When the lights are out and the magic of cinema transports us into worlds unknown, we never know who or what we might meet. From the Giant of the Snows in Méliès’s CONQUEST OF THE POLES and the first stop motion dinosaurs in the 1925 film THE LOST WORLD, the special effects wizards of film have supplied us with terrifying and wondrous creatures to spur our the imagination. Directed by Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet, CREATURE DESIGNERS: THE FRANKENSTEIN COMPLEX offers us an in-depth history of the development and theory of the building of movie monsters. With interviews from nearly every special effects ‘rock star’ like Rick Baker, Greg Nicotero, Phil Tippett, and Chris Walas, as well as directors like Joe Dante, John Landis, Guillermo del Toro, and Kevin Smith, the film serves as a crash course in how we make real the unreal using every method at our disposal.
By tracing the evolution of film effects from make-up pioneers such as Jack Pierce and the original Universal Studios monster pantheon, to stop-motion, guy in a rubber suit, animatronics, and the inevitable rise of CGI, Penso and Poncet’s film not only discusses the methods by which these creatures are manufactured but also the theory of which methodology works best in each situation.
The heart of the film really comes with the supremacy of computer graphics, with the work of these artists and the animatronic artists going head-to-head JURASSIC PARK. Although it would be easy to see this as a replacement of one skill set with another, the reality is every method in the toolbox is still used today. In fact, much of what the general viewer assumes is CGI is actually a practical effect, something the film does a great job reminding us.
More than just a history lesson, CREATURE DESIGNERS lets us see how amazing artists approach their work, and their passion is contagious. The fluid editing style allows the viewer to be handed off from one creative to another as they pay each other compliments or compare their work. It is fun to see just how connected this world is especially with someone like Phil Tippett, one of most important artists in the STAR WARS universe, who ends up developing a method for motion capture and computer modeling on JURASSIC PARK, despite feeling the entire industry moving away from him. This film is an education and should be showed in every film program in every school. These are artisans who except in a few niche circles, never get the notoriety they deserve.
That being said, there are two problematic oversights in the film. A few stars of the game never get their time to shine. Tom Savini receives one off-hand mention. There are no archival interviews with people like Jack Pierce or Ray Harryhausen, despite everyone acknowledging their influence. And though he is mentioned probably more than anyone else in the documentary, there are no interviews with Rob Bottin (THE HOWLING, THE THING, LEGEND, ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL).
More disappointing is the entire lack of female presence in the film. Sure maybe women have not been at the forefront of leading special-effects teams, but there are certainly female directors working with special effects. This might also be a great opportunity to discuss why there were no women working in this industry for many years and discuss the new opportunities that seem to be open. To ignore this question is as sexist as an industry that held these doors closed. Why not interview Wendy Froud, one of the primary artists behind Yoda, not to mention the puppets of DARK CRYSTAL and LABYRINTH? There was even a lengthy discussion in the film about Yoda in the original STAR WARS versus the PHANTOM MENACE, and puppetry versus CGI. Why not sit down with Victoria Alonso, Marvel Studios’ EVP of visual effects and post production, who on more than one occasion has been outspoken on the visual effects gender gap? Why not get Sara Bennett on screen, the first female VFX Supervisor to ever win an Oscar (EX-MACHINA), or Suzanne Benson, winner in 1986 for ALIENS (a film series that is mentioned probably 100 times in the film without mentioning her name) – but who did not get the credit due to the Oscar rules limiting eligibility to craftspeople (rather than producers) until 1998.
It’s a notable void in an otherwise fantastic documentary. All told, Penso and Poncet’s should help inspire the next generation of movie monster artists answers a fitting celebration to the foundations we build the future on.
CREATURE DESIGNERS: THE FRANKENSTEIN COMPLEX made its North American premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival this weekend.