Studio: Frenetic Arts
Director: Alexandre Poncet, Gilles Penso
Writer: Alexandre Poncet, Gilles Penso
Producer: Alexandre Poncet
Stars: Guillermo del Toro, Joe Dante, John Landis, Kevin Smith, Rick Baker, Phil Tippett, Steve Johnson, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Matt Winston
Filmmakers and effects artists discuss the craft of creating creatures and the trade’s evolution as a cinematic artform.
“The Frankenstein Complex” is more than a subtitle for special effects documentary “Creature Designers.” That phrase is emblematic of what motivates the minds of FX artists like Rick Baker, Greg Nicotero, and Steve Johnson. For them, making a movie monster grants a godlike feeling that comes from inventing something that never previously existed and nurturing its evolution like a parent, or perhaps a mad scientist.
For “Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex,” exploring this theme is every bit as essential in comprehending the art of makeup effects as is understanding techniques of sculpting and mold making. Featured interviews are loaded with thoughtful insight into the psychology of how tangible filmmaking challenges are resolved through imagination to make a movie monster truly terrifying.
From director Guillermo del Toro to puppeteer Phil Tippett, the intention of these artists is to impress the importance of how critical their craft is to creating fully-realized characters, not just cool-looking creatures. What makes “Creature Designers” uniquely fascinating is its abdication of fluffy formalities like studio tours and personal biographies in favor of digging deep into the thought process behind conceptual creativity.
Virtually every card from the rolodex of makeup masters is pulled to participate, including Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Chris Walas, and many more. About the only notable absence is Tom Savini, although “Creature Designers” leans more toward artists who augment their makeup with animatronics, cabled puppetry, and computer software, which is less of Savini’s bailiwick than the other gentlemen and lady tapped to talk. Rob Bottin’s retirement has him also M.I.A., although peers and partners discuss his iconic work in enough detail that the horse’s mouth is not missed too greatly.
In addition to del Toro, directors Joe Dante, John Landis, and Christophe Gans provide supplemental color from the side of those who task these artists with the impossible, only to see them accomplish it. Similar documentaries sometimes burden themselves with unnecessary commentary from celebrity fans. “Creature Designers” only dips down this tunnel with the inclusion of Kevin Smith. Smith, distracting in a branded “Fat Man” hockey jersey, functions as de facto narrator filling in factual blanks about the production of “Star Wars” and “Jaws.” While not completely irrelevant, Smith sticks out for being the only interviewee who wasn’t actually in any of the trenches talked about in the film.
Licensed movie clips are limited to the point of being effectively nonexistent. Yet with the steady stream of Sideshow Collectibles sculptures, props, rare concept art, and test footage on display, you barely notice.
Of course, interested viewers are also treated to numerous time-lapse carousels of sketching, sculpting, prosthetic application, and armature assembly. The film isn’t a how-to guide highlighting nuts and bolts of these skills, which would bore laypeople and fans only peripherally interested in the trade anyway. Rather, “Creature Designers” offers a wide-ranging and eye-popping array of visuals to complement its eye-opening peek behind the curtain of onscreen illusionism.
“Creature Designers” is mostly philosophical about how effects artistry evolved while progressing through a brief time tunnel of cinema makeup history, though glimpses of gossip are occasionally inserted. The movie doesn’t wade in TMZ territory for long, but it also doesn’t shy away from identifying some of the better known creative conflicts (Rick Baker has words about “Men in Black” lamentably being a movie by committee while Gillis and Woodruff voice displeasure over their treatment on 2011’s “The Thing”). There is also a slight sense of a “friendly now” but “maybe not so much then” rivalry between John Landis and Joe Dante over who would reap the benefits of Rick Baker’s pioneering werewolf work on which of their movies (“An American Werewolf in London” and “The Howling”).
The documentary’s democratic coverage of kerfuffles extends to the debate of practical versus digital effects. Phil Tippett verges on heartbreaking as he recalls debilitating depression and physical illness when he first realized “Jurassic Park” put his passion for puppetry and stop motion on the endangered species list.
What may surprise some is that experts including Rick Baker and Stan Winston’s son Matt Winston are resolute in asserting there is no real faction versus faction rivalry anymore. Successful modern era makeup artists including Tippett ultimately embrace the symbiotic need each side has for the other to counteract their limitations, and “Creature Designers” respectfully reaffirms that idea.
“Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex" presents a balanced blend of informative entertainment that is relevant to aspiring artists, casual fans of SyFy’s “Face Off,” or general behind-the-scenes buffs. Informative and entertaining, “Creature Designers” is a rare movie industry documentary that can celebrate the wonderment of practical movie magic while exponentially increasing anyone’s appreciation of the craft.
Review Score: 90