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The Shape of Water and the Power of the Silent Performance

the shape of water poster 202x300 - The Shape of Water and the Power of the Silent PerformanceThis past Sunday we saw writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s new masterpiece The Shape of Water take home four of the Academy Awards it was nominated for. Like many of you guys out there, I was struck with a kind of childlike wonder by the images del Toro put on the screen for his take on The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Most of all, I fell in love with the film’s use of not just one, but two major characters who are silent from frame one until the credits rolled.

Creating an emotionally moving character is not an easy feat by any means. But creating TWO emotionally moving characters in a single film – that are for all intents and purposes silent – is an accomplishment that will keep this film floating for years and years to come.

To give you guys a bit of backstory on me and my fascination with silent characters, you need to know that I have spent the better part of the last five years as an animation director. Sure, that’s not how I make my cash these days, but I have put in countless hours into the craft of animation and attempting to create instantly lovable and involving characters from scratch.

While the animation I directed was mostly dialogue-driven, with Video Stars and Roomies being my major contributions to the form, one Christmas my brother and I attempted to create a moving short without the use of so much as a mutter of dialogue.

The short we produced was called Snow Cane (get it?) and it was by far the most beloved piece of animation we ever produced. The story revolves around a candy cane that loses its way on Christmas and must contend with a rogue snowball that is out for blood. Be warned: The short isn’t horror, but all the same I like to believe it is a magical (can I use that word?) three-minute journey through a new subgenre of kid’s Christmas comedy.

Anyhow, with that short going so well, we decided to produce another without the use of dialogue. What we can up with was a piece called Fat Dog. It is exactly what it sounds like.

All of this isn’t an attempt to bring light to my animation videos – far from it, actually. This article is only meant to be about del Toro’s film and the use of non-verbal characters. Sharing my work in animation is merely a means to show you guys that I’ve thought this topic through time and time again.

But what does this have to do with horror? Well, this rule applies to our beloved genre as well. I think it is safe to say that most of us here are massive fans of both Jason from the Friday the 13th series and Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, to name a few. Both of these characters are almost totally silent for all of their appearances in all of their entries in their respective franchises. Michael Myers from Halloween. Duh. That’s another one.

What I’m trying to point out here is that for all of you filmmakers out there – and screenwriter/novelists for that matter – do not overlook the power of the silent performance/character. I know it can be too easy in this post-Quentin Tarantino world to try to impress people with your character’s wit and quick tongue, but don’t be afraid to let their actions speak louder than their words. In fact, I dare you to try a totally silent character/performance for your next film, novel, or screenplay. Novels aren’t so much what I’m talking about here, but as far as scripts and movies go, this fits right in with the number one rule of filmmaking, which is to “show not tell.”

Del Toro’s The Shape of Water conveys such an emotional film in only glances between its leading silent characters. Their classic romance is merely a series of looks, subtle shifts in facial expressions. This is what animators refer to as the child and animal effect. Basically, it says that we as humans love babies and animals because they are silent. Thus, we can project whatever we want into the expressions. Silence is a massively enduring quality for a character to possess because it lets us as an audience put our own hopes and fears into the character.

In the case of someone like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, or Leatherface, we are terrified of them because we can only imagine they’re thinking the scariest shit not even our worst nightmares could conjure. Same goes for The Shape of Water, or for that matter something like Wall-E. We love these characters because they can be thinking the sweetest words and thoughts that not even Shakespeare could produce into text – let alone speech.

I hope you enjoyed my ramblings here. Let me know what you think below!


The Shape of Water is directed by Guillermo del Toro, written by Vanessa Taylor & del Toro, and stars Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stulbarg, and Doug Jones.


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