Mike Hill (Creature Lead Designer/Sculptor) and Shane Mahan (Project Supervisor) joined me last week to talk about how they helped bring Guillermo Del Toro’s creature to life in The Shape of Water. Hill who has worked on films such as Men in Black 3 and The Wolfman happened to see maquettes for the creature before he had even started working on the film while visiting Del Toro’s house. Shortly after, Del Toro invited him to design his leading man, The Asset. Shane Mahan, Legacy Effects Supervisor and co-creature designer secured gill mechanics and created a second skin for Doug Jones helping to bring the creature to life.
Read our chat below and the process of bringing The Shape of Water to life.
How did you get on board for The Shape of Water?
Shane: We were contacted by del Toro’s camp early on. They just described what the film was and what it meant to him and they asked if we were interested in it. Of course, we found it intriguing because you don’t often get to do a creature movie, love story, fantasy/government/top secret espionage movie. It had many things going on for it and it seemed a great thing to be involved with.
As we got into the process, Mike joined on and that’s how we ended up forming the team that made the creature.
Mike: I’d been to Guillermo’s house and didn’t know that much about it. I did see [preliminary sketches for] the creature and he said it was for his new film, but he hadn’t asked me at that point. He sent me a basic email asking me to sculpt his creature. It was the chance to work with him and work with Legacy Effects. His direction to me was that he wanted me to give the creature a soul.
His direction all along was, “This is a leading man. Ladies have to love him.” As you’ve seen the movie, he’s a God and all that had to be taken into account for the design of the creature.
Take me into the design process. How did you give him that soul?
Shane: I feel as though it was an eight-month process from the sculpting. I think before that, Guillermo had been working privately on conceptual ideas for maybe a year or so before. When we went to his house he had developmental sculptures done by friends of ours. They were sketches and ideas for feet, hands and overall construction. At that point, you start refining and working.
It’s an act of exploration because Guillermo has something in his head that he doesn’t have a drawing for. To manifest a thought unless you have great ESP is something that is not easy, but it takes trial and error to develop.
How did you get the creature to look so very real?
Mike: We have this process where we took this body mold of Doug and a replica of his body in fiberglass. That’s where we started and sculpting this suit which is a second skin to him and doesn’t fit anyone but him. No one is built like him. It’s built for one man and one man only. It’s molded and the suit is made from latex. The gills were remote control. The fins were made from silicon so the light would shine through them. Shane created a paint that was invisible so certain lights would hit it and have that bio-luminescent effect.
Shane: We skimmed the process and detail down. It’s a full body makeup that we devise a certain way. When you have modern materials that you didn’t have twenty years ago. It’s fun to pick out points in the film where you could see the creature was translucent and that’s what aquatic animals have, a lot of them have transparent areas. You’ll see that in a lot of fish and that was important for us to accomplish wherever we could.
Quite honestly, Jazz, 200 different concepts of colors, studies.
Mike: I was joking to Shane about how I had sculpted the face ten times already. He said, “I predict you’ll sculpt it ten times.” He was correct.
Shane: We tweaked it and tweaked it. It was an endurance course.
Mike: When the face was greenlit, Guillermo could look at it on the camera test and say he didn’t like a fold. It wasn’t about a simple fix, the whole thing had to be remolded again. He was right.
Shane: We raced against the clock. There’s a date on the calendar that says, “8 a.m. on Stage B.” You couldn’t alter that and say to a producer that you were going to be two weeks late. Looking back romantically, it reminded me of some of the early films. It reminded me of Aliens or Terminator. Jim was so involved and we don’t get that much these days. Guillermo was very hands on.
Mike: He is a double-edged sword and knows exactly what he wants.
Shane: I can’t think of a director that says, “I’ll meet you at 7 a.m. on a Sunday to see the sculpture.” He was there.
How has technology helped in your field?
Shane: It helps to cut down on time. In certain instances, you can do computer work on top of what was once purely traditional. We used every technique we could.
Mike: To keep this thing handsome with his come-to-bed eyes. If we did that as mechanicals, and the head would just get bigger and bigger. It was essential that the blinks were done digitally which hopefully kept it sleek and good looking.
I did think he was rather dashing. I know it’s a creature, but I believed.
Mike: We spent a lot of time getting his butt correct. Guillermo was adamant he had a nice arse.
He sure did.
Mike: Shane spent a lot of time clenching and squats.