The film, which explores the bond between Amphibian Man and Elisa Esposito, shows that love can bloom no matter how unlikely the pair or the obstacles that may stand in their way. The secret to understanding how Amphibian Man captured Elisa’s heart, and by extension ours, is taking a look behind-the-scenes into his creation.
From the very beginning, this film was born from long-standing fascinations and affections. It all started as an idea by writer Daniel Kraus (Guillermo del Toro’s writing partner for the children’s book series Trollhunters) who’d come up with a story in high school about a cleaning woman at a government facility befriending a creature and deciding to set it free. It immediately captured del Toro’s attention thanks primarily to his childhood (turned lifelong) fondness for the Creature from the Black Lagoon and desire to tell a version of the Beauty and The Beast tale without the Beast transforming into a human. This was in 2011 and film development began shortly after. Working on the book and script simultaneously while filming Pacific Rim, in 2014 del Toro hired a crew of artists to begin designing what would become Amphibian Man and the lab (a central location of the film). In early 2015, del Toro and Fox Searchlight hired Vanessa Taylor as a co-writer to perfect the script.
unconventional love to life in The Shape of Water.
Non-verbal communication and connection is an extremely important aspect of the story as a woman who speaks primarily using American Sign Language (ASL) falls in love with a creature who’s never had to speak. That meant Amphibian Man must be expressive, realistic, and, well, beautiful. Del Toro was so committed to the process, he paid the creative team using his own money and used his Bleak House workshop as homebase. “I knew it was going to take a long time, so I didn’t even put it in the film’s budget,” del Toro said. “This is truly the hardest creature design I’ve ever done.”
To effectively create something that looked like it plausibly emerged from the depths of the Amazon, studying nature was extremely important to the process. Del Toro and sculptor extraordinaire Mike Hill (whose credits include The Wolfman, Apocalypto, and Men In Black 3) worked very closely together and looked at hundreds of fish for inspirations. For example, the way Amphibian Man eats is based on tropical lionfish and they were inspired by several species to add bioluminescence to his coloring. “People with aquariums are often attracted to glowing, see-through fish so we wanted to echo that idea,” Hill explained. “Later, Legacy [Effects] came up with a way to recreate that idea in an opaque suit that looks fantastic.”
The harder part was creating the alluring “man” half of the fish-man. “[Del Toro] said he wanted me to give the creature a soul,” Hill revealed. “He wanted it to be something a woman could fall head over heels for in every way.“[Del Toro] said he wanted me
to give the creature a soul...” So I started sketching a handsome looking version of a fish-man, giving him kissable lips, a square jaw and doe eyes, and I went from there.” So they worked and worked, modeling clay day and night, until they got it right. Del Toro even took the designs home to get the opinions of the female members of his family, from shoulder width to hindquarters. Their dedication and passion finally paid off when they completed their striking first design stage.
With the maquettes and clay designs finished, the next challenge was to turn it into functional suits that someone could wear and effectively move in. This is where Legacy Effects’ expertise comes in. They converted the maquettes into digital images that were further developed and detailed while building Amphibian Man’s facial elements, as being expressive was just as important as having abs. Shane Mahan (Legacy’s award-winning Creature Designer and Visual Effects Supervisor with credits that include Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Pacific Rim) said, “One of the early conversations was that Guillermo wanted the eyes to be changeable on set in order to change the mood or look of the creature. Since you can’t take Doug [Jones]’ makeup off to change them, we ended up coming up with a magnetic system to interlock the eyes. It was the only solution. Once we were shooting, we would change the eyes four or five times a night.”
“He has a love for our craft that is infectious,” said Mahan. “He would meet with us anytime, late on a Friday night or on a Sunday, and he was involved at every turn.”
Every detail was important, considered, and rigorously tested, down to his gills which added another way for Amphibian Man to express himself. And del Toro was there every step of the way. “He has a love for our craft that is infectious,” said Mahan. “He would meet with us anytime, late on a Friday night or on a Sunday, and he was involved at every turn. It’s very rare that you find that kind of interest in being so super refined and, for us, that kind of obsession is inspiring. You end up wanting to invest more and more into making it as great as it can possibly be.”
With four beautiful, fully functioning latex/silicone suits perfected and ready to shoot, there was never a doubt in del Toro’s mind who would play the creature and truly bring him to life. Doug Jones has been in many of his films, playing what he calls “some of the most crucial roles” in them - a collaboration that has stretched back twenty years. Indeed, many people have depended on Jones’ uncanny abilities with roles that include Billy Butcherson in Hocus Pocus, one of the Gentlemen on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cochise on Falling Skies, and Saru on Star Trek: Discovery.
“If you don’t have an actor inside the creature’s suit, you don’t have a movie – and Doug is not a performer, he’s an actor,” del Toro said. “I think of such moments as when he enters the movie theater and you realize the creature has never seen a movie before. Those are actor moments. I also remember before Richard Jenkins [who plays Elisa’s artistic friend, Giles] did the bathroom scene where he is getting to know the creature, Richard was worried he would be acting with a monster suit. Afterwards, Richard came to me and said, ‘The moment you said action, I was in front of an ancient water god.’ He felt all the pain and the confusion of the creature in Doug.”
The suits were constructed beautifully but they did present many challenges, like occasionally not being able to see beyond the prosthetic eyes in a scene and needing four people to get Jones into the suit. As tight as they were, they were constructed with corsets to ensure they were skin-tight but had segments in the abdomen that still allowed fluid movement. Because it was designed to reshape no matter what movement or action Jones performed, he described acting in it as “an intense workout. Every movement is like doing a pushup or a pull-up.”
“I feel the creature is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen...”But the years of design work and two to four hours in the makeup chair everyday absolutely paid off. “I feel the creature is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” said Sally Hawkins who plays Elisa. “I had to be reacting to someone who feels alluring to Elisa and, because of their work, that came naturally. I didn’t see Doug at all; I saw this incredible, mysterious specimen. Others might see a monster but Elisa sees something else entirely and that comes across.”
“It was so beautiful and touching, I didn’t realize I would have the type of response I did,” Spencer said. “I just started sobbing watching it.”
Everyone who worked on the film seemed to fall under his spell, even Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer who plays Zelda, fellow cleaning woman and friend of Elisa. Purposefully avoiding looking at and designs or photos prior to her character’s first interaction with him, it had a profound affect the first time she saw footage of him interacting with Elisa. “It was so beautiful and touching, I didn’t realize I would have the type of response I did,” Spencer said. “I just started sobbing watching it.”
The marriage of an intense, involved design process and actors flawlessly performing and connecting with each other created a magical atmosphere that you can feel in every frame. “I would get so lost in watching Sally that I’d forget what I was doing,” Jones admitted. “There’s something so real, so raw about Sally, I just fell for her, much as the creature does.”
“Water takes the shape of whatever is holding it at the time and although water can be so gentle, it's also the most powerful and malleable force in the universe,” said del Toro. “That's also love, isn't it? It doesn’t matter what shape we put love into, it becomes that, whether it’s man, woman or creature.”
Artwork inspired by
The Shape of Water
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Answer in the comments below.
- How would you design the Amphibian Man?
- What kind of creature would you design if you were creating your own unconventional love story?
- Tell us your Unconventional Love Story.