Cinematographer Dan Laustsen On The Grit & Beauty Of ‘The Shape Of Water’

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On Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water—following a budding romance between a janitor and a fish-man in a ‘60s Baltimore laboratory—cinematographer Dan Laustsen confronted difficulties when it came to two worlds at the film’s center. The first was a world of whimsy and sheer beauty; the other, a high contrast world of deep shadows and moments of unexpected, brutal violence.

“In this movie, Sally [Hawkins] has to look like a real movie star. That was very important for [del Toro], and for me as well,” Laustsen explains. “At the same time, we were very much into deep shadows and sidelights.”

In addition to this conceptual challenge, attempting to make a film gritty and beautiful at the same time, Laustsen was met with an early hurdle when del Toro opted for color instead of black and white, as the film was intended to be made, at which point the film became all about “colors, feelings and atmospheres.”

A further definitive challenge for the project came in the form of the dry for wet process, whereby light shot through smoke was used to create the illusion of moving water. In deciding when and where to use these techniques, and when to go for the real thing, Laustsen would execute one of the film’s greatest bits of magic.

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At what point did you first hear about The Shape of Water, and what were your first impressions?

When we shot Crimson Peak, he told me about this story, saying, “I have this fantastic story. It’s a love story, a girl and a guy, and the guy’s a fish.” And I was like “What?” [laughs] Of course, when it was black and white, I thought, “Wow, this is fantastic, to shoot a black-and-white movie. It’s like in the old days.”

But in the end, that was not possible. Everything changed, and he was constantly telling me about color concepts going into the movie. He was coming from Crimson Peak, a very warm and red ghost movie, so he was going much more into watercolors for [Elisa’s] life.

Did del Toro show you films or other references during pre-production, to bring you into the world he had envisioned?

Normally, we do not see so many movies together. But when we did Crimson Peak, he said, “I think you should see this movie, because that’s the feeling of the movie.” Then, he showed me an old black-and-white movie. We didn’t watch any movies [on The Shape of Water]—it was more about his concept drawings. Those were a big inspiration for everybody. Then, we talked about wardrobe, and makeup, and the art department, and colors on the walls, colors on costumes. That’s a long, very slow process. I’ll come in with something and say, “What about this feeling with the lighting?” And stuff like that.

Does he tend to place more emphasis on color than other directors, as far as his starting point?

He’s very much into his color world, and very much into the atmosphere in his movies. I think one of the reasons we work so well together is because we have exactly the same taste about colors, about camera movement, the lighting atmosphere. We are not afraid of the darkness.

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How did you arrive at the film’s color palette, in terms of lights, gels and other tools at your disposal?

All the colors in the movie were done in camera. We never touched colors in the DI. It looks exactly, one-to-one, like what we were doing on the set. We did everything with gels. Now, you can change the color a little bit with LED lights, but we didn’t do that so much because in this movie, it was better to do it with gels. Steel blue is a color we brought way all the way back from Mimic. There were going to be fine greens that were in her apartment, and then steel blue. That is the color palette, and we used that a lot when they’re falling in love with each other in the bathroom. Then, we changed the color to a warmer palette.

Can you explain your choice of camera and lenses?

When Guillermo and I are doing a movie together, I really love anamorphic and CinemaScope, so we do a lot of tests with anamorphic and CinemaScope every time. But in the end, we came back to 1.85, because Guillermo likes that format very much, and it works really well on this movie. I think it’s beautiful in the composition.

We used the Alexa XT, and I always use a little bit of diffusion filter behind the lens because I don’t like to have a filter flare—I like to have a lens flare. The lenses we are used were Master Primes. The reason Master Primes are so fantastic is because they’re unforgiving lenses. You’re not getting anything for free there. If you want to have a special look, or special flares, you have to do that. Nothing is colored by accident in Master Primes because they’re such high quality lenses.

What was your concept when it came to camera movement?

We love as much camera movement as possible. Nothing crazy of course, but Guillermo wanted to have that feeling of the camera floating all the time. Our A-camera operator is a guy going all the way back to Mimic. A lot of the stuff was shot on steadicam, dollies, or technocranes, so we could have this floating feeling with the camera.

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Guillermo never makes a master—he’s always made it shot by shot. That’s the reason he knows how he’s going to cut it together so well. The way Guillermo decides on the shots is how they’re going to be cut together, and he knows exactly how he’s going to cut it together later on. We’re just floating in, starting on her hand, going up to her face, going to something else. He has a very specific way of organizing his cuts, and the camera movement.

Can you explain the logistics of shooting dry for wet, and what that really means?

In the beginning of the movie, as we’re coming into the hallway, that’s a steadicam shot. We were moving with steadicam into the hallway, coming around, seeing the kitchen, and coming back to Sally floating in the water. We [created] black-and-white shadowing and put that into a computer, and the computer is feeding film projectors, so it looks like the light is coming through a water surface, but it’s only smoke. There’s no wetness there at all. It’s a little bit tricky.

We talked about that a lot, Guillermo and I, and the visual effects guys, and the production designer. You cannot perform when you are underwater. Nobody can do that. You want to close your eyes, everybody. Of course, the visual effects team put in some bubbles, and fish swimming, and all that kind of stuff to sell it. But when we were shooting it, there was no water at all. It’s only smoke, and the light is moving around.

That’s the same in the end sequence, when they’re standing on the shore and they jump into the ocean. That was a much bigger setup there, because that’s two 20K film projectors. We had two film projectors side by side there on a condor, 30 feet up in the studio. The only thing we shot wet for wet was when they are in the bathroom. We built a small tank in the studio, and we put the bathroom set down in there. But that’s a very small sequence, just coming below the water for a couple of seconds and then coming up again.

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What dictated that you would use real water there, as opposed to the techniques you’ve just described?

The other two scenes were a little bit more abstract, so we thought we could get away with that. The one in the bathroom, the camera’s starting above the water in the beginning, and then it’s coming into the water. I had that feeling it would be better to sell the gag of filling up the bathroom with water, when the water is dripping down from the ceiling, and they open the door and all the water’s coming out. It just feels a little bit more realistic, that part of that scene, and it was easier for the actors because they didn’t have to perform so much.

How did you handle the one black-and-white sequence that remained in the film—Elisa’s fantasy sequence?

They’re sitting there in her apartment—everything is steel blue and greens, and then we had a followspot on her, so she’s sitting in a bedroom with only this spot on her. Then, she stands up, and at the same time, we were changing the image from color to black and white. Then, we’re cutting to a black background with only a followspot on her, and we’re at that dancing sequence. We shot the whole sequence in color and just did it in black and white in the DI.

I think the difference between that sequence and the rest of the movie is that it feels a little bit more classic compared to the rest of the movie, where the camera is floating much more.

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What was the biggest challenge on The Shape of Water when it came to your craft?

The biggest challenge was the end sequence, just before they’re jumping into the water, when they’re standing there in the rain on the pier. We shot that at the end of the year, and it was freezing cold. We had to have to hot rainwater because Sally was freezing to death, and the hot water was heating the camera. We tried to protect the lens from the water because we were getting a lot of mist, because the air was so cold and the water was very hot.

We had a lot of mist, and that was giving us a lot of trouble there. The camera was still moving around, and Guillermo’s standing out there, together with the operator and the dolly grips, talking about his movement. It was amazing, but that was really, really tough. It was brutal, but it looks pretty cool in the end.

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