EXCLUSIVE: ‘The Shape of Water’ Project Supervisor – Shane Mahan – In Conversation

Hello Film Doctor friends.

Shane Mahan is the founder of the incredible special effects company Legacy Effects. He is known for creating the bodysuits for Iron Man – for which he received BAFTA and Oscar nominations – as well as Pacific Rim.

Shane’s amazing CV includes special effects work on The Terminator, Aliens, Jurassic Park, What Lies Beneath, Artificial Intelligence, Big Fish, War of the Worlds and Avatar.

Here Shane joins us for a Film Doctor In Conversation to talk about his work on Guillermo del Toro’s dark, fantasy drama The Shape of Water.

The Shape of Water movie
Legacy Effects founding partner Shane Mahan dressing Doug Jones for The Shape of Water


Shane, tell us about how you came to work on the film and about your past experiences.

We were lucky enough to be contacted by Guillermo and his producing teamto be invited to this film. Once we read the script and understood what it was that he was looking for, we then started thinking about how it could be done and working with the artists that Guillermo had commissioned to do some work.

He’d obviously been thinking about it in secret – working on it for months. At that point, our job was to take it to the next levels of how it would look on Doug Jones and re-construct some of the ideas that the two previous artists who had worked on it had come up with, in terms of various body shapes and other things.

There were two clay sketches that David Ming and David Grasser had done. Not on a human body, just as ideas, just clay sketches. Both of them had similar yet different ideas going on so Guillermo would pick and choose areas that he’d like. Then we did a combination of those and took it to another developmental stage and created another of sorts.

This time, over a scan of Doug Jones so that proportionately it was correct. You go through all of the processes at that point. Myself and my partners and all the guys at the studio have done for years. You modify it with the tools of the present, re-invent things and come up with new ideas to make it modern and effective for today’s audiences.

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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At Legacy we really embrace new technology. We use all forms of everything available to us, whether it’s traditional clay or digital modelling. Whatever it takes, that’s what we use. When you take all of those elements you can create something that’s quite unique and effective.

That becomes another pitch tool for Guillermo. Then at a certain point, he had an associate of his, Mike Hill, join our team. We started refining even further and really spent a lot of time on the sculpture. With the sculpting team, it was very important that you had the right people. Glenn Hames and Mario Tores and Mike and the rest of the crew – from fabrication, mould-making, paint tests and mechanics – we had a small army of 87 people to make this creature work.

What was the situation regarding water?

You start really pondering what could go wrong or how things could be affected.

Part of my job is to sit and study the components. I have to project my mind months ahead on set. You visualise, we’re on set, there’s water, there’s temperature changes. What could go wrong? What does water do to a suit? What does water do to electronics? What does water do to the conditions of paint?

You start to see the successes and failures in your mind, just thinking, about it before you even get there. Knowing that we were going to have challenges with electronics and water, we started doing a lot of R and D with servos that were going to operate the gills.

The gills were, for the most part, radio control. They had to be silicone and translucent, they had to be a flexible reusable piece that connected to Doug which was a whole system and apparatus that we had put together. The mechanism is hidden on his back in the hatch that he gets into the suit on. Just keeping one drop of water from affecting the transmission of all of that was very challenging.

I wanted to, originally, make the suit out of silicone so that it would be water resistant. It might have been heavier if he was out of water but while he was in the water it would be fairly buoyant. It would have been very, very difficult to damage it if it was silicone.

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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Restrictions of time and restrictions of the elements that we had kind of forced us in to a foam rubber solution Which was fine. Foam rubber is basically a sponge – it’s going to soak up all the water and go from 30 pounds dry to about 70 pounds wet. Those are just challenges you have to face but we figured out a solution along the way and kept the upkeep and the repair as visible as we could.

Mike Hill and I were just constantly repairing the suits and drying them and fixing them. It’s just the challenge of this kind of film. It’s a labour of love for sure because you know it has to be perfect. You don’t want those problems to be apparent to Guillermo on the day, he’s got a lot of other things to think about. You just want to show up and it just looks like it’s ready to go. He doesn’t need to know what you’ve gone through to get there.

You’ve had a longstanding relationship with James Cameron and he’s a diver and did The Abyss. Did you talk to him about any of the water stuff?

No! We were never that deep in the water. The Abyss had its own kind of systems going on that were tethered. We knew what was going to happen. You can’t transmit radio through water. You have to have an antenna that floats through the surface. In the end, there are definitely some exciting moments that happen on set.

You have to be able to fix it, as quickly as you can and carry on with the day.

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

Richard Feder at the The Shape of Water premiere as part of the London Film Festival
Richard Feder at the The Shape of Water premiere as part of the London Film Festival
Producer Richard Feder (R) and guest attend the American Airlines Gala and UK Premiere of The Shape of Water – photo courtesy of GETTY
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