The latest original creature creation from Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water’s “The Asset” is one of the year’s most unique artistic works in film, the product of a finely honed blend of makeup and visual effects. Known on set as “Charlie,” after the cartoon mascot for Starkist Tuna, the Asset was a towering figure, a fish-man with luminous skin, a sharp spine, gills and shimmering scales who was meant to intimidate before empathy set in, as the Asset becomes romantically entangled with a janitor in a ‘60s Baltimore laboratory.
Along with del Toro, there were three artists responsible for bringing the Asset into the world, to be played by Doug Jones—creature designer Mike Hill, Legacy Effects Supervisor and co-creature designer Shane Mahan, and visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi, of visual effects house Mr. X.
With the Asset, del Toro’s goal was to create a character that would play less like a monster and more like a leading man. “We had to come up with a creature that was endearing, attractive, handsome, sexy even,” Hill explains. “That was our directive, to make something that people could fall in love with.”
Spending a good deal of time together in pre-production, the three artists would arrive at a creature that they feel will stand the test of time. But in order to get there, Hill, Mahan and Berardi would have to negotiate boundaries between makeup and effects, concealing the seams between the two.
Did Guillermo discuss specific cinematic inspirations when it came to the Asset?
Shane Mahan: The exploration of it was rooted in two things from cinema history. Creature from the Black Lagoon was a starting point for Guillermo, something that was in the back of his mind. But also, it’s the Beauty and the Beast model of a human girl and a creature.
In the development of a creature, when you’re copying something that’s been done, it’s quite easy. But when you’re creating something new, whatever that might be, it takes time. It had to serve that story in such a way that when you first see it, it’s very startling and interesting, but the more you see the Asset, the more you kind of empathize.
Berardi: The range of emotion that he goes through—between terror, tenderness, absolute exhaustion and anger—you don’t see that for a creature.
Hill: From a design standpoint, the basis for this aquatic man is obviously the creature from the Black Lagoon. But when you’re making these things, you can’t look at any previous fish-man. It’s very tricky because there have been very popular fish-human hybrids, and there’s only so many ways you can meld a human and a fish together, especially facially. You always come back to the key points—it’s big eyes and nice lips and a tiny nose, and everything that points to an aquatic creature.
The color was based upon various fish. The one that I took the most reference from was from my local Thai restaurant. I was having lunch and Iooked at the tank and there was this nice goldfish in there—it was black and blue, and black and gold underneath.
Were there other aquatic inspirations behind the Asset’s design?
Hill: We looked to a lot of things. One of the things Guillermo sent us, for coloration, was a salamander. Originally, the creature had to open his mouth real wide to eat, so we came up with the concept of a piranha. Its face has these separate layers and plates, almost, and the expansion happens between them. That was the initial part of the design that we came up with.
Working from del Toro’s description of the character, did you create your own sketches or computer models in the film’s early stages?
Mahan: All the above.
Hill: Legacy [Effects] would do really beautiful renderings, whereas I would go old school and do a really basic pencil sketch, so rough, it was almost cartoony. It was a mix of all styles.
Mahan: But it doesn’t matter, the technique. It’s all just a tool.
Berardi: Pretty early on, the guys gave me a model, and we started playing with micro-performance.
Experimenting with motion?
Mahan: The great thing about technology today, as opposed to 20 years ago, is we can scan our model or sculpture, send it to Dennis’ company all the way across the country, and they can start playing with it—and it’s one to one. He doesn’t have to re-sculpt it on his end.
Berardi: That was an important thing Guillermo. He said to me from the beginning, “Look, we’re putting all this effort into designing this amazing creature with some of the top guys in the world. Your digital model, your lighting technique, your rendering technique has to be a one-to-one match. Otherwise we’re f—ked.” As an audience member, you shouldn’t be able to tell the different between Doug Jones in a suit or a digital version of the asset, and we worked really hard to maintain all of the design and paint and sculpting that the guys did.
Were there a lot of significant changes that the Asset went through as you explored various iterations of your design?
Mahan: There were so many variations that we explored. It was not something we took lightly. We tested the creature in a certain color scheme that was approved on the first test, but then the camera test proved to be too pale and ghostly. Then, a week or two before filming, we had to repaint in a warmer color. The suit was virtually sticky when we packed it and went to Toronto. Luckily, it was good and we just started filming. That was a 24-hour period—we worked up until the very last minute.
Hill: We worked until the cab was picking us up to take us to the airport, and it was all hands on deck.
Mahan: It was bedlam. Looking back now, I find it exciting. At the time, I found it rather terrifying because you can’t alter the start time.
Hill: Which is sometimes nice as well, because you don’t second-guess yourself. What was frustrating for me and Shane, though we actually never discussed this until this moment, is that we never tried the full thing, in the new variation, on Doug [Jones] till the first day he was on set.
We’d never seen it, and Guillermo had never seen it in person. It’s just lucky that he loved it. But the first day was funny because Shane and I were high-fiving each other, saying, “Look how beautiful he looks.” And you walk on set and Guillermo’s like, “No, put him on his knees. We’re chaining him up. And pour blood all over him.” To us, it was like taking the Mona Lisa and pouring blood all over the thing.
Mahan: It was a challenging film. It’s a character that’s not purely physical and not purely CGI, but that’s what makes it work. With most of the gross body movement, the acting from Doug is what reads through. Then, the enhancement of Dennis’ company is what takes it to another level.
What were the first steps when it came to augmenting or capturing the Asset with visual effects?
Berardi: We scanned the creature with 60 high-res cameras at the highest-res textures we’ve ever done to capture the sculpt and the paint work. At one point, we showed Guillermo Doug Jones in the suit, one to one, under Dan’s lighting, and our creature, and I didn’t tell him which is which. He couldn’t pick it out.
How did you work with Doug Jones in the creation of the character, in pre-production and on set? Did he model movements and expressions for you prior to shooting?
Berardi: What we wanted to do first was to try to understand what Doug’s performance would have been without any makeup, so he ran us through a whole range of expressions, and we had a digital version of Doug’s face. We captured his range of emotions and created called what’s called “rigging controls,” or “animation controls.” Then, we actually mapped Doug’s expressions without makeup onto the digital model.
Hill: To commend Jones, he’s probably one of the world’s favorite canvases to put this stuff on. To put on a wet suit—a soaking wet sponge—and then have to go out in below-zero weather, in the rain, that guy deserves an award just for being who he is.
Were there many shots where the creature was rendered entirely through visual effects?
Berardi: The idea was to do as little possible with the creature. It ended up that we touched every single shot, and some shots are all digital, but what we did was work from the eyes out. We were going to add blinks to every shot. Then, these types of micro expressions. Basically, any time he’s underwater and swimming, he’s digital.
Hill: Anything where he’s aquatic and fishlike. Shane and I were limited in the expression because the eyes are so far away from the head, which meant that the rubber was thick, and couldn’t contact with Doug’s skin around the eyes. We had the top of his forehead, we had his cheeks, so we got as much as we could out of that. So it still is a prosthetic makeup.
When Dennis’ team came, they pushed it to these expressions that the rubber cannot do. It’s the subtle expression that sells it.
What was the situation with the Asset’s eyes, as created through makeup?
Hill: They can’t blink. They’re just solid resin eyes.
Berardi: They’re fixed. They don’t dilate. We did a lot of dilation.
Hill: The gills were mechanical—they were remote controlled—but they were augmented too.
Mahan: That’s the magic. On a costume that’s very tight to the body, you’re limited with room to do any sort of mechanisms. But I think [that effect] is going to age well. Sometimes, if it’s 100% one technique, in five or six years, it starts to look detectable and old-fashioned. When you have something that’s kind of tangible, you’ll watch this movie 50 years, and this creature is going to feel like a real creature, because it’s mostly there. It’s under Dan’s lighting and it’s got actual water coming out of it, but it’s enhanced properly.
Berardi: I think it would have been a mistake to do this creature all digitally. I think it would have been difficult for the audience to fall in love with him.
Hill: On the on the flip side, it’s the same for us, too. If we had tried to make the eye blinks on a creature, the head would have ended up growing bigger and bigger. One of the worst mistakes you could make was making the creature’s head too big. It’s a complete giveaway that it isn’t alive.
Mahan: You can’t put motors on the head.
Hill: Plus, this creature had to go underwater.
Mahan: Water and electricity are not good partners.
To view an exclusive VFX breakdown detailing the process of designing the Asset for The Shape of Water, click above.