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How ‘The Shape of Water’ FX team and Guillermo del Toro built a better merman

Guillermo del Toro’s dark fantasy The Shape of Water made quite an impression — one might even call it a “splash” — when the first trailer for the film debuted in summer 2017 and finally revealed the mysterious project that has kept the filmmaker occupied the last few years.

A moody, supernatural tale that chronicles the relationship between a lonely janitor and an aquatic humanoid creature held captive in a government facility, The Shape of Water earned rave reviews from professional critics and general audiences alike when it kicked off its limited run earlier this month. The film’s leading lady Sally Hawkins, villain Michael Shannon, and veteran creature actor Doug Jones have each earned well-deserved praise for their performances, which were supplemented by a talented team of visual effects artists that helped elevate Jones’ portrayal of the film’s mysterious merman to an impressive level.

Guillermo invests in the visual effects process like no one I’ve ever seen before.

With The Shape of Water recently named among the 20 films currently under consideration for an Academy Award nomination in the “Best Visual Effects” category, Digital Trends spoke to Dennis Berardi, the founder and CEO of visual effects studio Mr. X, which worked with del Toro to create the fantastic movie magic on display in the film.

Note: Some basic spoilers crop up below. If you haven’t yet seen the film read on at your own risk!

Digital Trends: You’ve worked with Guillermo del Toro on multiple films and television projects over the years. He’s known for having a very fantastic, but also very specific vision for each film. Clearly, you enjoy the process of working with him, but is it a challenge to work with a filmmaker like Guillermo?

Dennis Berardi: Absolutely. He’s a master filmmaker, a film historian and a student of the human existence. His vision is uncompromising, and he’s very hard to please. However, he also sets you up for success in every way. He helps you along. As a visual effects supervisor, that’s very important to me, to have a director who wants us to succeed. Guillermo invests in the process and us like no one I’ve ever seen before.

The Shape of Water Guillermo del Toro
Image used with permission by copyright holder

It’s a positive kind of challenging, then?

Yeah, he’s the good kind of challenging. He’ll sketch something out for you that you don’t understand. He’ll make himself available to you day or night. A big deadline is coming and I’ll call him and say, “Guillermo I need you to look at something,” or, “We’re kind of stuck on something, can you come over?,” and he’s there in 20 minutes. He’s that kind of guy. He’ll have us email stuff to him and we’ll have an hourlong conversation about it, on everything from physics to color palette. He’s not in an ivory tower, making decrees. … In that way, he’s a joy and an inspiration to work with. I’d take any chance to work with him, because with Guillermo, you do your best work. He brings it out in you. His process demands it.

How much of a role did your team play in developing and refining the way the merman creature looks and acts in the film? Was there some discussion of how visual effects would — or could — shape his design?

Watching Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins work together every day was magical.

There was a lot of back and forth, because in this creature, you have a leading man who Eliza (Hawkins) has to fall in love with — and not only that, the audience has to fall in love with him as well. He can’t be just a monster. It’s not a linear role like that. He’s heroic, and strong, and tender, and soulful. Right from the very beginning, Guillermo said, “We’re toying with the design and I’d like you to have some input,” which was nice. I was mostly focused on performance issues, though. Guillermo and [creature designers] Shane Mahan and Mike Hill were more focused on design-and-build issues of the suit Doug wore.

Which aspects of the creature design did you have the most input on?

[Del Toro] knew we would need to do a lot of face work, because Doug would be acting through half an inch of rubber on his face. It just wasn’t going to be very articulate. When Doug moved his face underneath, it wouldn’t get the same response on the surface of the makeup. So we started thinking about that very early.

What we ended up doing was scanning Doug’s face — he was a great partner in this — and trying to capture what he was doing under the makeup. We wanted that to be our base performance, and then remap it to a digital version of the creature’s face. So we scanned his face and ran him through a bunch of the expressions. He would tell us what he was going for in each scene and act it out for us without makeup. So I ended up with a wonderful library of these expressions he made for us. We eventually ran Guillermo through the levels of control we would have on the face, and he would give us notes on that, because that’s the type of director he is. He wants to know about the process. He even insisted on having input on the algorithm and controls we were using to create the animation. He really gets into the details.

How much of what we see on the screen is Doug Jones’ performance, and how much is digitally created?

Generally, every shot in the movie is a combination of Doug Jones in the suit and a visual effect applied to it. We would start from the eyes. Every time you see the creature, the eyes are digital, because the eyes in the makeup were resin plugs that fit into it. They weren’t animated and didn’t have any servo controls. They were beautiful, though, with this sort of pearl finish to them — but we usually had to have them out because Doug couldn’t see through them. So the eyes are digitally created. There’s the nictitating membrane, and the blinks and micro expressions around the brow, which I think bring a lot of the performance moments out.

And we went on from there. If the suit needed tweaking because there was bunching up, we’d fix that. Or if it’s a bigger expression with the creature, like when he’s being tortured, we might replace more of the face. And if it was a really big expression, like when he growls at the cat in the film, that’s a completely digital head. We had to make the gills flutter and the mouth open wide, and although Doug gave us the basics for that performance, we exaggerated it digitally.

Were there any scenes with the creature that were particularly challenging to work on?

When Eliza and Giles (Richard Jenkins) bust the creature out of the facility and put him in the bathtub in Eliza’s apartment, she initially forgets to add salt to the water, and he starts to suffocate. In that moment after she puts the salt in and he starts to breathe or inhale the water through his gills, that’s an all-digital creature in the water. That was one of our harder sequences.

Doug doesn’t have the ability to inhale water through his gills — even though Guillermo asked him to [laughs] — but we did have Doug in the bathtub with the water around him. We ended up replacing the top of his torso and the gill area and head digitally, and did a fairly complex water-rendering that simulated the water being sucked into his gills. The water went through the gills and was expelled back out over and over again. That was a rare moment when it was more digital than practical.

Doug brings so much to his creature work in all of the movies he’s done with Guillermo del Toro, but was there ever any inclination to go fully digital with the creature? Performance-capture work is all the rage now, it seems.

The Shape of Water is some of the best work we’ve ever done.

Yeah, most movies have a motion-capture performer in a suit wearing headgear, but we didn’t do that at all. It was always Doug acting against Sally, in composition with the camera and [director of photography] Dan Laustsen’s beautiful lighting. That was always important to Guillermo. For a few minutes, we considered a CG creature, but that went out the door as soon as Guillermo realized that it had to be Sally and Doug. He wrote it for Sally and he always had Doug in mind. We know it would’ve been a mistake to have a digital creature.

Having been on set every day and watching [Doug and Sally] work together and seeing that relationship develop, it was magical. Had we gone any other way or done it digitally, I think it would have felt like a synthetic version of the story and not worked as well.

Visual effects artists often say water can be a difficult element to work with in scenes. Did you find that to be case with The Shape of Water? Did all of the water in the film add any difficulty to the process?

It did. It was a tough movie with the water — mainly in the level of interaction we had to deliver. The first time we meet the creature, and Strickland (Michael Shannon) is bringing it in with a capsule — a sort of iron-lung contraption — Eliza gets her first glimpse at the creature. The capsule in that scene is a prop. It was empty so people could move it around, and the entire inside of the capsule — the water and the creature — is animated and photo-realistically rendered. That includes the water simulation in there.

That was really tough, because the capsule is moving around and hitting bumps, and the water is splashing around with the creature in it. [The creature] has this bioluminescent glow, and he has to slam his hand on the inside of the glass while the water is interacting with him. That’s all digitally animated. That level of resolution for water as close up as it was, with a creature in it and splashing around interactively, that’s about as hard as it gets in our world. It’s easier to do something that’s all underwater or all on the surface, but the water splashing around, and something breaking the surface and coming through, that’s very difficult.

Your studio does a lot of work in television, and received some major industry honors for the visual effects you created for VikingsAmerican Gods, and other projects. How does working on a project like The Shape of Water differ from your television work in terms of how you approach projects and the different challenges they present?

[At Mr. X], half of our work is television and half of it is film. This year, we worked on Mudbound, and Mother!, and Molly’s Game, and The Shape of Water — and at the same time we did Vikings and The Strain — and we’re working on A Series of Unfortunate Events now. I find television and episodic storytelling highly rewarding. You can explore issues and develop characters, and visually you can explore ideas over a full season — over 12 or 13 hours — that you can’t do in a movie.

But I know we do our best work on films. It’s just the event nature of the film and the scale of the images and the amount of time we have. We had 40 weeks in post-production on The Shape of Water, but in television, a generous post-production schedule is 10 weeks. I enjoy the turnaround and the energy in episodic storytelling, because you’re always moving, but I also enjoy taking the time to focus and craft images over time and have them develop over a longer time period. I’m not sure which is more rewarding. I just know that with The Shape of Water, it’s some of the best work we’ve ever done.

The Shape of Water is currently in limited release in theaters nationwide.

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