April 16, 2019
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Re-animated!
Six USC Schools, Over 140 Students, Sow Shelley’s Story into Collaborative Creation
By Benjamin Del Vecchio
A light drizzle fell on the crowd gathered before USC’s Doheny Library on April 4–– but no one paid it any mind. If anything, it added to the eerie atmosphere.
USC’s Alumni Park was carnivalesque, redecorated and adorned with ominous crimson lighting, replete with various sideshows –– from ‘Frankenflatables’ (icebergs to evoke the book’s arctic meanderings) to Snapchat filter stations, from interactive exhibits (with “Dr. Frankenhead” you piece together the monster’s face then activate it, and it explodes!) to an “olfactory spatial experience” (various diffusers, set to mix scents of moist earth, rotting leaves, ozone, and lichen, contrasted with alpine meadows, arctic ice, and white spring flowers).
All this to set the tone for the night’s main attraction: the (re)animation, of gothic-horror luminary Mary Shelley’s magnum opus Frankenstein via an amalgamation of the arts, combining theater, animation, music, dance, architecture and interactive media.
In 1818, Shelley, locked away with her husband in Victorian poet Lord Byron’s estate (due to a tumultuous storm season), conjured up the ghost tale of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his ambitious creation, a story “to curdle the blood or quicken the beat of the heart.” She was just eighteen. Two hundred years later, her work is still discussed, still influential, and still reworked –– but rarely on such a grand, multi-faceted and multi-media scale.
The “Re-animation” project was the brainchild of Creative Directors Lisa Mann (Cinematic Arts) and Amy Murphy (Architecture). It was presented by USC Visions and Voices: the Arts and Humanities Initiative. Other organizers included Tyson Gaskill, Patty Johnson, Anne-Marie Maxwell, Marje Schuetze-Coburn, and Tim Stanton (USC Libraries). Yo-Yo Lin's augmented reality project, "Faces", featured prominently, and Akiko Yamashita served as Artistic and Technical Director of the projection mapping. The majority of the artistic force behind the project, however, came from numerous USC faculty and dozens of USC students from all six of the USC schools that focus on creativity –– the School of Cinematic Arts, the Kaufman School of Dance, Roski School of Art & Design, the School of Architecture, the Thornton School of Music, and the School of Dramatic Arts. It’s been in progress for the past 18 months, and marks the first time all six schools have collaborated on a single project.
Introducing the main event, USC Dean of Libraries Catherine Quinlan quoted the original preface to Universal Studios’ 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale: “I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you... well, ––we warned you!!”
The animations themselves, projected onto the front façade of Doheny library, were a patchwork panoply –– segments, compositionally, ranged from motion-capture to watercolors, rotoscoped sketches over celluloid to CGI surrealism. Stylistically, traditional gothic aesthetics mixed with steampunk CGI, natural, realistic arctic mountain-scapes were subtitled with handwritten text. Like Frankenstein’s creation itself, the sum of these piecemeal parts combined to form a complete story –– amplified by narration within the projections and outside of it, from theatrical performers and dance numbers from the Kaufman School of Dance and School of Dramatic Arts, choreographed to a Thornton School of Music score.
The evening concluded with a clip reel that reflected the influence Shelley’s original text has had on popular culture since the turn of the 20th century. From Powerpuff Girls, to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, from Rocky Horror Picture Show to Ex Machina, Frankenstein has had myriad reinterpretations since it shook the very core of the literary world back in 1818. None, however, were quite like this –– a collaboration on an immense scale, an experiment in creation with the arts and sciences working in tandem to craft something new out of the old. Surely Shelley, and even Dr. Frankenstein himself, would have been awed.
As the hundred or so people who worked on the project gathered on stage at the finale, a clip of the classic black and white logo for Universal Studios, a plane flying around the earth, with text “It’s a Universal Picture” was superimposed behind them. In this context, celebrating the longevity and enduring relevance of Shelley’s tale, and the countless artists who have used her story as springboard for their own, the clip took on a different meaning. The appeal of Shelley’s masterpiece is, indeed, universal.