Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex ('Le complexe de Frankenstein'): Fantasia Review

Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival
A welcome history of character FX for geeks and casual fans alike.

Legends of monster design provide a colorful introduction to their craft.

An ode to an endangered art form that refuses to succumb to "those were the days" nostalgia, Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex chronicles the evolution of the practical makeup effects used to make monsters in the movies. Jammed with enough interview footage to delight even fanboys who know most of this stuff already, Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet's doc is by no means too geeky for more casual fans to enjoy. It will play very well at fests and should enjoy a healthy afterlife on video.

"I am to rubber monsters what Chris Nolan is to film," Guillermo Del Toro said as he introduced the doc in Montreal, foreshadowing the sentiments of many of its interviewees, who pledge that the age of CGI will not kill the mask, puppet and animatronic techniques developed during cinema's first century. (The director, receiving the fest's Cheval Noir award, gave a long Q&A about monster design and other subjects after the screening.) In fact, one of the film's revelations for casual moviegoers is the extent to which practical effects and digital ones coexist these days. Next time you assume that fantastic beastie onscreen is made of pixels, take a closer look.

But history is high on the agenda here, and the directors play things fairly straight, examining each of the building blocks of monster-making in turn. We hear how makeup artists had to invent a new job description, Special Makeup Effects, for their built-up prosthetics, and hear shout-outs to the field's granddads Lon Chaney, Sr. and Jack Pierce; we look at stop-motion animation and hear, of course, about the inspirational work of Ray Harryhausen and Willis O'Brien. Later, modern masters of animatronic puppetry will recall a giant ice monster built way back in the silent era by Georges Melies.

Our guides are not tweedy film historians, but the field's pioneers themselves — a deep bench of effects stars ranging from Phil Tippett and Rick Baker to Chris Walas, the man behind the Gremlins, and Tom Woodruff, Jr., who as part of his work on the Alien franchise spent lots of time wearing icky alien suits. Only rarely does an actual director make the cut, and always — as when John Landis and Joe Dante recall the groundbreaking transformations in their rival werewolf movies — he earns his time onscreen.

Somewhere around that Wolfen/American Werewolf in London conversation, viewers may notice they're not seeing as many extended film clips as they expect, or want. Whether it's a matter of licensing costs or a desire to focus on the character design itself, the film spends much screen time looking at after-the-fact models immortalizing creations like the Karloff Frankenstein or the horned devil of Ridley Scott's Legend. We do, however, get a fair bit of behind-the-scenes footage showing artists testing their inventions during pre-production. Most of the real pleasure, though, comes from hearing stories from an age when studios would pay these artists to spend months and months inventing things the world had never seen.

 

Production company: Frenetic Arts

Directors-Screenwriters-Directors of photography: Gilles Penso, Alexandre Poncet         

Producer-Composer: Alexandre Poncet

Editor: Gilles Penso

Venue: Fantasia Film Festival

 

106 minutes

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