Painting the Apocalypse: How Guillermo del Toro Uses Colour In Pacific Rim


2013’s Pacific Rim, from director Guillermo del Toro, is hardly what one would call a masterpiece. It’s the story of Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) being drafted back into the Pan-Pacific Defence Corps to mount one last attack on the enormous alien-monsters, known as Kaiju, that had broken into our world. Along the way he meets Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) a gifted young trainee who hopes to one day become a Ranger; an operator of one of the PPDC’s twin-pilot giant robots known as Jaegers. Together with Raleigh, her adoptive father Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) and the three remaining Jaeger teams left, they set out to save the world.
It’s a bare-bones premise that essentially boils down to ‘giant robots fight giant monsters to save the world’, but that’s entirely by design. As del Toro put it: “I wanted to make a movie that was very simple to follow; to be able to communicate a lot of their stories through the visuals.”
The concept of colour theory is not a new one, but it’s one del Toro uses to startling effect in every film he makes, and in ways that even contradict the traditional norms of the industry. The general conceit behind colour theory is simple; human beings, as visual creatures, react subconsciously to certain colours, and thus story elements can be denoted quickly and with ease. Blue is calming, red connotes strength or lust, warmer hues represent peace, colder hues infer conflict… even the saturation of colours can denote certain aspects of a story – see Zack Snyder’s body of work for how desaturation can be overused in an attempt to communicate the concept of realism even in fantastical situations.

However, the way del Toro uses colour is different; less about emotion and more to do with character and symbology. In much the same way that composer John Williams will use leitmotifs and themes to represent characters, whereas many composers will prefer to solely use their music for the manipulative and complimentary effect it can have on emotion, del Toro will use colour in the same way. Colour-coding characters and elements of the world, and using the complimentary or antagonistic nature of mixing colours to communicate themes and ideas visually to the audience.

The most obvious ways in which colour is used in Pacific Rim come down to the characters of Raleigh and Mako themselves. “Raleigh’s world is represented mostly in amber,” del Toro says, and goes on to detail how that affected the set design for the initial scenes with Hunnam’s lead, “Raleigh’s environment became warmer, like ambers and warm greens.”

These warmer, heroic colours reinforce Raleigh as the lead visually to the audience, and work to both contrast with rival pilot Chuck Hansen (dull greys and beiges) and compliment Mako’s.

Mako’s colour palette is most visually apparent in the sequence in which she revisits the childhood memory of the day she lost her parents; one of the most effective sequences in the film, it sees Mako as a little girl being chased through the streets by an enormous crustaceon-like Kaiju after the apparent death of her family, and attempting to hide.

The desaturation of the destroyed city, the colder colours of the environment and the monster who tore her world in two work to highlight the colourful figure of Mako as a little girl in a small blue dress, carrying a bright red shoe with a broken leather strap.

“With Mako we go to her origin which is her all in blue, with touches of red. She is basically losing her heart, the red … It was very important to me the symbol of the little girl with her broken heart in her hand, and this golden light that is the warrior, Pentecost, saving her … the same colour that represents Raleigh. “
From there, del Toro says, “Mako and her world became blue and grey. Pentecost’s suit is blue, a deeper blue than her [childhood] dress. Her hair.”

This symbology extends further. Later in the film Stacker Pentecost hands Mako back her shoe from that day, her heart, which he has kept with him and protected for those intervening years. He gives her back her heart, her courage, and gives her his blessing to fight – to finally become a Ranger, to pilot a Jaeger, and to gain revenge for her family; to complete her story and bury her trauma.

These colours, amber and blue, were specifically chosen; the two most complimentary yet opposite colours on the colour wheel – the perfect ying and yang. Representative of the two finding solace in a new partner, and opening up once more. Guillermo was adamant that it was the “joining of those two worlds … [that] guided the backbone of the colour-coding of the film.”

This is, of course, right down to a scene that was “very important to keep in” to the Mexican-born director; when Mako and Raleigh first see their Jaeger Gipsy Danger’s nuclear reactor – her heart – together. The mech itself is wholeheartedly representative of their relationship; blue and orange in hue, and operated only by the true melding of the two. This scene is “the first time they are revealing each other’s heart to anyone, [the moment that] they are starting to trust each other”.

Finally, in the climactic sequence of the film, as the last remaining Jaegers head to the Breach – the portal between the human world, and the world of the monstrous Kaiju – in an attempt to close it, Gipsy Danger goes critical. As the two face their toughest challenge, as they face death itself together, they find strength in each other, and this too is communicated without dialogue to the audience, through moments, looks, and – of course – colour: “When Raleigh and her are real partners at the end, I came up with this idea that we should use the red as the emergency light … It basically says to Mako, they recuperate their heart.”

Pacific Rim
may be a silly movie about monsters and robots, but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of artistry, and just goes to show what can be accomplished by a genuine visionary creative like Guillermo del Toro. Colour theory is, of course, only an addition to the film; one tool by which a director can also connect with audiences and convey concepts in an elegant and efficient manner. But it’s an effective one nonetheless.
As del Toro says, “It’s really trying to tell the story with something other than the screenplay and the dialogue … but when you’re telling a genre story and types, you need to tell the story in a very simplified and very effective manner.”
“These are the things I lay down in every movie and hope people notice they are there.”

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