“I’ve seen the movie, I know how it ends. Horribly. It’s like watching The Passion of Christ and rooting for Jesus to escape the crucifixion. It never happens.”
That’s Guillermo del Toro moments after receiving Fantasia’s prestigious Cheval Noir Award, introing Gilles Penso and Alexandre Ponset’s Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex, a documentary about the triumphant ascent and tragic descent of practical creature effects in Hollywood. From Ray Harryhausen’s cyclops in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad to the digital innovations that overshadowed Stan Winston’s breathtaking animatronic dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Creature Designers lovingly documents every era of practical effects, even turning a hopeful eye to the future, whatever del Toro may think about the film’s conclusion.
Penso and Ponset feature interviews with Winston’s son and banner-carrier Matt Winston, del Toro, Steve Johnson (The Abyss, Ghostbusters, Spider-Man 2), Phil Tippett (Star Wars, RoboCop, Jurassic Park), Rick Baker (American Werewolf in London, Thriller, Harry and the Hendersons), John Landis (American Werewolf, Thriller), Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling), Alec Gillis (the later Alien films, Starship Troopers) and many more. (Legendary special makeup effects creator Rob Bottin is discussed at length, but evidently declined to participate as part of his decade-plus self-imposed exile from Hollywood. Johnson tells a story about Bottin working on the werewolf of The Howling, when he took a sledgehammer to a beautifully rendered beast that Johnson thought was screen-ready. When Johnson asked him why, Bottin casually set his cocktail on the shelf, looked at him and shrugged, “Because I can do better.”)
Here are legends in the field who speak frankly about their heyday, the most fascinating challenges of their careers, the creatures they feel the most pride in having shaped, others’ creations they most admire or envy or even scorn. It’s juicy stuff. Fans of practical effects will hear stories here that they’ll be repeating in bars for years.
Some of the candor must be due to the casual, comfortable environment created by Penso and Ponset. The artists are speaking in work rooms and labs, surrounded by their monsters and babies, with the camera offering loving close-ups of the prosthetic beasts that once came alive – terrifyingly, majestically - on screen. Creature Designers is light on footage from the films it discusses, but there’s something pure about seeing these creations the way their creators see them: without the benefit of special lighting, manipulative camera angles and post-production magic, but as labors of love built in brightly lit laboratories, puppeteered by sometimes as many as a dozen people.
“There’s something god-like about it,” says Steve Johnson, “and sometimes I’d feel crazed like Dr. Frankenstein – it’s alive! It’s alive!” There was ego and acclaim, money and respect. “We were rock stars,” Johnson acknowledges, but then he talks about his experience on The Abyss, “the most challenging film I ever worked on.” James Cameron is a notoriously exacting task-master, and he wanted a creature that was perfectly clear, self-illuminating, offered fluid mobility and operated underwater. With dozens of sleepless nights and no small amount of self-castigating, Johnson created that seemingly impossible feat – only to have his beautiful alien puppet eclipsed by The Abyss' CGI water tentacle, an early entry in the field of computer animation. “Everyone on that movie got an Oscar but me,” Johnson says.
But as much as Creature Designers bemoans the loss of practical effects in modern cinema, the film does not point an angry finger at the advent of computer graphics. Most of the talking heads admit that special effects work best as a combination of both approaches, embracing Jurassic Park as a perfect example of a marriage of practical artistry and innovative technology, one that created an utterly whole reality that still works today. “Jurassic Park was the first movie I saw where the monster was really in the picture,” John Landis says, and Dante chimes in, “and in the rain. It was incredible.”
But in the end, it was only the computer effects of Jurassic Park that interested the press, an omen of days to come. Matt Winston says his father had two reactions to the public's disinterest in Jurassic Park's animatronics: at first he tried to fight back, giving countless interviews about the practical work done in the film, and after that didn’t seem to make much of an effect, he invested in thousands of dollars of digital technology. It came down to one simple philosophy: “Adapt or die.”
That’s not to say that Creature Designers doesn’t stick up its nose a bit at the way CGI has eclipsed the man-made monsters of the past. Landis tells a story of attending an Underworld screening with Rick Baker, after which Baker turned to him and said, “Just because you can have a hundred werewolves running across the ceiling, doesn’t mean you should.”