This Is the Problem with All Modern Movie Monsters

'Cloverfield'Credit: Paramount Pictures
Modern movie monsters are kind of boring and all look the same, so how do we fix this problem? 

The creature that waits in the shadows is normally very terrifying. The viewer’s imagination takes hold, creating an otherworld monster in their heads, and when the monster is revealed... well, the monster isn’t as scary as the viewer imagined. 

There are scary-looking monsters out there. The Demogorgon from Stranger Things was terrifying at first glance, but the effect fades after that initial shock. The Demogorgon as a monster is brilliantly conceived and works well in a series that features characters playing Dungeons and Dragons, a game with creatures that directly influence the look of the Demogorgon. 

The problem with this monster is the unfortunate problem with all modern monsters: they all look the same.

Nerdstalgic coined this new fault in monster making "concept design groupthink," and breaks down how this concept has limited the modern movie monster in the video below. Check it out.

What is "concept design groupthink"? 

The concept design groupthink is a breeding ground for very similar ideas. A lot of the conceptual designer world is very stylistically incestuous. While groupthink can be beneficial for groups to feel validated in their work, they create conformity and establish a lack of creativity. 

Why is this a bad thing for movie monsters? 

The monsters from A Quiet Place, Cloverfield, MUTO from Godzilla, the creatures from The Host, and a good chunk of other modern monsters all share a common visual vocabulary. Every one of these creatures has long angular limbs, an oddly shaped torso, a round or extended skull that splits into either a distended jaw or opens up to a void of teeth and death.

While these creatures are horrifying and effectively create general uneasiness, the feeling doesn’t last after the first viewing. 

Part of the issue is that most of these creatures are being worked on by teams of visual effects and concept design artists that are constantly looking at each other's work. This type of work will inevitably blend the styles. This community working together isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t breed any iconic or memorable monsters. 

'The Monster'Credit: A24

Think of the movie monster that has left an iconic footprint such as Lon Chaney Sr.’s monster makeup, Frankenstein’s monster, and the psychosexual xenomorph designed by H.R. Geiger

There are limitations when creating a modern monster using CGI because the software only provides certain amounts of textures that are used over and over again and again. A lot of memorable monsters were constructed using corporeal rubber suits. These constraints caused the artist to work harder to create compelling designs that could look real.

Geiger’s alien is so shocking and stays shocking because of his unique sculptural aesthetic and airbrush technique that is impossible to mimic. Now, with the use of CGI and artists all peeking over each other’s shoulders, monsters are not as idiosyncratic, individualist, or impressive. 

The problem isn’t necessarily the CGI, but the filmmaker’s lack of utilizing the technology in new and creative ways. There are some truly nightmarish visuals created with CGI like the Jötunn called "Moder" in Dave Bruckner’s The Ritual. Bruckner’s design team created a uniquely stylized monster that fit the folklore of the film, while most other people might choose to go for a visual that is recognizable and simple to create using speed paint and Photoshop to get a shock out of the audience, even if it is a one-time-only shock. 

Moder in 'The Ritual'Credit: Netflix

A great way to create a memorable monster is by drawing the creature out by hand. Try to use different shapes that are not alien. Think of distorting the human body in a way that makes you uncomfortable, and elevate the design from there. Give yourself the physical limitations of a piece of paper, pencil, and a little bit of paint to create the monstrosity in your mind. We are at a time in filmmaking when we can create anything that pops into our minds thanks to CGI. 

Although drawing a monster out by hand requires more time, energy, and creativity, the final product will be uniquely tied to the project and could become one of the best modern monsters. Break away from the limitations that are unconsciously lingering in the back of your mind when coming up with a creature, and allow the monster to be strange, uncanny, and beautifully horrifying. 

What is your favorite modern monster that still scares you? Let us know in the comments below!      

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2 Comments

TBH, the ones that creep me out the most are the ones that are closest to human, but whose features are JUST A BIT exaggerated: elongated teeth (not fangs...more like horse teeth), a mouth a LITTLE too wide, body a LITTLE too thin...stuff like that. And the whole "black eyes" trope is overdone. The scary eyes are ones that are almost human, but you can't see the humanity IN them.

September 9, 2021 at 11:54AM

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Quincy Alastair Cooke
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100% agree with this, have been annoyed with modern monsters for a very long time. I think the monster in Super 8 was when I really just gave up on the genre. I think your theory about groupthink is right, but I also think a lot of designers now are inexperienced and coming out of VFX school and they've got all these technical skills, but they have no foundation in art or anatomy. They've never drawn humans or studied animals. Modern monsters have no foundation in reality, their bodies would never work or function, so they don't sell on the screen. Artists like Ralph McQuarrie and William Stout used to design this stuff and they were masters of anatomy. I also think Peter Jackson has guided the design of some really unique and disturbing looking creature work. I'm going to vote for Dark Crystal as something that had remarkable and solid monster design work put into it. A tour de force of artistry.

September 9, 2021 at 11:59AM

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