Prolific genre director Guillermo del Toro has a much sought-after voice that’s appeared in many cartoons (Puss in Boots, The Book of Life, Trollhunters) and live-action projects (Quantum of Solace, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark), but with The Shape of Water, the director contributes an even more intimate cameo than his roars or chuckles.
In conversation with Vanity Fair, the film’s supervising sound editor Nathan Robitaille talked shop about bringing Doug Jones’ fish man to life. While Jones provided the slinky, sexy acting and the costume and makeup provided the majestic monster’s scales and ample posterior, his aural ecosystem was a collage.
“A lot of the sounds that we started layering in were the sounds of his drying-out gills, the liquid gurgling, and the wheezing elements,” Robitaille said, noting that much of this inspiration came from the fact that the creature can’t breathe outside of a highly specific watery cocktail.
Swan noises and pigeon coos accompanied Robitaille’s own guttural clicks and squeaks—but something was still missing. Life was missing. Where better to find the animating breath than from The Shape of Water’s own Prometheus, del Toro himself? Hearing the director rasp out commands on set, Robitaille had the final inspiration to connect all the sonic dots.
“Once we got [del Toro] into the studio, it was obvious pretty fast that the most beautiful texture was coming from his breathing. So I started harvesting his breaths that I got between takes and glued everything together.” While harvesting breath sounds about a terrifying as any of the atrocities taken against the creature in the film, resuscitating the film’s central role with the respirations of the man behind the magic was a choice drenched in meaning.
To best hear this contribution, listen to the scene where Eliza (Sally Hawkins) rushes the creature into her bathtub. His wheezing desperation is directly thanks to del Toro, who, with the huge success of his film, is now likely breathing a bit easier.