The Frankenstein Complex and Guillermo del Toro’s Masterclass

It’s possible I have some secrets. It’s possible that I haven’t told you everything about me, dear reader. I frequently underplay the fact that I am and have been a capital N capital G Nerd Girl bold underline all caps NERD GIRL. My online “brand” is very much directed towards the horror set, but it is as true now as it was ten years ago when I first stumbled into comic books and conventions: I am a geek. I am a dweeb. I am the biggest nerd-faced fangirl ever. My credentials include writing fan fiction and attending both comic cons and fandom-specific conferences and cosplay and collecting far too many comic books. I wear teeshirts with my favourite characters on them and I own a lightsaber. Okay? Yes, I own a freaking lightsaber. That makes I’m capable of force-choking those who cause me displeasure. *makes squeeze pincer gestures with thumb and index finger* Okay, not really, but I’m down with Vader. Vader is my homeboy.

Having said that, I want to express my love for several things all at once, because by definition the context of being a geek today has taken on a more socially-acceptable slant and often describes someone who is extremely passionate about certain subsets of popular culture: the subset of choice that I’m going to slap down on the table before you today (with or without tentacles, your choice) begins with Hellboy:


Hellboy is a character created and drawn by Mike Mignola that inspired such spinoffs as B.P.R.D. (the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense) and Abe Sapien. I first learned about Hellboy through film, however, which resulted in a binge-read of every book that was available at the time. I loved the movie (understatement of the year, folks.) When Hellboy II: The Golden Army came out, I was all over it. It was visually stunning: the scenes, characters, and monsters were out of this world spectacular. (And to this day I am known to errantly drop the line, “I’m not a baby, I’m a tumor,” which is pretty dark unless you get the reference. Let it also be known that I’m still striving to new heights of social awkwardness. That is where my fanaticism has led me, and I’m not even working on it anymore.)

The man behind the film and the translation of the character into three dimensions is a modern-day Harryhausen: He is a maker of monsters, a director, a writer, a producer, and an artist who conceptualizes creatures and brings them to life — and he helped elevate Hellboy to a place where you could damned near be convinced that he was real. He is responsible for CronosPan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, Mimic, and one of my favourite gothic romances slash ghost stories slash creature representations, Crimson Peak. He’s also developing the television adaptation for Trollhunters, which he co-wrote with one of my favourite YA horror writers, Daniel Krauss.

His name is Guillermo del Toro, and I sat in on his Masterclass following a screening of Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex for the twentieth anniversary of Montreal’s little month-long film festival, Fantasia Fest.

Insert high-pitched noises of shrieking fangirl glee.

Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex and Guillermo del Toro’s Masterclass at Fantasia Fest 2016

Fantasia Fest has been running since 1996, and offers a really great opportunity to check out a ton of lesser-known international genre films from Europe, Asia, and the Americas. It’s familiar to me because I’ve been attending for nearly as long as its been running, and a lot of the screenings take place in one of the auditoriums of my alma mater, Concordia University.

The auditorium in question was where I was stuck for six semesters taking a prerequisite art class that literally all art students had to take to graduate. I think I’ve even sat in my old seat a few times.

Anyway, I digress. It was the second day of the festival, and prior to the screening, del Toro received the Cheval Noir (Dark Horse) award and was met with several hundred applauding, cheering fans — myself included.

Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex

Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex collects interviews from the men who built the monsters, creatures, and cadavers of 1980’s genre cinema. Anecdotal, illustrative, and really personal since these guys talk about each other with such respect and admiration that it’s easy to see how much they love their craft, the film tracks the evolution of monster makeup from its early days in The Phantom of the Opera and Jack Pierce’s work on the Universal Monsters, and it’s progression into latex, puppets, and animatronics through to Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and the onset of CGI.

Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex

No one wants to say “the death of” rubber; instead, there seems to be a prevailing understanding that the artists adapt with the times and integrate as best they can new media into their craft. A couple of examples del Toro provided in the discussion that followed highlighted an emphasis on practical effects in his own practice; how he treated the house in Crimson Peak as a character to give performers something to react to. He said he wanted to come to work every day in the house and not on a green screen. He furthered the discussion mentioning Cronos, “You need to get inside to see the gears to see another dimension; to believe its real.”

Interviews in Creature Designers include Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren, Rick Baker, Mike Elizalde, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., John Landis, Joe Dante, and Guillermo del Toro, with highlights from such films as Gremlins, An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, The Fly, Alien, Jurassic Park, The Thing, and Star Wars.

Check out the synopsis below.


The success of Avatar, Jurassic World, the Planet of the Apes reboot, and series like The Lord of the Rings has proved one thing: Movie creatures have never been as popular as they are today.

Finding its roots in ancient folklore and mythology, the art of creating monsters for the big screen is, on the other hand, as old as cinema itself. From early experiments with apes and dinosaurs to the birth of special make-up effects, from the pinnacle of animatronics to the digital revolution, Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex explores a century of cinematic thrills and wonders. Most importantly, the feature film focuses on the relationship between the creatures and their makers: Like modern Frankensteins, special effects wizards create life out of raw material, art, and complex machinery.

For two and a half years, Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet have met all the greatest artists in the genre, visited dozens of studios, and gathered hours of exclusive footage from classics like Gremlins, Ghostbusters, The Abyss, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Starship Troopers, and Spider-Man 2. The result celebrates a world of human imagination and unparalleled artistry but also shows how fragile traditional crafts have become in the wake of futurist technologies.

Guillermo del Toro’s Masterclass

We opened the evening with Guillermo asking how much time he had for the talk, and upon discovering there really wasn’t a time limit set, he came back out and informed us he was good to go because he’d chugged two diet Pepsis and we ought to tell him once we’d had enough. (This is a room with several hundred people in it, bee tee dubs.)

Upon being asked about where he drew inspiration from, he came back with the following:

He informed the writers in the audience to write what they feared, to be honest, to find their personal truths through the things they found when they looked into the darkest parts of themselves, and not to skimp on the things that they truly believed in. To be explicit, he told us that, “You should never be satisfied with five fucking donuts,” if only five donuts are offered. Go for the sixth donut.

He also said that the best ways to become a better writer is to read absolutely everything (no surprise there), and to look at images. All sorts of images. All the time. Collect them. Hoard them. Turn them into something else with words.

My favourite quote:

I’m okay with that. (Hi, Pinterest, much?)

“No one remembers at the end of the movie that you didn’t have money, by people see the scene you shot and they say oh what a great scene. If you had left it out, you’d be fucked.”

I might not be making movies, but I get the gist of it: there are going to be fights with beta readers and editors who want to trim things down. In some cases, make the compromise; in others, make sure it makes it into the draft if it makes the story — if it shows the gears of that little clockwork Cronos device that has, at it’s core, a squirming little insect that enlivens the creature.

Listening to Guillermo del Toro talk about horror and the fantastic and making comparisons between Ridley Scott’s Alien and H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness is the equivalent of getting a post-secondary education in horror and storytelling that I can’t really compare to anything other than flipping a light switch. The dude’s illuminating — he loves the weird and he’s damn well-versed in it.

He’s also about as NSFW as Chuck Wendig, which probably came as a bit of a shock for the kids in the audience who attended with their parents.

Overall, an awesome way to kick off Fantasia Fest this year. I squeezed in a screening of Beware the Slenderman on Sunday, and there are a couple of other horror titles on the roster that look mighty appealing over the next few weeks. Stay tuned for my Beware the Slenderman review, because that was a heavy helluva documentary and I’m going to talk about it on Thursday.

See you soon, and do check out the film. 🙂

  • Michael Thomas-Knight

    I can’t wait to see The Frankenstein Complex. I love all the FX documentaries and I’ve watched many of them 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

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