Interview – Alec Gillis

How It Works: To start could you briefly explain who you are and what your background experience was prior to working on last year’s blockbuster movie The Thing?

Alec Gillis: I started my career at Roger Corman’s (celebrated film producer, director and actor) studio in 1980 with James Cameron. We had met prior to either of us getting into the industry and we both got the job. Through Jim I met Stan Winston. I didn’t get a chance to work on Terminator, unfortunately, as I was working on Friday The 13th: part IV and I thought that might be a better movie. But Stan didn’t hold it against me, so I went to work for him on Invaders From Mars and then on to Aliens at Pinewood Studios. That’s where I began working with Tom Woodruff Jr. In 1988, we formed Amalgamated Dynamics Inc; at the time, Stan was giving directing a go and we knew he was a very loyal guy and wouldn’t fire any of us, but he had six guys so Tom and I thought that this might be the time for us to strike out on our own.
Our first feature was Tremors and then we moved on to Alien 3. We got an Oscar nomination for our work on Alien 3 and Death Becomes Her – and Alien 3 won the award. Since then we have been going strong, receiving a nomination for Starship Troopers and more recent stuff like Zookeeper. I tell you, if you haven’t seen that then you should! It has Tom in a full-size gorilla suit and there is no digital retouch to lip-sync at all. It is funny as that is our most digitally untouched piece of work that’s out there. Of course, most recently we have worked on The Thing and here we are today.

HIW: How much pressure were you and the team under to re-create the world of the original film?

AG: Oh yes, my God, it is daunting. When we heard we were on the shortlist for the job of effects we were very excited as to work on such a film is every effects guy’s dream. But at the same time we were like, ‘Oh shit!’ because now we have to deliver and this is sacred ground. The original movie’s special effects creator and designer Rob Bottin was so genius and Carpenter has such superb filmmaking prowess that, when combined, that movie was like lightning in a bottle! The combination of those two guys was unbelievable. So when we accepted the job we had to take a deep breath and jump into the deep end. Fortunately we had some fantastic work that still holds up today from Bottin to look at and base the work on.

HIW: The original movie is famed for its excellent usage of models, puppetry and animatronics. Have modern CG FX largely replaced these now?

In general, the digital revolution has increased opportunities for us and the role for animatronics and creature effects in movies. Specifically, the digital tools are now able to do what we are able to do, so it comes down to taste and preference. We still do a lot of work in animatronics and many of my friends who run animatronic and make-up workshops say, ‘Yes, we just sold off all of our machines because nobody builds animatronics any more’. And I’m standing there scratching my head thinking, ‘I don’t understand as we have just built all this’.

“That movie was like lightning in a bottle!”

Anyway, Tom and I have doggedly stuck by the animatronics as we believe in it. We think that animatronics can still provide very tactile, realistic alternatives to digital work. And wherever you can incorporate animatronics it upgrades the level of the digital work. If you give digital artists a photograph of a photographically realistic Thing that they have to match to, then they are not just pulling it out of thin air, it’s actually copying the glisten of the sheen and the texture and translucency of the skin. Digital work is capable of doing that but often when creatures are created exclusively through digital means, and have no real basis, you can tell they are not really there.
Hopefully what we did on The Thing influenced the digital work and made it more realistic.

HIW: How much freedom were you given to build on upon the original monster?

AG: Well, importantly, the Thing is not a single creature – it’s a look, a manifestation that this alien life form is taking. So unlike the Alien movies where we had to re-create HR Giger’s work, or Jim Cameron’s work, in those occasions every director has asked for changes to the creature from the original. So sometimes we had to be very careful not to go too far afield if re-creating the same character.
On The Thing though we had a little more breathing room as we were creating iterations of a manifestation – that’s not to say that we didn’t get directives from the director and the studio though. The director, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr, had some very specific ideas about what he wanted to see. For example, he didn’t just want the Thing to look freaky, he also wanted it to look dangerous. So if it had legs, it would have to have claws too etc.

HIW: Finally, can you talk a little about your next project?

AG: Well, I can and can’t talk about next projects. We are kind of in the early stages at the moment but are hoping that soon we will become content providers. So there could be some very interesting news for you on that point over the next six months!

The Thing is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Pictures (UK) Ltd