If you could build a Mount Rushmore of movie monsters, what mugs would you carve into those giant stones? Would you go the classic route, heavy on the Universal icons? Or mix it up with some eighties emblems like Freddie, Mohawk the Gremlin, and the Xenomorph? If you paused and gave these hypothetical questions serious thought, high five. Also, you’re going to flip for Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex, a broad, wickedly insightful documentary that highlights the madmen behind the monsters.
From primitive stop-motion to CGI, Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet’s doc tracks the history of the art form – with a heavy, heavy focus on flicks from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Which is great, because that’s when the whole glorious concept of “special makeup effects” really took the off. This was the era when guys like Rick Baker, Phil Tippett, Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and Rob Bottin were, as Steve Johnson (The Abyss) puts it, ROCK STARS.
And that’s how Creature Designers treats these guys. All of them – including Johnson, Phil Tippett, Rick Bakers, Alec Gillis, and Matt Winston, who carries on his father’s legacy – get to deliver their well-spoken two cents about the art. As you can imagine, some of them take issue with the CGI revolution that started with the digital dinosaurs that overshadowed Winston’s practical ones in Jurassic Park. It’s a debate that can go on forever, so it’s great to see old school revolutionaries like Rick Baker admit that, hell, practical effects can’t do everything and combining CGI with practical effects often leads to great results. Johnson, whose ground-breaking beautiful effects in The Abyss lost an Oscar to the film’s digital effects, takes great offense of the digital revolution. “Everyone got an Oscar but me,” he explains.
One interesting topic brought up in the film is that of artist Rob Bottin, whose effects in The Thing are unmatched to this day . After the unstoppable tidal wave of CGI hit Hollywood, Bottin went into exile. He was incredibly prolific in the 80s – The Fog, RoboCop, The Howling, Legend, it goes on and on – but since then, he’s worked only sporadically and refused to be in the documentary. The participants talk about Bottin like a god and lament his exile.
Filmmakers including Del Toro and the Chiodo Brothers express their deeply rooted love of the art form and for monsters themselves. Del Toro’s emotional connection to monsters is well known, and here he expresses that love on a deep level. That commitment that borders on obsession drives the beauty and dark compulsion of Creature Designers. This doc could’ve been three hours instead of 100 minutes and it would still be engaging throughout. Hearing these masters talk about what they love is truly an amazing experience
For genre fans, there’s going to be no revelation watching the film. There’s a lot we’ve heard before and seen in countless BTS special features. But I solidly think every genre fan is going to be in Heaven, watching folks like Joe Dante, Guillermo Del Toro, Greg Nicotero, and John Landis wax poetic about the monsters they made. If there’s one thing to take away from this doc, it’s that the art of monster design is not going anywhere. Computers be damned.
The film screened at the ongoing Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal.