By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)
Since the early days of Hollywood becoming the hub of movie-making to now, the approaches to making monsters come alive often required experimenting. The first creature creations were Dracula and Frankenstein. However, historians know Georges Méliès The Haunted Castle (1897) had skeletons dancing about. It wasn’t until Thomas Edison‘s 1910 short film, Frankenstein’s Monster, that gave Americans a taste of what cinematics can offer! Lon Chaney‘s contributions in how to achieve the horrific only furthered the horror film genre in its infancy. He took extremes in his makeup design to become the Man of a Thousand Faces.
Much of this history is quickly explored in directors Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet documentary Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex, but it hurries to get to the masters from the 60s and onwards. Their passion is certainly very evident. But it should be noted It’s tough to pack a complete look of creation of monsters in cinema with a 107 min runtime. A lot of details like the why isn’t always delved into–that’s all saved for the blu-ray package which consists of two documentaries, many extended interviews and an interactive video, which is now available to purchase online (like Amazon USA).
The standalone documentary scratches the surface to what makes a monster appear magical on screen. The latest documentary on Phil Tippett shows why he’s so deserving of those Oscars he earned over the years. He’s also being honoured at Fantasia Fest 2021 as his stop-motion pièce de résistance film, Mad Gods, debuts!
In the modern day, the film industry is using computers left, right, and centre. Everything’s digital whether the filmmaker likes it or not. Those relics of the past knew they had to adapt. Tippett knew he had to embrace the coming of the computer revolution. Studio LAIKA (known for stop motion hits like Coraline) even had to expand to working on commercial products and producing live-action films to stay afloat.
While both documentaries are a love letter to the top talents in the industry, sometimes a few names can get missed. It’s hard to know who they are unless you’ve been reading Cinefex magazine since 1980. It’s hard to say if Penso and Poncet are also readers, but they made a work that’ll introduce and enlighten anyone wanting that look at the what drives these people to create these monsters, and how some of it is done. It doesn’t go in-depth into all the secrets, which is fair because they are stage magicians in a way, but if there’s ever a work to inspire newcomers to become part of this industry, I say this work is a must watch!
The following interview extends a version to be soon published in Absolute Underground Magazine Aug/Sept issue.
So what did you work on before Creature Designers–The Frankenstein Complex and Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams and Monsters?
Before making those two films, we did a documentary about Ray Harryhausen in 2012. That took four years to make. His work is very striking. We had known him for years. So, we were in a very comfortable situation, to get a very specific and detailed, and have an intimate look at the world that is his life.
We were also invited to several studios, and I saw things. I saw people using animatronics, offering demonstrations of their techniques and we felt that there was a movie there. We wanted to show how those creatures were made for the big screen.
For our other one, we wanted to close out a kind of trilogy. We also wanted to be very more specific in what we wanted to show and met with Joe Dante, Guillermo del Toro, etc. We dug deeper into this subject and that became The Frankenstein Complex.
Why did you honour Phil Tippett with his own documentary?
Phil handled the stop motion in all the Star Wars movies, which is a lot. He invented the chess set in Episode IV and helped bring to life the Imperial Walkers in Empire Strikes Back. He led Lucasfilm’s creature shop design shop in Return of the Jedi. [Just when you think he’d be finished,] he returned to help with The Force Awakens–they’re recreating the chess game–Solo, Rise of Skywalker and The Mandalorian.
Plus, when he worked on Jurassic Park, Robocop and Starship Troopers, you can’t cram his contributions into a segment in a broader documentary.
When compared to other works examining the fascination with the horror film genre (thinking of the Seattle Museum of Pop Culture’s permanent exhibit, Scared to Death) and the role “monsters” have to play in your psyche, what makes your work The Frankenstein complex unique?
I’m not impressed by some things that people call horror. I think there’s something really poetic about the creature design too. It’s not the same feeling when you see a killer with a knife, it will not strike you on the political level and on an emotional level, the same way a monster will.
Most directors and artists involved now are emotionally connected to the creature they’ve designed. The movies that really talk show the relationship between the creator and their creation. In the movies like Frankenstein, to be fathers to those creatures, they have an emotional connection.
Who were some of the special effects and makeup artists that you featured in the Frankenstein Complex?
We profiled over 50 people. There’s Joel Harlow who led the team in Hellboy; Rick Baker worked with Michael Jackson for Thriller and American Werewolf in London; Steve Johnson created Slimer for Ghostbusters and Tom Savini of course!
Rob Bottin is a legend in monster design. He worked on The Thing, which I think is a brilliant movie.
I noticed you didn’t talk to anyone that worked on the Clive Barker films like Hellraiser.
We wanted to make a documentary about creatures. As much as we love Clive Barker, it didn’t fit with what we had in mind in The Frankenstein Complex.
Hellraiser and Pinhead are very niche, and very extreme in the whole genre they represent. I don’t mean to say that in a bad way. It was easier for us to include a conversation with Bernard Rose who did work with Clive Barker as a special feature on the home video release. It’s there.
Please tell us about the Monster Collection Blu-ray Collector’s Edition.
People asked us to release The Frankenstein Complex for years, but we had little control. Three years ago, Arrow Films, a UK distributor, and Doppelgänger showed interest and said it would be great to offer both this work and Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams and Monsters, and as filmmakers, connect the dots.
So we worked really closely with them. We created new special features for the book. There’s an improvised feature which is a one hour long conversation with Joe Dante (American Werewolf in London and The Howling). We also have a master class with Guillermo del Toro. There’s even an interactive Museum, where you can see you can turn around the sculptures and stop motion puppets. Everything we included in this release has a purpose. We have a lot!
Which technique is better to create that emotional monster creation, stop motion, animatronics, puppetry, CGI or prosthetics?
Actually, all the techniques are valuable. In what counts is the vision of the creator. When compared to the animation used by Ray Harryhausen who didn’t even know how to make stop motion to put a monster suit on who stepped on miniatures, even works from an emotional level. It’s kind of poetic. It’s not real by any means, but it feels real within the reality of the film.
Jurassic Park, for instance, used many techniques. There were electronic dinosaurs in it. The Raptors, in certain shots, were actors in suits–just like Godzilla. The CGI dinosaurs were really impressive too.
Why do you think we, as audiences, love monster movies? Not everyone reads them as allegories or even as a statement about a certain fear from a bygone era. For example, the original Gojira was made as a reaction to the Hiroshima bombings (imo), but for later creature creations, The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth is a symbol for that uncaring Spanish governmental regime.
In my opinion, there’s something that talks to your childhood. When you feel that there’s a monster in the closet, your imagination goes wild. Everyone has seen the shadow of a tree cast on a wall, and everyone has imagined the shape of a creature out of that. When I watch Gremlins, I’m like that kid. It’s so cool. When I see a man transforming into An American Werewolf in London, I’m amazed at what’s going on. I can read that psychology. The imagination around what makes a creature is important.
Has Little Shop of Horrors changed the way monsters are perceived. It’s rare to combine the horror and musical genre together into the success that the film production has done. And I’d love to hear your take in how filmmakers can innovate within the monster genre. So it’s not just another let’s terrorize the human film?
Some people would say that The Shape of Water was innovative in the realm of creature movies. But, it’s deeply influenced by many other things, namely. Creature from the Black Lagoon.
I don’t know to what extent you can innovate. You will never innovate If you want to make a movie that tells you I’m going to be different. It’s not as simple as many would think. These creators/filmmakers have things they want to say and that’s always certain. Trying to come up with a new technique for this is even tougher.
Phil Tippett’s Mad God is mostly made in stop-motion. He’s done high speed shots, some slow motion bits, and it’s weird–a nightmare in visual design and many years in the making. We’ve looked at that in our documentary made specifically about him.
I don’t know if there is room for innovation in the monster genre. We need to free reality and let them (the filmmakers) express the visions that they have.
I’ll be looking forward to watching this at Fantasia Fest, where it’ll premiere. But as for your upcoming projects, is there anything you have in the works?
We have shot an entire documentary about the legacy of Starship Troopers [concerning the politics in that universe], and we are developing a piece that looks at classic 2D animation, including anime like Akira and Ghost in the Shell. We’re using the same approach in talking to the people like in The Frankenstein Complex. This work will be titled, Animate This! I hope to finish that by next year or next.
What do you have to say about the new talents that’s emerging this decade?
There are thousands and thousands of artists working in makeup effects and stop motion (using computers or electronics than traditional). These days, it’s more about committees handling the details. It’s tough to say. There’s even a lot of talented women trailblazing this field, and that’s a documentary in itself.