Dan Laustsen, ASC – Shape of Water

Set during the height of the Cold War in 1962, the Shape of Water applauds and at the same time subverts the classic film genres of science fiction and romance. At times frightening and at other times absolutely heartbreaking, the story updates The Creature from the Black Lagoon for modern audiences through a humorous, tense, and at many times absolutely adorable exploration of the heart, fear, and trust. In a love letter penned by director Guillermo Del Toro and cowriter Vanessa Taylor to the hallmark days of classic American science fiction, Shape of Water follows the silent Sally as she discovers a forbidden love with a creature unlike any she’s ever known.

Premiering at the Venice Film Festival in August of 2017, where it won the prestigious Golden Lion for Best Film, Shape of Water has gone on to receive a massive 13 Oscar nominations, including a nod to cinematographer Dan Laustsen, ASC, DFF. Known for highly stylized blockbusters like John Wick Chapter 2, Silent Hill, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Brotherhood of the Wolf, Laustsen made heavy use of practicals to  to meet the many challenges he faced on Shape of Water, like neon, which surrounds the sets with color while establishing the epoch of the late fifties in which the film takes place.

Dan Lausten ASC: Best Picture Oscar Winner for “Shape of Water”

The production also stayed as mobile with lighting as they did with the camerawork, which was largely handheld. While they relied on elaborate computer graphics for a few of the key underwater scenes, there was also a lot of real world work with water tanks. Wholly embracing a definitive color palette, Laustsen made extremely effective use of color, coupling subtle touches like bright red exit signs and bright, shocking splatters of blood with sickly green hues, even going so far as to desaturate entirely during an imaginative dance number.

Even more challenging to light, del Toro mapped out the entire film in his head. From one fluid shot to the next, this required extensive single takes that would traverse around the actors and the scenery as if dancers. These continuous camera movements helped to propel the two hour romance into an action film, but from a practical standpoint, literally, lighting for 360-degrees of motion can be difficult, to say the least.

Laustsen previously won the prestigious Golden Frog at Camerimage for the film I Am Dina. Born in Denmark, he graduated from the Danish national Film School in 1979. A member of the Danish Society of Cinematographers as well as the ASC since this last summer, Laustsen is currently slated to film a remake of the 1947 film Nightmare Alley with del Toro next.


You’ve worked with Del Toro often, but you’re actually more known for action. These last two films with him are also very meditative in pacing; what is it about your camera work that made him look to you for Shape of Water and Crimson Peak?

Dan Laustsen, ASC: Our relationship goes all the way back to Mimic, and that was 20 years ago. That was Guillermo’s first American movie, and my second American movie, so both of us were really open, and not afraid of anything. We did Mimic, and that was a really bad movie, and a tough production to do because Miramax was giving Guillermo a very hard time. But we went through it and it was also really fun to do, because it was so dark and atmospheric, which we loved, and then we split up for like 20 years.

We spoke a little bit on the phone, past that period, because I was often shooting in East Europe and he would be shooting. So we talked about crew members and stuff like that, but never met. And then he called me when I was shooting in Prague and said, “I’m going to do this fantastic movie! I want you to be a part of it!” I said, “Of course! Of course!”

I flew over there on location scouting and we met again for the first time in twenty years. And it was just like we’d seen each other two days ago. So there was already a really strong relationship professionally, which was fantastic. But I think it’s more that we have the same feelings and same tastes about colors, camera movements, lighting… I think that’s more the reason that we’ve worked so well together, because we have exactly the same taste and ideas about how to shoot a movie. I think it’s just a way of lighting I love, don’t be afraid of the shadows, but don’t do it so dark that you can’t see anything. I think that’s one of the reasons he likes what I’m doing.

You had a very noir approach to the lighting. It’s almost like you’re lighting with shadow?

Dan Laustsen, ASC: I tried to do that! Because I think shadow is a strong part of storytelling. The contrast between light and shadowing is very, very important. I think that’s what actually works so extremely well on Shape of Water, because “Sally” has to look like a princess, more and more, during the film as it is going on. It’s not flat lighting. It’s single-source lighting. She has, perhaps, a “dark side”, but mostly we used nice, bright highlights.

I loved the shot of the turbine in the hangar, and of course all the hallways and everything are lit so eccentrically to sort of animate the mindsets of these trapped characters. What were you using in terms of lighting? What were your lighting kits? What were you using to shape and flag?

Dan Laustsen, ASC:  It was a small movie so we had a lot of problems with that. I think it was roughly 19-1/2-million-dollars budget and a fifty-five day shoot, plus everything is shot in one camera. There are a lot of camera movements, of course, so everything is shot on a Steadicam, or on a dolly, with a hot head on. We also couldn’t afford to to have catwalks around the sets, so that was just kind of a drag, especially because the sets were so tall and wide.

So all the key lights had to come from above. What I was doing, a lot, we would try to track the camera with handheld lighting from the camera’s axis. We’ll be starting with a big wide shot, like the first time Sally is coming in to the lab, for example, and the fish man is going into the tank. That’s a big, wide Steadicam shot, which comes in to a close-up of her.

So we are carrying an LED light, together with the camera, at a 45 degree angle to keep the close up of her lit very, very nicely. On Crimson Peak, we had the money, so we could put lights in the frame and just paint it out later on. We didn’t have those monies for the Shape of Water, so we had to be more practical with our lighting, and more straightforward.

We would carry some of our key lights into close ups, and I think that worked pretty well. I’m using negative fill all the time, too. That’s more so that we can come in closer. The brakes would come in, and flags, so a lot of negative fill. As much as possible we wanted to have this “direction” look of the light. The light had to have a direction, and that can change from shot to shot.

Sometimes we were using an old fashioned camera light, just above the camera. You know, a small 300w, with diffusion on, just to lift up her eyes a little bit. We used that in the bus, for example, where she’s sitting there and she feels happy. We had this small 300 camera light just above the camera to lift her up a little bit.

You’re so well choreographed in this that your camera was almost a third character in many of these sort of romantic scenes. It seemed very much like you were shooting it in a musical style. Was there a lot of choreography in terms of like setting up your camera movements with the lighting as well? There must have been a lot of rehearsal time?

Dan Laustsen, ASC: Not rehearsal so much, because we were on a really tight schedule, and Guillermo is never shooting a master. The reason it feels like the camera is floating all the time is because of the way in which Guillermo is organizing all his shots. He’s cutting from one movement to another movement. We were never shooting a master, you know, where you’re tracking in to the mark, you’re tracking in to the close-up. That’s not the way we were shooting it.

We would start camera with a hand, then going up to a face, and kind of around the characters, and then go from the neck up to a face, to the face again. It feels like the camera is floating all the time. And that’s the reason the movie works so well, I think, because Guillermo knows exactly how and when he’s going to cut his stuff together.

He does! The camera movements really made the action move forward. It just kept flowing and flowing and flowing.

Dan Laustsen, ASC: The camera is moving all the time and as a cinematographer, that’s fantastic, but you know it’s difficult to light it, because the cameras were never in the same place, never on the same angle. That’s the reason we did as much as we can do with handheld lighting, so we could track with the camera as it moved.

But what I did a lot was to double diffuse. You know we were coming out from a medium shot coming in to a close up. I was always using double diffusion on the heads, with a 250w, and than Hollywood Frost gels for Sally. I was trying to bring the key light as close to the frame as I can, and I think it worked pretty well.

But I think one of the reasons that we feel so floating is because of the way Guillermo was organized. He’s telling with the camera. The camera is a third character, all the time, and it’s amazing. It’s definitely a challenge to shoot that, but it was also fun.

These two main characters are practically mute through the whole film, so you were really selling their interactions with each other just by the way that you were reacting to the way that you were reacting to you.

Dan Laustsen, ASC: Yeah for sure. And we’re also changing the lighting a lot. In the beginning, her world is steel blues, greens, and cyans. Then when the fish man comes into her life, we are changing that life into a more warm atmosphere, throughout her apartment. When they’re falling in love for the first time, they’re in the bathroom, and then she’s leaving the room and she’s going to a big bed, all those sets are much much warmer compared to how it was lit in the beginning. We tried to make it be more romantic, and we tried to make the lighting a little more romantic, as well.

That hallway was very much a metaphor for what was going on in the narrative. Sometimes it was very red, sometimes is very green. I loved your color palette!

Dan Laustsen, ASC: We just changed the lighting to the story when the story was changing. As I said before, Sally had to look like a princess all the time and I think she’s looking more and more beautiful while the movie’s going on. While the tough guy, he’s looking a little bit more evil, as well. We’re getting low on camera and using a little bit more side-lights for a more rough look.

And similarly, how did you light the creature? Because the creature was so beautiful and pretty in this…

Dan Laustsen, ASC: That’s Guillermo’s design, together with the creature guys. Those guys did such a wonderful job. It was just amazing. We did a test with all the makeup and hair and all the actors, and the creature, as well. Guillermo was not crazy about the color of the creature, so they repainted the costume in the last second, so that helped a lot. The design of the creature is amazing.

I was not approaching it like something you are not allowed to see. I was approaching the creature like a beautiful, handsome guy. In the beginning, he had to be a little bit more mysterious, but still very strong. It was not like when we shot Mimic, in the old days, where we would have to hide the creatures in the shadows. Because this creature is not an evil guy, this creature is a hero. So that was the reason I was lighting him like a hero, and he was just so beautiful. We changed a little bit how much you saw of them during the movie of course. And the colors, as well.

Were you doing a lot of gelling or were you swapping out lighting systems? I saw a lot of really effective use of practicals.

Dan Laustsen, ASC: When we’re preparing a movie with Guillermo, we talk about color palletes. We’re never watching movies; he has his concept drawings. So he made a concept drawing for each set as a guideline, and then we would take it from there. We’re talked a lot about practicals, a lot about wall colors, costume colors, and all this. We spent a lot of time to do that because I think it’s such an important part of the look of the movies; what colors in the walls, what colors in the wardrobe, and stuff like that.

Most of the stuff in the sets we shot with LED lights running into a dimmer board. We were using a lot of steel blue color gels. Maybe you can find that on an LED panel, but it doesn’t work for me, so I was always going neutral, at 3200º, on the LED lights. And then I was gelling the lights. I prefer to gel lights right now because there are so many variations on the LED lights, and if you are not right on, it’s so easy to make a mistake. So I prefer to go neutral, a little bit old fashioned. Go to 3200 on the LED and gel them. I’m not changing the color in the LED lights. I’m going as if it was a normal 3200K light and then I’m gelling for a little bit more orange, or for cooler, the same with a blue. I prefer to have gels on the head instead of changing it.

What was your lighting system?

Dan Laustsen, ASC: It was a pretty small movie, so we used all kinds of stuff. Kino Flos. Everything inside the sets were LED. We could dim up and down, because you know it’s so easy and so fast to do that, run it into a dimmer board and just go 10 points up or 10 points down.

Let’s step back to camera?

Dan Laustsen, ASC: We used the Alexa XT, Open Gate at 3.2K. I was shooting with Master Primes. I think the Master Primes, for my taste, are the best lenses you can buy for the money. What I like about them is that they’re unforgiving. If you make a mistake, you can see it right away. There’s nothing coming for free with those lenses, but their performance is so amazing, and I’m never needing to use a filter in front of the lens. Because if I’m getting a flare, I want to have a lens flare, not a filter flare.

On the Shape of Water, we had a quarter black Pro Mist behind the lens, inside the camera. Especially for Sally, she needed a little bit of help from the diffusion, and that was good for the time period of the film as well. We got a little bit of glow from the practicals, and in the beginning, we thought about taking the filter out for the guys, but we didn’t do that. I think the jump (*between filtrations) was getting too big.

We shot the whole movie with a “diffusion” feeling, inside the camera, and all the colors are also one-to-one, what we did on the set. The color correction and what we got from the DIT is what is in the movie. We didn’t touch any colors in the DI. Guillermo called me during post while I’m living in Denmark, and said, “Don’t bother to come to Toronto. The movie looks fantastic, I don’t want you to touch it.”

I like putting power windows (*similar to masking) in now and then, to lift up the shadows, and take the shadow down a little bit, but more or less nothing is changed. Most of the stuff was power windows for bringing a wall down in lighting. Sometimes you’re so busy on the stage you cannot put a flag or take fifteen minutes to alter lighting, but you can take that down in two minutes in the DI. But all the colors are exactly as we shot it, and that was very very important to Guillermo and me, of course, to keep the colors, because we spent a lot of time to do the look “in the camera”, so we didn’t want to change that.

That sickly green sort of color palette that you guys use should be so terrible, but it ended up being so romantic in this situation, and than the reverse where the reds ended up being so violent rather than romantic. Especially because you set everything up so green until that first flash of blood and then the splash of blood was so shocking. Wonderful, wonderful color used in this movie!

Dan Laustsen, ASC: Thank you. Guillermo had a really, really good eye there, and Paul Denham Austerberry, as well, the production designer. We would talk about colors a lot. When you’re talking so much about colors and everything is so well, you cannot just go into the DI and just change it. Because it is so easy to change it, but it’s just going to change everything.

What about the the black and white scene? I imagine you desaturated because it looked like a single take going into that situation, and the use of lighting there was so effective, too.

Dan Laustsen, ASC: We talked about it, that it should be like an old fashioned Hollywood Fred Astaire dancing. I don’t know if I mentioned, the first time I heard about this movie was when we shot Crimson Peak. Guillermo came up to me one day and said, “you know I have this fantastic story that we have to do,” and I said, “Ok, that’s great. What is it about?”

“It’s about a girl that cannot speak and a fish man,” laughs Laustsen, “and then I want to shoot in black and white.” I was jumping up and down and said, yeah of course, let’s do that, because as you know all of the cinematographers in the world want to shoot in black and white. But we couldn’t. I was looking at monochromatic Alexas and stuff like that, but nobody allows you to shoot monochromatic because there’s no way back. It’s like you are shooting on a black and white film stock.

So when we had to do that dance sequence, I was very excited about getting him into the monochromatic Alexa again. But it’s so difficult to convince them, because theater wants to have a way out, so we shot that with the same camera that we used on the whole movie, the Arri Alexa XT. (A little bit of underwater stuff we shot with the Alexa Mini.) We did the black and white in the DI, and, again, that black and white look was not done in the DI. We changed the colors into black and white on the set, and that went to the DI, as well (*for reference).

The lighting was a big soft overhead, like a 50’ x 60’ overhead, for the whole set. Than we had small LED bag lights, but the key lights on the dance were two follow-spots. We wanted that feeling from the 30s. That was a pretty simple lighting setup, which worked really well. We shot all that with a Technocrane. That’s another reason it feels a little bit more old-fashioned compared to the rest of movie, because the rest is shot movement-by-movement. But this is more like push-in and push-out, boom-right, boom-left.

Lastly, I want to talk a little about the underwater work. You used this dry-for-wet technique?

Dan Laustsen, ASC: The beginning of the movie is totally CG, until we are coming into the hallway. The hallway was an enormous set. We had a lot of discussions about how to do it. Did we want to go wet-for-wet? Did we want to go dry-for-wet? We shot a couple of tests, and what we did was put a lot of small film projectors up. Because on that set, we had a catwalk around it. Sally’s apartment was the only set we had a catwalk around.

So we put film projectors up there and we made a water plate. We put that into a computer, and the computer was feeding all the projectors, so that the light was moving around a little bit like you were in a swimming pool. That was our key light. And a lot of smoke.  That shot is Steadicam, in the beginning, and of course she’s on wires. We shot at a little bit of a high speed to make it a bit more “floating”, and the CG people added in fish, and elements.

For the bookending end sequence, we did the same technique, but there was a much bigger setup, because we had to show some really wide shots underwater. So we have two 20K film projectors on 40’ Condors in a studio, and tons of smoke again, plus a little bit of backlight on the floor to separate them from the background. A lot of a lot of smoke and two 20K projectors with the same kind of movement, “in the water” movement and we shot the whole sequence high speed and on a crane there. It sounds easy, but it’s a little bit complicated!

See more from Dan Lausten ASC