The Shape of Water

Centennial College grad helped breathe life into The Shape of Water’s creature

'It was great to see my work on screen and know that I contributed to this film,' says Nikita Lebedev.

At the age of 5, Nikita Lebedev was always drawing and designing creatures. Not much has changed. He now works as a creature and character artist at the visual-effects company Mr. X Inc., which has been featured in productions from The Strain and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter to this year’s Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water.

“I’m mostly bringing the creatures and characters to life by adding a certain level of detail to them,” Lebedev said. “Most of the time I’m given rough sketches and have to create sculptures that are anatomically correct.”

Working on The Shape of Water for seven to eight months, he was responsible for creating the creature’s facial expressions and movement that helped bring the sense of realism to Guillermo del Toro’s film. Using 3-D scans of the actor, Doug Jones, in costume as reference, Lebedev created a digital replica of the creature and sculpted the details to make it as believable as possible.

“Everything had to be perfect,” Lebedev said. “Del Toro has ridiculous eyes and picked out the costume’s minor details that still needed to be worked on.”

Anatomy is an important factor that Lebedev felt should be fully understood before getting started in the industry because, in terms of creature designs, it’s the first time anyone is seeing it. By adding familiar details, the audience is able to believe that the creature would exist in real life.

“My knowledge of anatomy was a key component when creating the creature’s facial expressions,” Lebedev said. “It helped bring a more realistic performance in the film.”

Throughout his creative process, Lebedev gets inspiration from video games, movies, TV shows, and nature.

“I recently went to Brazil, and there were so many animals, birds, insects, and plants that can just spark an idea,” he said. “My brain starts to process the images to mix and match those things together and create a ‘hell version’ of them.”

Video games such as Dark Souls, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and The Evil Within are some of Lebedev’s favourite because of their amazing design work.

Books are also something he finds beneficial to his sculpting.

“When reading, I picture it like a movie in your head, since there are no pictures to refer to,” Lebedev said.

Growing up, he was particularly fond of the Resident Evil games and was able to work on the last film, but The Shape of Water is his favourite project because people were able to see more of his work due to the multiple close-ups of the creature’s face.

“It was great to see my work on screen and know that I contributed to this film,” he said.

Lebedev is also a part-time professor for the Digital Animation program at Centennial College. He worked as a tutor during his time as a student until transitioning to teaching.

“I enjoy sharing my knowledge with others, and I’m planning on making some tutorials in the future, as well,” he said. “The most rewarding part of teaching is seeing the students’ artistic growth and improvement in their work.”