Artist Spotlight, Pro Tips

‘The Shape of Water’ Cinematographer on How to Shoot Great Genre Films

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Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen is a veteran of genre. With Mimic (1997) and Silent Hill (2006), he took on horror; with Crimson Peak (2015), he channeled Gothic romance; and earlier this year John Wick: Chapter 2 saw him excel at action filmmaking. Now The Shape of Water, his third, and latest, collaboration with director Guillermo del Toro, once again has him forging ahead into new genre territory — this time an adult fairytale version of the classic Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Given how dexterous Laustsen is at bringing visual life to an extreme range of genres, we spoke to him about The Shape of Water and his approach to tackling each of his disparate projects.

 

Free Your Mind From Genre Preconceptions

Genre films are built on identifiably fundamental characters that make them what they are — think of how it’s usually pretty easy to distinguish an action movie from a horror movie based on basic visual or story tropes. But filmmakers who go into a genre project letting those tropes guide their thinking too much can risk limiting their approach. That’s why when Laustsen begins a project, he keeps his mind free of preconceptions.

That’s not just motivated by the desire to give a project a creative blank slate, but also to allow room for a director’s vision to fully influence his approach. After all, different directors can tackle the same genre in very different ways. Consider, for example, how different Kenneth Branagh’s version of Thor is from Taika Waititi’s. “Only the director has the movie inside their brain for years,” Laustsen says. Approaching genre with an open mind can ensure talks are more fruitful and can guide a cinematographer on how to apply their creativity to a director’s vision.

Doug Jones in 'The Shape of Water'
 

Choose a Visual Style That Works

Looks matter when it comes to genre. But choosing a look for a movie can inevitably yield practical questions like, “Can we actually pull this off?” Ambition can’t always survive logistics in filmmaking. For example, Laustsen and del Toro at one point discussed shooting The Shape of Water in black and white monochrome, much like classic Hollywood films (including Creature from the Black Lagoon). It would have been a perfect stylistic fit for del Toro’s film. But shooting with monochromatic cameras brings logistical challenges – like the need to design special costumes – that they couldn’t accommodate given some of their other production challenges. “It was a very technically difficult movie to do, because we had a very short time compared to what we wanted,” Laustsen says.

It makes it worth remembering: an artist may not always want to hear it, but budget sometimes has to dictate your vision. And given genre films often come with very distinct looks, filmmakers and cinematographers have to be sure to choose a look that works artistically, financially, and logistically.

Sally Hawkins in 'The Shape of Water'
Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water
 

Use Color to Accentuate Genre

When shooting genre, color choice can be especially important. Laustsen says del Toro likes to start early in determining colors for a project. “When he’s starting up a movie, he makes these color palettes for the sets – like a guideline for everybody,” the cinematographer says. For The Shape of Water, del Toro wanted greens and steel blues to convey the water-like hue of the Amphibian Man’s natural habitat. Adopting that color palette creates an almost fantasy-like feel that mirrors the creature’s unseen, magical world. That’s particularly important, because in many ways the Amphibian Man is a big part of what makes The Shape of Water a genre film. So it’s natural to allow a color scheme to be reflective of one of the main driving forces of the film’s genre feel. It’s not dissimilar from the popping neon colors of the world in John Wick: Chapter 2 that indicate we’re briefly inhabiting an almost firework-like action-driven, and parallel, world.

 

Establish Your Style as Early as You Can

Much like audiences need establishing shots to orient them in a location, it’s a good idea to do something similar in the opening moments of a genre film – signal the world the viewer is about to enter. The opening scene of The Shape of Water is a lovely example of that: fairytale-like narration and an ethereal scene of an apartment flooded in luminous – almost ghostly – water that nestles you wonderfully into the story you’re about to experience. Laustsen sees that opening scene as incredibly important, as it sets the tone for the entire film.

Guillermo del Toro directing 'The Shape of Water'
Guillermo del Toro with cast on the set of The Shape of Water
 

Don’t Be Afraid to Apply Your Own Take

When it comes to genre, it can often be tricky to find a balance between honoring tried-and-true tropes and being too derivative of them. Laustsen strongly believes in avoiding the latter by remembering to value what you can bring to a film. “You have to be true to your own ideas,” he says. “Because if you try to blend into everybody else, I don’t think you’re going to make something special.”

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Guillermo del Toro films like Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak, and Pan’s Labyrinth are perfect examples of that in effect. They exhibit a loyal passion for the genres they occupy, yet they’re not at all like other entries in the genres they belong to. What’s more, consider how distinct the looks of those films are, thanks to del Toro and Laustsen’s unique vision. “You have to be trusting of your own brain and be yourself. That’s so important for young filmmakers,” the cinematographer says. “It’s just more interesting and more fun if you’re trying to find your own ideas and not be afraid of anything. You have to try to find your own taste and style.”

Top image: Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water. All images courtesy of Fox Searchlight.