Here, he shares how the team created the creature’s sounds (hint: it took a rubber lobster, among other things!), how they creatively used water sounds to emphasize the metaphorical connection between water and love — and how they snug in lots of ear candy for the attentive listeners in the audience.
Written by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. May contain spoilers.
Director Guillermo del Toro captures all the dark charm of the Cold War-era in his latest film, The Shape of Water, from the retro-futuristic tech that’s housed in a secret, underground government laboratory to the prevalence of formal attire being worn in causal situations — everything is a suit-and-tie affair. The film, which opened December 8th, tells the tale of a mute woman named Elisa who works the night shift as a custodian in a government facility where a top-secret ‘Asset’ is being held captive by the cruel Colonel Strickland. Elisa forms a friendship with the amphibious creature and she convinces her next-door neighbor Giles to help extricate it from the government facility. Strickland pursues the fugitives, determined to take custody of the creature once again.
Here, award-winning supervising sound editor Nathan Robitaille, M.P.S.E., at Sound Dogs Toronto, Ontario, Canada talks about designing little sounds into the world on-screen (like adding space-aged lab-gadget sounds to government lab’s heavy atmosphere), creating the creature’s sounds, and how they used water sounds to emphasize the metaphorical connection between water and love.
How did you get involved with The Shape of Water?
Nathan Robitaille (NR): I worked on The Strain (created by Guillermo del Toro) with Nelson Ferreira, who is dialogue and ADR supervisor on The Shape of Water. So, Guillermo was familiar with our work. Doug Wilkinson, the post production supervisor, also worked with Guillermo on Crimson Peak.
Doug, Nelson, and I had been looking for a project we could work on together when The Shape of Water came up. I remember when Doug forwarded the script. It’s about a mute woman who falls in love with a verbally expressive creature who speaks without language. I was all over it.
How did director del Toro plan to use sound to help tell his story? Were there specific sounds or scenes that he wanted to tackle first?
NR: Guillermo was very involved in the sound design and made his priorities clear from the start. There were a few smaller elements he wanted to flesh out early on and those all went fairly smoothly. The biggest element for him was the the creature. No question.
The first scene turned over to me was the encounter between Elisa [Sally Hawkins] and the creature where she introduces him to music. That’s the scene I used to define the creature’s voice and the foundation for the rest of his vocabulary. That sample was a huge success and it survived in almost its original state through to the version that exists in the print today.
Of course, not everything went so smoothly. I received the lab torture scene second and it was one of the last creature scenes in the film to cross the finish line. That scene saw a lot of love before we could all watch it and feel convinced.
The film is set in the Cold War era, early 60s, and visually the tone seems muted with not a lot of vibrant colors. It’s industrial feeling. How did the look of the film influence your approach to the sonic palette?
NR: We didn’t really start seeing color graded images until after most of the sonic palette had been established. Any link between color and sound would be Guillermo’s influence on both departments.
There was always some fun, quirky, odd-ball sound or PA announcement that we could plant somewhere in the room and pan it to remain static while the camera glides past it, through the scene.
The cinematography, art direction, and picture editing on the other hand, played a huge role in developing the soundscape. The way the camera explores the world makes it easy to imagine the scenery extending beyond the edges of the frame. Re-recording mixers Chris Cooke and Brad Zoern did a great job of giving all of the off-screen detail a home in the mix. There was always some fun, quirky, odd-ball sound or PA announcement that we could plant somewhere in the room and pan it to remain static while the camera glides past it, through the scene.
We had a lot of fun playing with the characters’ perceptions of the world. To Elisa, the world sounds like a fairytale musical where the soundtrack from the theatre below provides the score and she and Giles [Richard Jenkins] are the stars — she knows all the steps to every tap dance number and sings with the voice of an angel. Meanwhile, Strickland [Michael Shannon] lives behind a veneer of synthetic optimism — tight, starchy clothes, and a nuclear family in sterile-suburbia. He makes love to his wife with all the romantic warmth of an industrial water pump.
How did you want the inside of the government facility to sound? How does that environment compare sonically to the outside world?
NR: We wanted the government lab (OCCAM) to sound like an impenetrable fortress. In the elevator, as we pass several sub-basement levels, the tone grows heavier, building pressure like a diving submarine. The T4 lab (where the creature is held) is built to feel hard and hopeless, like an industrial-aquatic prison. To me, it’s an extension of Strickland’s perceived control over his world. That said, there’s a lot of comic relief in the OCCAM facility — Zelda’s [Octavia Spencer] banter, Duane’s [Brandon McKnight] cigarette breaks, Fleming’s [David Hewlett] ineptitude, the George Jetson-esque golf carts, all of that makes it kind of hard to take OCCAM too seriously.
Some of my favorite sounds in the film lived in the background “beep-boop” that sound effects editor Dashen Naidoo cut in for off-screen relays and space-aged lab-gadgets. That’s mostly there for fun, but I think the light-hearted silliness of it helps to undermine Strickland’s authority.
When we leave OCCAM, the world is still full of personality, but it becomes a bit more of a true-to-the-era sound space shaped by the characters’ experience of the world around them.
The Soundworks Collection has just published an interview on The Shape of Water, featuring re-recording mixers Christian Cooke and Brad Zoern, supervising sound editors Nelson Ferreira and Nathan Robitaille:
Water is a big theme in the film. Can you talk about your approach to the water sounds?
NR: From a literal perspective, water is a source of life for the creature. In a metaphorical sense, water (love) finds a way to fill and take the shape of any space that’s open to it. The approach was to find any opportunities where the literal sound of water could complement the metaphor.
Getaway van recording
When Elisa finds him at the window during the rain storm, there is no more water in his gills, he’s wheezing, his scales have dried and they’re flaking off, but when Elisa puts her head on his chest she hears the ocean in his heart.
The creature can survive out of water, but not indefinitely. When he’s away from water we hear the fluid slowly draining from his gills as he breathes. The longer he spends away from water the more vulnerable he becomes. When he escapes the lab, he trades a scientifically monitored water source for a small bathtub and loving companionship. When Elisa finds him at the window during the rain storm, there is no more water in his gills, he’s wheezing, his scales have dried and they’re flaking off, but when Elisa puts her head on his chest she hears the ocean in his heart. He’s happy.
The storm at the end of the film seems to overwhelm everything that stands in the path of the creature’s escape to the ocean. We wanted the rain to feel like an unstoppable torrent, washing away all the fear and hate that imprisoned him. The rain turns the tables.
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How did you build up your library of water elements for this film? What were your sound sources?
NR: We used a mix of existing material and new recordings. Everyone wound up pitching in on the recording duties to build up the library. I recorded a lot of water surface movement, surges and plunges, as well as tub thumps, rubs, and squeaks to give both Elisa and the creature some physical presence when they’re in Elisa’s tub.
For the storm, Toronto saw a lot of rain this year so there were ample opportunities to set mics up under skylights, overflowing eaves troughs, downspouts, etc. to enrich the existing ambient material with specific elements. Tyler Whitham (sound effects editor) spent a lot of time shooting isolated rain surface detail and building the storm. He used watering cans and hoses to emulate rain over empty propane tanks, car panels, wood planks, pots and pans, concrete, dirt, etc. He got a fantastic multi-perspective recording of windshield wipers sweeping sheets of water back and forth for the showdown scene between Dr. Hoffstetler [Michael Stuhlbarg] and the Russian operatives at the grain silo. That track really helped make the scene feel waterlogged.
How did you create the creature’s sounds? Was there an overall direction on how it should (or shouldn’t) sound?
NR: The creature was a bit of a tag team effort. For a convincing physical presence, he had to sound heavy and wet. On Foley, Steve Baine, Pete Persaud, and Gina Gyles got to shine. For the base layer of his movements, Steve rubbed a couple of racks of raw, wet pork ribs together, that was embellished using cabbage and pineapple to accentuate some of his more exaggerated moves. For his gills, Steve performed a wet cloth along with some old 1/4” audio tape to give it that scaly texture. His feet are a combination of Steve’s bare feet, some flippers, and a rubber lobster!
For his gills, Steve performed a wet cloth along with some old 1/4” audio tape to give it that scaly texture. His feet are a combination of Steve’s bare feet, some flippers, and a rubber lobster!
When it came to developing the vocalizations, I was given a long leash which was almost as disorienting as it was refreshing. The script was clear; this was never going to be a ‘roar = scare’ kind of creature.
The bulk of the creature’s speech layer was my own voice. I knew that recording myself as the base layer would be the best way to ensure a limitless vocabulary. I spent some time exploring what kinds of strange sounds I could produce outside of my natural vocal range. I went with higher pitched sounds that I would then pitch shift back down into a natural vocal register which left us with something that was unusual without sounding inhuman. I preserved the sibilant frequencies from the raw recordings to prevent it from sounding too filtered or rolled off. I also recorded a pass of embouchure work to re-establish some of the tactile mouth presence we associate with speech. Part of the creature’s vocal presence is the liquid rolling in his gills. For that I recorded myself breathing through a modified hot water bladder with varying levels of water in it. As a final pass, I added animal sweeteners, cormorants, parrots, frogs, swans, etc.
Designing the creature vocals
I preserved the sibilant frequencies from the raw recordings to prevent it from sounding too filtered or rolled off. I also recorded a pass of embouchure work to re-establish some of the tactile mouth presence we associate with speech.
Everything sounded great, but it felt a little bit disconnected from the creature. It was missing a sort of respiratory quality to plant the voice inside of his chest cavity. Anyone who’s heard interviews with Guillermo is familiar with that gravelly voice of his. He offered to come in and do some vocal recordings with me. The result was this library of beautifully textured breaths, gasps, efforts, and exertions that wound up being the glue that held everything together in some scenes, and the defining element in others.
Did you have any favorite audio tools on this film? Can you share a specific examples of how you used them?
NR: The top of that list for me is my Zoom H6 recorder. I’m a big fan of fast, spontaneous recording sessions and I find them much easier with recorders like the H6. I love bigger records with multiple field recorders and elaborate mic setups too — that’s how we recorded the vehicles in this movie. But there’s just something pure about grabbing a recorder in the middle of cutting a scene and using it to create the exact sound you need out of thin air.
That H6 went everywhere with me. I went to set and recorded props like Strickland’s office chair and Brewster’s barcalounger. I shot the janitorial mop buckets, the boiling eggs and egg shells, an antique Simplex 35mm projector, the movie theatre seats, a bunch of the creature FX, and the electrical snapping element for Strickland’s cattle prod. I recorded myself throwing baby carrots at a wine bottle for Strickland’s fingers hitting Zelda’s TV set. The list goes on and that H6 is a total workhorse.
I think the most surprising audio tools we used on this show were the DPA 4061 and 4062 lav mics. Man, could those little guys take a pounding!
I think the most surprising audio tools we used on this show were the DPA 4061 and 4062 lav mics. Man, could those little guys take a pounding! We included them in the engine bay of Strickland’s Cadillac, Giles’s van, and the Transit Bus, and they held up impressively well. They have a much broader frequency range than I was expecting and the eye-watering SPL they took without distorting was just staggering.
What was your favorite scene to design in the film? What went into the sound?
NR: Personally, my favorite scene for sound design doesn’t really have much sound design in it at all — the “silent” shouting match between Elisa and Giles over his reluctance to help with her plan.
I’m sure we’ve all heard some form of the sentiment that loud is easy. It always feels special when a quiet scene pops. This scene of a mute woman using sign language to express her passion, anger, and disappointment feels like she’s screaming at the top of her lungs. The performances of Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins obviously did most of the heavy lifting. Designing the sound for that scene really came down to a selective balance of elements to support that performance in the mix, like ADR breaths and exertions from Elisa, Foley’s sign language moves, and sound effect embellishments on harder gestures, all mixed in with production sound. None of those elements really sparkle on their own but together they contribute to a dramatically explosive scene.
Did you have a favorite single sound you created for this film? What went into its creation?
I’m a fan of the ear candy in the film … the kind of sounds that are there more to honor the visuals and make the audience smile if they’re paying attention to detail.
NR: The creature vocals were obviously a big one for me. Aside from that, I’m a fan of the ear candy in the film. It may not be a favorite single sound, but I would definitely say it’s a favorite type of element. I’m talking about the kind of sounds that are there more to honor the visuals and make the audience smile if they’re paying attention to detail. The Orpheum marquee outside Elisa and Giles’s apartment is one example. In that case, I used a collection of the prettiest sounding, twinkling and flickering tungsten-filament light bulbs I could find. Little textures like that give the world a bit of music and there’s something charming about that to me.
What are you most proud of in terms of sound on The Shape of Water?
NR: I realize this isn’t the most original answer, but it’s the truth: the team. When I started reading the script it appealed to me as a creative opportunity, but the more I read the more I realized that this was not a self indulgent project. The story has a very socially conscious and topical message, and I think we were all proud to contribute a soundtrack that helped draw the audience into that world on-screen. It was an ambitious concept and Guillermo put a lot of faith in all of us. He was very involved, but somehow did that without ever impeding our creative autonomy. That kind of open-minded leadership, as well as his work in the trenches with us, was crucial to our success. This project required a lot of collaboration within the sound crew, but also extended to other departments like vehicles and props, and most of all, the picture department. Sidney Wolinsky and Cam McLauchlin (film editors) were very involved and extremely helpful in the development of our sonic fingerprint.
I guess the short answer is that I’m proud to be a part of this film and I’m proud of what we accomplished. What I’m most proud of is the collaborative spirit across all departments that elevated the accomplishment to what you hear in the track today.
A big thanks to Nathan Robitaille for giving us a look at the incredibly detailed sound of The Shape of Water – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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