Talks & Interviews, Video — December 10, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Alec Gillis: “Tremors” was probably purest example of our design sense (Exclusive)

Although I’ve never worked in the movie business, I can appreciate hard work that some people “behind the curtains” do. One of such people was Brian Steele, a “creature” actor, that I interviewed not so long ago.

Lately, I watched the prequel to the John Carpenter’s 1982 horror film “The Thing”, which I always admired. The effects in the prequel were great, so naturally i was curious who was “behind that curtain”.

Turns out its “Amalgamated Dynamics Inc.” – a SFX company well known in Hollywood.

ADDITIONAL INFO: Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. was founded by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr in 1988. Both Gillis and Woodruff used to work for legendary special effects wizard Stan Winston. First film “Amalgamated Dynamics Inc (ADI)” did was “Tremors”, followed by Alien 3. 1991 was a big year for ADI, as 2 of the films ADI worked on garnered Oscar nominations in the “Visual Effects” category.

ADI did win an Oscar for “Death Becomes Her” effects, and it all started from there, establishing Gillis and Woodruff as the two top artists in their field. Over the years, ADI worked with the best filmmakers, getting more awards (another special effects Oscar nomination for “Starship Troopers”), and did a lot to expand the movie industry’s perception of the value for Animatronics and Special Makeup effects.

tom woodruff goro

Tom Woodruff Jr (co-founder of Amalgamated Dynamics Inc.) as “Goro” in Mortal Kombat (1995)

ADI did effects for the following films (chosen titles):

The Thing (2011)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Race to Witch Mountain
The Incredible Hulk
Spider Man 1-2-3
AVP: Aliens vs Predator
Scary Movie 3
Tremors 3: Back to Perfection
The 6th Day
Nutty Professor 2
Hollow Man (Oscar nomination)
The Astronaut’s Wife
My Favorite Martian
The X-Files (feature film)
Alien 3, 4: Resurrection
Starship Troopers (Oscar Nomination)
Tremors 2: Aftershocks
Jumanji
Mortal Kombat
Wolf
Demolition Man
Death Becomes Her (Won Oscar)
Tremors

 

Of course, after I was blown away by their work, I decided to try my luck and contact the ADI team. And here it is – an exclusive interview with Alec Gillis, one of the founders of Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. In the interview Alec talks about how ADI started off, shares his thoughts on today’s special effects, and more. Read on.

Mr. Gillis, according to your bio, its been a long way – you worked with James Cameron, you’ve done some work for Roger Corman, and SFX guru Stan Winston. Looking back now, what or who was your biggest inspiration? Who was your biggest influence in the magic world of special effects?

My earliest inspirations were Ray Harryhausen, Dick Smith, and John Chambers’ work on the original “Planet of the Apes”. Talents like Cameron and Stan influence everyone that has had the honor of working directly with them. Other directors like David Fincher, Robert Zemekis and Mike Nichols all rub off on you when working with them too!

tom woodruff and alec gillis

Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis working on “Tremors”

 

Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. was founded by you and Tom Woodruff. Why, after leaving Stan Winston, you decided to form a company with Woodruff, instead going further alone, so to speak?

Tom and I worked well together at Stan’s and both had similar interests in where we wanted to go as filmmakers, so it just seemed logical. Buddies like Kevin Yagher were doing it by themselves and it just didn’t seem as fun alone.

ADI has done SFX work for many Hollywood movies, You  personally have 2 oscar nominations for Special Effects, one for Alien 3, and another for Starship Troopers. Amalgamated Dynamics won an oscar for doing SFX in “Death Becomes Her”… however, I’d like to ask – in your personal professional opinion, what was the best work ADI has made?

We’ve had a lot of fun on many of the projects we worked on, but from a design standpoint, “Tremors” was probably the purest example of our design sense. Once you inherit franchises like “ALIEN” and “AvP”, there are many more voices in the process, who all have opinions about the designs of those iconic characters. It makes it tough to satisfy everybody.

Please tell us more about how ADI works… who works on your team, and how do you plan the schedule for the project (a film project in particular)?

Our main people are Yuri Everson, who’s an excellent artist in his own right, but he’s our right hand man who deals with sched and the minutia of running the shop smoothly. Dave Penikas is our key animatronics engineer, Garth Winkless is a team leader who works closely with Yuri on all aspects. Beyond that we have many talented freelancers we try to employ regularly. The work flows through the various departments starting with Design, then Sculpture, then Moldmaking, then Skin Running/Patching, to Mechanical and finally Painting, Fabrication, and Finishing.

I’d like us to stop by the “Thing”, one of ADI’s latest works. Obviously, you’re aware of the 1982 original film, and the SFX work done there. I’ve seen both films, and though the effects in the 2011 film were top notch, the still looked somewhat less real than those of 1982 film. How much of computer graphic effects were used in the 2011 film? Why didn’t ADI go heavier on the traditional old-school effects?

I really want the fans to know that ADI does not have the final word on what the ultimate FX approach is. We are sometimes as surprised as anybody when we see the final results on screen. I read a lot of comments online that reflect a basic lack of understanding of how corporate film making works these days. In 1982 it was different. Before studios realized that genre FX films were the goldmine that they are today, they paid less attention to the filmmakers making genre films. Nowadays there is much more scrutiny of the process, much more studio input, and much less freedom for directors to take chances. Everyone who we worked shoulder-to-shoulder with on “THE THING”, from the director to Image Engine to the producers to Strike Entertainment is top-notch, talented and conscientious. The folks at Universal are as well. Everyone wanted that movie to succeed. But there is a different process in place in 2011 that there was in 1982. I promise you and the fans that we always try to encourage the use of practical effects, but it isn’t often solely our call.

Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Thing premiere

Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis at the “Thing” movie premiere

Again, your expert opinion is needed…. – Not so long ago, Kevin Dale, a computer scientist at Harvard University came up with the new technique, that allows a face “transplant” (3d models of faces), and such special effects have been used in films already, for example in “Social Network”, where the Winclewoss brothers were actually played by one man. Most of people didn’t even see the difference, which gives reason to believe the “effect” itself was fantastic. Some believe, that this would be the future of “special effects” in movies (both A-list, and low-budget movies as well), since the effect looked so realistic. How can you comment on that?

That technology is an example of how unwise it is to say “CGI is less effective than practical”. In some cases I agree, but there are amazing and powerful tools in the digital world. The challenge is to choose the right tool for the right application.

Couple of years ago, I’ve head on the news, that the “next Bruce Lee film will feature a fully computer created martial arts legend, instead of finding another look-alike”… In your opinion, when will that time come, when SFX companies will be able to have a fully “computer created” character /actor in a film, where he would be throughout the whole time, and it would actually look believable? Will this ever be possible with how technology is moving forward today?

I suppose if you look at how far it has come, it is possible. Right now the uncanny valley is a deep ravine full of cross-eyed cg zombies. Maybe someday when we fill it up with enough expensive digital automatons, Bruce Lee will be able to nimbly leap across their heads to the other side.

 

ADDITIONAL INFO: Alec Gillis was kind enough to share a couple of videos of Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. works. These are really amazing. Check them out below:

VIDEO1: UFC Fighter Randy Couture meets Amalgamated Dynamics…

Second video is a Amalgamated Dynamics Highlight reel. Pretty cool.



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