"The Shape of Water" :
Creature Artist INTERVIEW
THE OPENING EMAIL : “Hey Gary! I absolutely love your book on facial expressions! Amazing work. It was incredibly helpful when I was working on FACS for the Shape of Water.” Nikita Lebedev
Perhaps the most interesting thing about “Charlie’s” face (Charlie was the studio nickname for the movie’s amphibious man-like creature) is how seamlessly it integrates digital and analog input. Although Doug Jones, the actor who plays Charlie, was filmed suited up, including full facial prosthetics, the face mask was too inflexible to allow for much in the way of facial expression. Nikita’s job was to digitally sculpt the same mask so that it could be composited on top of the actor’s face without any break between the “real” face and the digital version. To activate the digital mask, Nikita then sculpted almost 100 blend shapes, enough for a full range of emotion and physical states, like pain. (For the uninitiated, a blend shape is a method for creating a controlled facial movement, like a smile, which can then be deployed by animators).
Nikita used my “Complete Guide” to pinpoint the individual muscles and movements to capture with his blend shapes, as well as to create the muscle combinations required for the various expressions. A mirror also came in handy; I personally never teach a workshop without passing out mirrors to everyone in the audience, or asking them to use their smartphones in "selfie" mode. The combination of digital sculpting skills, an observant eye, and a good reference source gave Nikita a solid foundation for his facial manipulations. He worked with a rigging crew to get the exact movements he needed, and he made changes when he heard back from the animators that something wasn’t quite right.
By the time Nikita was done, he had created a library of poses for Charlie that included a much broader range of emotions than what was used in the actual film. He worked out a smile for Charlie, although we almost never see the amphibian smile, as the director, Guillermo del Toro, was concerned about making the creature emotive enough for audience empathy, but not so human that he would lose his “other” status.
The expressions that made the final cut include anger, fear, shock, confusion, and one smile, along with a default expression of wide-eyed attention. I’ve included screen shots of each expression, along with one example of the Charlie face before and after its CG additions.
Nikita worked about 7 months on the project. His digital skills are informed by his own personal practice of creating physical sculptures - creatures and highly stylized faces. He had one other major contribution to the film [SPOILER ALERT]: the flapping gills which suddenly appear on the heroine’s neck, allowing her to transition from a terrestrial to an aquatic life form at the movie’s dramatic climax.
Figure 2. The creature in "The Shape of Water" has eyes that are based on the amphibian model, with an oval pupil set in a speckled iris. And just like the frog, the eye includes a nifty third eyelid, a nictitating membrane, flicking across from side to side, like a windshield wiper.
Figure 3. Here is one of our first clear views of the man/fish creature. The pupil has a very large range of dilation and contraction, while the surrounding iris can change in color and lightness. As I described in a previous blog, having a light iris results in the viewer perceiving the pupil as an iris, and the iris as sclera, thus increasing the expressive range of the eye.
Figure 4. The default expression for the creature, as here, is wide-appearing eyes and a relaxed, slightly opened mouth. The emotive effect of hyper-alert eyes combined with a gaping mouth is "deer in the headlights," defined in the dictionary as “a mental state of high arousal caused by anxiety, fear, panic, surprise and/or confusion.” Another way of putting it: "fish out of water."
Figure 5. Another example of the “deer in the headlights” pose. In this scene, the audience sees as the creature as panicked, reacting to a new environment. The creature in this bathtub sequence is entirely CG (see Figure 6), one of the few cases in the film where it is not a amalgam of the suited-up actor and a digital overlay.
Figure 12. Here is another frame from the torture sequence, where the strongly compressed eyes and sideways stretched, opened mouth read as pain. Real amphibians, of course, can’t squint, but the audience could care less; we expect our creatures to emote the same way we do, no matter what their character design.