Science Fiction Filme) Dear Mr. Gillis. You have no idea what an incredible honor it is for me to have you take the time to. I have always admired your work and that of Mr. Woodruff Jr. Be it ALIENS (1986), the TREMORS franchise, or STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997). Can you briefly tell us how it all began?
Alec Gillis) My first job was at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in 1980 on a film called BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS. I built miniatures, sets, created landscape sculptures and worked in the camera department. It was the best film school I attended.
SFF.) I love movies a lot. One of my very first experiences was ALIEN and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. Is there any special event or movie which made you think: “Alright, I want to do the same thing?” Do you have any personal idols or favorite movies in your business?
A.G.) JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and all of Ray Harryhausen’s films were early inspiration. So was the original PLANET OF THE APES. By age 13 I knew I wanted to make monsters professionally.
SFF) In your field, there are a lot of wonderful talents who have already done fantastic work. What do you think is one of the most important things about your kind of work?
A.G.) The culture of my family was to go to university and I attended UCLA film school. At the time I was working with James Cameron on BBTS and he advised that I not attend film school. In restrospect, Roger Corman’s low budget facilty was a better film school than a university could provide. I think that if you’re goal is to become a credentialed teacher, or a doctor or a lawyer, engineer or many other careers, you need to attend a university. Film and the arts are different. In the art field it’s about your portfolio, your creativity, your independent drive. That said, people learn differently and many thrive in a more structured environment that school provides. Others rebel against structure and will succeed regardless of their environment. Many young people do not have the abilty to self teach, and that’s okay.
SFF) For many decades, handmade, practical special effects in films were an integral part of the fantastic field. Then, at some point, CGI took over. Do you think there's a film that represents a kind of end of the line in classic animatronics or creature building? If so, which one and why?
A.G.) In my experience, makeup and animatronics, though under siege, are alive and healthy. There is no ‘end of the line’ film therefore. I just finished working on a new PREDATOR film, more than 3 decades after working on the original and we used animatronics. However, I would like to see more films and filmmakers embrace the art of PFX more fully by giving us proper time and budgets to innovate as we were doing in the ‘80’s on films such as THE DARK CRYSTAL (1982) and ALIENS.
SFF) It can be observed that in today's movies and TV series there is a kind of renaissance of the "good old" special effects. What do you think people associate with these grandiose visual effects? Why are people turning back to them? Is it an overkill of visual impressions?
A.G.) People always want what they lack. Now days there’s a glut of orgiastic CGI VFX fests on display in many of the big films. To quote Ray Harryhausen, “Special Effects aren’t special anymore.” Audiences are desperate to believe in the imagery being presented and too often CGI just isn’t convincing. It can be necessary and beautiful, but often not very present or tactile. If you look at older pre digital films such as TREMORS or ALIENS, the creatures seem like the are there in the scene with the actors… because they were! This is what most directors and audiences want. The decision to go CGI often is made at the studio level for reasons other than quality.
SFF) In 1988 you have founded together with Tom woodruff jr. ADI. What prompted you to take this step? Was it the consideration to let your imagination run free independently or what were the reasons?
A.G.) We were working for our mentor Stan Winston and we had kind of ht the ceiling for our own creative advancement. The only answer was to leave the nest and strike out on our own. We did so with Stan’s blessing.
SFF.) You've also worked on recent films like GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021). Here you were responsible for the miniature effects. What exactly were they on this film and how exactly did you have to incorporate the integration of the miniatures into this CG battle?
A.G.) We did not create miniature effects for those films. We designed creatures that were then animated digitally. We enjoy designing for the digital world. There are less design restrictions but also less creative fulfillment as we hand our designs off to others to bring to life.
SFF.) I really love ALIEN 3 (1992). It´s one of the most underestimated films ever made. But it´s also a production with a lot of problems during shooting. After over 25 years: what do you think about the movie?
A.G.) I have many fond memories of the experience. I watched it on the big screen recently and it felt very intimate. That’s missing in science fiction now, which currently focuses on massive scale and pursuit of awe and the epic. I find that pursuit less and less interesting. I like stories about people.
SFF.) One of the best animatronic works for me has always been the head and torso of Bishop from ALIEN 3. A real masterpiece. Could you please explain a little bit how you went about building it? What hurdles were there to overcome?
A.G.) We wanted to show severe damage so we knew we couldn’t use Lance in a makeup. We also felt we could create a believable speaking human robot. The first version wasn’t too great. Luckily we had the time to start over and slot it into the post production additional photography. We’re still proud of the ground breaking mechanism and translucent skin.
SFF.) Could you please explain to the readers what exactly a maquette is and what you can do with it?
A.G.) A maquette is a miniature sculpture used as a design exploratory. Make mistakes in a small scale before you make them in a large scale!
SFF.) The RUNNING FACEHUGGER from ALIENS unfortunately only appears for a few seconds in the finished film. Like many very good works for little screentime in other films. Doesn't that annoy you when you only ever see the fruits of your labor so briefly?
A.G.) This is why we started a youtube channel! On studioADI’s channel you can see lots of tests and work cut from films that often is better than what makes it into the film. We have over 160 million views that prove PFX are alive!
SFF.) The design of the full-grown xenomorphs in the ALIEN films and its spin-offs is always undergoing change. How did you go about changing H.R. Giger's original design for all the subsequent ALIEN films? Was Mr. Giger involved? Did you have a lot of freedom?
A.G.) Giger was involved long distance on ALIEN 3, though we diverged from his designs at the director’s request. On subsequent films we had to serve each script and director’s vision, so naturally the design evolved. Giger was not involved in other films but we always sought to stay true to his genius.
SFF.) Could you please explain, with an example, with which materials (cables, servo motors, etc) you can work best and how exactly these mechanisms are adapted to the mask?
A.G.) The work has gotten more sophisticated over the years but Servos afford us the best movement and ability to be self contained. Animatronic heads worn by actors in sculpted rubber suits gives an amazing result that still holds up in modern cinema.
SFF.) What do you think of your kind of work in film? Is it just a technical one or is it art? Do animatronic get enough recognition nowadays?
A.G.) I don’t care about awards, but I do care about audience reaction, and one thing I hear often is how far superior PFX is to CGI. Of course each technique is a tool to build a film so one can’t be too precious about it. I’m proud to be part of an art that has existed for over 100 years and is at the foundation of great filmmaking.
SFF) What is more difficult to design: fantasy creatures or real existing beings?
A.G.) Everyone knows exactly what a real being looks like so the work is more exacting, but fantasy creatures need to have enough naturalism to be believable so they require more care and thought in design. How’s that for a vague answer?
SFF) The movements of your creatures are always very organic. How long does a test series with you take until the desired movement is completed?
A.G.) Honestly we usually have such short build schedules that we just build and refine until there’s no more time! If we get rehearsal time we use it to the fullest. As a performance director I just try to problem solve and add nuance and lifelike quality wherever I can.
SFF.) Do you have a project you always wanted to do or are there something in progress we can enjoy in the future?
A.G.) I have many personal projects that I hope to bring to life someday! Too many to list!
SFF.) Your work together with Tom Woodruff Jr. and your whole team will always be inseparable for me with the TREMORS series, the ALIEN franchise and STARSHIP TROOPERS. You could list many, many greater creature effects here. Which of your works have been the most challenging for you? Each project has its challenges.
A.G.) The artistic and mechanical challenges can all be addressed in a methodical way. It’s the political human based problems that make the job more difficult! Human beings are complex and we aren’t always able to see people problems coming! MORTAL KOMBAT’S Goro comes to mind!
SFF.) Dear Mr. Gillis. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future movie making.
A.G.) My Pleasure!