As a boy growing up in Mexico, Guillermo del Toro made it a habit of designing his own gigantic monsters, right down to their livers, spleens, hearts, lungs and stomachs.
Now he's an adult filmmaker, but not much has changed. "All of that came in pretty handy 40 years later in making this movie," del Toro says.
This movie is Pacific Rim, an epic film (due out next year) with 25-story-tall monsters and the equally large human-piloted robots assigned to stop them, and it will be one of many potential blockbuster films, TV shows and other pop-culture favorites on hand at San Diego Comic-Con beginning Wednesday night.
The monsters of Pacific Rim join Twilight vampires, Walking Dead zombies and the return of the freaky little dude Gollum from The Lord of the Rings as the star creatures at Comic-Con, where more than 125,000 people will storm the convention center to get first looks at what's headed to movie theaters and TV screens.
"It's gone from being a humble show for fans and collectors to a pop-culture singularity that has really taken over not just comics, but a vast swath of the entertainment industry," says Rob Salkowitz, author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.
This year's highlights include some of the hottest franchises in entertainment:
Twilight time once more
Twilight began its march toward box-office success four years ago with a panel in the 6,500-seat Hall H — and the stars have come back for every movie since, usually with a line of fans camped outside the center for days before. The biggest change for the final movie in the series, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn— Part 2 (in theaters Nov. 16): The formerly human Bella (played by Kristen Stewart) is now a vampire, matching the creature state of her beau Edward (Robert Pattinson).
Supernatural monsters afoot
Vamps don't usually last very long on the CW TV show Supernatural— and neither do demons, ghosts or other assorted horror staples. Premiering Oct. 10, the show's eighth season marks the first for its new head man, Jeremy Carver, who has written numerous episodes over the years starring monster-hunting brothers Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles).
What started out as a series about killing demons, though, has grown into a mythology where the terrifying Leviathan have tried to turn humans into cattle; angels are warriors and sometimes quite malevolent; and the stakes are quite biblical on a weekly basis. (The season finale left Sam up on Earth and Dean down in purgatory — which is arguably better than hell, where both have spent some time.)
"We're always looking for a deeper meaning, because a lot of the monsters of the week are sometimes reflections of what our boys are going through on an emotional level," says Carver, who also enjoys "making the mundane monstrous" and taking things with positive cultural impressions and turning them on their ear.
"Whether it's an angel or Santa Claus or a teapot, there will be blood. There's pleasure in pain, as it were."
Grimm imaginings brought to life
NBC's fantasy Grimm is just now diving into its own bigger mythology in the show's second season, starting Aug. 13. David Giuntoli plays Portland cop Nick Burkhardt, the latest in a long line of Grimms who fight monsters of myth and legend — trolls, witches, satyrs — and one of the few humans who can see their true natures in the real world.
"I personally get a charge from seeing people in full prosthetics in these creature forms, because it helps do the scene for you," Giuntoli says. "There is a lot of imagining in our show, and when there is a person dressed as an ogre, you don't have to imagine that anymore. You can actually respond, and it really brings it to life."
No escaping The Walking Dead
Of course, no TV creatures are as popular these days as the undead hordes of The Walking Dead, AMC's hit show based on Robert Kirkman's comic-book series. And the franchise is taking over Comic-Con with panels about the series and the comic, a release party for its 100th issue (out Wednesday), and a Walking Dead Escape zombie obstacle course at Petco Park that Kirkman himself will run.
"This might be the Comic-Con where I die of a heart attack, which is a little terrifying," he says. "I'm not going to be showing off for anyone. I will walk the entire thing. I do not care if the zombies in the obstacle course actually end up chewing on me at one point, because I'm not making any attempt to get away."
Wreck-It Ralph vs. Cybugs
No less daunting of a foe than flesh-eating zombies are the hyper-aggressive and pesky Cybugs of Wreck-It Ralph. In the Disney animated movie out Nov. 2, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is a video-game villain out to change his ways, and he ventures into the game Hero's Duty. Cybugs are the main enemy he has to face there, and they're able to adapt to any situation, such as taking on the ability of a rocket launcher after eating one.
"In our video-game world, the different characters in their games realize when the game's being played and when it's not. They know when to drop the act," says director Rich Moore (The Simpsons, Futurama). "The Cybugs are this new breed of bad guys that have no idea that the game's over and they just keep going constantly, non-stop."
Moore also has included some classic creature cameos of yore, including Bowser of the game Super Mario Bros., Pac-Man's ghostly Clyde and the director's personal favorite, the hose-nosed Q*Bert.
"I grew up with these games, and to be able to work with Q*Bert is mind-blowing," he says. "It's like working with great actors that you've loved from movies of the past," he says.
Go on a journey with The Hobbit
Gollum is another "precious" pop-culture staple returning to theaters in director Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings prequel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Dec. 14).
It had been a while since actor Andy Serkis slid into the performance-capture outfit to play the pale, obsessive and schizophrenic creature, and in those nine years since 2003's Oscar-winning The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Gollum had become a part of the public consciousness in a big way.
"It actually felt like I didn't own him for the couple days. I felt like I was doing this really bad impersonation of a character I once played," Serkis says.
But the British actor quickly made Gollum his again, and found the technology used to make the computer-generated character to be much improved over the years.
Whereas there used to be several steps and different setups to bring Gollum to life, this time he was able to act alongside Hobbit star Martin Freeman in crafting the memorable scene from J.R.R. Tolkien's book where Bilbo Baggins meets Gollum in the Misty Mountains of Middle-earth.
It takes place a good 60 years before Gollum's first appearance in The Lord of the Rings, so he doesn't have the scars from the torture inflicted upon him by the evil Sauron. "He's far more handsome. He's pretty hot," Serkis jokes.
Tornado vs. hurricane in Pacific Rim
If any movie at Comic-Con comes close to the scale of Jackson's Middle-earth flicks, it's del Toro's Pacific Rim, where human "riders" of the robotic Jaegers (played by Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi and more) engage in spectacular battles with the huge and dangerous Kaiju (inspired by the genre name for Japanese monster films).
"It is almost like seeing a tornado clashing with a hurricane," del Toro says.
Pacific Rim doesn't come out until July 12, 2013, but del Toro is currently busy building this world, even going so far as to not only design monsters, but also personally create sound effects for all his "children."
"I am an obsessive compulsive, and I can tell you without any shadow of a doubt I am involved very deeply on everything, from the pin on the lapel of a jacket to which way the monster's eye slants," he says. "I am essentially a socially inept creature. I dedicate my entire life to this. This is what I do, this is what I live for."
Every one of his monsters, which fans will be able to see for the first time on Saturday at a Warner Bros. panel, will have individual personalities and abilities. Some are adept at swimming in the depths of the sea, others fly, and one even vomits corrosive magma-like liquid. "There's a lot to love," del Toro quips.
He laughs heartily when asked how one of his monsters would fare in a Comic-Con-ready creature-feature throwdown with Godzilla. "That sounds like a question I would ask my 10-year-old."