Starting out with Guillermo del Toro on the upcoming Pacific Rim sequel, production designer Paul D. Austerberry followed the director as he redirected his attention to his longtime passion project, The Shape of Water. Working with a visionary director with a true passion for the cinematic experience, Austerberry viewed his primary task as “making sure [del Toro] was satiated.”
“Guillermo loves the art form—he’s such a visual person,” Austerberry says. “He’s a very passionate guy, and the biggest challenge was making sure that I succeeded in delivering visual storytelling to the biggest visual storyteller I know. “
With this goal in mind, Austerberry met with del Toro from the winter of 2015 through the following spring, sitting down with the director in the offices of his FX series, The Strain, setting out to determine the film’s color palette. With its teals and steel blues, The Shape of Water’s color palette would play a fundamental part in transitioning Elisa, the film’s protagonist, into her fish-man paramour’s world.
What did Guillermo del Toro tell you early on about The Shape of Water?
When I was on his other picture, he told me a synopsis about this fish man and this mute woman in…well, at the time it was a secret government facility. We didn’t go through a public entrance. We went in through a shoe store factory and down some secret elevators into a big, underground lab, so it was a little more of a clandestine organization.
It was about another eight months before I started on the project with the proper script. It was just called Untitled Fish Project back in those days. At that time, when I was approached, [cinematographer] Dan Laustsen was also working with us, and he was excited because it was supposed to be a black-and-white film. But I think the budget for black and white was about $12 million, and Fox said “We’ll give you $19.6 million if you make it color.” Already, we were strained with our limited finances in black and white, so we went for color, which ended up being quite important in this film.
What were the first steps you took in establishing your designs when you officially signed on?
I draw most things. I sketch them out in a simple 3D program. But prior to that, I pulled out references. For the lab, I pulled out a reference from an abandoned French sanatorium, but I showed Guillermo, because he had some ideas about what the tank and the pool might look like. We hadn’t really fleshed out what the environment and architecture of the lab would be. Once we started looking for locations, we decided we were going to go for the ’60s brutalist style, which was pretty prevalent with institutional architecture of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. So that was what the three-dimensional sketches that I did were based on.
I pulled out this image that Guillermo quite liked for the apartments above the theater. Guillermo was working and living here in Toronto, so he had written it for this Massey Hall building, which wasn’t actually a theater. There’s no marquee. We actually constructed that marquee outside, but he liked the red door coming out down that symmetrical fire escape around the marquee we added.
Those were the main two sets, and he wanted that to be a romantic, end of the 19th century kind of building, hence picking that structure. That way, we got to bring romanticism into her apartment, and less so into Giles’, but we got that contrast from that older architecture with this ’50s brutalist institutional architecture, because the dichotomy was quite important of the two worlds where she lived and worked.
Logistically, what went into the building of that lab set? It’s hard to tell how large it must have been.
It’s good that you don’t really know because we wanted to use a real location to expand upon what studio sets we could build. The portions on location were obviously the exterior of the building where she got dropped off and went in with all the workers, and then we built the elevator, when she goes in the lobby and drops down. We built the elevator lobby where she comes out in front of the command center, which is where Strickland’s office is, that NASA kind of command center with the office above. That was a constructed studio set.
Beyond that, when we went into the hall, we linked that to the hallways. We built as long as we could in our stage. Our stage, I think, was 160 feet long, and we built a 140-foot long corridor. Of course, we put green screen at the end and the Mr. X visual effects house extended those for us. Then, we built the lab, and the lab was about 60 feet by 30 feet, and around 23 feet tall. It was a reasonable size, but it wasn’t massive.
What kinds of materials were used in the build?
Well, obviously, we had to match. There are some hallways where we had the automat, where Elisa and Zelda are eating when they get rushed in to go clean up the fingers, so that expanded our location as well. That was a practical location, the same location we used for the exterior, and the same location we used for some of the tunnels and the underground loading dock area. There was a kind of concrete pour at that location that Matthew Lammerich, our scenic artist, figured out a way to replicate with real, but very thin concrete on a styrofoam sheet.
Then, the tiles were very important. Those teal green color tiles and that stripe in the color accent that permeates that whole lab set around the pool was real tile, because it had to hold water. We couldn’t find a tile color we liked. We ended up just buying white tiles and painting them to suit, but then we used waterproof MDF [medium-density fibreboard] and made our own tiles. Also, there was the locker room, which was in an abandoned power generation station from the ’50s. We created a locker room, but there were tile walls and there was a bathroom that had those same tiles, so we backtracked from there. We started at that location, and we worked our way into the lab so everything was homogeneous and worked seamlessly. We had to hand paint every one of those tiles on that location—the poor painters had to do them all with small, small rollers.
In The Shape of Water, was color intended to come with certain connotations? Was the color yellow meant to suggest danger specifically?
The blues and blue greens and all those deeper, watery blue colors were obviously linked to Elisa’s apartment.
The yellows were not so much danger—they were definitely a warning. Yellow is definitely a color for all of that within the lab itself. There’s lots of that kind of stuff. But the mustards and warm ochers and brown colors, that warm feeling, that was on purpose. I put that only in the empathetic characters. The obvious one is Giles. We wanted a real contrast when you went from Elisa’s apartment across the hall—from the cool watery hues—to a whole different atmosphere in Giles’ apartment.
That same color palette went into Hoffstetler’s apartment, too—the Russian scientist spy that you think is the bad guy, but then is actually empathetic to science more than he is to politics. He helps out, so that same warm mustardy kind of color palette goes along to his apartment. Zelda is literally her partner in crime, and her apartment ended up with the mustards in it. We went a little more with the olive-y greens with hers—a darker version, but in that same warm color palette.
Those are the broad strokes. Red was used very spartanly, and only for Elisa’s character. She covets these red shoes in the window of the storefront, and she actually wears them in the black-and-white sequence, not that you can tell.
Supposedly, you’ve started working on Fantastic Voyage alongside del Toro. Is that right?
Yeah, I worked 14 weeks this past summer on early prep for that. There were 10 of us, six illustrators and four set designers, developing stuff before Shape went to the Venice Film Festival. Once it was really well received in Venice, we decided—probably wisely—you know what? These chances don’t come along that often. Take the time to enjoy it.
So we developed a lot on that film. I’m hoping we start up, I’m not sure when, but obviously after the year is over, more or less. If we start up, we’re ready and raring to go because it’s a pretty exciting project. I always liked the original, and with Guillermo at the helm, the new one would be pretty spectacular.