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‘The Shape of Water’: Guillermo del Toro Shot his Passion Project as an Aquatic Metaphor

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen used deep-sea colors and a fluid camera for del Toro's Oscar-contending, romantic fairy tale.

"The Shape of Water"

“The Shape of Water”


When Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen first read the script for “The Shape of Water” while making “Crimson Peak” two years ago, he had no idea how he was going to shoot Guillermo del Toro’s passion project. But Laustsen instantly knew that del Toro was back at the top of his game with a visually inspired love story about a mute night janitor (Sally Hawkins) and a majestic aquatic creature (Doug Jones) set during the Cold War of 1962.

And, though it was a challenge to figure how to capture the erotic, watery metaphor for this adult fairy tale, the beautiful result has put the cinematographer in Oscar contention. “We’re never making a master or a close-up all the way through,” Laustsen said. “It feels like it’s floating around.” To that end, he mounted the Alexa ST on a Steadicam or a Technocrane for constant motion to evoke fluidity. And he used Arri/Zeiss Master Prime lenses and a diffusion filter inside the camera for a soft, dreamy tone.

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“The Shape of Water”

Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Although del Toro had originally planned on shooting in black-and-white, the choice would’ve been too costly, so color actually increased his budget from $16.5 million to $19.5 million. Even so, del Toro and Laustsen went for a monochromatic, deep sea look with single source lighting. The blues and greens were counterbalanced by the occasional amber or gold. And red was reserved for evoking love or depicting blood.

“The Shape of Water”

Floating in Water

The graceful, surreal opening, with Elisa (Hawkins) sleeping in her underwater room, where everything floats serenely, instantly captures the aquatic atmosphere. “We used a Steadicam and shot that dry for wet,” Laustsen said. “We filled the studio up with an insane amount of smoke and then we used film projectors as the key light to make the beams of light move around. Sally hung on wires to look like she was floating and the particulate and everything else was added in post by Mr. X. Most of the time her light is steel blue, green, neutral, but only occasionally warm inside the bathroom.”

“The Shape of Water”

Lighting the Creature

Del Toro and Laustsen took a less is more approach in lighting the exquisite-looking creature (described by the director in behind-the-scenes footage as a cross between Silver Surfer and a matador). “The creature is so beautiful that it was no big deal to light,” Laustsen said. “We weren’t afraid of darkness, we weren’t afraid of not seeing too much. I like dark shadows, of course, but the key light has to be nice and bright. We had to be sure about how dark or how bright we should be. We wanted to keep the actors forward.”

(Some spoilers below.)

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“The Shape of Water”

Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchligh

The Big Musical Number

One of the highlights is Elisa’s dream of singing and dancing with the creature, a black-and-white Astaire/Rogers homage coupled with the sweeping camera work of “It’s Always Fair Weather.” “We moved around the actors and shot everything on the Technocrane,” said Laustsen. “We shot in color and went for a romantic, musical, black-and-white look later in the DI. We have a follow spot on them all the time and we brought them a little bit away from the background.

But, unlike the rest of the movie, in which the camera feels like it’s drifting in the background, the musical number has the camera following them. “It jumps a little bit out of the style of the rest of the movie, but it’s a dream sequence and it works with the black-and-white and camera movement,” Laustsen said.

"The Shape of Water"

“The Shape of Water”

The Big Sex Scene

Another highlight, of course, is the sex scene in Elisa’s bathroom. “This was shot wet for wet,” the cinematographer said. “We shot that sequence in the bathroom partly on set at the studio, but when she enters the bathroom and joins him, we built a small tank and put the bathroom in there. We had closeups of Sally and had a stunt double from behind.”

“For me, I think this movie feels so modern and old-fashioned at the same time,” added the cinematographer. “It’s an adult fairy tale, but, with Alexa and Master Primes, I went with high quality.”

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