The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents January 2007 Return to Table of Contents
Pan's Labyrinth
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Allen Daviau, ASC
Little Children
DVD Playback
Production Slate
Post Focus
Short Takes
ASC Close-Up
Pan’s Labrinth, shot by Guillermo Navarro, ASC, marries the horrors of war-torn Spain with the surreal visions of an imaginative girl.

Unit photography by Teresa Isasi
Additional photos by David Lee
Pan’s Labyrinth is an R-rated fairy tale, the story of a little girl who seeks refuge from the violence and misery of her life in a fantasy world that turns out to be just as menacing. Written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, the film is not quite like anything you’ve seen before, except perhaps Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001), which also imposed supernatural elements on a grim tale involving historical events.  

Set in 1944, when scattered Republican rebels were still holding out against Gen. Francisco Franco’s fascist government, Pan’s Labyrinth centers on Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a bookish, 11-year-old girl whose mother has married a brutal Civil Guard captain, Vidal (Sergi Lpez). With her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) bedridden and her stepfather busy hunting down insurgents, Ofelia sets about exploring the grounds of her new home: a remote mill that has been converted into Vidal’s military headquarters. It doesn’t take her long to uncover the magical features of this environment. Chief among them is the labyrinth out back, where a towering faun (Doug Jones) guards a portal to the underworld. According to the faun, Ofelia just might be a long-lost princess, and before she can be whisked away to her rightful domain and leave the sadness of her earthly life behind, she must prove herself by completing three tasks — and she must do so before the moon is full.  

“This is a movie that makes a very strong political statement and is also a mirror of how the world is now,” says Guillermo Navarro, ASC, the film’s director of photography. “But by creating parallel narratives of a fantasy world and a reality world, we could tell a political story without it coming across like a pamphlet. It’s a fairy tale with ultimate consequences, and not the nice fairy-tale ending.”  

Pan’s Labyrinth is Navarro’s fourth collaboration with Del Toro, and the picture shares themes and visual motifs with their other works, the Spanish productions Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone (see AC Dec. ’01) and the Hollywood comic-book adaptation Hellboy (AC April ’04). Navarro, whose other credits include Jackie Brown, Stuart Little and Spy Kids, says the Spanish projects have been particularly gratifying. “After doing work in Hollywood on other movies and with other directors, working in our original language, in different scenery, brings me back to the original reasons I wanted to make movies, which is basically to tell stories with complete freedom, and to let the visuals really contribute to the telling of the story,” says Navarro.  

Whatever the filmmaking milieu, Navarro and Del Toro are definitely comfortable on the same visual wavelength: they share a love of darkness and stylized color, and of letting the images carry the narrative burden. “We can see the same movie, and we’ve worked enough together and spent enough time together that we have a shorthand,” says the cinematographer. “I understand his writing process, and he understands my process, so by the time we see the same movie, we can just go execute it. We’re not lost in the set, trying to figure out what to do.”  

A strong visual concept was especially crucial on Pan’s Labyrinth in order to establish the parallel narratives and then bring them together. “This isn’t really a dialogue-based movie — the images become the grammar of the story,” says Navarro. “So it was important for us to create bridges that would connect the two narratives, and to place the camera in the shoes of Ofelia, our lead character. The audience is learning with her and discovering things with her.” As the film progresses, the question of whether what’s happening is real or only in Ofelia’s imagination arises with increasing frequency, and becomes more complicated to answer.  

In his conceptualizing of Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro cites influences as diverse as Francisco Goya, James Whale, Mario Bava, George Romero, David Cronenberg and fairy-tale illustrator Arthur Rackham. He relies strongly on the sketches that pour out of him as he prepares a film. “Guillermo does little drawings very quickly in a book, and he keeps the book through the shoot,” explains Navarro. “We cannot afford to do them all, of course. They’re guidelines, and we go for the setups we need to tell the story.” The director also compiles a scrapbook of textures to help guide the work of the art and costume departments; on Pan’s Labyrinth, these filled more than 100 pages.  

According to Del Toro, the key element in the design of Pan’s Labyrinth was color. “I put up a big board to color-code the movie for the three key departments,” he says, referring to Navarro, production designer Eugenio Caballero and costume designer Lala Huete. “Those were the colors that were allowed. If it wasn’t there, it wouldn’t exist [in the film].”  

The initial color differentiation between the film’s two worlds was simple: Ofelia’s fantasy world would feature mainly warm colors, primarily “deep crimsons and golden ambers, almost like amniotic fluids,” notes Del Toro. (Indeed, the director’s goal was to suggest a “womblike” environment in some of the fairy-tale sets, a feeling underscored by the use of rounded shapes.) This warmth also infuses the worlds of the rebel fighters in the nearby hills and the friendly housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verd), who secretly aids the rebels and befriends Ofelia. By contrast, the harsh reality represented by Vidal and his troops is coded in cold hues of blue and green, and many of their environments feature sharp angles.  

As the story unfolds and the parallel narratives start to, in Navarro’s words, “bridge over and rub together,” the colors begin to mix in quite striking ways. “I decided that we were going to do a contamination process, that one world was going to start infecting the other,” says Del Toro. “As the movie goes on, they combine more and achieve a unity, and Ofelia’s view of the world becomes as real as the fascists’.” By using color as their key, says Navarro, “we found the language we needed to help the audience understand the complexity of the movie.”  

The concept also kept the filmmakers within a framework that helped offset the film’s modest budget and short prep time. Navarro recalls that extensive testing of film stocks and equipment wasn’t possible before shooting got underway in July 2005. Much of the preproduction time and energy was spent scouting the primary location and creating the setting. “We looked for an open space surrounded by forest,” recalls Navarro. “We found one location in Navarre, in the north of the country, but we ran into a stubborn guy who wanted to charge us half the budget of the movie to use it, so we had to abandon that. Eventually we found a place that was about an hour outside of Madrid, near Segovia. It was fantastic, because we were able to tie in the big building with the labyrinth and the mountains.”  

All of the settings were built by the design department and scaled to fit the 1.85:1 format that Del Toro and Navarro favor. “In Hellboy and in this film, we were dealing with characters who were very tall, but in addition to that practical reason, I feel that the sense of space and framing in 1.85 is in more of a human scale,” says Navarro. Most of the sets that connect with the outdoors, such as the kitchen of the house and the storage room where Vidal carries out most of his torture, were built on location. Other interiors, as well as most of the fantasy settings, were created on a soundstage in Madrid.

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