[Fantasia 2016] Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex
Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex is a documentary about practical effects designers in Hollywood. It explores the evolution of the art over nearly 100 years, from Lon Chaney's (The Phantom of the Opera) self-taught makeup techniques to the height of monster movie madness in the 80's (An American Werewolf in London, The Thing, Predator), and finally to the modern era of CGI and digital effects. The movie touches on iconic on-screen monsters such as Terminator 2's T-1000 and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, and adds behind-the-scenes stories from their creators. Creature Designers is relevant for both genre buffs and casual film fans.
That Frankenstein, Gremlins and Xenomorphs are such recognisable monsters in pop culture speaks to how talented their creators were in constructing these nuanced characters. In addition to talking-head segments that are typical of this sort of documentary, there are many behind-the-scenes and self-recorded clips of designers building and testing their film monsters. This footage alone should prove that you don't have to be a fan of monster movies to enjoy this film. It helps the viewers understand why these artists once felt like self-proclaimed rock stars and also why they struggled, both personally and professionally, with the advent of CGI.
Despite having access to such behind-the-scenes clips, it's clear that the filmmakers were unable to secure the rights to show clips of certain movies themselves, Star Wars being the most glaring example. This is when the movie becomes more reliant on interviews, albeit from various sources, from the special effects people themselves to other Hollywood fans of the genre. Nevertheless, Creature Designers remains both enlightening and entertaining – for those of you who aren't into monster movies, it could even make you want to see what you've missed from the log list of genre classics covered by this film.
After the screening, Fantasia fans had the good luck to participate in a master class with director Guillermo del Toro, who is featured in the film. The way he talked about his palpable passion for monsters reinforced what an influence monster makers from decades ago have had on contemporary films, including his own. At one point, he compared practical effects to vaudeville. This may not sound particularly flattering at first, but his explanation was insightful: both are art forms which, while seemingly out-of-date, are still passed down and taught by one generation to another. In an age of overused green screens and one too many Transformers sequels, it's an encouraging sentiment for film fans.