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‘The Shape of Water’ Cinematographer Dan Laustsen on Capturing Guillermo del Toro’s Fantastical World

Written by on December 15, 2017 

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It’s good to speak with the central creative forces behind a film you enjoyed — for instance, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which I’d count as his best film since Hellboy II and generally one of his most well-rounded achievements. Less ideal is when I speak to them before I’ve seen it at all — for instance, when I sat down with cinematographer Dan Laustsen at this year’s Camerimage International Film Festival.

Laustsen is, as the film itself will show, a great practitioner of his craft and, to boot, rather friendly, and the working process on a project of this scale is always going to interest me, nuts-and-bolts-wise, so the result is, to my mind, still a proper overview of what went into the Cold War fantasy romance.

The Film Stage: So here’s a funny thing: the film screens on Saturday, which means I haven’t seen it.

Dan Laustsen: Well, that’s a shame. Because it’s a great movie.

Convince me to see it.

First of all, it’s a movie shot… no.

By you?

Exactly. First of all, it’s a Guillermo del Toro movie, and he’s doing movies – if you ask me – fantastically. And now I’m working with him, which I’m happy about. And if you have seen the trailer… have you seen the trailer?

I have.

the-shape-of-water-2It looks pretty cool. That’s a reason to see it. And it’s a fantastic love story shot on a very unnormal way. It’s a very artistic way to shoot it – that’s the way Guillermo wants to shoot it. It feels like the camera is floating in water all the time, if you ask me. Now I’m talking about my own work. It’s a little bit crap, but you know. But we tried to get the camera floating, and the way we are making the color palettes is very beautiful.

So the trailer told me. Do you have any say into what gets seen beforehand?

No, not at all. Not for a minute. I’m the cinematographer: I’m shooting the movie, and then I’m out. Then I’m color-correcting it, and I’m out again.

Are you ever ambivalent about what’s first revealed?

No.

There are no images you’d prefer people see for the first time within the context of the movie?

No. First of all, I think those marketing people know what they’re doing. I’m sure Guillermo’s a big part of that. On this movie, he’s just a fantastic director – full hands-on with everything, and that’s the reason it’s so fun to work with him: you really have a vision, and he knew how he wanted to tell the story and how the movie should look. As a cinematographer, that’s a really good starting point. I like when you have a plan, when you have an idea how you want to shoot and how the story looks. For me, that’s magic – that’s moviemaking. Of course, people can do whatever they want to do. There’s no rules anymore and that’s pretty good.

But the movies I like and the movies I’ve been a fan of my whole life are when the director and cinematographer and production designer are making a decision, and you try to do that and, in the end, it works; nothing is by accident. I like to be as much in control as we can, and play around with the light. For me, it’s not a big deal when you say, “We shot this movie with no artificial light.” I don’t get that. People, again, can do whatever they want to do, but I think it’s important to shoot the movie with dramatic lighting and camera angles – whatever you want to use, what kind of choice. I just think painting with light is amazing. That’s one of the reasons moviemaking is so great and a good way to tell stories: you have these tools – the camera, music, lighting, and editing. But from the cinematographer’s point of view, it’s moving the camera and painting with lights, and I think that’s a great thing to do.

A couple of years ago, I asked del Toro about his penchant for shooting 1.85. Crimson Peak was surprising in that way, because haunted houses either bring to mind the classic 4:3 or wide environments. I wonder if, first, you have particular preferences for aspect ratios, and if there are difficulties sticking to 1.85 with him.

We have that discussion on all the movies we have done. I’m a big fan of Cinema Scope; I think it’s fantastic. But he wants to shoot 1.85, so we’re doing that. I just think Cinema Scope is a very nice film format, but Guillermo is not so keen on that, so we have shot 1.85 on all the movies. We have discussed that and done a couple of tests, and I try to push my luck every time. [Laughs] It’s not working yet, but maybe, one day, I don’t know. We have the same discussion on all the movies. “Let’s shoot Scope.” “Yeah, let’s do that.” And then we do a lot of tests, and just before we start shooting he goes, “Let’s go back to 1.85.”

He likes that format, and I’m not against it because it works pretty well, and they’ve shot a lot of very nice movies with this format. Personally, I think Cinema Scope is nice, and I like to shoot anamorphic lenses – as we did on John Wick 2. Shooting 4:3 in the camera and shooting anamorphic lenses. I just like that look, but it’s not a big deal to shoot Shape of Water in 1.85 or Crimson Peak or Mimic. It looks… I’m very proud of the movies, but we have that discussion on all the movies we’ve done. I’m going, “Hey, let’s shoot anamorphic.” “Yeah, let’s try to do that.” And then, as I said: we shoot some tests and end up shooting 1.85.

What do those tests usually consist of?

It’s just some make-up tests, normally, or some tests in a room. He wants to play around – I do some filter tests and stuff like that. Then we do one with Cinema Scope or anamorphic or 1.85. We screen together, and he just likes this format. It’s the way it is. I’m not sour over anything; I just think it looks great. So it’s not like I’m going to bed every night and crying. [Laughs]

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You said the budget difference between Crimson Peak and Water was decently sized, and thus there were many things you couldn’t otherwise do. There’s a lot of scheduling and preparation before production, but I wonder about moments where you did plan on something and then a roadblock emerged.

I think I’m not so much into the money world, but the budget on Shape of Water is around $20 million. Of course that’s a lot of money when you’re in Europe, even in the United States, but compared to the big movies, it’s very, very little. If you’re doing a movie on $150 million, you can do much more. So when you’re doing a movie like Shape of Water for $20 million, we have to be very clever about how to spend our money. You haven’t seen the movie, but you’ve seen the trailer. There’s a big laboratory set – pretty big, like 30, 40 feet high. The plan was that we wanted to have a catwalk around the set – scaffolding you can walk around so you can light from above. You do that when you’re shooting in a studio, but we could not afford that because it was too expensive.

So the way to light that set was a little bit of a drag. That’s one of the things when you’re running into less money: you have to be clever in another way. It looks really good – fantastic, if you ask me; I’m very proud – but to come to this look without the catwalks was a little difficult. So that’s one of the reasons. I’m not complaining, because it’s a decent budget for a movie; but compared to Crimson Peak, with a lot more money and catwalks all around, it’s easier to do that stuff. So something like that.

On a fantastical film, what, roughly, is the gap between what’s captured in-camera and the final image?

The way I’m shooting movies, it’s 1:1. What you’re shooting on the set is exactly how it’s going to look in the movie. When we did the color-correction, the DI, for this movie, Guillermo said, “I don’t want to make a DI, because I think I like exactly how it looks.” We spent some time on the set to do the right colors, and I think that’s very, very important for me, to shoot the movie exactly as it should look. So when we’re doing the DI, I’m just making a corner a little bit darker or a window a little bit brighter, but we’re not changing the color. So when you see framegrabs from the sets the day we shot it and you see the final movie, it’s exactly the same; we’re not changing colors at all.

And I think that’s very important when you’re doing a movie like Shape of Water, where the color’s so powerful and a big part of the story you’re telling. So if you don’t know exactly where the color is going to be, I think you are a little bit lost. So for everybody – for me, the production designer, for Guillermo, for everybody – it’s so important that what we’re seeing at the set is going to be the movie. That’s the way we work, so we’re very precise. It looks more or less exactly… we’re changing very, very little in the DI.

How much time did you spend on the post-production?

I think I spent two-and-a-half weeks in DI. Something like that.

What are some things particular to that process, given the 1:1 comment?

You just want to be sure you’re right, so when I’m coming in to the DI, the whole movie is like as we shot it. I’m old-school, so I’m used to shooting on film and everything having to be very even. It’s very even when we’re shooting; we’re not fixing anything in post. You can make – knock on wood. [Knocks on table] Don’t make too many of those, but, of course, that can happen. But when you’re shooting digital, you can see that right away; you can figure it out. It’s very even, so you see the movie a couple of times just to be sure.

I hadn’t seen the movie for nine months when I’m going into the DI. Then we just have to feel the movie a little bit, and then we are going into power windows and stuff like that – but, as I said before, we are not changing colors. It’s very much 1:1. Then, of course, the problem with DI is that you can just keep going on. You can change bits and pieces forever, and nobody’s going to see the difference in the end except you and, maybe, Guillermo. But it’s just a fun part of making movies, because that’s exactly where you’re doing the final touch.

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Well, I have seen John Wick: Chapter 2, which has such a plurality of color and environments. Could you talk a bit about conforming to that particular style of action filmmaking – long-take-heavy, that is. Was that a particular pleasure?

Oh, it was cool. Chad Stahelski, he called me and asked if I could go to New York and meet him. I did that, and he had just seen the trailer for Crimson Peak. He likes the way I’m lighting dark shadows, you know, colorful… so I met him and he said, “I want to do this action movie, but it has to look like a Bertolucci movie.” You know: long, wide shots, a lot of action going on. He said, “I don’t want to go into a million cuts. I want, when you have an actor like Keanu – who’s so good to do his own stunts – I want to show that to the audience.” That was very, very much his idea from the beginning: you have a big, wide shot and come in for the coverage, but he wants to show the action as it works. And then the color palette was coming, very much, from Crimson Peak, and of course we fine-tuned that for the movie. We shot it in New York and Rome, and we played around with that a little bit as much as we could. But we wanted to do a colorful, powerful movie with a lot of wide shots, as you said.

It was very important for him to shoot wide shots, so the actors could show what they’re doing and not cutting into stunt guys. For Chad, it was very important to do that, and it was an interesting discussion because you come into an action movie and you think, “Let’s do a million set-ups.” And we did a million set-ups, that’s another thing — but we never used them so much. Going in, I wanted to make it more classical. Of course, that’s great; it was fun to do. I’m open for everything. As long as you’re working with directors that really want to tell interesting stories and you’re on the same page… it’s so important to work together with directors, to have the same opinion about things. Because then it’s not getting so difficult to do the movie. You’re not afraid of the darkness; you want to play with the colors. Chad was very open; it was really pleasant. And I think we’re going to do #3 now; that’s the plan.

When does that start?

After Christmas, somewhere. I don’t know the details, but the plan is to come back to New York to do some more stuff. I saw a release date in 2018 – May, or something. You have to figure that out.

What’s something we don’t know about del Toro’s working method? Maybe when you’re in the thick of it, what do you see that’s otherwise hidden?

I think he just loves to make movies. For him, I think it’s the best time of his life. Of course, I don’t know anything about that, but he feels so happy on the set – he’s there all the time, never leaving the studio. That’s giving a lot of energy to everybody because, if you have some directors who are there all the time and just pushing the machine forward… it’s such an inspiration to work with Guillermo, because he’s editing all the time. When he’s between takes, he’s editing a little bit. Because the way we’re shooting is so particular.

Every shot is blended together so precise, so he’s using a lot of time to edit, and I think that’s fantastic because the way he’s moving the camera is, as I said before, feels like it’s floating in the water. But he’s really a moviemaking guy: he loves to be there; he’s very keen about every detail; there’s nothing he’s not aware of. He knows everybody on the set. He knows everybody’s names, and all the guys’ girlfriends’ names as well. He has an amazing memory: he talks about Mimic like we shot it yesterday and I don’t remember anything. I’m like, “What are you talking about?” I think his secret is that he loves, loves, loves what he’s doing.

Are you working with him while he’s editing on set?

He’s doing that when I’m lighting. Of course I’m going to look over his shoulder, but he’s just doing that all the time; he’s doing that on his chair when I’m lighting or changing set-ups. He does that a lot, and he does that in the morning and after wrap. So he’s with editors a lot, and that’s very fantastic. We never see dailies; we see the first cut of the scenes the next day, so that’s very inspirational for everybody.

The Shape of Water is now in limited release and expands in the coming weeks.


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