The Creature Design of Guillermo Del Toro

A new video essay breaks down what it takes to make monsters like these.
Pans Labyrinth Faun
New Line Home Video
By  · Published on November 6th, 2018

Guillermo del Toro is our boy here at FSR. We have 537 articles with his name in the title. We love this bearded man, his vivid, fantastical imagination, and his ability to bring that imagination to life on film for us, the humble viewing public. So today I’m stepping aside to let YouTube’s own Kristian Williams, better known by username kaptainkristian, to get a turn praising del Toro’s work.

Williams’ stylishly clever motion graphics and smooth jazzy beats are simultaneously engaging and relaxing as always, and his video breaks down and analyzes what makes Del Toro’s creature work so captivating. Most of this is done through statements by the filmmaker himself, audio and text snippets lifted from interviews. His praise centers around a few focal ideas of del Toro’s creature design that make his monsters particularly unique. I think it’s worth noting that Williams only talks about the practical versus digital argument once. That’s because the practical versus digital conversation is a complete tangent and distraction from what really makes good creature design.

Watch the video essay:

Williams’ argument centers around a few basic points: del Toro’s creatures transform, and their looks and designs are frequently informed by their environment. Beyond the creature design itself, del Toro’s filmmaking supports the monsters at every turn, bolstering them with complimentary mis-en-scene. This method is not unlike that of Williams’ own collage-like editing. As far as the practical versus digital conversation goes, del Toro will use CGI to compliment his practicals and prosthetics, but for production’s sake, he deems it necessary to give the creature physical presence on set, which also gives it a sense of solidity and tangibility that many movie monsters lack.

Note also that del Toro’s creatures are not always monstrosities to be agape in horror at. The Faun of Pan’s Labyrinth is unnerving and uncanny, but not in a typically “horror” way in the same manner that The Devil’s Backbone‘s Santi is, with his cracked porcelain face and creepy bleeding head. I attribute part of this to cultural dissonance. Del Toro draws a lot of influence from Mexican and Catholic culture, and what other cultures find scary or horrifying is not necessarily the same as what we do in the US. But part of this is because, as Williams notes, the monster is about more than just the monster. The Faun represents a greater sort of existential horror than Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Pale Man, whom Ofelia can pretty much forget about after she’s shut the door on him. The monsters in del Toro’s films are always more than just monsters, and this allows them to be reasonably put at the center of the film through set design, cinematography, and all the other little touches that del Toro tweaks to make sure the creature is the most important part of the movie.

I think it’s worth noting that del Toro is not the only filmmaker to use these creature design principles, though he may be the first to codify and define them as such. Stranger Things does something similar with its Demogorgon and its baby clones in Season 2 of the series. The Upside Down and all of the visuals pertaining to it, like Season 2’s underground tunnels, have an organic, visceral look to them, matching the striated flesh and burn-victim look of the monster itself (which was done in a mix of practical and digital). The larval Demogorgon raised by the character Dustin spontaneously sprouts legs in a spectacular semi-jumpscare moment. I’m not sure if Stranger Things‘ creature design was done with del Toro’s work in mind, but it seems like it.

I think we can all learn something from del Toro. By constructing his films so tightly around a particular theme or idea, and then giving it a memorable mascot, he makes films that resonate and stick with us long after the credits roll. This sort of minimalist narrative design gives the visuals and the craft of filmmaking itself more time to breathe, rather than having a 130-minute movie that’s so packed full of ideas and attempts at characterization through dialogue that the audience leaves the film exhausted and confused. Film is a visual medium, so the script is just the blueprint. Find the core of your story, and make everything work for that, including the monsters. If you decide to have monsters.

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Hans Qu is an animator with Strong Opinions about animation. Along with said opinions, his art and animation can be found on his Bird App account: @NerdyChineseBoy