Study Guide

Frankenstein Production Design

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Production Design

Early Hollywood Monster Movie


Today you can build your monster on a computer and give it giant tentacles for arms and a bicycle for a head. The Bicycle Tentacle Creature From the Black Lagoon! you could call it. No one could stop you.

But back in that dim dark time before computers roamed the earth, it was a lot harder to put tentacles and bicycles together to make a hideous creature (whether from the black lagoon or elsewhere).

If you wanted a monster back then, you needed makeup. Lots of makeup.

And that was the (awesome) job of (awesome) make-up artist Jack Pierce, who became famous for his work on Universal monster pictures. For Frankenstein, he created a square skull, and painted Boris Karloff's face blue-green—in black and white it showed up as an unhealthy-looking grey.

It was Pierce's idea to put the electrodes on the sides of Karloff's neck, too. The flat-topped look with the bolts in the neck became the iconic Frankenstein monster look. It's what just about everyone thinks of when they think "Frankenstein's monster"—even though none of those details was in Mary Shelley's original novel.

The make-up may have looked good, but it was miserable to wear. Karloff remembered:

" I spent three-and-a-half hours in the make-up chair getting ready for the day's work. The make-up itself was quite painful, particularly the putty on my eyes. There were days when I thought I would never be able to hold out until the end of the day." (Source)

Karloff also was given a suit several sizes too small, so he looked like he had oversized arms and legs. His boots were too big as well, and weighed a whopping thirteen pounds each, giving the monster its characteristic clumsy walk.

Slow Monster

First there was a famous monster in a book. Then there was a famous monster on the screen. But in the middle there was a (less famous) monster on the stage.

Frankenstein's based on a stage play, and you can see that in the way it's directed. Plays, obviously, don't have camera movements; the view of a stage is fixed. Stages sit there.

And that stage stillness is reflected in James Whale's direction. Rewatch the famous "It's aliiiiive!" scene, for example.

At the start of the scene, when Frankenstein encourages Waldman to look at the body, you're looking at the two of them in the middle distance, the camera positioned behind the body. Waldman walks up to the body, while Victor and Elizabeth stay back.

It's a very striking scene, in part because there's little camera movement. Instead, the camera stays still, and you watch the folks in the distance, who look small and scared. The lack of a soundtrack also gives a sense that everything is static and still…and that you're just sitting helplessly, watching it happen.

That's not to say there's no camera movement. The scene has numerous cuts. And note the slow pan as the monster rises up to the roof and the camera follows almost reluctantly. The stillness of the film in general gives even this little motion great drama and weight.

In comparison take a look at all the quick cuts and motion in the creation scene in the 1994 Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Rather than a slow move towards the roof in silence, with the lightning and thunder providing the only sound, the 1994 film gives you cuts back and forth from the rising monster to the hunky Victor racing about, all punctuated by an insistent dramatic soundtrack.

There's lots more frenetic action—but a lot less tension and drama.

Whale knew how to take advantage of stillness and silence. Frankenstein's awfully slow and quiet compared to contemporary films. But sometimes the slow monster is the one that gets you.

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