Elegantly designed and impeccably shot, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water would need a strong, immersive sonic experience to cross the finish line, ending up as it did with 13 Oscar nominations in the strongest showing for any film this year.

Set primarily within 1960s Baltimore laboratories, this romantic fantasy between a fish-man and a mute janitor would require not only period accuracy in its depiction of its central locations, but also a believable representation of “the Asset,” a creature not quite like any seen on screen before.

Joining forces with mixers Christian T. Cooke and Brad Zoern, sound editors Nathan Robitaille and Nelson Ferreira thought long about how the film’s aquatic god would sound. Ultimately, the collaborators landed on a fusion of various sonic elements, including sounds from the animal kingdom, and one surprising human voice that would help them pull off the job.

However unusual he was, through experimentation with sound, the Asset could be heard, understood and ultimately embraced as a leading man.

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What were the first notes Guillermo conveyed as far as his hopes for The Shape of Water’s sound?

Nathan Robitaille: He kind of let the script speak for itself, and that was handy because the script was pretty descriptive, in terms of what you could expect from the movie. You could tell that a lot of the ideas that wound up being conveyed in the mix were thought of at the earlier stages while he was writing. We had a whole discussion with him about, “This is going to be a creature, but its not going to be a monster. He’s got more emotions, he’s got more range.”

He did reference back to his experience with Nelson and I on The Strain. He was happy with the way those vampires sounded, but this was not a snarling, bloodthirsty monster like those were. It needed to have depth and range—that much was clear from the script.

He also wanted to make sure that we understood that we needed to really sell the era. He went through a bit of a laundry list of things that he remembered from that time. I’m a younger guy—I wasn’t even alive then—so that kind of sent me down the rabbit hole of research. “What can I learn about the technology that would have existed in a lab at that time?”

Leaving that meeting, we could start recording. Months before we were slated to start on the show, we had access to a lot of the genuine articles, the actual props and elements that made up the sound of the time he was requesting.

Brad, can you give the sound mixer’s take on Guillermo’s script? What leaped out at you as important?

Brad Zoern: My biggest concern from the get-go was concentrating on the Asset. He’s such a main part of the movie, and there is so much emotion that has to be conveyed through actions and no language. Just getting the creature to sound real was a real challenge, but Nathan and those guys delivered me the most amazing stuff that we were able to work with. There’s breaths, and vocalizations, and sweeteners, even down to foley movements of gills, and every little element to make that creature come alive. It’s hard to make something completely from scratch and make it sound like it’s sitting there in the room.

The Shape Of Water
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Could you expand on creating the Asset through sound?

Robitaille: As a bass player it was my voice, to start. The reasoning behind that is because I wanted the audience to be able to connect with this creature, and I didn’t want him to sound inhuman. That was critical, and the best way to do that was to start with an organic sound source from a human. It wasn’t just me emoting with my own voice and then processing it; I actually started way out of my normal vocal range and then pitch shifted to bring the creature’s voice back into a more traditional human vocal range. That kind of got me over the first hump, which was to make him sound a little bit unusual without being too alien.

Then it was a process of, “Okay, how can we sweeten this? How can we layer this right?” Because he’s got two different breathing systems. He can breathe in air and he can breathe in water, but he can’t stay out of water indefinitely. When he’s in water, he’s got to have liquid in his gills, and that comes out of the water with him. So there was a whole recording that I did with one of those hot water bottles where I cut a hole in it, so that I could control it with a small aperture. I filled it with some water and started breathing through that, while manipulating the aperture to emulate the gills opening and closing, so that it sounded like it was changing the shape of its acoustic source.

Then, it was a lot of animal sweeteners. I turned to a lot of oceanic birds because they’ve got that croaky kind of quality to the way they sing their songs, and that was really helpful—cormorants and egrets and birds like that. We also used some swans. In some cases, I think it was a hippo that we used for some of his more romantic gestures. There was a pretty nice, healthy grab bag of animal sweeteners that hit beats here and there.

Then of course, the icing on the cake was Guillermo’s voice. He offered to come in and do a session with us, and we weren’t really sure what we were going to get—we just wanted to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. When he went in there, I started listening to what was happening between his vocalizations and asking him for more and more of that, until we realized it’s the breathing. He’s got that gravelly breathing. It’s like he’s gurgling rocks—it was perfect. So then, we had this respiratory layer that we could fit in and nest everything into, and it just kind of blended everything together.

Zoern: It was also just adding movement elements to it to give it more life, from the foley and some specific sound effects, using reverb to put it in the environment.

Photo by Kerry Hayes

What went into defining some of the film’s central environments through sound? The lab, for instance.

 Zoern: With the lab, there was so much for me to work with, just in the visuals. You had the water tanks, the industrial machinery, the fans, the computers, the relays and everything, the big doors. It was a lot of looking at moments and going, “Okay, what can I highlight at this moment that’s not going to distract from what’s going on on the screen, but still fill up the space of this room, and immerse the audience in the movie?” There’s some nice bass layers of air and the water tank, and water movement in that.

In a lot of Guillermo’s stuff, there’s a lot of sweeping camera movements, so we ended up playing a lot with panning stuff, positionally, in the room. The camera would sweep, and everything would pan with it. It was a balance to make that stuff stay in the space, but also not make it distracting for the audience.

Robitaille: The way it was shot, it didn’t feel like there was an edge to the frame. It continued off the screen. A lot of those “pannables” were things that [sound effects editors] Kevin Howard and Dashen Naidoo put together, just to add a bit of humor, little relays and strange-sounding lab gadgets that Brad could place somewhere. Then, as the camera did its move, he could hold it in place and sort of make us feel like we were in the world with the camera.

You were going for a sense of whimsy in the same way some of the visuals were?

Zoern: Exactly. We wanted to give the audio as much whimsy and character as the visuals we were seeing, so we had a lot of fun with all that stuff, and walked the tightrope of making it audibly rich without being distracting.

What was the approach to the film’s musical moments—particularly the black-and-white fantasy sequence?

Christian Cooke: That was very interesting and difficult to put together, and Nathan and Nelson can attest to that, recording Sally’s voice.

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Nelson Ferreira: There was another singer’s voice in there for a while, and Sally Hawkins had recorded the vocal as well, for that musical dream sequence. They brought in Renée Fleming, one of the world’s greatest opera singers, to do it, and she did a bang-up job on the song. Then, we were left with making it feel like it was Sally moving around in that room, so we also recorded Sally doing her lead-up to that section, coming out of an almost non-existent voice as the mute heroine and then bursting into song, morphing into the Renée Fleming vocal.

Chris did a great job of shaping that whole number to make it feel like it was in on that stage, and then taking it all away at the end, having the voice decay back into this melancholy, little, breathy voice of Sally’s again. It was trial and error. We spent a lot of time finding the right point to get in and out of that, making it feel on the one hand real, but also surreal and dreamlike in a way.

Zoern: We had to make these moments that were happening downstairs all of a sudden score the moments in her apartment for the creature and stuff, so it was a lot of taking that track from the movie theater over and becoming score. There was a lot of back and forth in making that work, and filling that original track out, that was a mono recording and scored for a different film.

Were there particularly surprising sonic discoveries for you in making this film?

Robitaille: There were a lot of really fun sounds, little flourishes I mentioned before. The marquee lights for the theater, those twinkly little, pretty sounding lights—or Strickland’s office chair. I love that chair. We made that into a character in the movie because it just echoes his stress. The candy. [laughs] The bizarre, little, goofy sounds in the lab. The golf carts. Those things sounded like they were out of The Jetsons.

It’s hard to be presented with an opportunity like that and not want to try and make people smile a little bit, and a lot of these sounds were actual recordings of the props themselves. Strickland’s chair was a recording of that prop. Brewster’s barcalounger at the end was a recording of that prop. It just sounded so perfect, that low-budget, fake leather vinyl that isn’t convincing anybody.

That’s the stuff that kind of made it a real treat. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on my wife’s face when she came home and found me throwing baby carrots at a wine bottle for Strickland’s fingers hitting the TV screen. She questioned some of her life choices when she saw me doing that. But that’s what it was, all these hilarious opportunities to do silly things that made these beautiful, musical little sounds in the tapestry of the atmosphere.

Zoern: I think the best thing was the moment when Strickland’s having robotic sex with his wife. The bed is pounding against the wall, and then we cut to the scene in the lab, and there’s the thunking of the industrial machinery, completely in sync with the thrusting from the previous scene as it fades away. It was a nice little touch.