Life Wasn't Easy Behind The Scenes For Pacific Rim's Jaeger Pilots

Jaeger pilots. We've all imagined being one, right?

...No? Seriously? You're lying. Who wouldn't want to control a massive robot the size of a 10-story building, a robot literally designed to brawl with equally-massive monsters emerging from an interdimensional portal? There is nothing cooler or sweeter, especially since the people piloting said jaegers usually share some kind of neurological connection, be it familial, romantic, or platonic. Plus, those suits make everyone look good.

Unfortunately, the perks seem to end there, at least for the actors working behind the scenes of "Pacific Rim." Director Guillermo del Toro is known as something of a stickler on his sets, which means that everything — from the pilot suits to the inner-workings of the jaegers themselves — had to be done practically. The result was a realistic, uber-immersive world that put audiences right in the heart of the action, but achieving it meant putting the actors through one grueling experience after another.

The illusion of control

"Pacific Rim" might be about jaegers fighting kaiju, but it's more about the pilots throwing those massive punches from within them. As a result, a lot of the action takes place as much within del Toro's swaggering mechs as it does on the rain-soaked streets of Tokyo or in the middle of the ocean. Pilots control their respective jaegers from the comfort (more or less) of the Conn-pod, a standing cockpit that connects man to machine through a steampunk-meets-marionette-doll apparatus.

While it definitely looks like the actors are controlling their movements and throwing their own punches, the entire rig was built and controlled by puppeteers at Legacy Effects. Every scene within the Conn-pods had to be choreographed thoroughly beforehand. The rigging weighed several tons on its own, and "at least a couple of hundred pounds of that weight was resting on the actors' shoulders," del Toro told the Daily News — which left very little room for mistakes of any kind.

"The easiest thing would have been to put green levers on their arms and their back and their feet, and have the actors have a complete free movement," del Toro remarked in a behind the scenes featurette, "but I felt [they] needed something with resistance."

Multi-tasking in a mecha

Legacy Effects co-owner Shane Mahan and his team definitely had their work cut out for them when it came to designing a controlling the pods, but they had the added task of taking care of the actors as well. "The hard part was fitting the machines to the actors, making sure that they were comfortable enough to act in them and coaching them through this very difficult time," Mahan told Variety.

"Difficult" might be an understatement, as everyone, from Charlie Hunnam to co-stars Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi, consider their time in the pods to be one of the most challenging ordeals they've ever experienced as actors. "It was like someone was pushing down on me for 14 hours a day," Hunnam recalled.

Max Martini, who portrayed Herc Hansen in the film, remembered how difficult it was to multitask while also visualizing the jaeger vs. kaiju fights:

"You have Guillermo off camera on a bullhorn describing what's happening on the outside of this thing... "The monsters are coming at it ... and they're scratching on the outside of the Jaeger ... and they're bashing on it now!" For me that was the most challenging thing, acting in this full-body armor, attached to this machine, and at the same time trying to visualize what's happening on the outside of this robot."

If that wasn't bad enough, getting in and out of the suit — even just for bathroom breaks — took upwards of an hour. Fortunately, "pee flaps" were installed after about two weeks, but the actors still had to get through those first two weeks, and that was the least of their worries.

Think a happy thought

Martini and Rob Kazinsky were the first to step into the Conn-pod, and as a result, were Legacy's first guinea pigs. That first session was probably the most grueling of them all, since the actors' feedback was used to adjust the rig for those who'd come after. Martini would find himself back in the Conn-pod again, this time with Idris Elba, for another scene later in the film. "Idris was hallucinating by the end of that session," Martini told Variety, "but I was skipping over rainbows because it was so much better than the last time."

One actor who never complained was Rinko Kikuchi, which ironically aligns perfectly with her character Mako Mori's dogged determination. Kikuchi was the performer that the crew worried about the most going in: standing at five feet, five inches tall, she was the smallest of the jaeger pilots. "We saw every one of the actors break down on that set," del Toro mused. But Kikuchi was "the only actor that didn't snap."

Co-producer Jillian Zaks noticed that the actress would close her eyes in between the toughest takes. "I asked her one day, 'What is it that you think about when you're in the Connpod, when you're working through it all?'" said Zaks. "And she said, 'Oh, I think about chocolate and happy things like stuffed animals.'"

Sometimes happy thoughts and teddy bears are all one needs to battle an imaginary kaiju, it seems.