EXCLUSIVE: ‘The Shape of Water’ Visual Effects Supervisor – Dennis Berardi – In Conversation

Hello Film Doctor friends.

Dennis Berardi is a two-time Primetime Emmy nominated Visual Effects Supervisor. He is known for his work on Fight Club, Hot Tub Time Machine, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Mama, Carrie (2013), Vikings, Pompeii and Crimson Peak.

Here Dennis 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.

Tell us about The Shape of Water. You’ve worked with Guillermo before, haven’t you?

Yeah, we’ve worked together for five years previous on various projects. Guillermo gave me the script on The Shape of Water, I think we were in post-production on Crimson Peak at the time. I was absolutely blown away by the script because here you had a love story between a mute woman and a creature. He’s not just a creature but a leading man who the audience has to fall in love with.

For me, I was concerned about the creature obviously, because he was so emotive. It began from there. We started on the process with a really great team of creature designers including Shane Mahan, Mike Hill and of course, Guillermo. They came up with a wonderful design and I started to take over and work out the digital aspect.

Our job as the digital and visual effects was to really help bring this creature to life. We had a wonderful performer who we based all of our work on his interpretative take on this creature, on his performance.

Our work was to create the facial expression that Doug couldn’t do under an inch of rubber. So we did a lot of face replacement there. We worked from the eyes out. We tried to keep as much of Doug’s beautiful performance as possible. We were trying to capture Doug’s performance that was actually under the make up, under the rubber.

The Shape of Water's project supervisor Shane Mahan, actor Doug Jones and lead creature designer Mike Hill
The Shape of Water's project supervisor Shane Mahan, actor Doug Jones and lead creature designer Mike Hill
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Another challenge was the full body creature under the water. It posed a big animation challenge for us in terms of finding a movement style that was elegant but also powerful. He’s a bi-ped but he’s very powerful under water.

We started with things like Olympic swimming – strong Olympic swimmers like Michael Phelps. Big men because the creature’s over 7 feet tall. Although he’s a great swimmer, he’s not graceful when you compare him to a dolphin or a seal.

So we came up with our hybrid of Olympic swimmers and the most graceful water creatures. It was part-kicking, paddling and part body movements like a seal would do. Those were some of the early challenges and of course, we had to crack the underwater environment which was a big visual challenge for us.

We did a lot of research on what a believable underwater environment looks like. Guillermo loves to work with references. The opening of the film, which was one of our most challenging shots, starts in an underwater riverbed. It’s all digitally created. We shot some reference underwater.

Guillermo wanted to choreograph fish movements and he wanted to have these reeds of grass and other organic matter moving to the currents. Then we transition from our digital environment into a practical set which we shot dry-for-wet.

It was a very interesting process for us with a lot of research and collaboration with the cinematographer.

How long did you spend on the entire project?

It was about 18 months from early script and conceptual work, prep and research into shooting in Toronto. Then 40 weeks of post-production.
What systems were used for this particular project?

One of my favourite things about working in visual effects is that you get to employ super high-technology gear and software into an artistic pursuit. The creature was created and animated in Maya and rendered in Mantra with the custom shader and proprietary approach where we got some nice sub-surface rendering; which is light that reflects under the skin.

All of the water simulations and hair – her hair is digital under water for performance reasons – that was mostly in Houdini. That was also rendered all through Mantra.

The Shape of Water Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins
Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water – photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
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In the end, we did about 600 shots in the film and about 55 minutes of the film were digitally treated or all CGI. It’s a large volume but we did have time.

Guillermo is a filmmaker who loves process and his process is very iterative. We knew that going in because we’d done a couple of movies before and four years of television with him. He likes to see versions almost daily, it’s sort of an exploratory process. He’s all about seeing it and levelling it up, moving forward.

It’s a very dynamic process. We knew we had a big rendering challenge just in terms of the volume that we had to render for him. We bulked up on the computational side just to make sure we could accommodate the work.

What advice would you give to a person who would like to work in visual effects?

That’s a great question – I don’t get asked that question enough. We have internship programmes and we are always looking to hire talent. We look for filmmakers at heart.

My advice, in general, is to be a student of the craft and of film history. We work in film and we use references from other films – historical references. We need people who understand a reference to a Charlie Chaplin movie, from 2001: A Space Odyssey or from Jaws. That’s important.

Secondly, we are looking for specialists not generalists. That era is long gone. Where you have a person who can model an asset, who can rig it, who can animate it, light it, render it and composite it all themselves. We are looking for people who are developing expert knowledge in one of those disciplines. Whether it be rigging, character animation, environmental work, compositing, map painting. Either we’re hiring for a specific discipline in training or we’re hiring people who already have that knowledge and we’ll hire into the role of a tracker or animator.

We don’t generally hire generalists. The paradox when you hire a specialist is, if they do well, we’ll promote them in to roles of leadership where you can become a supervisor or a creative lead with an area of expertise. We do get a lot of resumes that are very generic – a little bit of everything – we never hire those people!

Richard Jenkins at The Shape of Water premiere in UK
Actor Richard Jenkins attends the American Airlines Gala and UK Premiere of The Shape of Water – photo courtesy of GETTY
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