Creature Designers - The Frankenstein Complex


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Creature Designers - The Frankenstein Complex
"Clearly a labour of love, this is a fitting tribute to an industry that has brought dreams to life for generations."

After the superb Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, the news that Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet were planning another venture into the world of special effects sent a thrill down many a spine. The good news is that this new documentary is every bit as intriguing and every bit as thorough as its predecessor. It's nearly two hours in length and barely a minute goes by without something of value being shown or said. This may be a bit overwhelming for newcomers to the subject, but the film also manages to be consistently entertaining and can be enjoyed on multiple levels.

The subject is covered in roughly chronological order, beginning early in the 20th Century with the first experiments in creating creatures that thrilled the audiences of their day, unaccustomed as they were to such things. It pays due tribute to the great Rick Baker and the actors who helped bring his creations to life, touches lightly on Harryhausen and celebrates the man-in-a-rubber-suit period that began with Godzilla before moving on to its main focus, the revolution that took place in the Seventies and Eighties as new materials and techniques changed the industry's understanding of what was possible - and changed audience expectations in the process.

Copy picture

Iconic films like Star Wars (with its cantina scene one of the first to show aliens as, well, alien), The Thing (a chance for creature designers to really let their imaginations go) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (an early example of CGI work but much more dependent on physical effects than most people realise). Joe Dante and John Landis go head to head to discuss the moment they realised their werewolf films - The Howling and An American Werewolf In London - were going to come out in the same year, with Dante admitting to stealing ideas developed for Landis' film, though fortunately both of them are laughing about it today. They're just part of a great line-up of participants, including designers like Steve Johnson and Phil Tippett, who have amazing stories to tell, and directors like Kevin Smith and Guillermo Del Toro. The latter has something to say about pretty much everything and his passion for "big monsters", as he puts it, comes through strongly throughout.

Alongside all the interview materials, we get to see numerous famous creatures at different stages in their development. Actors flounder around working out how to get suits to move properly for the Alien films, or chase technicians through the studio whilst dressed in undecorated velociraptor suits from Jurassic Park. We are shown hoe designs move from ink sketches to clay ones, and see the complicated metal skeletons and cabling required to bring creatures like Hellboy II: The Golden Army's Death to life. Unfortunately there isn't time to go into depth about the materials used, though we see how different types of latex allow for better and better creatures - and likewise, skills like marionette use are mentioned only briefly - leaving one with the impression that this subject really deserves a TV series - but there is never a sense that any time is wasted.

Clearly a labour of love, this is a fitting tribute to an industry that has brought dreams to life for generations. There's a sadness towards the end as the designers contemplate the impact of CGI and worry about the future, but there are still a good number of directors and producers out there who prefer practical effects work or see combining it with CGI as the natural way forward, so we can hope that this art will continue long into the future.

Reviewed on: 30 Sep 2016
Share this with others on...
Creature Designers - The Frankenstein Complex packshot
A documentary about the creation of movie monsters, aliens and animatronic creatures, from the dawn of the art to the modern world of CGI.

Director: Gilles Penso, Alexandre Poncet

Writer: Gilles Penso, Alexandre Poncet

Starring: Rick Baker, Joe Dante, Guillermo del Toro, Mick Garris, Alec Gillis, Steve Johnson, John Landis, Greg Nicotero, Kevin Smith

Year: 2015

Runtime: 107 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: France


Search database: