EXCLUSIVE: ‘The Shape of Water’ Lead Creature Designer – Mike Hill – In Conversation

Hello Film Doctor friends.

Mike Hill has worked as a creature sculptor and more on films The Wolfman, Men in Black 3 and Apocalypto.

Here Mike joins us for a Film Doctor In Conversation to talk about his work as lead creature designer on Guillermo del Toro’s dark, fantasy drama The Shape of Water, working closely with actor Doug Jones and project supervisor – and Legacy Effects founder – Shane Mahan.

Mike also offers incredible advice to filmmakers hoping to follow in his footsteps – scroll down for our interview!

The Shape of Water’s lead creature designer Mike Hill with actor Doug Jones and project supervisor Shane Mahan


Tell us about how you became involved in The Shape of Water and what the challenges were.

I got a simple email from Guillermo asking me to be lead sculptor on his creature. I was extremely flattered to be asked. I asked why and he said he wanted me to do it from the soul because he’s not a monster – he’s the leading man.

From there, I set about designing a hybrid fish-man that was hopefully appealing and attractive. Kissable lips, strong jaw, a cleft chin and come-to-bed eyes. Anything that I figured would be appealing to Sally’s character.

That’s not a small challenge in itself because obviously the features of a fish are not that attractive. It was a challenge in that respect to try and get a good look out of that. The ladies could hopefully swoon after a while and find out that he’s not just this aquatic seaman but an attractive god.

What was the process, workflow and timeline like?

Initially I did just a loose sketch of what Guillermo and I thought he should look like. He responded very positively and from there I made a small scale sculpture of him. It was about a quarter scale bust of him. Guillermo loved it so we did a test on that which wasn’t quite right. It didn’t have the feel we wanted it so then I re-sculpted it.

What I actually did was I went up to Guillermo’s house and spent several days there. He would make notes, feed me and I would keep on sculpting. We achieved a balance of a face which was all the elements that was needed for this particular character.

The Shape of Water's Mike Hill, Doug Jones and Shane Mahan
The Shape of Water's Mike Hill, Doug Jones and Shane Mahan
The Shape of Water's Mike Hill, Doug Jones and Shane Mahan
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In the meantime, we’d moulded Doug’s body out of fibreglass. We started sculpting his whole suit from head to toe. The main direction was to keep this thing appealing, strong-looking and like a swimmer’s body – broad shoulders and a thin waist.

Just trying to keep him attractive – that was our main directive. I think we achieved that as people started responding to him and forgetting that he was a creature after a while. Responding to him just being the leading man which was our goal from the outset.

Was there a certain route you went down to make him look more human? Did you look at other monster movies?

When you’re making creatures, the worst thing you can do is look at past creatures: other fish-men and other gill-men. The Creature from the Black Lagoon being the most famous. Eventually you’re going to combine the fish with a man and certain designs are going to bleed over. 

Anything that overlaps you can’t help – that’s the nature of mixing a man with a fish. It’s going to be a man with big eyes. There’s only so far you can go with it.

The main thing was keeping it original and not referencing anything else. One of my main designs came from me being at my local Thai restaurant where I saw a goldfish. It had a black/ blue neck, velvety and gold under. I thought there he is! I’d been looking at thousands and thousands of reference pictures and there, in my local restaurant, was the fish that I based the colour scheme upon. That worked nicely!

The only thing that Guillermo and I were influenced by was the Frankenstein monster played by Boris Karloff which we both have a crush on. We decided that the creature shouldn’t have all these heavy plates but we made his body very vascular and veiny.

It was literally because of our love for Karloff’s monster. Karloff was a skinny guy but he looks strong.

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water
Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water
Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water – photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
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Were you considering the underwater elements from day one?

Absolutely, because we knew that anything mechanical was going to be an issue. The gills were fully mechanical with a remote control. We knew that this particular character was going to be submerged in water for 14 hours a day so that was always an issue.

We didn’t want anything to explode under! Also, the trails used had to be taken into account because this thing was going to get waterlogged. We had to try and find a paint that the water couldn’t damage too much.

Every day we had to repaint it and touch up because unfortunately, water is the one element that will cause erosion. When you put a rubber suit in water for 14 hours a day for 12 weeks it’s going to cause some damage.

The water was a big element – but the name is in the title! It was pretty standard.

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water
Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water
Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water – photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
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How did you end up doing creature design originally?

Initially, I was 4 years old in Warrington and I saw King Kong on TV. My gran said to me that it was made of clay and only 10 inches high, or so she thought. I took a bucket and spade and went to the local canal and dug up some clay and started from there really. I just liked making monsters.

About 13 years ago, I decided Warrington was not the best place for it so I packed a suitcase and flew to LA and I’ve been here ever since. I’d been flying back and forth for conventions so I knew people here.

I didn’t have any work nor was I allowed to work at that point. I just flew in and hoped for the best. I was fairly confident I could make my way.
What advice would you give to any aspiring creature designers?

Sculpting creatures and things has not died. In fact, there’s a surge in it. The amalgamation of making the creature practical – all those little tweaks like the blinks are very hard to achieve mechanically real. It’s the best of both worlds but it only works better if you’ve got a practical creature to base it upon.

Dennis himself admits it, the audience wouldn’t have bought it, if you know it’s not quite real. If we’d done the whole thing mechanically, they might not have bought it.

Learn to use ZBrush, don’t be a product of your surroundings – you don’t have to stay in Warrington just because you were born there. I say, get some clay and start making some monsters and move ship if you have to.

READ our interview with The Shape of Water’s VFX Supervisor Dennis Berardi here!

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