Alexandre Poncet | Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex

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Following their acclaimed 2012 collaboration, Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, French journalists-turned-filmmakers Alexandre Poncet and Gilles Penso have returned with Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex, a revealing portrait of cinema’s landmark creature creators. STARBURST spoke to Alexandre to find out about the process of documenting the true ‘rock stars’ of practical visual effects.

STARBURST: How did this second special effects feature documentary come about?

Alexandre Poncet: In March 2013, while Gilles was busy with another documentary about Marvel heroes for the Disney channel, I went to the States to promote our first film Special Effects Titan. I visited many studios to screen the film including ILM, Tippett Studio and Pixar and everywhere I went I saw things happening. At that time it was the middle of the VFX crisis; Life of Pi had won the Oscar but many guys in the industry had lost their jobs because of how visual effects are sold in Hollywood. I wanted to gather interviews and to ask the same questions to everyone as the basis for a new documentary. I interviewed many of the biggest names in VFX but we needed an angle. Because the VFX crisis was still ongoing we didn’t have an ending but they all did have something in common in that they were all creature makers! Harryhausen was the king of the creature makers and it was obvious that this subject would make for a sequel.

The name The Frankenstein Complex is very appropriate – these men are very connected to their creations

It's funny because some reviews have talked about how these creators are all men. We do address that issue in the film where it is said that creating drawing something and giving life to it is a way of giving birth for a man and that's one of the themes of the film - they do give birth to some kind of deformed versions of themselves. When you see Yoda, it's Stuart Freeborn’s caricature of himself!  All these artists are obsessed in a way and they have a certain style that carries through to their creations. When you see Phil Tippett’s early drawings - and we had access to his personal archive - you have a lot of creatures that have two huge legs and almost no arms. You see that same look from the Tauntaun to ED-209 which was actually not designed by him but he added something which gave it his own ‘character’.

As well as talking to them, you put these famous men to work to demonstrate their techniques. How important was this element for the movie?

It was essential! We have some never-before-seen footage and we wanted to see the original models and sculptures out of the films, presenting them as works of art. When you see the original stop motion puppet of ED-209 (from Robocop) it’s incredible. We asked Phil Tippett if he would agree to animate it for us and he said yeah, no problem. It was a real experience - I was pressing the camera to take pictures so you can understand that I was trembling, staring down the lens at ED-209! At one point Phil stopped and said “now, what must you do?!” 

How do you feel about modern digital effects?

I love CGI when it's done well and wisely and when there is no other way to do it. People always say Avatar is all CGI - no it's not!  The big helicopter, for example, is a full-scale prop with a huge crane holding it and there are some very big miniature sets. James Cameron is wise enough to use practical when he needs to and CGI when he needs to but some producers don't ask themselves that question. You have to understand the CGI is a medium the favours producers because it's done after the shoot. Practical effects are done during the shoot so it's a director’s medium which means it’s down to the director to ask that question.

The movie talks about a number of films that are excellent mixes of practical effect and CGI. It was fascinating to see how much of Jurassic Park was actually practical effects puppets and guys in suits!

I am very fond of the little moment in our film where (Effects Supervisor and puppeteer) John Rosengrant says that he was in that Raptor suit - the one that screams in the kitchen. That's a very candid moment; it's moving to see this grown-up man who works in the industry just remembering that he was playing a dinosaur!

It was great to see some discussion of Starship Troopers in your film…

In the first cut, we did have a very long chapter about Starship Troopers because Phil Tippett gave us 16 hours of never-before-seen behind the scenes footage but we decided to cut a lot because we wanted a clear narrative structure rather than a succession of different ‘making of features’. But we’ve decided to make a separate documentary about Starship Troopers! We have started on it already, it’s going to be for the 20th anniversary of the film in 2017. We want it to be not only a movie about the special effects but the prophecy Starship Troopers, which is very important to talk about these days…

How easy was to get the studios to allow you to use some of the rare behind the scene or unused VFX material we see?

I worked to nine months with all the big studios to clear everything – not only the clips but all the creatures are you see in the film have been cleared. They were really good to us and they were very interested in the project overall. But I didn't want the film to be ‘everything is fine the world is a happy place’; we have stories in the film that are a little subversive

Indeed, you talk about Yoda in the Star Wars prequels and you probably come as close as we’ve seen to getting insiders from Lucasfilm to almost admit that maybe it didn't quite work out as well as it could have done…

Yeah, that came from Dennis Muren who is a key member of ILM and Lucasfilm. We didn't try to make him say that. He says that they felt the CGI Yoda fight was a little silly but in the end, George Lucas saw something in it that the younger audience loved. And actually, he's right. My eight-year-old son just saw Star Wars Episode II and loved the Yoda fight and talked about for days afterwards so I have to admit that it is not for us older fans but for a different audience.

You interview Kevin Smith and he makes the point that a lot of the practical effects guys from the 1980s were kind of like rock stars. The most ‘rock’ one of all was Rob Bottin but he’s conspicuously absent from your film. Did you try and track him down?

Thanks for asking, every review talks about Ron Bottin! In the beginning, we wondered if we needed Bottin in the film or not and in the end, after two years of production, we decided not to try to track him down. I think it's better for the film. We wanted him to be a shadow, a ghost, the practical effects legend who has disappeared. Everyone talks about him but he's not there anymore. He left the industry, he was pissed off by the projects he was being offered - he didn't want to be putting on fake noses, he wanted to be doing movies like Total Recall and Robocop but there were no more projects like that so he disappeared. In the end, we feel it’s a statement that he’s not in the film. John Landis told us that Rob would love that we make him this mysterious figure in the film!

Would you ever consider a documentary solely about CGI creators?

That's a good question. The problem with CGI is not that you lack artists but that it is a producer's medium, as I said earlier, so CGI artists are not so well known. Nowadays people think CGI is easy but it's terribly difficult to do well.  If you go the easy way, CGI will look terrible. At places like Weta and ILM there are hundreds and hundreds of real artists in CGI but it’s is difficult to pick one the audience will relate to. It goes back to what Kevin Smith said; there are no VFX rock stars now like there used to be. The guys we speak to were like magicians, and everyone loves magicians.

Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex is out now on DVD and is reviewed here.
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