If you’ve ever seen a Guillermo del Toro movie, you know that they have a certain look to them. None ever looks like the one before it, but there’s a level of detail and extravagance in the frame, uniting them, that’s unmatched by any other filmmaker working today.

And that’s great for moviegoers. For his art departments, that’s a lot of pressure.

Speaking with EW for our feature story on the making of del Toro’s latest, The Shape of Water (in select theaters now), production designer Paul Austerberry walked us through the conception, design, and execution of just one of the film’s visual elements — a wall in the apartment inhabited by Elisa, the mute cleaning lady played by Sally Hawkins, that only appeared to be blank.

Austerberry, who described his experience on the film as “exciting, but also a little intimidating,” came to understand soon after beginning to work on The Shape of Water that his director was someone with a vested interest in his department.

“The challenge was that Guillermo has a huge appetite for the art department,” Austerberry said. “After creature design, it’s his most favorite department to be involved with. One of the biggest challenges was to keep him satiated.” Every morning, del Toro would swing by the art department first thing, to see what the artists has dreamt up since his last visit. For Austerberry and his team, that meant creating at a rapid speed and a quality that met what del Toro’s expectation.

One of the director’s asks for Austerberry a giant wall in Elisa’s apartment. The loft, located above a cinema, was a large but bare space in which every object held purpose and importance. The wall couldn’tjust be a wall. It needed to be an art piece in and of itself.

wave wall layout
Credit: Paul Austerberry

Since he had already been working with water as a theme for Elisa’s apartment, Austerberry sought out the most famous depictions of water in art history, eventually settling on the ubiquitous Japanese wood carving “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” which may have hung on the wall of your dorm. The first step was to create a computer drawing of what the finished wall would look like. “I was nervous because it’s a bit literal,” Austerberry said. “But he loved it.”

Wave wall progress 2
Credit: Paul Austerberry

The plan was to paint the wall with pigmented plaster that would add dimensionality and texture to the wall. There was one small problem. “It was really obvious,” Austerberry said. “Guillermo came to me one day and said, ‘Paul, it really looks like the painting. It’s so obvious.'” But after another round of aging and distressing, the art faded into the wall, leaving the subtle hint of something just below the surface.

Wave wall final 1
Credit: Paul Austerberry
Wave wall final 2
Credit: Paul Austerberry

The Shape of Water is in limited release now.

The Shape of Water
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