Sympathetic sea monster helps Canadian crew of ‘Shape of Water’ grab BAFTA nods

TORONTO — Guillermo del Toro’s posse of Canadian crew members spent months playing in the fantasy realm of “The Shape of Water,” but Tuesday’s news that they’re sharing in the film’s leading 12 nominations at the British Academy Film Awards feels truly otherworldly.

“My feet haven’t touched the ground yet,” said Kevin Scott, part of the Toronto-based visual effects team responsible for bringing a relatable amphibious sea monster to life.

“I’m just floating around the office.”

“The Shape of Water,” which was filmed in Toronto and Hamilton, emerged from the BAFTAs with the biggest leg up heading into Oscars. The British awards are considered a good indication of what Academy Awards voters might favour before the nominees are announced later this month.

But more importantly for Scott and his team at Mr. X digital studios, it’s their first BAFTA nomination, and it’s for a project that they feel a particular connection with. All of them worked closely with the director to imagine Amphibian Man, a creature that audiences could sympathize with.

The sea monster is the romantic interest of the film’s leading character Elisa, a mute cleaning woman played by fellow BAFTA nominee Sally Hawkins.

“We had to bring him into a realm of humanity so (viewers) could relate to him and subsequently fall in love with him, as Elisa did,” said Scott, who was born in Edmonton and started his career working on Canadian TV series “Reboot.”

“We had to make his face curious, we had to make his face longing.”

Much of the effects team’s work tapped into the movements of actor Doug Jones, who played the role from beneath a suit of artificial gills and webbing, said Trey Harrell, who shares the best special visual effects nomination. He said they were pushed further by del Toro’s meticulous sense for detail.

“It’s daunting to work with that guy,” Harrell said.

“He’s got the best eyes in the room and he brings out the best in all of the crews he works with.”

Harrell was responsible for recreating 1960s Baltimore by scrubbing Toronto landmarks like Massey Hall and the Eaton Centre out of shots meant to appear like an era long passed. His team also slipped inside jokes for the crew onto billboards scattered throughout the city.

Each finite detail was inspired by del Toro’s encouragement for his visual team to strive for a level above “eye candy,” an elevated degree he likes to call “eye protein.”

“He says ‘eye candy’ is what you see on the surface level when you first view a film,” Harrell said.

“‘Eye protein’ is layers upon layers of background detail you don’t notice until the second, third or fourth time you watch a film. We stuffed in a huge amount of detail into the period cities and into the performance of the creature.”

Others nominations for “The Shape of Water” include best film, original screenplay, costume design, production design, film editing and film sound.

Sound mixer Glen Gauthier, who worked previously on del Toro’s robot epic “Pacific Rim,” said the director is notorious for layering his films with visuals elements that require him to create a richer of soundscape.

“There was always running water and steam pipes and lots of visual effects that create a lot of noise,” said Gauthier, who was raised in Peterborough, Ont.

Having worked with del Toro several times, costume designer Luis Sequeira was acquainted with the director’s mantra that clothing builds the character.

“One of his sayings is once we move into a closeup, costumes are the set dressing for the actor’s face,” the Toronto-born designer said.

“We’ve had many discussions about costumes and textures and details.”

Sequeira previously dressed the actors in “Mama,” which Del Toro executive produced, and his TV series “The Strain.” The designer said he scoured rag houses and vintage shops to collect everything he needed to make “The Shape of Water” a believable tale.

“This is a big deal,” says Sequeira, whose mother was a wedding dress designer in Lisbon before emigrating to Canada.

“When I was young I used to watch these awards and look at the dresses. I did not think I would be there.”

Among the other Canadian BAFTA nominees this year are Quebec director Denis Villeneuve for “Blade Runner 2049,” the film’s makeup artist Donald Mowat and Vancouver-born production designer Dennis Gassner. Christopher Plummer is also a best supporting actor nominee for “All the Money in the World.” Plummer was a last-minute replacement for Kevin Spacey, who was cut from the already completed film following allegations of sexual misconduct.

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