An Interview with Tom Woodruff Jr. – By Kirsten Walsh

Tom Woodruff Jr. was always the man playing with film, plasters, and goop. From the ripe old age of 13 and inspired by the groundbreaking works of Ray Harryhausen, Woodruff began his legacy with the world of Super 8mm and homemade effects. He moved to Hollywood, and ended up landing on Stan Winston’s team for Terminator. What began as a passion became his career and brought him to massive productions such as Death Becomes Her, Alien3, and Jumanji.
In 2013, he became involved with a team of filmmakers who had a dream and joined with them to bring it forth to reality. “The Interpreter of Signs” is based on a comic book style world, and is the first of a four film idea. The film had an overly successful campaign on Kickstarter, raising over $123,507 with over 500 supporters! Congratulations to the Interpreter of Signs team!

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KW: So tell me about the world of “Fire City”.

TW: Fire City is a whole world created by Michael Hayes and Brian Lubocki.  It’s a world where demons live side-by-side with all of humanity but protected by a "curtain of misperception" that keeps their real nature hidden.  It’s the only way their species can survive on Earth; with us, but without us knowing. 

Michael and Brian came to us years ago with the project and the plan to do a very low-budget promo to help sell what by then had evolved to be a full multi-feature series.  The concept was so intriguing, along with the notion of designing demon characters that were not rooted in traditional folklore but would instead give us the opportunity to go off the page and create something new, that we were hooked!  It was an easy choice to go out on a limb with these two guys who shared the same passion and sensibilities of how best these effects could be achieved with a practical approach of capturing nearly everything in camera.

KW: That sounds awesome- and the idea for both the film and the world definitely are interesting! So with you stepping in as director, what sets Interpreter of Signs apart from some of the other projects you’ve directed?

TW: The biggest step up is working in the structure of a full length feature.  In the few shorts and television I’ve directed, it’s important to get your cards on the table quickly enough so the audience can follow the game but still hope to hold a couple of things back for a minute or two to grow the anticipation and the focus the audience on what’s about to happen next.  With a feature, there is a bigger world to create and some time to take the audience deeper into the world.

My best experience and understanding on set from watching directors whose work I respect is to be able to balance your vision with the art and resources that the cast and crew are there to deliver, and do it all with a permeating sense of structure and calm.  I believe people, particularly artists and craftsmen, can sense when they’re being led and when they’re being pushed.

KW: That’s very true. Working back in your film history, it is said you moved to Hollywood as a young man specifically for a career in Special Effects. Do you think you had it better or worse than the actors that transplanted to Hollywood?

TW: Well if you look at the comparable numbers, there were many more people in Hollywood looking to break as an actor than there were creature-effects artists.  So, yeah, my group had a higher average of it working out well than the would-be actors.

KW: Also, with that, you have "acted" in numerous films, as a creature actor, most notably Alien3. How does that affect your special effect design work and your directing?

TW: I can’t imagine me functioning as a director without understanding a little of the process of acting.  I know others who pull it off, but I need to be able to understand enough about the key aspects of filmmaking (not just acting, but cinematography, lighting, editing, etc.) to at least have a common ground of communication.  I couldn’t make any of those crafts in my trade, but at least I can speak the basic language.

KW: That is an excellent point. If you had to choose one aspect of special effects as your primary, what would it be?

TW: Performance.  Not just the physical aspects of wearing prosthetics or animatronic suits, but the emotional content of what a creature character is meant to pass along to the audience I find to be a challenge and a strength.

KW: I think a lot of people don’t realize the work it takes to go into a creature actor. “Attitude is everything when it comes to the character.” is something I see quite a few creature performers say, and without it, I can see it definitely impacting the film. What is your favorite medium to work with as far as design and creation goes? 

TW: Artists are the most indispensable of medium to me to work with.  I don’t think it’s any secret that the level of character effects that still prevail in features are hardly the work of one person.  I would much rather work with sketch and concept artists and sculptors and painters that are far more talented than I am to bring something to life, than struggling with rusty talent of my own to pick up a pencil or sculpting tool.

KW: Where do you think the film industry as far as effects is headed? There have been several films in the last few years that harken back to the 80’s golden age of special effects. Are we having a renaissance? 

TW: We’re close, I think very close, to seeing at least an uprising in the return to more visceral, practical effects if not a full-on renaissance.  The difficulty in sustaining it is that we are often at odds with productions that are have such a vast difference in scope of expectations compared to scope of budget that the resources to do the work aren’t there to support the level of work we can achieve.  That has been part of the beauty of being able to mount our own productions.  By being able to control what is expected on screen through story, script, and direction, and stick to the plan, we can get the best show up on the screen.

KW: Being a part of a major company in L.A., what is your take on independent films, especially in the horror genre? 

TW: I think horror as a genre has become too much of a catch-all for everything that is extra-ordinary.  The smaller the film, the more it seems to have to rely on visuals unless there is a real story and interesting characters to follow.  That ends up meaning a lot of ultra low budget, independent films rely on common denominators of blood and violence.  Sometimes it works, but often it’s just more of the same old thing.  But in the midst of all of that, there are still those few solid films that get it right and become breakout hits, still considered under the horror banner.

KW: What is the plan for Interpreter of Signs and what are your hopes for the film? And what was the creature at Comic Con all about?  

TW: Michael and Brian walked the convention center floor with Rufus, the Moluck we created for the Fire City promo.  He made the top ten most popular of costumed characters which, from something as huge as San Diego Comic-Con, shows he’s hitting the right notes.

The plan is to garner as much support as we can through Kickstarter to get the feature, Interpreter of Signs up and running, then grow the brand to the next film and the next.  As much as I love creature characters, the trick to making them successful is to leave a little mystery and not fill the movie from end to end with monsters.

KW: I know the fans will appreciate that and will be biting at the bit for all the updates and sneak peeks of film and the “Fire City” world. So encompassing all of your film, what was your favorite film that you have worked on or onset experience?

TW: I still have a spot in my heart for Pumpkinhead.  Things were so new and really taking off in the field and working under Stan Winston the artist and then as director made us feel like one of the most important parts of the film and began the love of not only building but designing characters.

KW: I think that film is overlooked sometimes, but it is truly an awesome film. We wanted to include a fan question here for you- How awesome was it to play Gill Man in The Monster Squad and can you share a cool onset story?- Devin McDonagh, FL

TW: Dude.  So totally awesome!  Seriously, I grew up on watching the original Creature From the Black Lagoon on TV, wishing I could be the guy in the monster suit.  So the chance to play our new version of that monster as my first acting gig was a real high point!  Cool onset story?  Swimming around in the lake on the back lot of Warner Brothers at night in a creature suit!

KW:  What is your advice to aspiring special effects creators/ designers? 

TW: Work on your talent and your skills and your passion for the art and the craft.  Don’t tell me what you want to do; show me what you can do.  And be prepared to be weeded out, ignored, or forgotten.  The hard cold fact of minimal production opportunities and maximum people waiting to fill every opening had best be part of your self-evaluation.  It’s become very easy to go to a message board or online group or pick up an instructional DVD and follow the directions but you have to be harsh and self-critique.  And out of the hundreds of you out there who expect to make it, I’m speaking now to the small handful that will, to say don’t give up.  Let passion be your guide.

Thank you Tom! We will definitely check out all the updates on Interpreter of Signs and look forward to what’s coming next!

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