GUILLERMO DEL TORO (the director of “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Pacific Rim”) was six years old when he watched the American horror classic “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954). It made a deep impression, but perhaps not the one you might expect. What struck Mr del Toro was not the fearsomeness of the creature’s mien but the injustice of his unrequited love for the leading lady, played by Julie Adams, and his tragic demise. “The Shape of Water”, nominated for 13 Academy Awards, is the director’s paean to the silver-screen, inter-species love affair that never was.

A challenge intrinsic to this aim was creating an erotic and desirable leading fish-man (Doug Jones). Few would remember the creature from the original film as a sex symbol but in this film, Elisa’s (Sally Hawkins) growing attraction to the creature had to be believable. It was also crucial to Mr del Toro that the audience fall a little in love with him too. Mike Hill, a British-born artist and special-effects expert with a love of classic movie monsters as profound as Mr del Toro’s own, was recruited.

Where do you begin when sculpting a river-dwelling leading man from scratch? The lips. “That’s where you look if you’re going to kiss someone,” Mr Hill explains. The trick was to tread the finest of lines between features that might initially seem alien and monstrous, but which could, over time and greater acquaintance, transform into those of a sensual and attractive romantic lead. (“We also spent a lot of time on the butt,” Mr Hill confided. “Guillermo would take photographs and show them to his family to ask them if it was sexy enough.”) 

The first stage involved sketches, followed by small busts. After these had been approved small models were made in clay, followed by life-sized versions in latex, built around full-body moulds taken of Mr Jones’s body. These later iterations might each take weeks of moulding to fine-tune details, including the precise positioning of the gills and shape of the nose. Although some things—such as the movement of those gills—were built into the costume and manipulated by remote-controlled animatronics, other touches—blinking eyes, for example—were added in post-production. (Each extra mechanical intervention required space inside the costume, which would mean altering the proportions.) From initial sketches to finished costume, the leading man took three years to create, according to Mr del Toro.

The final costume, which Mr Jones wore each day on set and included webbed-fingered gloves, took him three hours and a good deal of help to squeeze into. (Acting in full-body costumes can be incredibly difficult for actors. Mr Jones, however, specialises in them and has been working with Mr del Toro since 1997, when he took a turn as a shape-shifting cockroach.) Given the time and expense involved in such work, and the development of ever-more-sophisticated CGI, it’s tempting to ask why film-makers would use special-effects artists and actors. 

One reason has to do with the performances of the other actors on set. Many find it far easier to give a compelling performance when interacting with another person as opposed to a stick—often used to mark eye level when an entirely computer-animated beast is going to be added in post-production. Mr del Toro and Mr Hill also note that audiences find it easier to suspend disbelief when there’s really someone there. That was particularly crucial here, where the “monster” was the romantic lead. “We didn’t even want the audience to think about him not being real,” Mr Hill said. But the true test is the creature’s sexiness. “I’ve been happily surprised”, he says, “to hear so many ladies find him really attractive.” So much so that not only has the costume inspired a fish-man themed adult item, but it garnered much admiration on set too. “The butt really was very sexy,” Mr Hill explained, modestly.