Creature Feature: 'The Shape of Water'
Karen Moltenbrey
January 2, 2018

Creature Feature: 'The Shape of Water'

Director Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a homage to the great creature features of the 1960s. It is also a love story, not only to the genre but also between the characters, no matter that one is human and the other is not.

This otherworldly fairy tale is set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa is trapped in a life of isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda discover a secret classified experiment that is both haunting and beautiful.

The film merges the pathos and thrills of the classic monster movie tradition with shadowy film noir, then stirring in the heat of a love story to explore the fantasies we all flirt with, the mysteries we can’t control and the monstrosities we must confront. The audience is introduced to the biological “asset” of the U.S. government, as an intimate relationship develops between the creature and a mute cleaning woman.

This mystery-shrouded amphibious being has not only been hauled up from the dark, watery depths, but seems to have the fundamental adaptive qualities of water – taking on the psychic contours of every human he encounters, reflecting back both aggression and fathomless love.  

Elisa’s world begins to change when she first spies the creature in his transport chamber – and immediately realizes there is something very much alive within. Few details are known of the creature, only than that he is likely the last of his kind; that local people in the Amazon worshipped him; that he carries a marvelous lung structure allowing him to breathe on land, a potential boon for the Space Race; that the Soviet military wants to possess him too; and that, unsettled by his intelligence and physical oddity, the man who captured him believes the creature to be a grave danger to humanity.  

The Shape of Water was conceived in 2011 when del Toro and Daniel Kraus, the director’s writing partner on his children’s book series, Trollhunters , met for breakfast one morning . Kraus mentioned an idea he had had as a teenager, about a cleaning woman working in a government facility and secretly befriending an amphibious man being held captive as a specimen and how she decides to liberate him. Del Toro loved the idea so much that he immediately said he wanted it to be his next movie – it seemed the perfect sort of fairy tale idea he had been searching for. From that meeting, a deal was made for the pair to collaborate together on a novel and for del Toro to write and direct the film. 

At that point, del Toro was still completing work on his giant-robot/monster blockbuster Pacific Rim, but in rare quiet moments, also drawing from classic monster films such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon, he’d spend time writing the script for the more intimate film that would eventually be The Shape of Water .

In 2014, Fox Searchlight came on board.

Del Toro wanted to upend the conceit of monstrosity with a love story that surrenders fully to making the creature the lead and the human forces aligned against him the true forces of sinister darkness. “In a monster movie of the 50s, [Richard] Strickland, the square-jawed, good-looking government agent, would be the hero, and the creature would be the villain. I wanted to reverse those things.”  

The Creature

Taking a role that exists on the border between human, animal and myth is Doug Jones, who utilized both a meticulously designed prosthetic costume and an extraordinary knack for physical expressiveness to forge the creature. Physically, Jones used an image that del Toro gave him to base his movements around: “He said the creature has the bearing of a sexy, dangerous toreador – but with the fluidity of the Silver Surfer.”  

Three years before The Shape of Water began shooting on soundstages in Toronto, del Toro hired Guy Davis and Vincent Proce to begin design work on the lab and the water cylinder. The next year he hired two sculptors, David Meng and Dave Grosso , to begin working on the design of his fish creature.  

“I knew I wanted the creature to feel real, but at the same time for it to be beautiful , which is a very hard line to tow,” confesses del Toro. “This is truly the hardest creature design I've ever done.”  

Early on, he assembled a crack team of artists, including Shane Mahan of Legacy Effects, a creature designer extraordinaire and visual effects supervisor known for his award-winning work bringing the superhero Ironman to life and for Pacific Rim; and Mike Hill, a renowned sculptor who specializes in ultra-realistic models of monsters. The team worked tirelessly from sketchbook to maquette to the fully realized creature suit that transformed Jones. 

The initial inspiration for the creature came directly out of nature, with his bioluminescent skin, layered eyes and strong, sucking lips merging into a sleek, humanoid-style form. The enchanting tropical lionfish became the model for how the creature would eat – with its internal membrane that allows the fish to swallow its food in record time. Hill also looked to the natural world for the creature’s translucent bioluminescence. “People with aquariums are often attracted to glowing, see-through fish so we wanted to echo that idea,” he elaborates.  “Later, Legacy came up with a way to re-create that idea in an opaque suit that looks fantastic.”  

Four intricate suits, each capable of getting waterlogged, were made for the production. 


But that is only half the battle. A digital or digitally augmented monster was needed for certain scenes, as well. Dennis Berardi, VFX supervisor, became another key partner in crafting the creature’s full existence. 

Berardi began by creating an exacting digital double of Jones in the prosthetic suit. “Guillermo wanted the creature to not only be able to emote like Doug, but to also move underwater in a certain way, so we did a lot of early movement tests with our animation team at Mr. X, and we got to the point where we could do a digital version of the creature that could match up with Doug’s beautiful performance,” he says. 

Crafting the underwater movements was a research-intensive process that involved looking not only at Olympian human swimmers but such aquatic species as sharks, puffins, otters and penguins. “We looked at anything that moves very gracefully through the water in order to base it all in reality,” Berardi explains.  

The result was a digital mirror reflecting Jones’s powerful acting with the added dimensions of a creature that doesn’t exist – the real and the unreal aligning in synch. Berardi even played with the creature’s colors, shifting them with his mood. “Our hope is that the audience can't distinguish at all between the digital version of the creature or the Doug Jones version. Doug's performance informs our animation, and I think our animation has also informed how Doug was photographed.  If the audience can’t tell which is which, we will have succeeded,” says Berardi. 

CG Creature

Handling the digital side of things was Mr. X, the sole VFX vendor on the movie. Mr. X has worked with del Toro on a wide variety of projects, including Pacific Rim. “He's got a background in practical effects and prosthetics, and speaks the language of visual effects fluently – and he's an accomplished illustrator in his own right,” says Trey Harrell, digital effects supervisor.

In all, Mr. X completed just over 600 visual effects shots, accounting for about an hour of the film. Close to 160 artists worked for nearly a year on the feature, from previs through festival screenings. The group created a fairly diverse set of effects for the film: underwater environments, extremely hero fluid simulations, digital hair, a period-accurate Baltimore replacing Toronto, lots of set extensions, extensive damage to Strickland's Cadillac, several key shots of digital gore, and of course , augmenting Doug Jones' performance as the amphibian man.

In every shot, at a minimum, the creature’s eyes (larger than Jones actual eyes and proportionally different) and facial performance, from his brow to upper lip, were created in CG. (Due to the form-fitting nature of the suit, it wasn t feasible to include enough animatronic controls for a full facial performance.) The eyes and facial work accounted for roughly 70 percent of the digital creature work.

For the remaining 30 percent, the CG artists would replace his entire head or body. When the creature needed to be entirely CG, often it was because the suit's range of motion made the performance impractical or impossible to capture, or when he was underwater. 

Sometimes, the transition between suit and CG occurs many times over during a sequence. For instance, when the creature is suffocating in the bath tub, the group cuts between a close-up of a 70 percent practical suit to full CG and back again several times over the sequence. The shots required the creature to pull water into his gills, churning up the bath water, covered in a layer of algae, scales and blood. In those instances, the entire shots are CG, including the bathtub and water, as are several shots when Elisa meets the creature in his tank in the lab as well as whenever he's swimming underwater. For example, when his tank is being rolled into the lab, or in the final sequence of the film.

In those instances requiring a CG creature, the Mr. X team would use Jones' physical performance as a base for the facial animation, which was guided by scans of the actor out of suit in a set of FACS facial poses, which were then sculpted and mapped to the creature. (Mr. X used an in-house scanning system called X-Scan, which consists of approximately 80 DSLR cameras; it can be reconfigured for hero facial scans as well as full-body scans.) The scans were as a guide to sculpt the creature's blendshapes and guide the wrinkles on his face.

The team also developed a tension map workflow that allowed alembic data channels to drive animated displacements and capillary action – allowing for fine wrinkles and skin bunching as well as subtle blood flow effects in his nose and muzzle area. “While we used Doug's range of motion and personality to inform the facial performance, we didn't use motion capture. His facial and body performances were entirely hand-animated,” says Harrell.

Depending on the needs of a given shot, the group would augment the suit. “We might add performance to his gill covers when he hisses, or add subtle breathing to his dorsal fin. When he's suffocating in the bathtub after the rescue, we cut back and forth often between a mostly practical and fully digital version of the creature, taking fluid into his gills and interacting with a fully digital bathtub, water and layer of algae and scales on the water's surface,” Harrell notes.

Because the suit itself fit differently and would wear differently each day on set, constant paint touch-up was required by the digital team when it was in contact with water, in particular.

As Harrell explains: “One of our major challenges was presenting a consistent, idealized version of the amphibian man that was always on-model, regardless of the fit or state of the suit on a given day. We had a three-stage facial tracking pipeline that allowed for differences in fit of the facial area of the suit. We'd begin with a rigid track, focusing on his eye silhouette entirely, and then we'd adjust the fit of the digital-mask and makeup appliance to match the stretch, compression and fit of the practical face area on the day. After animation, we would go back in and tweak the silhouette so that the creature would be absolutely in-line with Guillermo del Toro's ideal.” 

For the VFX work, Mr. X used Autodesk’s Maya for modeling and animation, and Side Effects’ Houdini with the studio’s custom path tracer and in-house Cryptomatte extensions inside of Side Effects’ Mantra for the simulation and lighting pipeline. The custom path tracer and Cryptomatte extensions allowed for clean matte extraction of primary rays through arbitrary reflection and refraction depth – absolutely crucial for fine compositing control through many layers of glass, condensation, particulate, volume lighting and water. The artists also extended their custom Mantra SSS model to allow for the separation of per-light contribution, which is now available in off-the-shelf Houdini.

“We went to great pains to disguise the seams between the practical and digital portions of the creature in a different place in every shot, and were extremely careful to not interfere with the audience's suspension of disbelief,” says Harrell. “There's a charm to practical effects that an audience just accepts as stagecraft. We didn't want to call attention to the CG portions of the creature at all. It needed to feel plausibly physical at all times.”

Compositing was completed in Foundry’s Nuke, where the crew used an update of a fairly old-school technique most commonly used from the early days of "talking animal" CG: plate projections on the rigid tracked head precomp’d out as animated textures, which were then plugged in to the animated face alembics. “We would use these animated plate projections to help disguise our seams between CG and practical, as well as retaining fine detail from the plate, such as water droplets, and adding secondary effects such as the creature's bioluminescence,” says Harrell.

The rest of the pipeline comprises a fairly standard set of tools: Science.D.Visions’ 3DEqualizer for tracking, Foundry’s Mari for texturing, Pixologic’s ZBrush for sculpting and initial hair grooms which would be then sanitized and polished up with Peregrine Labs’ Yeti before being exported as dense guides for simulation and rendering in Houdini.

Underwater Challenges

In The Shape of Water , both the amphibian man and Elisa spend a large portion of the film under or in contact with water. Nevertheless, creating believable water and fluid effects is always difficult. 

Much of the film contains two types of digital water. The first type is a conventional fluid sim. Examples include the sloshing river water in the tank when “the asset” is first brought into the facility, the bathtub water when the creature is suffocating, rain simulations interacting with the hood of Strickland's ruined Cadillac, or flooding the bathroom during the love sequence.

The other type of water effect Mr. X produced is based on classical dry-for-wet photography techniques where the actors are suspended on wires in a very smoky stage. “We would add particulate, a CG underwater environment, additional lighting, bubbles and hair for Elisa in the opening and closing scenes of the film, as well as when the creature is in the vertical tank in the lab,” says Harrell.

All of the water effects were created in Houdini, using FLIP fluid simulations where there is a visible water surface.

For the dry-for-wet underwater sequences, particulate was created with particle sims, whereas bubbles were FLIP sims. They were all affected by a common vector field along with underwater grass, props, Elisa's hair and the creature's fins.

“We've had a lot of experience with creatures interacting with water surfaces in the past, so we had a fairly robust pipeline in place to handle performances like the creature swimming in the tank,” says Harrell.

Turnaround time on sims, along with the feedback loop caused by performance changes, can be a real challenge, which was addressed by building a system that could divide up portions of individual FLIP sim frames throughout as much local and cloud-based render power as the studio could throw at it.

To allow for rapid-sim iteration for the most hero fluid sims, the effects TDs developed a toolset that would allow individual simulation frames to be diced up and distributed through Mr. X’s local and cloud-based render infrastructure. This would allow del Toro to give animation notes or direction on the simulations themselves, with rapid turnaround on the surrounding water, condensation, foam and particulate effects affected by the performance.

As Harrell explains, any time Elisa was under water, her hair would be pinned back on-set and replaced with fully CG hair– on top of dozens of layers of particulate, bubbles, floating props and sea life. “Guillermo is known for his love of strong, comic book silhouette and would want to direct the hair sim silhouette on specific frames, or the motion of everything underwater in time with the score,” he adds

There are a few instances where the artists substituted CG for hero props, such as the damage on the front of Strickland's Cadillac. The damage and rain simulation had to hold up incredibly close to camera.

Not Your Father’s Monster Movie

The Shape of Water  is easily my favorite project I've worked on to date, both as an artist as well as a guy who just loves cinema in general,” Harrell says. “I've seen the film dozens of times in various states and I still get weepy at a few key moments in the film (that  never  happens).”

Harrell is a firm believer that more isn't always, or even usually, better. “Spectacle will only get you so far if you don't connect with your audience emotionally as a storyteller and filmmaker. The Shape of Water combines the best of both practical and CG effects – but we don't want the audience to know it's an effect. We want to get out of the way and let the viewer become enraptured in the world and story.”