It’s prom night. Your date is coming to your house to take you to the big dance. That wonderful feeling of butterflies in your chest gets more and more intense. Oh, but the dreaded nervousness twists your stomach into knots! Did you remember to comb your hair? Brush your teeth? Did you fill-up the bathtub and hide the cat?
We are well into the depths of the first half of the Enchantment Under The Sea Double Month here at Nightmare on Film Street! For this edition of Making a Monster, we’re going to stick around down here in the briny deep, spotlighting an Academy Award-winning film that mixed sea creatures and romance like you never thought possible. Let’s do a deep div e into The Asset himself, the “merman” from The Shape of Water!
It’s not often you see the “creature” of a monster movie become the romantic lead. It’s even less often where said creature is not the “monster” of the monster movie. Alas, this is exactly what director Guillermo del Toro demanded. In an interview with The Verge, The Shape of Water‘s digital effects supervisor Trey Harrell described what del Toro wanted from square one.
The marching orders from Guillermo directly was that he’s the romantic lead of the film. He is not a monster. We have a square-jawed FBI agent, a former military guy, who’s actually the monster in the film. And we’ve got this creature with this incredibly evocative personality, and the audience needs to fall in love with him alongside Elisa, the heroine, for this to work at all.
This presented a creative challenge to design a “monster” who isn’t overtly hideous, which would suspend belief that he could be a romantic interest to a human. Yet the “merman”, known as The Asset in the film, had to be different enough to draw the disgust of the movie’s antagonists at the thought of such a relationship ever existing. Fortunately, del Toro took his time perfecting the design, approximately four years to be exact, before fish hit film.
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Mr. Sandman, Bring Me a Fish
In a fantastically informative piece featured on Wired, the process to bring The Asset to life is detailed from start to finish. Del Toro brought his initial sketches, which were said to basically resemble the Creature from Creature from the Black Lagoon, to creature sculptors Dave Grasso and David Meng. With instructions to make the creature as handsome as believably possible, the men crafted 24-inch sculptures and showed their progress to the director. Meng discussed the first versions of The Asset.
The very first thing I sculpted was a little head-and-shoulders bust of a fish-man. He liked it, but he thought it was too monstrous. He said, ‘Make it like a George Clooney of fish-men!’
Once Grasso and Meng completed their sculptures, they were passed along to Legacy Effects, comprised of former members of Stan Winston Studios before Winston’s death. The studio created the full-size sculpture over the course of four months, with constant input from del Toro, who become someone enamored with creating the perfect butt for the creature. You read that correctly. “Guillermo was very keen on making the creature have a nice butt,” Legacy sculptor Mike Hill said. The director went as far as to carry around a picture of the merman’s behind to show friends and family for recommendations!
Using a fiberglass cast they already possessed of the actor playing The Asset, horror vet Doug Jones, the studio turned the sculpture into a foam latex suit. Animatronic gills and a waterproofed radio controller were added, and the merman was ready for action. Practical effects represented only a part of The Asset, though, as described by Trey Harrell.
Every single shot in the film where the amphibian-man is on-screen is digital in some capacity — at least his eyes. We worked from the eyes, always, outward, and tried to affect the smallest footprint we could on the makeup, because we believed really strongly that in order for the audience’s suspension of disbelief to work, they had to accept without question that this performance happened onstage, that it was just captured in front of the camera completely, and in the moment.
While most of the creature’s scenes in The Shape of Water featured a combination of the practical and digital effects, some scenes that required extreme ranges of motion (such as swimming) were rendered fully digital.
Like a Fish Out of Water
Doug Jones is no stranger to the horror universe. Playing the romantic lead in a creature feature, however, was something new to the veteran actor. Instead of appearing for a handful of scenes (and stealing them) as a film’s monster, such as the Ice Cream Man in Legion or The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, Jones found himself in nearly every scene of The Shape of Water. The shoot was no cake walk, either.
Jones began every morning in the makeup department, three hours prior to filming. The merman suit wasn’t exactly warm, and the Toronto climate provided a chilly reminder of just how thin the skin tight amphibian costume was. Jones recalled in the Wired interview, “When wearing any kind of a costume and makeup that’s this extensive, you become a bit of a nursing home patient. I can’t see as well, I can’t hear much, I can’t feel much, and I got these webbed fingers on…I can’t do anything for myself.” Crew members had to assist the restricted Jones with most everything in between shots, especially keeping warm. Movie magic is real, but it’d be rather difficult to edit the shivers out of The Asset‘s scenes. Though a grueling production, the actor relished his time with the other cast and crew, some of which paid close attention to del Toro’s butt-sculpting work on his costume.
Harpooning Our Hearts
The Shape of Water garnered 13 Academy Award nominations and took home four of them, including Best Picture and Best Director. We horror fans are long accustomed to the genre being vastly ignored during award season, and even though the film may not fit perfectly snug within the category, we’re putting the trophy on our mantle just the same! Having been released not even three years ago, it’s hard to really quantify what sort of impact The Asset has had on our monster-loving community. Still, The Shape of Water provides us with a deeply emotional Beauty and the Beast-style love story packaged in the monster movie aesthetic we all come to this table for. It’s a fantastically unique title we can view with our friends who may not be quite as deep into horror as we are (their loss!). Maybe, in the end, the film will open a few more doors for the talented people behind our favorite horror movies to earn the national recognition they have deserved for so long. If not, so be it. We’ll swim alongside our mermen and other creatures of the deep either way. We won’t hold our breath waiting for the statues, because we don’t have to – WE GOT GILLS, YO!
Did you find The Asset of The Shape of Water a believable romantic lead? Did your significant other catch you eyeing The Asset‘s “asset” like Octavia Spencer? Let’s continue the discussion over on Nightmare on Film Street’s Twitter, Facebook, and Subreddit, and find out how all of your favorite movie monsters were made RIGHT HERE.