Alien and The Thing FX master Kickstarts CGI-free film

ADI founder Alex Gillis launches fully practical FX film Harbinger Down on Kickstarter

FX master Alec Gillis
FX creator and co-founder of Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc Alec Gillis

 

Kickstarter has funded an eclectic range of start-up projects from fashion to food, but in the recent wake of a $5.7 million Veronica Mars movie project and Zach Braff’s $2.5 million indy follow-up to Garden State, filmmakers are taking a serious look at what could become a new paradigm in long-form film financing.

The latest director to roll the Kickstarter dice is Alec Gillis, co-founder of Amalgamated Dynamics (ADI) the LA-based creature shop with a list of genre credits that includes Alien 3, Death Becomes Her, Starship Troopers, Alien: Resurrection, Hollow Man, AVP: Alien Vs. Predator and Spider-Man.

Disenchanted by the lack of respect and opportunity that major studios have been giving cutting-edge makeup FX and animatronics in recent years, Gillis and ADI co-founder Tom Woodruff Jr. have decided to cut take their case directly to the genre fan community. The result is Harbinger Down, a ‘Practical Creature Film,’ about a group of grad students that books passage on a fishing trawler, who run afoul of a piece of Soviet space wreckage, a group of rapidly mutating organisms and a ship’s crew trying to battle the deadly creatures.

With a $350,000 goal, the project is by no means a certainty, but with 20% of funding already in place by the first week, the numbers are looking good so far. Gillis recently sat down exclusively with SciFiNow to discuss the state of the industry, the growing disparity between practical and digital effects and his decision to use Kickstarter for his directorial debut…

What made you decide to do Harbinger Down as a Kickstarter-funded project?

Basically, there was a convergence of different things happening about a year and a half ago. Number one was that we were kind of in the doldrums after The Thing came out. It was yet another film where we found ourselves commiserating with guys like Rick Baker or the guys at Legacy about doing work that gets replaced by digital. Around that time, there was a lot of fan chatter, because The Thing was such an eagerly anticipated prequel, and the fans were asking questions like, ‘Did ADI screw up? What was wrong with the work that Woodruff and Gillis did?’ So we thought, ‘Why don’t we wait for the movie to come and go- because it looks like we’re not going to have long to wait- to wait- and we’ll put up a video?’

So we quietly cut together a five-minute video of our work on The Thing and put it up and the response was overwhelming. I couldn’t believe how much support came back from the fans, who saw a quality in what we did that was akin to the kind of work that Rob Bottin did in the ‘80s, that had the tactile quality that digital work oftentimes lacks.

We looked at that and said, ‘There are still people who like what we do!’ because we had been getting beaten up a bit over the last five or six years in feature films. So we decided to put up a couple of other videos, like our Green Goblin test makeup for the first Spider-Man film, and that video got an even bigger fan response than The Thing did, so we thought, ‘Well, maybe people would be interested in our work for Ridley Scott’s I Am Legend and again, there was another big outpouring of, ‘Why didn’t they use makeups like that instead of the digital characters they used?’

It made us realise there was a real dichotomy between what goes on behind closed doors on studio lots and in creative meetings, and what is talked about by the fans on the Internet.That’s when we said, ‘Let’s start a YouTube channel and find out how it’s done and we’ll start putting up some of our archival stuff, which will be fun and a way to get a bit more love for it.’

But with each of these videos, we would talk to people in the comments, who would say, ‘Why do studios choose CGI over what you do? Is what you do more expensive?’ and we would say, ‘No, it’s actually a lot cheaper,’ and people were stunned by that, because they felt there was greater artistry in the practical and makeup work than there is in the digital work. But something was not being given to the audience that the audience wanted, so we started listening to the fans, who were also saying, ‘You’ve got to do something on Kickstarter!’

Honestly, we were resistant to it at first, so it wasn’t until I looked around my shop and saw an empty facility that I realized we were actually at the mercy of studios that didn’t actually care about our techniques anymore. They view it as a commodity and a product, and they’ve corporatised the structure of creating art and in the end it all becomes disposable. That’s not how the fans see our work. I am not anti-digital and neither is Tom. We love the digital tools and we think it’s a fantastic storytelling device, but so are animatronics and makeup. For us, because that’s our first love, because we believe there is a tactile reality and believability that you create with animatronics and makeup. And if you fund it properly and give people enough time and money to do their job properly, you won’t have to replace it.

Anyway, all of these elements made us start thinking, ‘Hey, maybe we should just skip the studios and go directly to the fans. We’re happy to be the first guys to step up from the makeup and creature realm and say, ‘We’ve got something here we think you’ll like!’ whether or not crowd funding becomes the model for giving fans the kind of films they want, I don’t know, but we’ve got to do something right now before we drive all the talented people out of this industry, and all we’re left with is the techniques that studio executives decide we should be putting on screen. To me, that is unacceptable.

But at the same time, you’ve wanted to get into filmmaking yourself. Does this remove some of the obstacles that would normally stand in your way?

It does. And when I say that Kickstarter has democratised filmmaking, part of that is that it’s removed the gate keepers. There are two things that we need to get around: one, we need to get around the fact that gigantic budgets bring gatekeepers with them, who are there to protect that budget from being spent in ways that the studio disagrees with. If you can do something with a lower budget, you remove some of those gatekeepers.

The other thing is, you don’t have to go to the people who own the money and therefore have a say in which techniques you put on screen. If we go to the fans and say, ‘We’re not making a $30 million film, we’re doing a $300,000 movie,’ by studio standards, it’s not a lot of money, plus we can offer them some fun gifts and prizes, from t-shirts to appearing in the movie where we’ll kill you, and you get to keep your dead body; that’s fun stuff, but we also get to control how the money is spent. So if you can get around the money people and the size of these bloated Hollywood budgets, you could be much freer to be more experimental and do things that are maybe aimed at a narrower niche audience, because you don’t have to make back $150 million. So I’m really excited about that, and I hope we’re helping to create a new business model.

And the opportunity to show that a good genre film can be made for a relatively modest budget?

If Hollywood looks at what we’re doing and says, ‘Hey, there’s a lesson to be learned here!’ I would be thrilled to be part of that reorientation. Tom and I got into this business because we wanted to make monsters, which is still our guiding principle. There were times when we took jobs to pay the bills- and there’s nothing dishonourable about paying your bills and having a bread-and-butter job- but the times we didn’t listen to our gut, the work has never been as satisfying, and the relationships formed out of them have never been as long-lasting.

So I don’t know what the reaction will be to what we do, or whether or not it will be that kind of paradigm shift, but we’ve got to try. We can’t just sit around and let it just become the studios that are making $300 blockbusters, and then Syfy. There’s got to be something else.

Unless you’re going to do Sharktopus 2.

God bless ‘em if the reason they keep making them is because somebody is watching them. I’m not criticising that as a business model, but here’s the thing: I started out at Roger Corman’s. I went in for an interview in 1979 and got the job in 1980, and Corman had this big warehouse, where he had people like James Cameron, Gale Ann Hurd, Rob Bottin (who was working on Humanoids Of The Deep), future Oscar winners Robert and Dennis Skotak- and Bill Paxton was a carpenter building sets!

There was a back storage area outside, where Corman had wall flats; it looked like a big junkyard, but if you needed a set, you grabbed a bunch of car parts and hot tubs and turned them upside down and wired them together to make yourself a set. That’s the kind of ingenuity and embracing of limitations where low-budget filmmaking shines, and it’s that kind of passion that the fans can see in the final product. Even if your movie is a little rough around the edges, or not quite as developed here or there as it could be, the fans see that passion and that’s what they respond to.

Back Harbinger Down on Kickstarter, and see more gorgeous practical makeup and creature FX on the ADI YouTube channel.