An Interview with Alec Gillis – By Kirsten Walsh

In the recent years in cinema, there are names that stand out: James Cameron, Stan Winston, Ridley Scott are just a few. Alec Gillis has worked with a good majority of them, standing in the shadows, guiding the creatures and practical effects that made many films of the 80’s and beyond unique and classic. Flash forward 30 years and now Gillis owns and operates his own effects design studio with fellow effects wizard Tom Woodruff Jr. (ADI Studios) and has a mission in mind- to enjoy what he does and do it well, as well as educate the future effects artists and inspire them to create. With “Harbinger Down” exceeding its $350,000 goal (it raised $384,181 by the time the campaign closed out), Gillis is now taking his career to a new level, which is highly anticipated. That, along with his two Oscar nominations, two Saturn award wins, and his BAFTA win, mark that this man is not only an effects wizard, but a talented individual who has truly found his passion and calling.

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KW: You are currently in pre-production for the widely anticipated, primarily crowd-funded special effects horror film "Harbinger Down". Can you give us an inside look at the story and the concept behind the film?

AG: As a fan of ’80’s sci-fi horror, I was delighted to learn that there are many of us out there. My two faves from that time are Carpenter’s THE THING and Ridley Scott’s ALIEN. HARBINGER DOWN will be my love letter to those great films. I’m writing the script now, but that’s about all I’ll say presently!

KW: You mention in the kickstarter campaign that "Harbinger Down" will be a practical special effect film, with no use for CGI or digital effects. How many effects are you planning and can you give us some insight on what we can expect to see?

AG: To be clear, I said ‘no digital creatures’ will be in the film. I’m a fan, but not a fanatic! Maybe I should say I’m not a fascist? HD will feature Practical Creature FX, but I’ll use limited digital techniques in support of our Practical FX Creatures. To me acceptable uses of digital are compositing, adding vapor breath, snowfall, rod/cable/rig removal, any digital technique that enhances our Practical work but does not supplant it.

KW: There are a handful of practical effect films that have come out within the past few years ("Hatchet", "Under the Bed", etc). What will separate "Harbinger Down" from the rest of the recent practical effect films?

AG: I think most of the PFX work lately in lower budget films has been more in the makeup realm than actual Creature animatronics or puppet FX. I don’t have a lot of interest in gore, unless it’s in service of a Creature film as opposed to straight slasher gore. HD will be violent, but at its heart it will be a sci-fi/horror Creature story. Look for lots of weird-ass monster design and cool deaths! Don’t worry, I’m not short changing character and story! That’s also what made ’80’s sci-fi/horror great!

KW: As the co-founder of Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. (ADI), the practical special effect production company, what is your main mission for the film industry?

AG: I love creating PFX and Creature characters through Makeup and Animatronics. But I think my days as a hired gun are over. The Kickstarter campaign has lit a fire under my butt to be a leader in the effort to bring realism back to genre films. Whether the studios take note or not I really don’t care. I want to start a renaissance for the fans, for PFX artists and for myself. Let the studios keep chasing vapid tent-pole blockbusters. If they succeed, bless their hearts. As a film maker, I’m not interested in that world.

KW: Within the last few years, your team at ADI began releasing small effects tutorials and videos on YouTube (mainly after the disappointment from "The Thing"- the 2011 version). What has the response been for those videos and do you plan to continue doing them for "Harbinger Down"?

AG: I don’t really consider myself a very good teacher of technique. The main message of my SWSCA tutorials has been about thinking for yourself, getting off your butt, taking your passions and making something happen. But as I did them, I started hearing my own words, which reminded me I haven’t really been living up to my own potential in the last 10 years or so. The YouTube community helped crystallize things for me as well. I plan to keep feeding our channel with HD videos as we’ve been doing with our other projects. It’s all just been so rewarding.

KW: Over your career in film, you have worked on some incredibly legendary productions (“Aliens”, “Tremors”, “Jumanji”) and some films that have been more cloistered in their distribution, but inspired generations (“The Monster Squad”, “Starship Troopers”, “AvP”). What was your favorite production for you personally and why?

AG: Tough question. I look as much at the experience of making the film as the film itself. I’ve been lucky to have worked with so many great folks on so many great films. I’m also lucky that I’ve gained wisdom without getting jaded. In many ways I’m more optimistic and excited now than I’ve ever been.  Not really answering the question you asked, but I think that’s the closest I can come to picking a favorite!

KW: You are slated to take the helm as a director for "Harbinger Down" and for "The Seventh Tear", which will be your first major forays as a director. As a practical effects wizard, what made you want to take that step and what will you bring from your past experiences?

AG: I’ve been wanting to direct for literally 30 years! But I’ve realized that I don’t just want to be a director for hire. To me, there’s no separation between writing and directing. I’ve had to learn both. The world doesn’t know me for those skills, but I look forward to displaying what I’ve developed over a long career. I’ve worked with a hell of a list of directors: Fincher, Cameron, Zemeckis, Scott, Johnston, Blomkamp, Nichols, Ephron, Jeunet, Verhoeven, blah blah blah. Have I learned from them? Sure. Will I deliver? You’ll just have to watch!

KW: Let’s talk down and gritty. What is your favorite practical effect to work with?

AG: I love animatronic faces. Creatures that emote are the pinnacle of my craft. To have the resources to create characters that can be totally pre-programmed and refined in the way CG animation is funded and supported would be a dream come true. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the random spontaneity of a performer in a suit and a buncha puppeteers wiggling RC joysticks live!

KW: Both you and your ADI partner (Tom Woodruff Jr.) are teachers with the Stan Winston school, with your primary subjects being the writing of creatures, directing creatures, and script breakdowns. What led you to start teaching, and what do you hope to impart to your students?

AG: Again, I’d like to encourage artists to approach the craft not as imitators of whats gone before, but as innovators. HR Geiger was not a Creature builder, he was outside the studio system but he revolutionized it. we need more weird, unexpected thinkers in this field. That will only come with more opportunities. More opportunities only come through financial success. We need our PFX movies to make money so we can create opportunities for more artists.

KW: In interviews about "The Thing", you stated that Rob Bottin was truly inventive as at that time he was actually creating techniques that are still used today in effects work. Are there any specific techniques that you created to make your work more streamlined?

AG: Our developments have often been about increased efficiency that should allow us greater time during the build to improve on the aesthetic steps of sculpting, painting, articulation and even rehearsal. Unfortunately, the time we’ve learned how to cut from building has been swallowed up by studios cutting short pre production schedules. We are a shop that does amazing things in short order, but innovation becomes difficult when there’s no time.

KW: With shows like "Face Off" becoming more and more popular, practical effects are swinging back into style it appears. For the future of practical effects, what do you forsee?

AG: We’re at a critical juncture. Guys like Spielberg are predicting a collapse of the big studios. As bad as that might be, it will result in opportunity. I plan to be there with an economic/artistic model of film making that is more beneficial to the artists and to the audience. A lot of that depends on the affordability and quality of PFX.

KW: You run one of the most respected and most credited effects production companies in the business today. How does one break in to the industry and get involved with production companies like yours?

AG: With the opportunities dwindling I worry about where the next-gen filmmakers will get their chops. For me it was Roger Corman’s company. As unfriendly as L.A. is to business in general and low buj films specifically, I still have hopes of shooting here. It’s home and it still is a magnet for the most talented film people in the world.

KW: What advice can you give to hopeful aspiring practical effects creators and designers out there, and even directors who want to go into practical effect films?

AG: No one knows exactly where the industry is headed. Many predict gloom and doom. Just remember that with change comes opportunity. Learn as much as you can, especially traditional art technique. It will make you a better digital artist. There’s no wasted knowledge. You’ll find a use for it somewhere. Pursue your dreams. It’s a risky prospect, but only you know when you’ve given it a fair shot and it’s time to move on or double down.

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Thank you Alec, and we look forward to Harbinger Down

Everyone should definitely check out the ADI youtube channel for awesome behind the scenes videos of a variety of productions that they have worked on, including The Thing(2011), Spider- Man(2002), X-Men Origins: Wolverine(2009), and Starship Troopers(1997). http://www.youtube.com/user/studioADI

The ADI Facebook Pages have excellent updates for fans and followers! https://www.facebook.com/amalgamated.dynamics / https://www.facebook.com/pages/studioADI/238790036238008

More about Alec’s career and his films can be found on his IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0319266

Updates on “Harbinger Down” along with videos and fun stuff can be found on their website: http://us.harbingerdown.com