Facial Expressions in The Shape of Water

I got a special kick out of the Academy Awards this year; my book, “The Artists Complete Guide to Facial Expression”, was a key reference for the digital sculptor who created the facial expressions for “Charlie”, the creature at the heart of the movie “The Shape of Water”, which won several Oscars, including Best Picture.

I had the chance to have a long Skype conversation with the sculptor, Nikita Lebedev, a creature and character artist at Mr. X, the Toronto VFX company that was the (only!) CG team behind the movie. Of course, I wanted to know how he had used my book, but I was also very interested in the whole process for bringing the fish/man to life, which was obviously the result of many levels of craft and illusion and a long-term team effort.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about “Charlie’s” face (Charlie was the studio nickname for the movie’s amphibian) is how seamlessly it integrates digital and analog input. Although Doug Jones, the actor who plays Charlie, was filmed suited up — including full facial prosthetics — the face mask was too inflexible to allow for much in the way of facial expression. Nikita’s job was to digitally sculpt the same mask so that it could be composited on top of the actor’s face without any break between the “real” face and the digital version. To activate the digital mask, Nikita sculpted almost 100 blend shapes, enough for a full range of emotion and physical states, like pain. (For the uninitiated, a blend shape is a method for creating a controlled facial movement, like a smile, which can then be deployed by animators).

Nikita used my “Complete Guide” to pinpoint the individual muscles and movements to capture with his blend shapes, as well as to create the muscle combinations required for the various expressions. The combination of digital sculpting skills, an observant eye, and a good reference source 😉 gave Nikita a solid foundation for his facial manipulations. He worked with a rigging crew to get the exact movements he needed, and he made changes when he heard back from the animators that something wasn’t quite right.

By the time Nikita was done, he had created a library of poses for Charlie that included a much broader range of emotions than what was used the actual film. He worked out a smile for Charlie, although we almost never see the amphibian smile, as the director, Guillermo del Toro, was concerned to make the creature emotive enough for audience empathy, but not so human in his range that he would lose his “other” status.

The expressions that made the final cut include anger, fear, shock, and confusion, along with a default expression of wide-eyed attention. I’ve included screen shots of examples of each, along with one example of the Charlie face before and after its CG additions.

Nikita worked near seven months on the project. His digital skills are informed by his practice of creating physical sculptures — creatures and highly stylized faces. He had one other major contribution to the film [SPOILER ALERT]: the flapping gills which suddenly appear on the heroine’s neck, allowing her to transition from the terrestrial to the aquatic life at the movie’s dramatic climax.

The creature in The Shape of Water has frog-like eyes, including a nifty third eyelid, flicking across from side to side, like a windshield wiper.

One of our first clear view of the creature. The pupil has a very large range of dilation and contraction, while the surrounding iris can change in color and lightness. Having a light iris results in the viewer perceiving the pupil as an iris, and the iris as sclera, thus increasing the expressive range of the eye.

The default expression for the creature: wide-appearing eyes and a relaxed, slightly opened mouth. The emotive effect of hyper-alert eyes combined with a gaping mouth is Deer in the Headlights, defined in the dictionary as “a mental state of high arousal caused by anxiety, fear, panic, surprise and/or confusion.”
Another way of putting it: Fish Out of Water.

Another example of the Deer in the Headlights pose, which in this scene the audience sees as panic, reacting to a new environment. The creature in this bathtub sequence is entirely CG, one of the few cases in the film where it is not a amalgam of the suited-up actor and a digital overlay.

A pre-texture stage of the torso-and-head model of the creature in the bathtub sequence; the water is also a digital creation.

An excellent example of Nikita’s artistry at work, where we can see the creature before and after his digital mask has been superimposed. The Nikita version looks much angrier, thanks to the stretched, squared, and more open mouth, and the narrowed eyes. The oblique occlusion of the upper eye is combined with the slanting and compression of the brow ridge above. Note how well the sculptor has respected the character design in creating their modification; the movements seem entirely natural to the topography and texture. What’s the creature so worked up about? A kitty cat, it turns out.

One of the more human poses in the movie; the creature squints while considering what punishment to inflict on its arch-nemesis; in the next moment the eye opens wide (note the dilated pupil), the brows descend at an angle, and the mouth opens in a tightened, angry shout — it’s payback time!

The torture sequence includes several very effective poses. Here the iris is exposed to the maximum and lightened, to heighten the effect of the widening. The mouth is opened and slightly stretched sideways. In the context of the movie, we perceive this as fear or shock; out of context, it might be seen as surprise.

Another frame from the torture sequence, where the strongly compressed eyes and sideways stretched, opened mouth, reads as pain. Real amphibians, of course, can’t squint, but the audience could care less.

The creature defiant. Here angry eyes are combined with an angry mouth; note the pouting lower lip and the downturned mouth corners. Anger in the eyes is always more effective when combined with unambiguous action in the mouth.

One of two smiles the creature displays in the film; note the upturned mouth corner. So as to not break with his emotional vocabulary for the rest of the movie, the smile here is in the context of a dream sequence, the fantasy of the heroine and accompanied by a Hollywood band. The dialed-back expression of joy is consistent with the director’s concept of restraint and “otherness”.

View Gary’s Lecture Series: “An Artist’s Guide to Facial Expressions

Tour The Faigin Atelier