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Remaking a Classic Monster

Movies: Universal, which unleashed Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's creature 67 years ago, turns to computers for a Y2K make-over.

October 02, 1998|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Boris Karloff made him a monster-movie star. Elsa Lanchester was his bride. He's co-starred with Gene Wilder, the Wolf Man and Dracula, not to mention Abbott and Costello. He's been played by everyone from Bela Lugosi to Robert De Niro.

Of course, he is Frankenstein's monster, the granddaddy of Hollywood creatures. Nearly 70 years after his first sound film, he is coming back to life, this time as the star of an all computer-generated feature film slated for release by Universal Pictures on Halloween, 2000.

The monster's comeback was sparked by a 17-second test film created earlier this year by Industrial Light & Magic, the respected visual-effects firm known for its work on "Jurassic Park," "Men in Black" and the "Star Wars" series. The computer-animated footage shows a Shaquille O'Neal-sized hulk lumbering downstairs into his lair, the floor thudding with each step as if his legs were veined with concrete. Suddenly a door flies open, piercing the room with a shaft of light.

Surprised, the giant turns toward us, the light illuminating the familiar scars on his hairline and the bolt in his neck. But what impressed Universal Pictures Chairman Casey Silver about the footage was the vulnerable look in the Frankenstein monster's eyes. They were the eyes of a real man, not something created on a computer keyboard.

"When I saw that test, I knew the time was right to see Frankenstein again," Silver says. "Seeing him walk, with that face and those eyes, he had the timeless feel of something old and new, like a cross between a classic '59 Cadillac and a stylish new car."

Shrouded in secrecy until now, the film represents Universal's first full-scale foray into Hollywood's increasingly crowded field of computer-generated films, where a movie's visual elements are all created digitally in a computer. Budgeted at roughly $80 million, "The Frankenstein CG Project," as it is currently known, marks the first creative partnership between ILM and a Hollywood studio. The relationship, similar to the one between Pixar and Disney on "A Bug's Life," gives ILM its first start-to-finish involvement in a computer-generated film.

And at a time when Universal has been mired in a prolonged box-office slump, it gives the studio an opportunity to launch a new big-screen franchise.

"Movies like 'Lost World' and 'Babe' [both Universal films] have proved that you can make dinosaurs run and pigs talk," Silver says. "It's always a crap shoot, but we think that by using new technology and great storytelling technique we can reintroduce the characters that put our studio on the map 60 years ago." (A documentary about those films, called "Universal Horror," can be seen Oct. 9 on cable's Turner Classic Movies.)

Freshening the Staples

To use the current Hollywood parlance, Universal is "refreshing the library." For years, studios have looked enviously at Disney Films, which has boosted profits by carefully re-releasing its venerable library of animation classics. More recently, Disney set the pace by reinventing "101 Dalmatians" in 1996 as a live-action film and creating a new franchise with "Toy Story," the first entirely computer-generated animated film.

The films offered an attractive financial model, since the studio didn't have to share its take with back-end participants, as it often does with big-star live-action films. They also presented an instant synergy opportunity, since most computer-generated film subjects are natural spinoffs for video games, TV shows and theme park attractions.

Now Disney's rivals are hoping to expand the new computer-animation universe:

* DreamWorks, which is releasing "Antz" today, has several other projects in the works that use computer animation, including "Prince of Egypt" and "El Dorado."

* Sony is making "Stuart Little," a film version of the popular children's tale that will blend live action and computer animation.

* New Line is making a three-film series of "Lord of the Rings" that will use extensive computer effects.

* Disney is busy making more computer-generated films, including "Toy Story 2" and an action-adventure saga called "Expedition."

Eager to get into the game, Universal recently launched an Animation and Visual Effects division designed to create new computer-generated projects.

"When you look at the economics of the movie business, Disney has always had a leg up because of its animation library," Silver says. "We felt it would be tough to compete with Disney in the animation business, but with computer-generated movies it's more of a level playing field."

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