Alec Gillis, Amalgamated Dynamics

Alec Gillis, Amalgamated Dynamics

Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated — or simply “ADI” as many in the movie industry refer to it as — is located just outside of Los Angeles in Chatsworth, California — so as to (of course) keep all of their xenomorphs and creatures secluded and at bay from infiltrating and overrunning the metropolitan mecca that is the “City of Angels” — and quite possibly, the world! — even the cloned Ripley took up residence at ADI after “Alien Resurrection” (as can be seen in ADI’s showroom) — so as to continue her plight against her Alien foe… or her siblings — depending on how you look at it..!

The “caretakers” of all what lye within ADI are Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. — creature effects maestros and co-founders of their Academy Award winning company. This “dynamic duo” has brought many of cinema’s most recognizable and memorable moments to life — and they continue to invigorate filmic experiences again and again with their work and that of their talented ADI artists.

I recently called ADI to chat about the history and current state of the Aliens and Predators franchise(s) — including prospects for the future and the possibilities thereof. Tom was literally “entombed” in a costume fitting at the time of my call, so Alec and I hooked up — here’s that chat:

AXP: AVP-R has grossed approximately $140 million dollars theatrically worldwide, and has been very successful with its recent release on home video — has Fox spoken to you about the prospect of an AVP 3 at this point?

Alec: No… (long pause)

AXP: (laughing) — that’s very conclusive actually…! 

Alec: (laughing) Yeah… “thank you very much for your time” (laughs) — no, these things tend to take a few years… just because of the way that the “pipe-line” works. As soon as one movie is out the “chutes”, they’ve got six others lined up going out too. My guess is — is that if they’re going to do another one, that it’ll be a couple of years down the road.

AXP: On the AVP-R DVD commentary track — you mention kind of “tongue in check” at one point that, during the movie, while the two brothers (the Ricky and Dallas characters) are talking in their home, that this is very much like Tom’s and your relationship — and in fact, when listening to that commentary, as well as other interviews with you both — you both parlay very much of a “ying and yang” sibling type cadence when talking — how has that translated into your collaborative creative and working processes?

Alec: Well… I do think that when you have a working relationship with someone for… gosh, what has it been now? This is ADI’s twentieth year — so Tom and I have known each-other and worked with one another for about twenty-five years. You do develop kind of a synchronicity in thought processes and in communication — and that’s not to say that, when you used the term ‘ying and yang’ — it’s not to say that one of us is one way and one of us is another way. What’s interesting is that we’ve found that we switch roles very often — at some point, one of us might be the one who is adamant that something has to be done in a certain way… and then later on in another situation, it will seem that the roles are reversed. So what’s worked well for us in a partnership… is I think that a lot of people who work alone at the head of a company, don’t really have this. You’ve got a sounding board, you’ve got someone who tempers your foul moods, and complements you when you’re “firing on all cylinders” — so it really has been a good kind of relationship that I think has provided more stability… it’s like in a household… where there is a mom and a dad… very often there tends to be that “checks and balances” and things run on a more “even kiel” — whereas when you have a single parent, all of those stresses coming down on one person, can be very difficult. So in a way, it’s like a marriage, it’s like a family… without reading too much into it — but it has worked out very well for us.

AXP: What inspires you about the Aliens and Predators — both from an aesthetic design aspect and cinematic “monsters” standpoint?

Alec: Well… the Alien and the Predator to me are one of the last of the kind of “80’s Golden Age franchises” that still has an aspect of grimness and seriousness about it. They are creatures that inspire awe and are fearsome — even though now we know exactly what they look like. There’s no more mystery as to what an Alien looks like… or what’s under the Predator’s mask… but they still have a life of coolness about them. The original designs from H.R. Giger and Stan Winston that we inherited — are fantastic designs. While we would like to have subject matter and scripts that allow us to go in different directions creature-wise… the fundamentals of these two creatures is so great — it’s why they’ve lasted so long because they’re just terrific designs.

AXP: You also say on the AVP-R DVD that originally the PredAlien was killed on page 3 of the initial script for AVP 2 in a spaceship crash — why was it killed so early on initially? — and then how was it then manifested as a major character element in the final story?

Alec: Well I think that initially… and I’m speaking second hand because I wasn’t involved in the development process of the script… but I think initially that the concept was: “Aliens overrunning an American Town — and a Predator intervening” — so the concept of the PredAlien was just used as a reason to get to that point. In that early draft, I think that it was apparent that, not only was the promise of the PredAlien setup so definitively at the end of AVP 1 — but, that there was an opportunity to go in a new direction to kind of push the franchise and expand the creatures and the world of these two characters — so I think it was the right move.

AXP: Fox also apparently wanted the PredAlien to take on more Predator like traits, rather than Alien, why was that — and how did it finally revert to being more Alien than Predator in nature?

Alec: Of course when a script is in development, there are many voices: the director(s), the studio execs, the writer(s), etc. What’s been established in the previous films is that an Alien takes on the characteristic of its host — so theoretically, in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” it’s a bipedal creature — because it came from a human being — in David Fincher’s “Alien 3” it’s a quadrupedal creature because it came from a dog — but it’s still fundamentally an Alien. So this character which is sometimes being called “The Hybrid” — that’s a little erroneous… because it’s not really a hybrid. It’s not like they’ve crossed the DNA of two different creatures to arrive at a 50/50 split. It is an Alien that has gestated inside a Predator. You can argue — which we did — that while it should take on more of the Predator characteristics than an Alien would with a human — because a Predator might have more viral DNA… he may have just been made of sterner stuff than a human being is, so his genetics could impose themselves more perhaps on an Alien — but story wise, I know that this was important to Colin and Greg Strause, was that the creature be more like an Alien and less like a Predator so that you could have a battle that makes sense. If he’s more like a Predator, then you’ve got two Predators. To keep it Alien vs. Predator, they wisely decided to keep this thing… in their minds it was 85 percent Alien and 15 percent Predator.

AXP: The PredAlien reproductive process is truly unique and shocking, and represented the first time the element of the “Alien” eggs in the “Alien” movie series history were not used — what was that like for you departing from such a quintessential aspect of the Alien universe?

Alec: Since we know nothing of the Predator’s reproductive methods, it opens the door wider for that kind of leap. The idea itself of kind of regurgitating — obviously it’s grotesque and horrific.

AXP: I thought it was great actually!

Alec: Yeah.. you know… there are creatures that store their young in their mouths… I think that there’s some amphibians like frogs, and sea horses do this as well… but this is after the babies are born — they can hide themselves in their parents body basically… climb right into their mouth — and their parents puke them up later… so that was kind of interesting. The pregnant women aspect of it was to make it even more horrific. It’s interesting, no one really stops to think what happened to those little babies… you know? Were they just eaten by the chestbursters…? — or what have you, I don’t know…

AXP: Yeah… I wasn’t sure if that was the “allure factor” there… as if it would give the chestbursters “more nutrition” — obviously in a very grotesque way…! It seemed that was the reason that the PredAlien was seeking pregnant women out…

Alec: Yes — it is very much implied isn’t it?

AXP: Indeed! — In the AVP-R DVD featurette: “Primitive Design: Creating the Predator” — you say, while in the pre-production process of AVP-R, that ADI has designed things that may never see the “light of a projector bulb” — and Colin Strause punctuates this discussing the artwork — saying: “You could make the next forty movies just based upon the (amazing) concepts we had (that ADI created).” What are some of those designs that are “standouts” to you, and do you think there’s a possibility of ever releasing a book of ADI’s concept work on the Alien and AVP movies?

Alec: Well, you can see our making of AVP-R in a book which is available through Design Studio Press and that one’s called “AVP-R: Inside the Monster Shop” (see my AVP-R:Inside the Monster Shop review for more) and like our previous making of AVP book, you can see a lot of the design work. This time there is more of that, which only existed as sketches and photoshop designs, and what have you. I think there were some designs in there that have a lot of merit — but you have to remember the reasons why they don’t see the light of a project bulb is because there are studio concerns. When you get to a point that you have a franchise that is successful as these films are, you’re no longer “working under the radar” — so you do have a lot of guidance from the studio as to what the features of the creatures are… where the dreadlocks should go… and so we go through a lot of those processes to hit those marks. I was really proud of the variety of designs that we turned out… in a short period of time. We only had about 3 1/2 months to design and build this movie — so we really opened up the stops, and I think that our art team really came through with some great stuff.

AXP: Design-wise, we have seen variations and evolutions in the Aliens and Predators over the past few movies — in what further ways would you like to see these characters evolve aesthetically?

Alec: Well… that’s a tricky thing because part of what makes these two characters work is… what you don’t know about them. I’ve had fans ask me: “Why don’t we see more of the Predators culture?” — “Why don’t we see how they prepare for battle?” — “Are there female Predators?” — “What is their home-world like?” — “Do they have a religion?” — and all of that stuff is very interesting, and if the franchise is to continue it must be explored, but with that comes the danger of over exposure… comes the danger of turning the Predators into just another form of Klingon… or something like that — where you become so familiar with them, that they become boring. Familiarity breeds contentment… you know? On the other hand, you can’t stagnate, and I do think that the series has been “playing it a little bit too safe” — because the Alien’s nature is that of a xenomorph, it changes constantly. It doesn’t have to tread the ground of “The Thing” though… where it’s constantly changing shape on a minute by minute basis… but I think that cross breeds, and influences, and the Predator’s genetically modifying the Aliens… all of that kind of stuff — could lead you to some very interesting kind of alternatives. When you look at the comic books and the games and the toys — I think that they’ve had a freer reign to take those kind of chances. But what I think that a lot of fans don’t understand is that in terms of the business of movies is that — when you’re investing $70 million bucks… you tend not to have the freedom to take risks the way a comic book can which are being made at a fraction of the cost.

AXP: Many fans have voiced how they would like the mystery of the “Space Jockey” (whose skeleton was seen in the derelict ship found in the first “Alien” movie) explored further cinematically (by my estimation, the “Space Jockey” is in essence to the “Alien” movies what the “Boba Fett” character has been to the “Star Wars” movies — a rarely seen, but intriguing character, that has developed quite a large following among sci-fi movie goers), and the Strause Brothers have spoken of their desire to see the “Space Jockey” also appear again cinematically — what are your thoughts about further exploring that concept?

Alec: I would love to create a living “Space Jockey” — and to see that design fleshed out and moving and performing would be fantastic… again, the only danger is… it’s not just about the visuals — it’s about the purpose and the story and it’s about the character itself. You mentioned “Boba Fett” — “Boba Fett” was cool in his first appearance — and after that, I lost interest in him. He became just another guy in a “Star Wars” outfit. I don’t think that his character brought much to the series — and he was just done kind of in an obligatory way… I wouldn’t want to see that. However, that particular design, and the mystery of purpose of the “Space Jockey” would really be a great challenge to explore — both from a writing standpoint and a visual effects standpoint.

AXP: What have been some of the most challenging on set aspects of dealing with the Alien and Predators in each subsequent film?

Alec: Well I think that as we’ve kind of evolved in our involvement in the movies — such as in “Aliens” — we had a bunch of performers in suits, whereas the first film had a singular character… “Aliens” had multiple characters plus a large mechanical Queen Alien — so it was like upping the stakes ten fold — and that was a challenge. Moving into “Alien 3” — we were back to one character, and we were able to finesse the suit work more… and get back to Giger’s paint scheme… make a more sophisticated version, a more mobile version of the suit. Then by “Alien Resurrection” — we were able to the numbers again, but with that sophistication of suit work… plus the New Born character — and to work with each of these different directors, has been really great — because there have been a wide variety of different attitudes and takes on things — each one brings something to the franchise and we’re very open to that… we listen very much to their likes and dislikes, and make adjustments accordingly. I think that, as the movies have expanded, that they become a matter of a challenge of logistics. You’re trying to keep subtlety where you need the subtlety — and find articulation and texture and so on… but you’re also trying to create an army of characters — so that’s a tricky balance, especially in the relatively short time schedules.

AXP: Tom said in a recent interview that he had a pitch for “Alien 5” that was shot down by an executive at Fox — and said that exec didn’t even understand the Queen Alien..! — what in the world did that person not understand about the Queen Alien and can you share any aspects of your “Alien 5” idea?

Alec: I can’t really speak to that concept for an “Alien 5” — because it’s still something that’s pending. I think what Tom’s referring to is that there’s often times a kind of an… and I think that this is something that is important for fans to understand how the studio system works… is that you have a movie like “Alien” — which was created initially as a germ of an idea by Ron Shusett and Dan O’Bannon — that picks up momentum and attracts people like Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger — and ultimately becomes that brilliant movie that we know of as “Alien”. It was still a relatively small film, it was a surprise hit… they bring in Jim Cameron after his “Terminator” success — and he kind of repeats that auteurship that Ridley Scott enjoyed… after that, it became a full fledge franchise, and it became guided by the structure of the studio. The folks that are guiding that, who are all smart people, are not necessarily people who grow up “living and breathing” sci-fi and horror creature stuff… so they may be dealing with an “Alien” movie one minute, then the next minute they’re dealing with a Jennifer Lopez romantic company. So they’re spread very thin — they’re filmmakers, they’re creative people, and they have great ideas — but they don’t necessarily “have it in their bones” — and I think that’s an example of that. There’s nothing wrong with that. The studio system produces excellent movies — look at “Iron Man” — that is a movie that is as much as a committee film as you could get. However, there was a strong director, there was a strong story sense, and everything was working in that movie. So, whenever I hear people criticize the studio system — yes, there are frustrations about working within it, but the payoffs and successes can be really tremendous.

AXP: In your book, “AVP-R: Inside the Monster Shop” — you say that: “Websites, message boards, and blogs have all turned fans into critics and opinions into facts.” Do you think that commentary on the internet plays a role in how the studios go about producing movies (aka much in the same ways that studios use test screenings) — and if so, how has that been a factor with the recent AVP movies?

Alec: I think that it does play a role in that there are people looking at those boards, and seeing what’s being said — but because the nature of what’s being said is so unrestrained: passionate, yes… but unrestrained and very often vitriolic, and frankly… not helpful… that it undercuts itself. The efforts of the fans… the kind of casual nature of the conversation… and the overstating and the hyperbole and exaggeration… the foul language… and all of that kind of stuff — it undercuts the power of the internet.

AXP: Yeah… that’s totally unnecessary…

Alec: If those fans treated it in a more serious way… in a more respective way — they could increase their power over the studios ten-fold. If a fan did not give a studio exec a reason to dismiss them, then they would be forced to reckon with them. Right now, when you have someone making personal attacks or “wishing cancer” on all Fox executives — it can be written off as a frenzy… even though, there may be a kernel of truth or accuracy… or a good idea in there… it’s going to be written off. I think that until people get that — or if there’s a group of them that can go off to a website that is constructive and passionate and has great ideas going — I think that’s the group that will get looked at and paid attention to. As it is, when I’m in meetings: “What do the fans think?” rarely comes up. The Strause Brothers were very much in tune with the fans, and they were very much looking at what’s being said and what’s being commented on… but sometimes it can be paralyzing — because there’s not really a consensus of what’s good or what’s bad. In life, you generally have “pissed off people” taking to the streets protesting… you don’t have happy people taking to the streets protesting. You don’t see protesters carrying signs that say: “We’re satisfied. Good job government” — nobody does that because happy people don’t get passionate in the way that pissed off people do — so it kind of creates a generally negative view. If you were to read the internet comments on many, many films — you would think that this film is not going to make a dime… then it turns around, and it makes hundreds of millions of dollars — so that’s the other balancing factor — the studio looks and says: “Well, they’re trashing us on the internet — but look what we’re doing at the box office…” — therefore, disregard the internet, keep doing what we’re doing. So I think that there will be a way for studios to eventually use the internet as a kind of “sounding board” or as a “test audience”. I think what would be really cool — would be a movie that is totally internet driven — where you start by taking polls, and you say: “We’re going to make a $10 million dollar movie — what’s the genre? Is it romantic comedy, horror, or sci-fi, etc…. If you say ‘Horror’ — then OK… boom! The votes are in, and it’s going to be horror. Now, is it supernatural horror? Is it slasher? etc. Then starting giving yourself parameters. It would be no different from hiring a writer to come into a studio exec’s office — and have the studio exec say: “I want to do something in horror — give me some ideas” — but your writer or your idea man is the internet public. That would be a very interesting experiment. It would be the first… I don’t know if I would go so far as to say that the internet crowd gets to write the movie — but they get to make decisions. You invest them, and they get to make the basic, story, plot decisions — maybe casting decisions, things like that.

AXP: Yeah — that would be intriguing, I agree — and I think there should be a bit more of a “filtering process” sometimes for persons who go off on rants and tangents that are anti-productive… and that are bitchin’ for the sake of bitchin’. 

Alec: Yeah — and there’s a “safety” in being negative. It’s a very “safe” position to just hate everything — you’re not “sticking your neck out” — you’re not saying: “I like this… and I endorse this…” because as soon as you endorse it — you get attacked — and you know, what’s the point of that? I got out of Junior High a long time ago…

AXP: The software company Gearbox recently said that in the process of developing the upcoming “Aliens: Colonial Marines” game for the XBOX 360 and Playstation 3 — that they worked in tandem with ADI artists in designing various elements in the game — in what areas of the game did ADI collaborate — and what can fans of the movie series and gamers expect to look forward to in the game?

Alec: I can’t say too much about that, because I don’t want to compromise Gearbox’s success or their ad campaign or anything like that. It was a nice experience — it was nice to have people come to us and say: “What do you think?” — “Can we get your input?” — but that’s about all I can say…

AXP: As much as many fans are thrilled about the concept of both Aliens and Predators being featured in movies together, there are many who would still like to see each creature have their stories continued separately cinematically — as well, many fans would love to see a movie with the return of Ripley for a final “mano y mano” face off with the Aliens for “closure” for her character so to speak. Ripley has been so pivotal to the series and has basically been the “window” into the Alien universe for so many — and it feels that her character has been somewhat “abandoned” — both literally and figuratively. Do you think there are any chances for a return of her character?

Alec: That’s a studio question. I would love to see more stories in this universe because it really is a universe. You could have stories of Colonial Marines, you could have stories of settlers, you could have stories of space merchants in the middle of nowhere, you could Alien and Predator homeworld stories, you could have a coming of age story of a young Predator warrior on his home planet or dropped off on yet another Alien planet… you know, it really is endless, and it’s very interesting. I think what comes into play is market concerns. Each one of those movies costs millions upon millions upon millions of dollars… I don’t know that the fan base is there to support that. If someone could make $10 million dollar versions of these movies that are satisfying, that have interesting stories, I think that could happen. If someone were to eventually do a TV series – with your advertising, your costs, and your recycling your creatures and characters — potentially that could happen… but that’s the same question. With the return of Ripley… if it is Sigourney Weaver — then there’s a cost that comes along with Sigourney Weaver. I think that in the more recent movies, what they’re (the studio) saying is, the creatures are the stars of these movies — and you’re not going to have big names… you’re not going to have Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sigourney Weaver again in one of these movies, unless the landscape and the economics of it shifts — that’s unfortunately the hard reality.

AXP: Where would you like to see the Alien and Predators “go” in prospective future cinematic excursions — in character, location, and story?

Alec: Well of course, I’m like a lot of Alien fans who would love to explore the Alien home world, to explore the Predator homeworld, to get more involved in kind of a more ethnographic way in the Predator culture — but again, the danger of that is that is becomes too exposed, and we lose the mystery of it — but at this point, you know what’s underneath a Predator’s mask, you know what an Alien looks like… we have to look for new ways to create the mystery and awe. My thing is always — I want to recreate that feeling when I first saw Ridley Scott’s movie, and I want to recreate the feeling of the first “Predator” — but a lot of those origin stories are always better than “the continuing adventures of…” — because “continuing adventures of…” tend to get repetitive, whereas the origin story is where the heart, newness, and freshness comes from. It’s a tough thing, you know… on the one hand, it’s giving you a structure that you’re climbing higher and higher… but on the other hand, it’s like a cage that you’re kind of trapped within. It would be great to see a re-invention of these characters, but that takes a certain amount of risk. It’s really in the studio’s hands at this point.

AXP: An Alien Warrior and Ripley were used in the opening montage of this years Academy Awards — and this month, AVP-R was nominated for an MTV Movie Award — it goes without saying that many consider characters and creatures from the Alien movies to be iconic in film history — why do you think that these creatures and characters in particular have resonated so strongly with audiences and have held such a lasting appeal?

Alec: Well, you know it goes back to the brilliance of the original filmmakers: it goes back to Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon, Ron Shusett, H.R. Giger… it goes back to John McTiernan, Stan Winston… those movies were so fresh and novel in their time — the concepts were groundbreaking — and more so in the “Alien” than the “Predator” series, they were able to pull off a couple of movies after that which built on that foundation. I think what we haven’t seen is — we haven’t seen the characters degrade into spoofing themselves… or becoming caricatures of themselves… and part of it is that the filmmakers who make these sequels are so passionate about those early movies. The guys who came along after “Aliens” all loved the first two films — they may be back and forth as to which is their favorite film — but they both loved the first two films. They may not all love the later films — but they love those first two films — so there’s something that everybody is going for that is based on that foundation… and then you know, as a creature designer, you can’t under sell short the impact of these designs — they are iconic designs, and they’re both totally in different ways… they’re both brilliant — and that again is H.R. Giger and Stan Winston — we’re lucky to have inherited this franchise.

AXP: — and I must mention, for the “piece de resistance” — the “Mary’s Ass” holiday special that you created — how in the heck did you come up with that? That was hilarious…! I came across it on YouTube recently…! (laughing)

Alec: (laughing) The thing is, with Tom and I in our day job — everything that’s expected of us is gruesome, horror-filled, realistic, and serious — so sometimes to blow off steam, we’ll do these short films. I’ve got a collection… I might put some more up that are… they’re just totally ridiculous and self-indulgent — and that one was! I’ve got four kids, and I lead a pretty normal life, but occasionally…. I say: “Ah! I want to do something stupid…!”. I said to my wife: “I want to do a Christmas Card this year…” she looked at the film, and said: “OK — you send that only to your friends…!” — so that year, just a very few people got a DVD of that — and then I decided, at the urging of a couple of other friends, to put it up on YouTube… so there you have it…! That’s the story of the “Christmas Greeting”…!

AXP: It’s been good chatting with you Alec — and thanks again for your time.

Alec: Thank you.

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