five minutes outside of Budapest, the capital of Hungary, sits an abandoned limestone quarry. Deep inside this quarry, hidden behind a giant clockwork door, is a legendary Troll Market, with stalls tucked into every nook and cranny and vendors selling everything from roasted cats to tadpoles to giant wooden replacement limbs. Scurrying about the damp, crowded caves are trolls and monsters and fairy tale beasts. I know, because I was there.

I’ve been on a bunch of movie sets before, and the really impressive ones are the big ones, the ones that blur the line between illusion and reality. When I’m on a movie set I’m always knocking on things to see if they’re real or made of foam – you often can’t tell the difference until you touch them. But even the most incredible sets I have been on have been movie sets, and have looked like movie sets – they come to an end and there’s a spot where the fantasy of the set abruptly meets the reality of the soundstage. Even the best sets only serve to encourage actors in their make believe.

But the Troll Market set of Hellboy II: The Golden Army is something else entirely. It’s just a troll market, planted inside a real cave. The line between illusion and reality has been obliterated here; once you descend into the caves past the holding areas and the FX workshops, you come to the actual clockwork door through which Hellboy and pals pass, and once you get beyond that you’re in the market. It’s almost like Guillermo del Toro and his crew are simply shooting on location at a real otherworldly bazaar. It sprawls out in all directions, taking advantage of the natural and organic shape of the cave to meander and back in on itself. You can spend a whole day just walking around the stalls, looking at the remarkable level of detail in every corner. Most of this stuff will never, ever be visible on screen, even if you’re going frame by frame on your HDTV. The truth is that I’m going to end up being one of the few people privy to the intricacies of this location, but I think the essential reality of this place is going to translate on screen in a big way.

Big is generally a good way to describe Hellboy II, which doubles and possibly triples the scope of the original, while not costing all that much more. ‘I don’t think people are expecting this movie,’ del Toro told me, and I have to agree. If you think Hellboy II is going to be a retread of Hellboy – ie, a smaller, more character driven quirky superhero pulp movie – think again. This is going to be a huge, character driven quirky superhero monsters and mythology movie.

It was the monsters that del Toro felt were missing from the first one, and Hellboy II has some forty-odd monsters in it, ranging from all-devouring CGI tooth fairies to a tadpole vendor that is a man in a giant suit with facial features controlled by remote. I watched as a six foot eight man was transformed into the Tadpole Vendor, and stood in awe as the fully suited monster turned and looked at me, eyes and mouth moving. This kind of thing – this physical magic – was why I got into movies in the first place. When I started doing set visits I resigned myself to the idea that I had missed the heyday of great sets and amazing monsters, but GDT – another geek of the old school – has insisted on doing as much of Hellboy II practically as possible. That means when you see the film and watch the fight between Big Red and Wink, a seven foot troll* (a scene I watched being shot), you’re actually watching two physical beings on a set doing their thing, not a mess of pixels dancing after some animator’s mouse. And what it meant for me, standing in the middle of this cave stuffed with practical monsters, was that I was like a kid on Christmas, opening up my presents and finding out Stan Winston made them all for me.

Except in this case the geniuses at work were the folks at Spectral Motion and The Creature Shop and Solution Studios, all talented artists and craftsmen busting their asses to bring the world of faeries and eldritch beasties to life. I took a quick tour of their creature workshops and saw how they married their own visions with those of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola and modern master of the fantastic Guillermo del Toro to create a zoography of the supernatural.

I also had a chance to visit some of the other sets, which were built on more traditional soundstages at Korda Studios. Hellboy II is the first production at the brand new, state of the art facility, which still smells of fresh paint, and the movie has spread out to cover four stages and part of the backlot. The backlot set is a stylized version of a street beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, where Hellboy battles a giant elemental monster (and this is towards the beginning of the movie. I’m telling you, this son of a bitch is a big movie). I haven’t been back to New York since I moved to LA, and being on that set wasn’t quite like being home, but more like being in the collective popular vision of New York. It was a blast watching the graffiti being painstakingly painted on the sides of buildings.

The other sets, including the Lair of the Angel of Death (seriously, it’s a picture with scope), were in various states of construction. The sets that weren’t ready or had already been struck were shown via scale models, and the production office was bursting with art showing the the delightful diversity of monsters in the movie; one large illustration showed all the characters and monsters in Hellboy II to scale, and the elemental that HB battles on the bridge was so big that the paper could only show as far up as his knees.

While on set I had breakfast with Ron Perlman, who was wearing most of his Hellboy outfit (the head, but not the face), and his dog, Nigel, who really wanted some bacon. Seeing the rapport between Perlman and del Toro was a treat, as was watching del Toro working with Oscar winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (there was some good natured jokes about Navarro carrying his statue with him everywhere). On most set visits journalists are herded around like sheep; here it was only Kelvin Chavez from Latino Review and myself, and we had complete freedom. That meant we were there as GDT and Navarro discussed shots (in Spanish, so I guess Kelvin gets that exclusive), as the production crew debated shots and schedules and as Navarro got annoyed with a steadicam that couldn’t keep up with Hellboy’s cigar. What was most interesting about having this access, though, was how little drama we saw. This is a big movie, with a lot of technical aspects that need to be hit just right, and a lot of long hard hours to be put in, but del Toro runs a relaxed set, one where it seems like everyone is comfortable coming up to the burly director with thoughts – thoughts that he listens to. Make no mistake that after Pan’s Labyrinth GDT is in a different strata, finally universally accepted and recognized as a genius, but that’s not how he interacts with his crew. He’s friendly and personal with them, and that’s despite the fact that he must be exhausted: I was there on day 78, and they had been shooting in the damp, musty cave (that recently was used to grow mushrooms and smelled quite fungal) for a week or so. There was no natural light and the air quality was a bit dodgy at best, but that never brought down GDT’s spirits, and you could see that his good-natured stamina pushed everyone else to be their best.

After a couple of hours on the set, and a quick lunch and interview with GDT (there’s never enough time with him. Guillermo is one of the best interviews out there – he’s always interesting and fresh and always has something new to say, no matter how many zillions of times he’s been asked the same questions), it was back to Budapest for some sit-downs with the cast. I’d say that it’s easy to fall in love with Selma Blair when you’re talking to her, but the truth is that it’s more than easy- it’s almost mandatory. Besides being absolutely gorgeous, she has a completely open personality, and it doesn’t hurt that her sense of humor seems to run in the same vein as mine. And it really didn’t hurt that she gave me a kiss on the cheek after the interview was over – expect 10/10 reviews for all future Blair vehicles.

The rest of the cast, who came to talk on one of their rare days off, were equally friendly. Doug Jones is excited to be finally getting the opportunity to be the voice of Abe Sapien, while Luke Goss, who played Nomak in Blade II, is psyched beyond belief to be back with GDT. The one GDT newbie, Anna Walton, admitted that she hadn’t seen Hellboy and wasn’t sure that this was her kind of movie, but that del Toro and his script had won her over completely. There was a terrific camaraderie between these people, and when del Toro showed up at the hotel to show Kelvin and I some rough assemblages of footage, their excitement was palpable. This is a family, with GDT as the big daddy figure. And while I can’t tell you what I saw in that footage, I can say that GDT has hired Jackie Chan’s stunt people, and they’ve put together some impressive choreography for the fights this time around. What was great about seeing this rough footage, though, was how much it was right there – an occassional green screen for set extension would come into view, or a guy would pass by in a green suit, doubling for an eventual CGI monster, but in the scenes del Toro shared most of the action and characters were right there, on the set, doing what you see them doing on screen.

I didn’t get to see very much of Budapest while I was there – just basically the view from the Danube outside my hotel (which was quite spectacular) and whatever we drove past on our way to and from set, but I can’t complain, since I got to do a lot of sight seeing in a whole other world. The attractions of Hungary will still be there in a couple of years, while the Troll Market as a physical location will disappear in a few weeks. I’m not a talker at the movies, but I have been known to nudge my friend when seeing a film whose set I was on, pointing to a shot I saw being filmed. When I go to see Hellboy II next July I’ll be able to nudge my friend during the Troll Market scenes and say, ‘I was there!’ and mean it in every sense of the phrase.

There’s more to come from the Hellboy II set visit, including all the interviews I mentioned, and maybe some cool pictures. In the meantime, consider yourself warned: Hellboy II is building on the foundation of the first movie to go bigger, more epic and more incredible. I can’t wait to see this whole movie.

But don’t take my word on it – check out what my European travel companion Kelvin Chavez of Latino Review has to say about the set visit by clicking here.

*Trivia: He’s named after Selma Blair’s one eyed dog.