The enduring allure of the Hollywood monster

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French filmmakers Alexandre Poncet with Gilles Penso are obsessed with movie monsters. But when the duo searched the Hollywood landscape for a film that chronicled the fascinating world of creature effects and model making in sci-fi, horror and fantasy films, they simply could not find a good one. So they did what any intrepid documentarians would do – they made that film themselves.

The result is Creature Designers – The Frankenstein Complex, an insight into some of the most revered monster makers around; artists such as Rick Baker, Mike Elizalde, Alec Gillis, Chris Walas, Tom Woodruff Jr., Greg Nicotero, John Rosengrant, Richard Taylor, Phil Tippett and many others. A number of Hollywood directors who share an equal love of movie monsters also lend their considerable weight to the doco, including Guillermo del Toro, John Landis and Joe Dante. Even Kevin Smith is in there.

Enjoy vfxblog’s Q&A with the directors and their journey in making the film.

VFXBLOG: Where did the idea come from to pull together all these legends of creature design into one piece?

Gilles Penso (GP): Actually, we’ve always wanted to watch this movie, and it simply did not exist! Alexandre and I have loved creature features since we were kids. We really enjoyed the experience or making Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan. So we decided to continue our collaboration with The Frankenstein Complex. This film is a tribute to all the artists who have created so many wonderful creatures for sci-fi, horror and fantasy. This time around, we’re not focusing on a single creator, but on a whole profession.

VFXBLOG: How did you decide which artists, and also which directors and filmmakers, to interview?

GP: We established a list of names we wanted, and fortunately we got almost all of them. But to reach them, and to obtain what we needed, we had to be patient. That’s why this film took almost three years to make. With some of the artists interviewed, we needed to set up a real intimacy, and you can’t get that if you only stay with them for thirty minutes. You have to hang around with them, watch them work, sometimes live with them. That’s how you get magic moments! As for directors, we looked for artists with an original and very personal point of view about creatures on screen. People like Guillermo del Toro, John Landis, Joe Dante, Kevin Smith and Mick Garris.

Alexandre Poncet (AP): To be honest, we did try to get Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and James Cameron. We almost had Spielberg, but he was working on both Bridge of Spies and The BFG. Dreamworks tried to set up something for almost a year, and they were very, very supportive, but it was not to happen. James Cameron was already heavily involved in Avatar 2, 3 and 4, in addition to his sea explorations. We still owe him a lot: for Ray Harryhausen – Special Effects Titan, he asked Fox to give us movie clips from Avatar for free, or he would pay for them himself. Peter Jackson very politely declined our request for The Frankenstein Complex, and we completely understand: he had been working on The Hobbit for five years, and probably wanted to disappear for a few months.

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(From left) Frankenstein Complex director Alexandre Poncet, Alec Gillis from ADI, fellow director Gilles Penso and Tom Woodruff, Jnr, also from ADI.

However, Weta and Wingnut helped us a lot behind the scenes. As for Mick Garris, he seemed like an obvious choice: he’s been a great observer of the monster world for years, doing great interviews and behind the scenes featurettes in the early eighties. And then he became a very good writer and director – for instance, we’re big fans of Critters 2. On the other hand, some monster fans have asked us why Kevin Smith was in the film. And we do feel that Kevin Smith is incredibly relevant in The Frankenstein Complex! He was actually one of the last persons we filmed, and he had just released Tusk… which is a crazy monster movie. First and foremost, we wanted him to talk about Star Wars from a fan’s point of view, because our Star Wars sequence only involved artists who had worked on the saga, like Phil Tippett, Rick Baker, Dennis Muren, Chris Walas and Hal Hickel. Smith was supposed to help us keep it fresh, because the material could have easily become too technical for a big part of the audience.

On the day we met him, we discovered that Smith could actually take the documentary to another level. Not only was he very funny (his comments about Jaws and The Planet of the Apes crack me up every time!), but he was also extremely erudite and clever, and knew how to time his speech in a very cinematic way. His interview was about 90 minutes long, and since he was almost the last one to be filmed, we could tell him where his comments would be used in the editing, after whom and before whom, and what tone we needed for the sequence. We were already in post-production at the time, so we could direct him in a very specific way, just like we did with Matt Winston, doing multiple takes if needed.

And then, there’s Guillermo del Toro, John Landis and Joe Dante. We’ve known them for years. They were already in Ray Harryhausen – Special Effects Titan, and we felt they were needed here. We’ve tried to set up an interview with Guillermo for 18 months. He really wanted to do it, but good timing was hard to find: when we were in LA, he was in Toronto, or he was in production… And one day he sent a message, saying: “I’m in Paris right now”. It was a Sunday, and we filmed his interview at Brett & Cie, near République, the studio where we did almost all our post-production. You might already know this: République is where the terrorist attacks happened on November 13, 2015. Our lead post-producer walked by one of the cafés less than five minutes before the shootings began. On November 18, we were supposed to have our Premiere in Paris. We decided not to cancel, and Joe Dante, Matt Winston, Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. sent really kind messages for the audience, thanking them for being brave enough to defend artistic expression. This was an emotional night indeed.

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Ex-ILM visual effects artist Steve Williams (left) with Phil Tippett at his studio and one of the Digital Input Devices (DID) made to aid in animation for Jurassic Park.

VFXBLOG: One of the great things about the interviews are the way they are situated amongst some of their own creations – can you talk about some of the highlights from visiting these artists at their studios?

GP: As you can imagine, we were like kids in a candy store! When you are in front of all these amazing creatures – screen-used ones! – it’s very difficult to stay professional and keep calm. Touching the original props from the first Star Wars trilogy, playing with Freddy Krueger’s glove from A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, watching the original Terminator and Predator sculptures… It’s difficult to describe your feeling in moments like that. I guess we were like the wolf in Tex Avery cartoons: mouth wide open and eyes popping out of our skull! One thing was important to us: we tried to avoid static interviews. Of course, we have talking heads in The Frankenstein Complex, as you must in any documentary. But every time we could film the artists alongside their own creations, or shoot demos (drawing, sculpting, doing a special make-up, animating a stop-motion puppet or an animatronic head, creating a CGI dinosaur), we were more than happy. In a film like this one, you need to be as dynamic as possible.

AP: This is why we filmed many conversations instead of interviews. Having Joe Dante and John Landis talk about The Howling and An American Werewolf in London is one thing. But having them talk about these rival movies side by side is much funnier! The interactions cannot be planned, and surprises happen on set. The same goes with the conversation between Phil Tippett and Steve Williams, knowing that Steve Williams basically stole Phil’s job on Jurassic Park, and incidentally killed stop motion as a visual effect. Spaz’s reaction when Phil explains that he became sick and depressed is priceless. By the way, we are currently working on the extras for the Blu-ray, and we have more conversations in store, including one between Steve Johnson and the excellent John Vulich, that we couldn’t use because of a sound problem. We also have more set-visits and hours of outtakes. A movie is a movie, and its narrative cannot be stopped by what could look like an isolated featurette. So we had to make hard choices with our editing, and we left a lot out. You’ll be able to see all this in the extras.

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Filming at Rick Baker’s famed workshop.

VFXBLOG: You had great access – what kind of crew was involved in filming the interviews and gathering b-roll?

AP: We used several reflex cameras, mainly a 5D Mark III and a Nikon D7100, with portable lights and three Zooms for sound. Very light and handy. Some shots were filmed with a Red camera, especially the Robocop armor. Julien Dumont from db FX in Geneva filmed that for us. The French post-production company NOD did a great job with the color grading, and made the movie consistent from a visual point of view. Brett & Cie also enhanced or fixed a lot of shots on After Effects. For instance, we filmed Rick Baker in his workshop, one week before he decided to close it. There was a giant fake cemetery in the middle of the place, and a huge backdrop above it, with a painted night sky and a glorious full moon. This was lit from behind, with neon lights… And one of our reflex cameras could not handle it. We had a terrible flicker, whatever aperture or shutter speed we would use. We decided to film like this anyway, and the guys from Brett managed to delete the artifact in post-production.

In addition to that, Brett & Cie created all our credits and texts, which are animated in 2D. It took a lot of time, but the result is really cool. Finally, Vega Prod in Paris gave us a great 5.1 mix, fixing problems that we couldn’t solve on set, coming from air conditioning or frequencies that could not be stopped during the interviews.

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Director Alexandre Poncet examines a stop motion T-Rex puppet crafted by Phil Tippett’s team for Jurassic Park animatics.

GP: We shot almost everything ourselves, except for the Weta interviews. We couldn’t go to New Zealand at the time, so we contacted all the people we wanted to interview, we prepared the questions, and we found someone there to shoot them and to send us the dailies.

AP: The Weta interviews were a great gift to us. I’ve known John Howe for quite some time, and I’m really fond of his work as an illustrator on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. He’s brilliant, incredibly talented, generous, and has a huge knowledge about mythology. He has also a very calm persona, that would give us an interesting contrast with some of our stars, for instance Steve Johnson or Kevin Smith, who shoot words like machine guns. During post-production of The Battle of the Five Armies, I asked John if he would accept to draw a dragon on camera, and do an interview about the art of designing a creature. He not only accepted, but also helped me contact other artists at Weta he though needed to be in the film, like animation supervisor David Clayton and texture supervisor Gino Acevedo. We were already in touch with Weta to plan interviews with Richard Taylor and Joe Letteri, so we ended up planning some kind of junket.

We supervised it from Paris, and Victor Huang, a vfx artist from Weta, filmed everything. I think John Howe gave him his dragon drawing by the way, which is really cool! In our first cut, Gino Acevedo and David Clayton had a long sequence at the beginning of the third act. It was very interesting to us, but maybe a little too technical in comparison to the overall tone of the film. It stayed in the documentary for a year, and we finally decided to cut the scene out, because the documentary felt too long. The same thing happened with a scene where two artists from Tippett Studio discuss the animation of a dinosaur, and refer to Phil Tippett’s Prehistoric Beast. We had included clips from that movie. The scene was excellent when you watched it alone, but it didn’t work inside the whole narrative. So we cut it out. All this will be included in the extras, of course.

GP: We also had good surprises in the course of editing. At one point, Steve Johnson and Robert Lucas sent us footage of a special make-up session, where Steve recreated the original look of Evil Ed from Fright Night, on the original actor, Stephen Geoffreys. One month later, Robert Kurtzman did the same thing with a Freddy Krueger make-up he did on Robert Englund.

AP: For our ED 209 scene, we actually recorded the voice of Jon Davison. Jon did ED 209 in the original Robocop, and we thought it would be cool to have him as a cameo!

VFXBLOG: The film feels like both a celebration of the practical monster creation industry and some lamenting of the advent of digital –  did you have an idea of the narrative story you wanted to tell before conducting interviews? How did that develop over time?

GP: The story of The Frankenstein Complex evolved during its making, but we always knew what we wanted to tell and what structure we needed. It was a difficult balancing act, because we didn’t want the narrative to be strictly chronological, and we wanted to avoid too many technical explanations. We really wanted to focus on the human and the artistic sides. We wanted to celebrate practical effects, of course, but our goal wasn’t to “demonize” CGI and digital effects. We love the digital creatures from Jurassic Park, Starship Troopers, The Lord of The Rings, Avatar, Pacific Rim or the new Planet of the Apes for instance. What we don’t like today is the fact that producers tend to replace all the practical effects by CGI. That’s why we wanted to defend the good old “rubber tricks” without diminishing the miraculous digital effects from a few recent movies.

VFXBLOG: An incredible accomplishment in this film is being able to tell all these stories without needing to show final film footage from recent films – were you ever concerned about this? How was behind the scenes footage, studio ‘walk-arounds’ and vignettes showing sketching and sculpting gathered?

AP: Actually, there are a few movies clips in the documentary – I know, because I had to clear them! So you have a few seconds from Jaws, The Howling, The Thing, Jurassic Park, Avatar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes… But, yes, we decided to not fill the documentary with this kind of footage. I have a very personal point of view about movie clips in documentaries or making of featurettes. I think Gilles agrees. When I was a teenager watching extras, I hated it when the thing was full of clips, because what I really wanted to see what how they had filmed it. To me, it was cheating, and sometimes lazy. Of course there are brilliant documentaries out there with long movie clips in them, and I insist, this is only a personal point of view. The Frankenstein Complex might have benefited from more movie clips, especially from T2 or The Abyss, but we didn’t want to replace our rare archives with footage that could easily be seen on DVD.

GP: In fact, everybody has already seen Gremlins, or Jurassic Park, or Star Wars. So we decided to concentrate on something else. The artists were very helpful and gave us tons of behind the scenes clips.

AP: This has been one of the great joys of making The Frankenstein Complex: gathering BTS archives from private collections. For some reason, Chris Walas accepted to send us 7 hours of tests from Gremlins, something that no one has ever seen. We can assure you: it was hard to choose key moments in this glorious footage. We would have loved to show those 7 hours, but at the same time, Phil Tippett had given us 90 minutes from Jurassic Park, 16 hours from Starship Troopers… And Matt Winston, from the Stan Winston School of Character Arts, sent us awesome stuff from Jurassic Park, Predator 2 and Terminator 2…

And ADI did the same with Tremors, Alien 3 and AVP. And Steve Johnson and his partner Chris Dotson did the same with The Abyss and Spider-Man 2. And Mike Elizalde did the same with Hellboy 2 and Pacific Rim. We even got footage from Killer Klowns from Outer Space from the Chiodo Brothers, a movie we love. I want to insist on the fact that it was not easier to use BTS footage than movie clips. Every image of The Frankenstein Complex has been cleared with the studios who own the copyrights, even the props we filmed, because we decided that a Fair Use approach would be too limiting. The clearing process took almost 9 months, and we’re really grateful to all the studios involved.

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Joe Dante (left) and John Landis pose with a puppet from Gremlins.

GP: Sometimes, we had a really close collaboration with the artists and filmmakers. For instance, we were working on the editing of the “werewolves” segment, and at one point we felt that we needed more footage. Alexandre immediately sent an e-mail to Joe Dante, asking him if he could help us with some behind the scene stills. An hour later, we had a few gigabytes of images in our mail box! In the case of Tippett Studio, we almost became part of the team. We had a small stage inside the workshop, and there we shot all the puppets, models and items we needed, while Phil Tippett and his guys were working on their own films, next to us. We shared the same space, the same lightings, the same shooting material.

AP: It became surreal when they started to work on the Holochess sequence for The Force Awakens. We stopped working on The Frankenstein Complex for one day, because Phil asked us to film the making of the scene. Tippett recently released a featurette, actually based on our footage. You can even spot Gilles in the background, at one point!

VFXBLOG: How did you approach the music in the doco?

GP: We approached The Frankenstein Complex as a film. I mean we wanted a dramaturgy, a story with twists, humor, emotion… So we needed a real film music. Alexandre did a great job, writing a lot of orchestral themes, matching his score to the editing almost frame by frame, and paying subtle tributes to some famous original soundtracks as The Thing, The Abyss, Gremlins, Avatar or The Planet of the Apes.

AP: I’ve worked almost two years on the score. It’s about 75 minutes long! Gilles has a great knowledge of film music, and his brother is a great pianist, so we’ve had great discussions all the way through. The first step was to come up with the main theme, which needed to be mysterious, and to have both the gravitas and the fun of the monsters we’re dealing with. It also had to be easily arranged, and adapted to the emotion of every scene. This theme is the one you hear in the opening credits, but its full form is really heard in the end of the “digital revolution” sequence. This scene, going from T2, to The Abyss, to Jurassic Park, is the turning point of the film. Our work on the editing actually started with it, and it kept growing. That musical track is almost 16 minutes long, and has around 50 sync points.

Overall, I wrote almost ten leitmotivs for the documentary. When we showed an incomplete rough cut to Phil Tippett in early 2015, he told me that the music was sometimes too bombastic. Which was true, because this version only included the most dynamic sequences, cut back to back. Still, I followed Phil’s advice and completed the score with more atmospheric, almost dreamlike themes. I’m quite happy with the balance of the final score. By the way, we added some kind of a private joke in the soundtrack. During the first act, we talk about the importance of Ray Harryhausen’s legacy. And for that scene, we reused the main theme that I had written for Ray Harryhausen – Special Effects Titan. We’re probably the only ones who care about this, but it was essential to us. After all, it’s Ray’s theme…

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Creature designers Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jnr, with friend.

VFXBLOG: What do you think, personally, is the appeal of this creature effects world – both for the artists doing it and for audiences?

GP: We always felt that monster makers had a special relationship with their creatures. They create artificial life from scratch. They are Doctor Frankenstein, saying “it’s alive!” when their creatures start to breathe. That’s why we chose the title The Frankenstein Complex. And the audience has a very special relationship with monsters, too. We often feel empathy for them. Even if they do horrible things, we all love the Frankenstein Monster, King Kong or Godzilla.

AP: And Freddy Krueger has become a rock star ! When you go see a monster movie, you go see the monster. Not his victims.

VFXBLOG: Can you talk about how long the process of making the film was?  Where are you looking to release and show the film?

GP: It took almost three years to make this film. Alexandre did a first trip in the States and collected the first interviews in April 2013.

AP: I was promoting Ray Harryhausen – Special Effects Titan at the time, doing presentations or screenings at Monsterpalooza, ILM, Pixar, Sideshow Collectibles, etc. I was invited to many special effects studios, like Tippett, ADI or Chiodo Bros, and everywhere I went, I saw interesting things happening. By instinct, I started to film stuff and shoot interviews, going through a list of questions that I found relevant for all the artists. When I came back to Paris, I gave that footage to Gilles, and we broke it down. A film started to emerge, and once we had understood the subject and written our structure, we decided to go back.

GP: We did two more trips, in 2014 and 2015. We had so many people to meet and so many items to shoot that it was the only way to gather all we needed. Overall, the shoot was almost 3 months long, spread out over a long period of time. Now, the film is in the hands of its international seller, Le Pacte. It should be released everywhere, on Blu-ray, DVD, on TV, and even in theaters in selected areas.

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The official poster for Creature Designers – The Frankenstein Complex.

VFXBLOG: What’s your own background in filmmaking?

GP: I wrote and directed TV shows and documentaries since the late 90’s. I directed eight long feature documentaries. Most of them are about cinema and filmmaking. My last two films are Behind the Mask of Super-Heroes (a 1 hour doc for Disney Channel, with the participation of Stan Lee) and Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, which marked my first collaboration with Alexandre.

AP: I’ve been a movie critic for almost 15 years, and I’ve written for the French magazine Mad Movies for a decade. In 2007 I created the production company Frenetic Arts with two partners. We started with a TV show about horror movies on French cable, and did a webseries with the French comedian Dedo. In 2009, I became the producer and composer of Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, which was released four years later in France and the UK… and which should be released on Region A Blu-ray in April, at last! While working as co-director and producer on The Frankenstein Complex, I scored the animated short Last Door South by Sacha Feiner, which has just received a Magritte, the Belgian equivalent for the Oscar. I’m really proud to be a part of that film!

Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex will next screen at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal which runs from July 14 to August 2. Director Guillermo del Toro will present the film.