On DVD: Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Guillermo del Toro is something of a genius. A truly unique and gifted talent, he's maneuvered to the forefront of modern genre filmmaking and finally convinced studios of his ability to take strange, hard-to-sell concepts and mine them for gold. It's hard to believe that almost every studio in town turned down the pitch for Pan's Labyrinth, forcing him to make it independently, but that's what happened. But now that he's convinced Hollywood of his capabilities, he's managed to join a growing revolution of filmmakers that are hellbent on making big-budget movies without relying on keyboard-jockey CGI artists to craft the best parts of the movie. Guillermo wants to do as many of the effects as possible in reality, using CG to remove more elements than it adds.

Years ago, I was at one of the first screenings of his film The Devil's Backbone, in which he had a shot that was almost identical to Michael Bay's famous (and infamous) bomb-dropping shot from Pearl Harbor. Guillermo discussed how the idea was one of those spontaneous, simultaneous inspirations that somehow magically happen and how, despite the fact that his film had come out in the States a few months after Pearl Harbor (but a month earlier in Spain), that it was something he'd been working on separately from Bay for years. The other interesting factoid was that while Bay's shot cost almost half-a-million dollars, Guillermo had done his (much moodier) shot for a paltry $10,000. Then he told us how he accomplished it with one of those head-slapping, jaw-droppingly simple solutions to what Hollywood charges $500,000 to do with a computer. It's not that he's against using computers, it's just that often times he finds simpler, cheaper ways to do special effects without one.

That's Guillermo. And that's why they tapped him to take Peter Jackson's place on the new Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies.

So when you look at a movie of his like Hellboy II: The Golden Army, you have to keep something in mind. No matter what you think of the story, you will no doubt find the visuals arresting. And the vast majority of those visuals were created in reality, not on a computer. The Troll Market, the film's centerpiece, really existed. They built it in a mine. Almost every creature on screen is an actual person in a suit or in makeup. Process that for a second. This lush, gorgeous fantasy epic looks great because they only used CG when they had to. That really is Ron Perlman scaling up that HOTEL sign (with wire assistance, of course). That really is a Abe being blown through a wall when being thrown by Mr. Wink. And more importantly, the actors really are interacting with one another, rather than staring at a tennis ball on a stick. And it shows in the performances.

So how did Guillermo do it? Well, the new DVD tells you how. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is positively jam-packed with hours upon hours of practical making-of materials that serve as both beginners' lessons and something of a master's course in how to make a big-budget movie with low-budget ideas. The insides of the movie and its techniques are laid bare as you get to watch key sequences put together. You will watch them assemble a statue, only to blow it up. You will see first-hand how they built a very large arm, hand, and egg to use forced perspective and to get a beautiful shot. And Guillermo will explain his philosophy of creating monsters and getting them to work on the big screen.

The biggest, most important, special feature here is a gargantuan two-and-a-half-hour making-of that covers every single element of the film. But rather than being one of those self-congratulatory making-ofs in which the producers show their favorite parts and speak of their genius accomplishments, the film focuses upon the long, almost-grueling nature of making the film. The intense makeup process, the training and the orchestration of effects -- all are exposed in high detail. This making-of is longer than the movie and spares no details, keeps no secrets. Then there's a cool feature that lets you look through Guillermo's Hellboy II notebook. Del Toro is one of those guys who sketches and writes down his ideas by hand all the time and he accumulates a number of beautiful notebooks. This tour lets you see very specific moments chronicling certain ideas and how they came to exist within the movie.

My favorite feature, however, was a ten-minute guided tour through the Troll Market by Guillermo, as he points out a number of landmarks that are important in the film and describes how they came to be. But then he shows you the back alleys, the locations you barely get to see, and tells you why they are near and dear to his heart. What's so cool about this is that Guillermo is one of those guys who really believes that everything should serve a purpose -- and you learn quite a bit about this magical location found deep beneath the city streets.

Add in a poster gallery, some minor deleted scenes, and a number of short, highly specific featurettes and there will be almost nothing left to wonder about in the making of the film. And as a cherry on top of the cake, there's even a short, four-minute flash-animated Hellboy comic giving the film an epilogue that no doubt hints at what is to come in the eventual, but somewhat far off, third installment.

If you like Del Toro's work, love Hellboy II, or are an aspiring filmmaker, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more entertaining and involving exploration of Guillermo's films than the extras on these two discs. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is available now from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.