Carleton grad up for Academy Award

This year’s Oscar field features some Carleton connections. Paul Austerberry, an architecture graduate, was nominated for best production design for his work on The Shape of Water.

The movie, directed by Guillermo Del Toro, stars Sadie Hawkins as Eliza, a woman who befriends an amphibious creature held at a government facility during the Cold War. The Shape of Water also stars Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, and Richard Jenkins.

Austerberry called the nomination “pretty spectacular” and compared it to playing for the Stanley Cup.

“We’re a fairly small movie in the grand scheme of things . . . and we’re up against some pretty big-budget movies like Blade Runner 2049, so it’s quite an honour to be nominated with that calibre of movies,” he said.

He was waiting for a taxi in Ottawa when he heard he had been nominated, then his phone “exploded.” One of his favourite congratulatory calls was a profanity-laden message from Shape of Water producer J. Miles Dale.

Austerberry had been working with Del Toro on the sequel to 2013’s Pacific Rim, and later joined him to work on The Shape of Water.

Austerberry called him “such a visual storyteller,” and their collaborative relationship was key to his approach to the film.

“Just in the script alone, when you read the script, there was so much description . . . You could imagine this world he was writing,” he said. “It’s nice when your work is appreciated and someone talks the same language as you when we’re developing the visual world to set this movie in.”

Del Toro would also frequently visit the art department, and, according to Austerberry, there was lots of pressure to keep him on his toes.

One of Austerberry’s main goals was to contrast the two distinct worlds featured in the film—the more romantic, fantasy-like world of Eliza and the “brutalist, concrete” world of the government facilities.

“Visually, I wanted to tell the tale architecturally and materialistically with that look, and contrast that with this other world where she lives in a slightly fantasy world,” he said.

The film features other Canadian connections, as it was shot in Toronto and Hamilton and had a large number of Canadian crew members. Del Toro himself has a home in Toronto.

Austerberry graduated in 1989 with a degree in architecture, a career he had wanted to pursue since he was 10 years old. But in the years after graduating, he felt he wasn’t as “intrigued” by the career path, and started to explore working in Toronto’s burgeoning film scene.

“I realized that my architectural design experience and education really was very flexible,” he said. “Basically, it was a way to open your eyes and look at the world, a way to understand 3-D space.”

He credits Carleton’s architecture program for allowing him to develop his own creative abilities, and these are skills that have been big assets for him within the film industry.

“All those skills actually translated very easily into the art department,” he added. “Film design was like fake architecture, and the script was like your client.”

Austerberry has also worked on films like Death Race, Pompeii, and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.

According to Austerberry, the strong Canadian presence of the film is a “testament to the strong film industry here in Canada.”

“It shows the world that we have the skills and creativity to do top-notch films here,” he said.

Looking ahead to the awards ceremony, Austerberry is more looking forward to meeting other film designers who have been nominated, such as Sarah Greenwood and Dennis Gassner, rather than some of the more famous Oscar nominees.

“We’re not really starstruck as much on movies,” he said. 

Photo provided