Meet the “PACIFIC RIM’s” Creature Designer

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  • July 16, 2013
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Sculptor behind the awesome Leatherback-Kaiju!

Interview with David Meng

 

Part 1 Of  – The Sculptors and Artists who brought Pacific Rim’s, Amazing Kaiju to life!

 

Q: Hi David, and thank you for taking a moment to meet with SculptClub.

A:  Hi. Thank you very much for inviting me to this interview.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your background and where you got your start in the art field, and how you’ve progressed to where you are now.

A: I grew up in Michigan, and ever since I was a kid, I liked drawing, animals and monsters a lot.  Around the age of six or seven I fell in love with the idea of making monsters and creatures for the movies through the work of Jim Henson. I made stuff out of  paper bags and whatever other stuff I could get my hands on.   I started sculpting around twelve years old.  After high school I studied art at the University of Michigan, and later took Dick Smith’s Advanced Make-Up Course.  I owe a lot to Dick Smith for helping me get in the business and being able to have the career I wanted.

Q: How did you became involved on Pacific Rim?

A:  I contacted Guillermo some time before Pacific Rim happened, and when the production moved to Toronto, he sent me an email asking if I would like to join the concept team.

Q: Had you met Guillermo Dl Toro before?

A:  I used to work at Weta Workshop in New Zealand, from 2004-2011.   I had first met Guillermo when he was down there to do the Hobbit.   Immediately I knew I was going to love working for him- he is incredibly down to earth, very funny, and always appreciative and considerate of the artists who work for him, which can sometimes be rare among directors.   I enjoyed working for him so much that I left New Zealand and returned to the US so  I could continue doing so.

Q: When did you start on Pacific Rim? 

A:  I started on Pac Rim beginning of August, 2011, and stayed for about four and a half months.

Q: Where did you work? At home or at another place? What was that like?

A:  I worked in Toronto, starting out at the Pinewood Studios production office.   It was kind of crazy, because I was sculpting these big plastaline maquettes on just two folding tables in this nicely carpeted office.   I got very good at keeping clean.  Later on I moved to Mindwarp Productions, the workshop that made the Kaiju organs for the film, because we wanted to mold and cast the Kaiju maquettes to send to ILM and also provide a set for Guillermo’s personal collection.

Q: What was the design process like? Did you brainstorm together with Guillermo or did he have very specific ideas in mind. Tell us a little bit about how the Kaiju’s design process was like?

A:  I came into the process very late, but I did get to design one Kaiju that made it into the film, Leatherback- the gorilla looking guy.    The design process started with me doing lots of sketches and showing them to Guillermo.   At first he just let me do whatever I wanted, but then he zeroed in on one guy I drew, and asked me to incorporate some elements from another guy- he had me xerox my first drawing, then he’d take a sharpie and draw over it the features he liked from the second drawing.   All of his comments made the creature much better.  After a few exchanges like this,  I did a little clay maquette.  After he approved that, I translated that small maquette into a very large final one.   I beefed everything up about 40% in the final sculpt, and made it this big hefty lumbering beast.

Q: How many Kaiju did you design or work on overall, and how many are their in the final film?

A:  I worked on a total of five Kaiju which all made it into the film.  The only one I actually designed was Leatherback, and I also sculpted him.

Besides that,  I performed the sculpting duties for  four other ones; Slattern and Otachi, designed by Guy Davis, and Raiju, designed by Francisco Ruiz  and the baby, which I adapted from Francisco and Guy’s designs in order to match the adult version.  

Each Kaiju is classified under five different categories. Categories 1 through 3 represent the weakest of the Kaiju, while Categories 4 through 5 are the strongest.

pac-rim1
Meng’s “Leatherback“ design as it appears in the film “Pacific Rim“

Q: What are the names of the Kaiju you worked on?

Name: Leatherback – Category 4 Kaiju
Name: Otachi – Category 4 Kaiju
Name: Raiju – Category 4 Kaiju
Name: Baby KaijuCategory 4 Kaiju
Name: Slattern – Category 5 Kaiju

It means a lot when a director  appreciates what you do and treats you very well.  Pacific Rim was the best experience in my career so far.

 pac-rim2
David Meng’s Original “Leatherback“ sculpture with a color paint-over

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about each sculpt you were involved in, their inspirations and process?

A: As far as sculpting goes, the baby went the fastest, because it had relatively smooth skin.  Leatherback took about two weeks, but Otachi and Slattern took the longest because of the scale patterning.   A smarter person would have just used brass tubing pushed through plastic wrap to do their scales but I thought doing them one by one would look better-you would still have to trace over it anyway if you used brass tubes.  Guillermo joked that I would still be detailing Otachi’s scales by the time the BluRay came out.   Raiju took a while too, because it had scales like those on a carp or a pangolin, as well as interchangeable heads.

By the way, Otachi’s tail came straight from an earlier design by Guy Davis and sculpted by Simon Lee, for a creature called `Meathead’.

Luckily the Royal Ontario Museum has a ton of dinosaur and prehistoric creature exhibits, so apart from the artwork I was provided, I had a ton of texture reference from pictures I took there.   I photographed the cracks in Stegosaur plates, the wrinkles and scales in snapping turtle’s legs, the claws and feet of birds of prey, lion’s skulls, etc.

Q: Which are your personal favorites and why?

A: Of course, my favorite would be Leatherback because I designed him!  But I love all the other ones, and I particularly enjoyed working on the Slattern Kaiju, because aside from the amazing design from Guy Davis,  it was the first one I sculpted and Guillermo’s positive response to it set the tone for my time in Toronto.

Q: Did Guillermo have a favorite of yours or one’s he was particularly passionate about?

A: Guillermo likes Leatherback very much, which is lucky for me since it’s about the only one I actually designed!

Q: How long were you given to design each Kaiju? Were they more gestural designs and later if approved, taken to a more refined state of finish from a sculptural point of view?

A: Leatherback’s design evolved over several weeks, but it was interspersed between my duties of sculpting Kaijus that were already designed by the other guys, so I did not have all day to work on it until after the small maquette had been approved.   I generally started with small preliminary models, before moving on to the large final sculpts, and these were very quickly and gesturally done.

Q: Was their a lot of back and forth with the design process developing each character, or did you just do a lot of designs, and then they were pared down to favorites and developed from there?

A: I think for the entire design process, it kind of went both ways.  Favorites were pared down, and then developed thru a back and forth process.

Q: Our readers may want to know what kind of clay you used and why you prefer to work with it?

A: I used NSP Medium Green Chavant, over armatures made of aluminum armature wire bulked with white insulation foam.   I like this clay best because the color lets me see what I’m doing better and I find it is not quite as sticky as the brown NSP medium.  It is also slightly firmer than the brown, at least in my experience.

Q: What was the experience like for you working for Guillermo and being on the project?

A:  It’s always a great time working for Guillermo.  For a monster lover like me, it means a lot to work for a director who also loves monsters and knows so much about them.  And it means a lot when a director  appreciates what you do and treats you very well.  Pacific Rim was the best experience in my career so far.

Q: Have you gotten a bit of new-found popularity as a result of working on Pacific Rim. What has it been like?

A:  I don’t know just yet if I have any more popularity- it’s only been a day or two since the movie’s release as of this writing!

Thank you for you time David. Your work is amazing as always and we look forward to interviewing you again for more on “Pacific Rim“ and  your future works and projects.

David Meng’s personal works gallery.

You can see more of David Meng’s work on his website here: [davidmengart.blogspot.com]

David Meng would like to give a special thanks and mention to Dick Smith’s Website: [dicksmithmake-up.com]

You can play the Pacific Rim Game featuring David Meng’s Leatherback Kaiju here: [pacificrimgame.com]

 

By Brian Wade

 

 

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