scenes.

Del Toro's love and mastery of practical effects are on full display as Jones also plays the chilling Pale Man. The makeup for this character took five hours to assemble each time, and it is said that the Pale Man was inspired by elements of del Toro's childhood. Catholicism was a large part of the director's upbringing and he conceived the character as a perverted allusion to Jesus' hands and feet stigmata resulting from being nailed to the cross; his wounds, or eyeballs, reflect grace and piety.

In 2007, Pan's Labyrinth won the Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hair, and del Toro's latest film, the upcoming The Shape of Water, is likely to be a stronger contender for that trophy as well.