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Feature: The many effects of 'Hellboy'

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter

LOS ANGELES, March 31 (UPI) -- The new sci-fi fantasy movie "Hellboy" features all kinds of visual effects, including computer-generated images -- naturally -- and an unusually large array of traditional effects involving animatronics and makeup.

Writer-director Guillermo del Toro's screen adaptation of Mike Mignola's popular comic book series hits the screen 10 years after Hellboy first appeared in Dark Horse Comics.

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In Mignola's telling, the character is the result of an occult experiment by Nazis during World War II -- a devil's spawn intended as a catalyst for the apocalypse. Instead, he is liberated by American forces and raised as a powerful agent for good in the never-ending battle against evil.

Hellboy is large -- impossibly muscular, really -- and comes complete with red skin, horns and a tail. What has endeared him to comic fans -- and what Revolution Studios and Columbia Pictures are hoping will likewise put him over with movie audiences -- is his modest, blue-collar take on life as a federal agent who hunts monsters and other assorted supernatural enemies.

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It required a huge amount of visual effects to get Hellboy and his colorful cast of supporting characters onscreen.

They include fellow good guys Abe Sapien -- half-man, half-fish and super-intelligent -- and Liz Sherman, a fire starter who is troubled by her paranormal nature. They work for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense under the tutelage of Professor Bruttenholm, who raised Hellboy as his own son.

The chief bad guy is Rasputin, who is scheming to destroy the world and start over with a new species to run things. His main weapon is a monster named Sammael -- the Hound of the Resurrection.

Del Toro and his team turned to several top Hollywood effects houses to create the world of "Hellboy," including one of the best-known names in the business, Oscar-winner Rick Baker's Cinovation Studio. Baker -- whose credits include "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "Men in Black" and "Star Wars" -- served as special makeup-effects artist on "Hellboy."

Other effects companies that contributed to del Toro's vision include Blackbox Digital, CafeFX, Eden FX, Fantasy II Film Effects, HATCH, HimAnI Productions, The Orphanage, Spectral Motion and Tippett Studio -- a virtual Who's Who of effects houses in the film industry.

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Spectral Motion specializes in practicals -- creatures, props, puppets, makeup effects and animatronics that actually appear on a movie set with actors, rather than being created by computer-generated imaging in post-production. Among other things, his company created the costume and makeup for Abe Sapiens and Sammael, as well as some animatronics elements of Hellboy and other characters.

Mike Elizalde, the president of Spectral Motion, told United Press International that del Toro wanted to include as many practicals as he could in the picture.

"I think -- I hope -- that this is a trend, where directors and producers realize that to throw CG in front of audiences isn't going to cut it anymore," he said. "You have to have a blend."

Elizalde, who has worked on "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," "Blade II" and "Men in Black II," said animatronics offers something that CG cannot, a tactile impression that has presence and weight, and interacts with actors. However, he said CG techniques are improving, and acknowledged the achievement of director Peter Jackson's team with the CG character of Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

"I don't think Gollum would have been achieved with any other technology," said Elizalde. "But Gollum is one of the most expensive effects, shot for shot."

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In a business environment in which producers sometimes appear helpless to do anything about the escalating costs of production, Elizalde promotes animatronics as one way to help keep budgets under control.

"Hellboy" cost a reported $60 million to make. Of course, the budget did not begin -- as so many Hollywood movies do -- with a $20 million dollar line item just to pay the star. Instead, producers hired the reliable veteran Ron Perlman to play the title role, and feedback from advance screenings suggests that the casting decision paid off.

In any case, in Elizalde's opinion, del Toro has made a movie that looks more like it came in at between $80 million and $100 million.

There is widespread anxiety in the manufacturing and service industries about the outsourcing of jobs overseas, and movie producers have been known to take entire productions to foreign locales to save money. But Elizalde expressed confidence that Los Angeles-based visual effects houses will not suffer much from outsourcing.

Producers might be able to get visual effects more cheaply overseas, but Elizalde said Hollywood professionals have established a reputation for reliability that overseas houses have yet to match. In his business in particular, if something goes wrong with a practical during filming, the resulting delays can become awfully expensive.

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"That's a big consideration," he said. "That's why we stay in business."

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