After “The Shape of Water” upset “Phantom Thread” at the Costume Designer Guild Awards, there’s Oscar momentum for costume designer Luis Sequeira. And there might even be an upset in the sound effects or sound mixing categories, given the potential coattail effect for Guillermo del Toro’s Best Picture frontrunner. Academy members just might also be in the mood for something less bombastic than “Dunkirk.”
An Aquatic-Looking Wardrobe
Sights and sounds were both anchored in the reality of Cold War America in 1962. However, Sequeira took it further with an aquatic-looking wardrobe for mute custodian Elisa (Oscar-nominated Sally Hawkins), that’s perfect for her romance with the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones). This consisted of a green and turquoise lab uniform along with complementary attire for her personal life (not to mention a collection of vintage shoes for toe-tapping fun).
“She was a person with limited means and basically we wanted to create in essence a uniform for her as well at home,” said Sequeira, one of several crew members from del Toro’s series, “The Strain.” “Peter Pan collar blouses, pleaded skirts that worked on an ongoing, day to day basis. It was an iconic look that complemented [Oscar-nominated] Paul Austerberry’s production design rather than a costume cavalcade.”
It’s a weird “Twilight Zone” world of reality and fable, dominated by the aquatic hues of blue and green. But one which allowed Sequeira to use red sparingly — for love or blood. Not surprisingly, given del Toros’ love of cinema, there’s a layer of movie lore that finds its way into the costume design as well. For example, Elisa’s black-and-white song and dance number, inspired by the classic Astaire/Rogers musicals, in which she expresses her love to the Amphibian Man.
A Song and Dance
“This was the polar opposite,” Sequeira said. “For that, we looked at various Ginger Rogers musicals like ‘Top Hat.’ Since it was a dream sequence, I didn’t want it to be an exact replica. It would be translated through Elisa’s mind. We started with a half-scale version of the dress. It was a cream dress that would appear white. Some of the textiles were so expensive, we wanted to be sure of the style and the style lines. And in the maquette we were able to refine those lines.”
“The exterior of the dress was made of French lace close to $500 a meter,” He continued. “And rather than use the fabric we cut up the lace and applied it back into the dress to maximize its usage. What I did to emulate the creature, we put clear palettes below the lace in order to have a reflection on Sally’s body and on top of that we put Swarovski crystals all over so it shimmered the way our River God did.
In terms of sound, the most important challenge was finding the language of the Amphibian Man. This fell to sound editor Nathan Robitaille (Oscar-nominated with sound editor Nelson Ferreira and sound mixers Christian Cooke and Brad Zoern). “Before I even finished reading the script, I knew he needed to be tender at points, severe at points, and vacant at points,” said Robitaille.
“And so when I first crafted our audition for the creature, I went to my own voice. He looks humanoid, he should sound alien without being inhuman. While we were waiting for auditions from local talent, I took a crack at it and Guillermo liked it. We developed a vocabulary to give him the ability to be more than curious.”
It started with Robitaille’s voice and he layered it with bird sounds from egrets, cormorants, and even a swan to sweeten the articulation. Still, even though it got the tone across, something was missing. It felt a bit cartoonish to Robitaille. That’s when he called in del Toro for some vocal assistance.
Del Toro to the Rescue
“It became clear very quickly that Guillermo’s voice lent itself really well to the respiratory side of the creature,” added Robitaille. “The way he breathes can give some really nice, emotive gestures. It was just the right chest cavity and gravitas that this magnificent River God required.”
Del Toro provided a great library of sounds and textures to layer on top of the other aquatic noises. Yet the scene in which Michael Shannon’s cruel Strickland tortures the Amphibian Man took a long time to get right. “At one point, we replaced every track that they started with and rebuilt from scratch off of the natural voice sounds,” said Robitaille. “It came down to nailing the right texture for the screams.”
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
So they turned down the lights and Robitaille auditioned sounds for del Toro. The director particularly liked the sound of dry ice on metal that he imagined as a haunting cry. It was then up to the sound editor to make it fit with the River God’s two breathing systems for air and water.
“I took that and played with all the lovely toys like the vowelizers and reverbs to get it to fit inside the creature’s mouth with all the other layers we had assembled for that scene,” said Robitaille. As with everything else associated with the sound design of the creature, the sound teams had to make it connect emotionally with viewers.