Creature Feature
Issue: Volume 41 Issue 1: (Edition 1 2018)

Creature Feature

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. Here, in the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, Elisa is trapped in a life of isolation until she discovers a secret classified experiment involving an amphibious creature, a biological “asset” of the US government that seems to have the fundamental adaptive qualities of water.

“In a monster movie of the ’50s, [Richard] Strickland, Water’s square-jawed, good-looking government agent, would be the hero, and the creature would be the villain. I wanted to reverse those things,” says del Toro.

The Creature

Taking on the creature role is Doug Jones, who utilized a meticulously designed prosthetic costume. CGI also played a role in bringing the creature to life.

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

But that was 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 also 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.

Digital Methodology

Handling the digital side of things was Mr. X, the sole VFX vendor on the movie. In all, Mr. X completed 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.

The group created a fairly diverse set of effects for the feature film: underwater environments, 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 his 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, while 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 and whenever he’s swimming underwater. This includes when his tank is being rolled into the lab, and 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, 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 used 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.

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.

Explains Trey Harrell, digital effects supervisor, “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 in line with Guillermo del Toro’s ideal.”

For the VFX work, Mr. X used Autodesk’s Maya for modeling and animation, as well as 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. The artists also extended their custom Mantra SSS model to allow for the separation of per-light contribution, now available in off-the-shelf Houdini.

Compositing was completed in Foundry’s Nuke. The rest of the pipeline comprises fairly standard tools: Science.D.Visions’ 3DEqualizer for tracking, Foundry’s Mari for texturing, Pixologic’s ZBrush for sculpting, and initial hair grooms that would be finished with Peregrine Labs’ Yeti before being exported as dense guides for simulation and rendering in Houdini.

Underwater Challenges

Both the creature and Elisa spend a large portion of the film under or in contact with water. Much of the film contains two types of digital water. The first type is a conventional fluid simulation, used for the sloshing river water in the tank and the bathtub water when the creature is suffocating. The other effect is based on classical dry-for-wet photography techniques whereby the actors are suspended on wires on an especially smoky stage.


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.

To allow for rapid sim iteration for most of the 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.

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 story-teller 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.”

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.