The Shape Of Water is fairytale master Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film offering romance, fantasy horrific injury detail and weird and wonderful creatures. His practical effects in many of his films make his ghost, ghouls and demons tactile and ageless, enhancing the quality of interactions between human characters and creatures and creating awe with the lengths practical makeup effects can be stretched to bring Del Toro’s ideas to life. And The Shape Of Water is no different, with the director using practical effects instead of CGI to turn Doug Jones into the amphibious man.
This film may be a Cold War romance, but Del Toro’s creatures are historically rooted in the horror genre. From Pan’s Labyrinth to Crimson Peak, his monsters usually wouldn’t be out of place in fairytales made to scare children and adults alike. And while horror films tend to get forgotten in awards season (Pan’s Labyrinth is his only other film besides The Shape of Water to be nominated for an Oscar), they come into their own in makeup for creativity and pushing boundaries on screen. Practical effects make for a great addition to the affective style of horror cinema that works so well with the genre; the audience can see a real effect on screen and this in turn affects their own bodies, as the barrier between what is real and what isn’t is made thinner. Del Toro’s characters frequently interact with his monsters, and this helps with the onscreen chemistry and illusion that what is being shown onscreen is really there.
Despite it feeling like an old technique due to the rise of CGI in cinema, practical makeup, and recognition for the skill involved in creating it by awards institutions, is actually fairly recent. The first ever Academy Award for makeup and hair was introduced in 1981, and was given to makeup artist Rick Baker for his fantastically horrifying work on An American Werewolf In London. The film, directed by John Landis, is a huge landmark in practical makeup effects, especially in the horror genre, as it allows the bodies of the actors to change on screen.
The transformation scene in American Werewolf is 2 minutes of pure horror and of artistic triumph, as, with the help of Baker’s fantastic prosthetic and mechanical work, David turns into a Werewolf after being attacked on the Yorkshire moors, in an unflinching and gruesome way. Using a series of shots cleverly edited together, the mechanical aspects of David’s transformation – his hands and face stretching and distorting – are all the more difficult to watch because they aren’t digitally made, they’re literally happening in front of the camera.
Baker’s talents were soon used again when Michael Jackson contacted American Werewolf Director John Landis in 1982 for the Thriller music video. Wanting to go through a similar transformation to David in American Werewolf, Baker designed an unsettling, yet elegant ‘Werecat’ design that used similar techniques to the Werewolf, to turn the singer into a monster. A behind the scenes video of the film shows the process of turning Michael Jackson into the Werecat.
Makeup effects have been refined and improved since American Werewolf clawed its way onto screens in the 1980s, but when done well, they generally keep their intended effect on the audience, no matter how old they are. As terrifying as David running through London as a werewolf is even now, it can be guaranteed that The Shape of Water’s amphibious man will join Del Toro’s fantastic monsters in stunning viewers for many, many years to come.