Fantasia International Film Festival 2016 runs from July 14th — August 3rd in Montreal. Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex screened July 15th.

It’s almost a no-brainer that a film such as Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex should be screening at Fantasia Fest, a festival geared towards the fantastic and imaginative aspects of life. The documentary wonderfully opens with the idea that monsters have been around since the beginning of time, from Lucifer to the boogeyman, transcending cultures, eras, and filling people’s heads with visions. The point is made how the idea of the monster touches everyone in what is one of the few elements in life which stands as truly universal.

From documentarians Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet, Creature Designers traces the history of effects designers and the different milestones along the way towards creating some of the most memorable monsters and effects in movie history. Featuring interviews and profiles of some of the field’s greatest pioneers and masters, including Steve Johnson, Rick Baker, Stan and Matt Winston, Jack Pierce, and Dick Smith, as well as many others, the documentary is literally a Who’s Who of designers and animators. Commentary from the likes of Joe Dante, John Landis, and more add to this examination of one of the most marveled parts of movie-making, and the intense passion the designers bring to the table.

The best, and certainly most enlightening, aspect of the documentary is how Penso and Poncet have showcased the trade of effects design as a bonafide art form. The film immediately jumps into the various ideologies of many of the hardest-working designers in the business, such as how designing creatures is likened to giving birth and how monsters aren’t designed to be monsters, but rather characters. Each individual, from the sketch artist to the sculptor, has a unique artistic air about them and listens to how the creature they are creating is speaking and what it is they’re saying. There’s an acknowledgment from some of how the designs bring out feelings such as envy and affection from the designer, signifying that what they are making has the potential to be grand. This more than gives the craft the image of a true art form which not only proves to be creatively endless in terms of artistic expression, but is also a way to show different aspects of humanity through the emotions and feelings these designs elicit from their creators. As Johnson puts it, “It’s kind of God-like to create something that’s never existed before. I now know why Dr. Frankenstein went crazy.”

Like any field, the world of effects design is full of trailblazers, innovations, and inevitable changes, all of which are traced throughout Creature Designers. There’s time devoted to the creation of what is known as special makeup effects, with Lon Cheney’s Phantom of the Opera remaining a prime example, as well as Smith’s pioneering idea to employ contact lenses into Linda Blair’s look in The Exorcist, sealing the character’s tortuously frightening look. Meanwhile, the rehearsal footage of designers inhabiting the creatures they’re designing through wearing the suits of their creations, literally inhabiting the art they’ve made, is good watching made better when the thought arises: How many artists get to do that? Such an act elevates them to the level of performance artists in a definite sense.

Meanwhile, importance is extended to the often underrated stop-motion animation and all the intricacy it requires with the merging of life and performance together through electronics, which led to the start of animatronics.

The film does a wonderful job of spotlighting the elephant in the design room regarding the introduction of CGI and what it meant for designers. Innovative aspects of effects on films such as Jurassic Park are pointed to as the end of an era, with some designers disenchanted and depressed at feeling that their time was over, and others embracing and adapting to the new technologies. However, films such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day are cited by many as proof positive that the idea that both practical effects and CGI are forms which can coexist and bring out the best from each other.

Much like any documentary focusing on the industry, Creature Designers is full of interesting behind-the-scenes tales, which are all great fun to hear, such as how Baker was so inspired by George Lucas’s desire to have a bar full of creatures that his design won him the job. Likewise, the story of how Baker and his designs were essentially the subject of a tug of war between Dante and Landis over competing werewolf movies (The Howling and An American Werewolf in London), both of which were seen as innovators in the effects game. There’s also Johnson’s maddening tale of how James Cameron’s The Abyss proved to be the hardest job for him, especially after everyone on the effects team got an Oscar except for him because of the film’s water tentacle effect, which he had no involvement in.

A collection of iconic monsters and creatures, from the T. rex to the Terminator, is on display making this documentary a treat for any movie lover’s eyes. Yet Creature Designers also takes time to show how the industry is changing up the game for effects artists. Winston cites “impatient producers” as he and other designers talk about months of work being thrown out casually in favor of CGI. There is the on-going argument of who is responsible for digital capture — the actor or animator — while smaller budgets and tighter time frames are starting to become the norm with every new project. It’s Landis, however, who points out the field’s most harrowing realization when he states, “We are so used to seeing miraculous things that we don’t care anymore.” All of these aside, Creature Designers is a testament to the love and dedication still shared by those who bring this extremely visionary art form to life.

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