Fantasia Film Review: The Frankenstein Complex with Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo! The audience went wild chanting his name, and Guillermo del Toro was elated to receive their applause along with the Cheval Noir Award. He was charming, he was funny and he had no problems laying his craft out. He introduced the movie and would come back for a very inspiring master class.

(Photo: NeverThinkImpossible.com)

(Photo: NeverThinkImpossible.com)

the-frankenstein-complex

(Source: Le Pacte / Frenetic Arts)

But before that, there was the matter of the documentary. Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex was supposed to be a love letter to the rock stars of special effects, the movies and the directors that, for better or worse, took their efforts and triumphs to film. More or less following the chronology of horror and science fiction, the documentary narrates through each craftsman how rubber suits and masks slowly turn into animatronics and full blown moving robotics. With the likes of masters Phil Tippet, Rick Baker, Matt Winston and directors such as Guillermo del Toro, Joe Dante and John Landis (both in past footage and current) we’re introduced to the craft of Lon Chaney, Jack Pierce, Ray Harryhausen, Stan Winston and the almost mythical Rob Bottin. Special guest appearances by Greg Nicotero and Kevin Smith.

If you are an enthusiast of special effects, you’re watching this film. There’s a lot to consume and to hear each person talk shop about the different technologies is an invitation to nostalgia. It develops into an almost conflicting moment when practical and physical effects met the computer generated era. There’s an old school versus new school moment, that for the most part takes the side of the classic when it condemns studios for doing away with practical effects due to lack of patience. For the most part, it resolves this conflict by letting each director reconcile with both sides. However, it was heart breaking to hear Phil Tippet’s statement from the set of Jurassic Park: “I’m extinct.”

There’s a lot to take in, and this is where the narrative of directors Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet suffers. I welcome the fact that we don’t get an over-arching disembodied voice like in other offerings, instead each person introduced becomes the narrator. However, we hit a bit of a lull as the rhythm is always the same. The inclusion of Kevin Smith at some point seems a bit out of left field, but at least having him be funny breaks the monotony at some point. One funny anecdote from John Landis and Joe Dante on how the effects for An American Werewolf in London ended up benefiting The Howling could’ve been played up a bit more, but it got Fantasia’s audience laughing. Newcomers and casual audiences who’ve seen the movies but are not hardcore fans might not make through the entire film. I found myself dozing off past the middle point. You need some sort of thrill for your audience to perk up once in a while.

The weakness also lies in the nature of the material. Background footage and props go only so far. You can mention a ton of the movies involved but there’s little footage of the finished product. A discussion of Frank Oz’s Yoda puppet from The Empire Strikes Back versus his less than stellar CGI equivalent in the Star Wars prequels is left a bit unfulfilled as we’re not treated to film evidence. It’s a case in which Lucasfilm/Disney would not give away clips of their franchise films without a hefty bill. The case repeats itself with every other major studio. You won’t find any final footage of Alien or Robocop because of the same reason. Adding clips from those films would have considerably increased the cost. It’s understandable but also frustrating because any kid in YouTube can do an amateur film analysis just piecing clips together and hope it doesn’t get taken down by DMCA infringement. Professional filmmakers can’t play that card. Hence, we get props, renderings and the occasional old footage.

(Photo: NeverThinkImpossible.com)

(Photo: NeverThinkImpossible.com)

As for Guillermo del Toro, he came back after the credits for a master class. He was charming, he was inspiring, he was ready to answer any question you had and he was frankly honest. His rhetoric was off the cuff full of healthy and heartwarming humor and insolence. He was ready to incite a rebellion and inspire you to take a camera and start shooting a film then and there. When prodded about how producers often turn their nose at the time consuming nature and preparation of practical effects versus the easy route of post production added CGI, Guillermo was adamant as he was on the documentary that they both should advance together. He was also adamant that one or more of the people in the audience were now responsible for making sure that practical effects should live on. Homework has been given to the filmmakers of the next generation.

I would recommend listening to Guillermo del Toro’s master class anytime to anybody that has a creative brain and a beating heart that loves film.

As for Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex, that’s recommended it only to special effects junkies who’re willing to sit through the entire thing. Casual viewers will not last. For someone like myself, who exists somewhere in the middle, it was fulfilling albeit a bit tiring to watch throughout. I’d say wait until you can watch it at home so you can grab a drink and a snack.

Bonus! Here’s Guillermo del Toro speaking to Fantasia on special effects.

Watch on Vimeo

Coming up:

That will do for now.

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