VFX: <I>The Shape of Water</I>
Issue: January 1, 2018

VFX: The Shape of Water

TORONTO — Visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi and the team at Mr. X Inc. recently provided services for Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, The Shape of Water. The feature film tells the story of an unconventional, other-worldly romance between a mute custodian and a mysterious sea creature, set against the backdrop of the Cold War era. The studio, which has locations in Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles and New York City, was responsible for bringing the film’s sea creature to life. 

The visual effects were designed to remind the audience that the film was a fairy-tale first and foremost, set in a heightened reality. The process began with scans of actor Doug Jones in various iterations of the form-fitting suit he wore as the creature. Animation was guided by scans of his facial performance and augmented by post effects, such as bio-luminescence or additional wetness, resulting in a mix of both practical and digital effects. 

Some situations required a fully CG digital double of the creature, combined with animation and CG environments. A substantial portion of the VFX work was realizing water and fluid effects under many different scenarios. In addition, Mr. X helped define the time period in Baltimore through buildings, signage and vehicles. 

Mr. X employed a team of 160 at its Toronto studio, all working to delivered 600 shots over a one year span. The visual effects collectively amount to roughly a full hour of on-screen imagery. 

The animation rig for the creature was developed in Maya and allowed for triggered tension maps, which created subtle wrinkling and bunching of the skin as well as capillary action in the final renders. SideFX’s Houdini was used for simulation, lighting and rendering pipelines. Elements were all composited in Foundry’s Nuke.

According to digital effects supervisor Trey Harrell, the most challenging and most rewarding scenes are the film’s opening and closing. Dry-for-wet practical photography was merged with fully-CG environments, props, fish, volumetric lighting, bubbles, particulate, simulated digital hair, creature augmentation and, where needed, a fully-digital creature, establishing the mood for the film. The opening shot runs for over two minutes and seams between a fully digital river bed environment and an augmented practical plate shot with dry-for-wet techniques.