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How Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Shape of Water’ Creature Was Inspired by Robert Redford

Shape of Water Creature
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

When Guillermo del Toro started developing “The Shape of Water,” he knew there were two keys to the film’s success: a strong script and the right creature.

He hired sculptor Mike Hill, creator of many monster models that del Toro owned, and effects and creature veteran Shane Mahan, to help build the character’s suit and prosthetics. (The writer-director paid for development out of his own pocket, before Fox Searchlight signed on.)

At a recent masterclass on the Fox lot, del Toro and some of his key creatives offered a step-by-step process on how they made the creature on a minimal budget: The film shot in 55 days for only $19.3 million — very low considering the movie’s 1962-Baltimore setting and its sumptuous fantasy sequences.

Del Toro didn’t want digital or motion-capture for the creature. The end result was a blend of prosthetics, makeup and digital enhancement. They spent weeks working on the face alone. One important factor was a textured skin. “If you look at your neck,” says del Toro, “you’ll see you have bumps, dimples, lines. We gave him wrinkles and folds. From living in the jungle, he has scarring on the knees and elbows. And there are a lot of veins. The layering is fantastic.”

Del Toro’s team built a maquette to create a three-dimensional image. Some areas of the body are sculpted while other areas were stenciled.

Aside from the skin, they wanted a variety of colors. “Look at humans,” says the filmmaker. “Our nose is a little red here, a little yellow here. There are no solid colors. Mike and Shane are very attentive about this.”

As they experimented, Mahan was testing materials for the actual costume, such as silicone and foam latex. “We needed to see how light would catch on the creature,” says del Toro. “We knew the on-camera glow would not be the same as a digital glow. So we put the maquette under a light and rotated it so you could see where to change the material.” For example, the antennae on top of his head were translucent, to catch the light.

They tailored the suit for actor Doug Jones, who has played monsters in five previous del Toro works. “As with any suit, the silhouette is the most important element in the design,” says the director. “You want it to move like it’s his own muscles.”

They realized early on that the creature — whom government agents in the film call “the asset,” but who was nicknamed Charlie on the set — had too many complex emotions for Jones to simply wear a mask. So the head was a combination of prosthetic pieces, makeup and visual effects. The animation of the creature’s gills, which show his breathing and emotions, was radio-controlled. And since it’s a love story, “We went through a series of designs to create a mouth that is kissable,” del Toro smiles.

Visual-effects supervisor Dennis Berardi says he and his team at effects house Mr. X augmented with digital effects, adding blinks and micro-expressions. “Our goal was to capture Doug’s performance,” says Berardi, so they scanned the actor’s face and several different expressions that Hill sculpted.

Once it was designed, the next question was maintenance. “Mike and I and our team in Canada were in constant repair mode,” Mahan recalls. “We had four suits. The paint is rubber-based on rubber material and over time it will cook itself off in warm water. I had to design a costume that would entail a three-hour put-together and a one-hour removal.” Any more time each day would have been prohibitive. Mahan adds, “We will be forever grateful to cinematographer Dan Laustsen.”

Laustsen, the Danish-born DP whose credits include “Crimson Peak” and “Proud Mary,” had never seen the creature until he shot the tests for the film, which is one of 2017’s Oscar front-runners.

“We wanted to shoot him like a hero. Everything was backlight or sidelight, not frontlight,” Laustsen says. As inspiration, they looked at DP Caleb Deschanel’s work on the “The Natural,” which backlit Robert Redford from behind, creating a halo effect. “We wanted to make this the best creature ever made for Guillermo, so we did whatever it took,” says Mahan.