Behind The Scenes

Revealing the Creative Process Behind The Shape of Water's Creature

Shane Mahan from Legacy Effects reveals the creative process behind how they created the amphibian creature for Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film ‘The Shape of Water.’

Feb 9, 2018

By Lexi Stewart

If you thought classic monster movies were long-gone, you’d be mistaken. Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film 'The Shape of Water' is everything you want from a monster movie but with something new: warmth, romance and a visual feast for the eyes. In true Del Toro style, the imagery will stain into your mind and refuse to leave. Murky bathtubs, eggs bubbling away in glass pots, luminous scales, red wool coats. Also, did we mention that Del Toro’s leading man happens to be a handsome amphibian? He's no George Clooney, but he does end up stealing the heart of the main character, Elisa.

Creating a monster is easier when you don't have to make the audience fall in love with it. It's the kind of concept only Guillermo Del Toro could pull off successfully. The critics agree.

Knowing that he would need a creature team he could rely on, Del Toro recruited the FX wizards at Legacy Effects, led by co-owner and show supervisor Shane Mahan, an Oscar-nominated veteran of animatronics and special effects makeup (and 25-year Stan Winston Studio supervisor). Mahan talked to Stan Winston School to let us in on how they handled the creative process behind executing Del Toro's stunning vision.

(Art Lead Mike Hill and Project Lead Shane Mahan applying the makeup to Doug Jones. Image courtesy of Legacy Effects.)

Shane tells us, "I've heard Guillermo say that he was six years old when he saw Creature from the Black Lagoon. He loved the moments between the creature and the girl swimming, and the obsession the creature has for the girl. But the creature never gets a girlfriend in most of those movies from the fifties and sixties, so that was his inspiration for it."

Set in 1962 Baltimore during America's Cold War paranoia, The Shape of Water follows Elisa, a mute cleaning woman at a government laboratory, as she slowly but surely falls in love with one of the lab's captured "assets": a fish-like creature with human characteristics. Re-inventing the wheel as he always does, Guillermo Del Toro gives us an unconventional fairytale romance, complete with human drama and French music. It's a modern-day monster movie mixed with the whimsical likes of Amelie but in a league all of its own.

(Doug Jones as Amphibian Man "swims" with Sally Hawkins as Elisa in a beautifully executed "dry for wet" sequence in the finished film.)

They needed the right actor for the leading man and someone who could handle full body prosthetics. It's no surprise that Del Toro veteran Doug Jones was Guillermo's choice, having previously portrayed the roles of Fauno and Pale Man in Pan's Labyrinth, and Abe Sapien in the Hell Boy films. In The Shape of Water, Jones shines with feeling and fluidity. It is easily one of his best performances yet. However, before he could gear up to play the underwater object of desire, someone needed to figure out how to do it all.

When one of the producers first contacted Shane Mahan about bringing Legacy Effects on board, they had envisioned a smaller project. "It was presented to us as a small film, a passion project of Guillermo's, with limited resources. Those words sort of paint a picture of this little independent movie, which is entirely not what it is at all. It’s very complex. The idea presented was to do a real practical makeup effect. An amphibian man. I was immediately like ‘Absolutely.' It's great to do an organic creature again. It's refreshing."

Months and months of development went into designing the creature. "When you're working with somebody like Guillermo, the creatures are the most important thing to him. Of course, everyone gets equal treatment, but creature work is what he loves to do. That's his playhouse."

Early in the process, Del Toro asked Legacy to add Mike Hill to the team to help rework the facial look and to make some alterations to the maquette designs. This third round of concepts established the final look of the creature as seen in the film. Hill joined Glen Hanz and Mario Torres, and they worked on refining the creature sculpture, while Mahan, along with show co-supervisor (and Legacy Effects co-owner) Lindsay Macgowan, planned and oversaw the entire process for making sure the suit would be ready for shooting in Toronto, Canada.

(A design maquette of the Amphibian Man. Image courtesy of Legacy Effects.)

Initially, there was talk of casting the suit in silicone, but it ended up as mostly foam rubber, with elements of silicone added throughout for translucency. Within the creature community, it's a known fact that Guillermo Del Toro prefers the look of foam rubber to silicone, and as a bonus, the lighter weight foam would no doubt make life easier for Doug Jones.

The paint job became one of the more prominent challenges after the initial inspiration for the color palette resulted in a creature that was too pale and ghostly. Hill proceeded to spend two weeks on completely re-doing the paint job after the film tests.

Meanwhile, the gills were built with animatronics so that the team could move them in concert with Jones' performance. From the beginning, it was decided that CGI would be used to make Amphibian Man's eyes move and blink, and to create additional subtle movements in the facial area, as there was just no room to add any more animatronics under the low-profile makeup. "If you have ninety percent of it physically there, and then you add a bit of digital animation on top of it, it fools the audience, which is hard to do today."

(Kan Ikeuchi working on the gill mechanics. Image courtesy of Legacy Effects.)

Shane's primary goal was to make sure the team was hitting the milestones needed to have a fully functional creature suit ready for the first day of shooting in Toronto, Canada. Once on-set in Toronto, the team numbers were kept to a minimum. "We were a four-man team, including two local Toronto makeup artists who we've worked with a lot over the last twenty years. It was Sean Sansom, Jason Detheridge, Mike Hill, and myself." Not having access to the full Legacy Effects team back in LA meant that the four of them were solely responsible throughout the shoot for every aspect of the makeup including prep, application, touch-ups, and repair. "Mike Hill and I would spend our weekends and evenings repairing the suit and fixing the electronics. Luckily, Sean is quite good with electronics because we had to take apart the gills many times due to water damage and put them back together."

(A glimpse into the daily application process on Doug Jones. Image courtesy of Legacy Effects.)

The total application took three hours each day, an impressive feat for a full body makeup with animatronics. Shane explained that keeping the time down was necessary to prevent cutting into shooting hours. "We had just gone through a lot of experimentation on Guardians of the Galaxy 2 with reducing makeup time and three hours seems to be a magical number. It's tolerable. Anything beyond that becomes excessively wearisome on both the makeup artists and the actors."

By the end of the shoot, Shane, Mike, and the team had orchestrated the perfect system to work efficiently. However, it didn't come without setbacks. Even with the momentum they had gained from doing the makeup repeatedly, the suits were deteriorating little by little, requiring them to improvise and find solutions. Doug Jones didn't have a double, only the occasional stuntman. So he was in the suit all day every day. "In the end, we were sewing Doug into the suit because adhesives are just not durable for water. I didn't anticipate that I would have to sew the back of the head to the suit and fill it with silicone caulking," Mahan said with nervous laughter, as if reliving the moment on set, "Stuff like that happened out of necessity, and we were using everything to solve it. Sewing techniques, zip ties, etc. All the nice subtle things at the beginning of the shoot (snaps, buckles, and corset style lacing) went out the window because the water just destroyed everything."

(Left: Mike Hill, Sean Sansom, Jason Detheridge, and Shane Mahan make final on-set adjustments to the creature suit. Right: Doug Jones mid-transformation in the makeup trailer.)

It was a conscious decision to make a creature that would physically be on-set to act alongside Sally Hawkins. "Sally could look at him and see him glowing. The best acting is reacting as they say. It's all very tangible, and I think that's what makes it feel like a love story."

Nearly 90 people were involved in creating the creature suit and makeup effects, proving that an achievement like this cannot be done by a single person. "It's a pretty complex character in terms of construction, and there were a lot of artists and a lot of influences to create this creature. There were five key artists and a huge contingency of other people supporting them and adding their own artistic and technical skills to the mix. Moldmaking, fabrication, skin surfaces and so on."

Shane urges everyone to see 'The Shape of Water' on the big screen, not just for the makeup but also to appreciate the stunning work from all the departments (production design, cinematography, acting, music to name a few). We agree, but also warn that the allure of Doug Jones' Amphibian Man will take over and completely bewitch you. "This creature to me feels like a culmination of everything we had to learn from the past, know from the present, and also project to the future. We've used tried-and-true techniques in some respects, but there's a lot of stuff that's new, invigorating, and fresh." The colors that reflect off the creature seep into the entire palette of the film itself, and apart from a few moments of warm browns and blood reds, it's emerald greens and teal blues that fill the screen. Even then, the creature stands out because the design is so rich and complex in textures and layers. Taking your eyes off him is impossible.

Shane tells us proudly, "I think if Stan were able to see this film today, he would be extraordinarily happy."