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January 02
2018

ISSUE

Winter 2018

THE CREATURE FITS THE SUIT IN THE SHAPE OF WATER

By IAN FAILES

Legacy Effects artists sculpt the form of The Asset suit, which will later be used to produce molds for suit parts. (Image copyright © 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.)

Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to the world of creatures. His films have featured insects, monsters, ghosts, human-hybrids and everything in between.

The director continues to demonstrate his fondness for slightly off-kilter living things in The Shape of Water. In the film, an amphibious entity – known as ‘The Asset’ (played by Doug Jones) – is held in a 1960s government laboratory until a mute janitor (Sally Hawkins) befriends and ultimately falls in love with it.

As he has done in previous films, del Toro relied heavily on a man-in-suit approach for Jones to act as The Asset on set. The suit and prosthetics were fabricated by Legacy Effects. Then, to enhance Jones’s performance or to enable scenes that could not be carried out in the suit, a digital version of The Asset and augmentations to the creature were carried out by Mr. X Inc.

That practical and digital effects collaboration was key to having The Asset, which was affectionately called ‘Charlie’ during production, realistically interact with its often-watery environment and with the other characters, particularly for touching moments with the janitor, Elisa. VFX Voice finds out from Legacy and Mr. X how they made it possible.

Legacy Effects Co-founder Shane Mahan (left) and his crew fit Doug Jones (seated) into The Asset suit. The suit included a number of animatronics for gill and other movements. (Photo credit: Kerry Hayes. Copyright © 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures)

COMBINING REAL AND DIGITAL

Early on, del Toro indicated to his effects teams that he wanted to use both a real creature suit and CG for The Asset. “Guillermo said to us,” relates Mr. X Visual Effects Supervisor Dennis Berardi, “‘This is a collaboration, and I don’t want to have a fuss about what’s digital, and what’s practical. We’re going to tell this story in the best possible way.’ We just worked together, and it went the way it needed to go, based on logistics, or a particularly difficult stunt or performance moment.”

“We kept Doug Jones’s primary performance in the face and used it to the extent that we could, and then went bigger from there. It was still a very important thing to have. If we had only had him in a motion-capture suit on set, I don’t think we would have achieved the same thing. Doug really delivered a performance in that suit that was inspiring, and we were there to enhance it, and take it the last 20%.”

—Dennis Berardi, Visual Effects Supervisor, Mr. X

While the suit was being crafted at Legacy, the visual effects artists at Mr. X had input on the design side, an aspect that would help later on when they had to replicate the character digitally for swimming and some other water-related shots. Early screen tests with the suit also revealed that an extra level of facial performance would be required. “The Asset emotes,” says Berardi. “He is a leading man. There are tender moments, there are moments of anguish, there’s a torture scene. It’s also a love story, and it was going to be tough for Doug to hit the subtleties of that while wearing a mask.”

The solution was for Jones to wear a mostly finished Legacy head-piece that Mr. X would go in and replace parts of, including the eyes and brow. Some larger moments, such as when he growls at a cat and swimming scenes, involved a full head replacement.

“We kept Doug’s primary performance in the face and used it to the extent that we could, and then went bigger from there,” explains Berardi. “It was still a very important thing to have. If we had only had him in a motion-capture suit on set, I don’t think we would have achieved the same thing. Doug really delivered a performance in that suit that was inspiring, and we were there to enhance it, and to take it the last 20%.”

Shane Mahan readies Doug Jones in the suit for a take on set. (Photo credit: Kerry Hayes. Copyright © 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures)

BEHIND THE SUIT

Based on initial designs and concept work, Legacy Effects worked to manufacture the creature suit to fit Jones, an actor who has had considerable experience as a creature performer. During development, the company had to adapt to a few modifications in the design.

“It became less monstrous and tapped into more of Charlie’s handsome attributes,” outlines Legacy Co-founder Shane Mahan. “It slowly evolved to be a bit more ‘man-like.’ We had to work on it right until the last minute, and then ship it to Toronto for filming, practically sticky-wet, to make it on time.”

The suit was made of multiple materials, including a base of foam rubber, and silicone for the back of the head, hands, gills and some parts of the body. Other body parts were crafted from urethane to provide for a translucent look, especially for the fins. The face was more of a makeup solution. Says Mahan: “We put translucent material wherever we could to make it feel aquatic, so you feel light reading through it, like the membrane of a skin.”

On set, a group of Legacy Effects personnel were responsible for the application of the suit, prosthetics and makeup for The Asset. It took about three hours each day.

“With this film,” notes Mahan, “it was all about the details – the translucency of the claws, the inner claw with the veins on it, the little fin bones that are in the castings of the gills. I wanted the light to react a certain way. There are certain things that I wanted to create to help tell the story.”

Mahan says that the suit was designed knowing that there would be CG augmentations and take-overs, and that the final result had the best of both techniques.

“Audiences are very savvy these days,” suggests Mahan. “No matter how good a digital character is in the film, you still can mentally detect that it’s not really there. But if it’s really glistening, and there’s, say, real water dripping off of it, it does something a little bit different to your perception. And then when you enhance it with CGI, it’s really a great marriage of the two approaches.”

Doug Jones inside The Asset suit is readied for a photogrammetry scanning session; this aided Mr. X in producing a matching digital model. (Photo credit: Kerry Hayes. Copyright © 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures)

“Audiences are very savvy these days. No matter how good a digital character is in the film, you still can mentally detect that it’s not really there. But if it’s really glistening, and there’s, say, real water dripping off of it, it does something a little bit different to your perception. And then when you enhance it with CGI, it’s really a great marriage of the two approaches.”

—Shane Mahan, Co-founder, Legacy Effects

ENHANCING THE PERFORMANCE

For shots where The Asset was required to be completely CG or go through CG enhancements, Mr. X set to work on replicating the character, and Doug Jones, digitally. This involved a scanning process using the studio’s proprietary system called Xscan, a rig of 56 cameras that could be brought to the set for photogrammetry capture (see “Face-time” below).

Both The Asset and the janitor Elisa do not speak. That meant that Mr. X’s animators, led by Animation Supervisor Kevin Scott focused heavily on the body language from the original plates when adding to The Asset with digital effects.

“Everything was very mime and facial expression driven,” says Scott. “So we had to bring that up to match what Sally’s performance was doing. We knew Doug was doing that inside the suit — we just had to make sure that we represented him as well as we could.”

For swimming shots, in which The Asset would be almost completely digital, Mr. X looked at swimming reference, especially competitive swimmers who used a dolphin kick (“It gave this unique look in the way it undulates their bodies,” notes Scott). More subtle animation included adding in gill movement and nictitating membranes for The Asset’s eyes, which involved looking at crocodile and other amphibious animals.

Scott also had the chance to speak directly with Jones about how the actor would approach the character in terms of movement and reactions. “He said, ‘It’s a cross between Silver Surfer and a graceful matador,’” says Scott. “I actually came back to the office and I wrote that on a big post-it note and stuck it on my monitor so I could be reminded of that every day. What that really meant to me was when he moves, he’s like a dancer – very fluid, flowing lines all the way through his body. As I was reviewing work with the animators, we kept that on the forefront.”

Live-action photography of The Asset was enhanced in many scenes by Mr. X’s addition of facial animation. (Image copyright © 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures)

This bathtub sequence made use of a completely digital takeover by Mr. X’s CG model for The Asset. (Image copyright © 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures)

In this underwater scene featuring The Asset with Elisa, a dry-for-wet live action shoot was enhanced by Mr. X to add a watery feeling, floating particles and even CG hair for the actress. (Image copyright © 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures)

CRAFTING A CHARACTER

In the end, the combination of a man-in-suit and a number of digital enhancements make for a very compelling character, one that the audience is immediately drawn to. Of course, that’s the intention of the filmmakers, as Legacy’s Shane Mahan describes.

“Everybody’s hope is that when you watch the film you’re not thinking that there’s a man in a costume, that instead you should be thinking, ‘Where did they find this exotic creature, and how did they get it to be in a movie?’ That’s really the magic of it.”

A typical shot in which Mr. X would need to add facial animation onto the live- action suit for The Asset began with original photography of Doug Jones in the Legacy Effects prosthetics, such as this scene of the creature growling.
Mr. X then tracked the required plate and body and face motion and added its CG elements. Facial features and animation were sourced via scans of Jones in and out of makeup using its Xscan photogrammetry rig.
The final shot replaced mostly the eyes and brow area, and in this case the gills so that they could be made to flare with greater effect. (Images copyright © 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Face-time

To aid in the subtle facial animation for The Asset, Mr. X relied on its Xscan portable photogrammetry rig. “We could bring Doug Jones in, put him in position and in basically one second we got 56 overlapping photos that captured every angle,” explains Visual Effects Supervisor Dennis Berardi.

“Doug was so patient with us,” recalls Berardi. “We kept going back for more and more reference. I’d want to scan him without makeup, and run him through a range of facial expressions, and then put him in the makeup and do the same thing.”

A resulting CG model computed from the images also provided high-resolution textures of Jones. The actor provided multiple face shapes – 24 in total – to mimic the approach usually taken to acquire a Facial Action Coding System, or FACS, capture.

“We thought it was important to gather both in makeup and out because ultimately the suit and makeup was built off of Doug’s facial structure,” says Animation Supervisor Kevin Scott. “It meant we could then interpolate between the two to derive our digital Charlie face.”

Still, tracking the digital facial features or CG head into the live-action plates of Jones was a major obstacle for Mr. X, especially since the suit materials would often stretch in different ways between different shots.

“They had a number of different suits, so we couldn’t track it with just one model,” states Scott. “We had to build certain controls into our rig to kind of imply the rubber stretch into our CG model. That was probably the hardest technical challenge we had on this show.”


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