Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis

Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis are the co-owners and co-founders of Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated, a studio that creates special make-up effects for characters for movies. We caught up with them as one of their latest projects, Alien Vs Predator, was released on DVD...

ReviewGraveyard: You've been responsible for the design of the Alien for some time now. Is tricky to give it a fresh look for each movie while still ensuring that it's recognisable?

Tom Woodruff: That's actually a good question, because that's one of the main factors on the last two Alien movies as well as AVP that we take very seriously, and that is, you don't want to disenfranchise the fans because we're actually fans as well.

We both saw the first Alien. It still ranks as one of the most terrifying movies made and you don't want to short-change that. You don't want to be so eager as an artist to put your own thumbprint on the thing that you end up changing things that work very well.

It's the whole approach of: if it's not broken don't fix it, but it's very true. It's very apt because these creatures have developed a very strong and very loyal following. All you have to do is get on the Internet and start looking to find out how loyal that following is.

What we really tried to do from the very start when we first inherited this series of films on Alien 3 was to go back to the original artwork of H.R. Giger who created the creature for the first movie. It sort of went off in a slightly different direction under Jim Cameron's direction for Aliens.

We approached it with the goal in mind of going back to Giger's original source material, so we went to his artwork and put the Alien back in that realm in every way, both in terms of a sculpted form and colour. We just followed through with that on Resurrection.

The big difference is that we got into the characters of the Aliens on AVP. Paul Anderson wanted us to return to the sort of limited colour pallet of the original Alien, which we were all happy to do, to get that look again. When we're designing, creating and building these things we are trying very much to keep everything there that the audience expects, and still make whatever refinements we can. A lot of the time that has to do more with performability, and getting in and out of a suit - hiding the suit opening and suit closures.

RG: When you're in the suit how do you make the creature move the way you want? Is there a lot of trail and error to get the desired effect?

TW: We've done a few creature suits for other projects where we actually built a small video monitor, which is literally the size of a postage stamp, inside. It's set at a focal distance, so it's right in front of my eye, and I can see exactly how it appears on film. I've gotten very adept at performing like you would in front of a mirror where you're seeing a swapped image, and you very quickly understand that in the image, if I want this arm to move, it means I'm actually moving this arm, and I can make that change happen quickly.

But in the Alien suit, since I don't have the benefit of seeing the performance, a lot of times I'm playing it the way I basically think it's going to look cool. There's not a lot of internal process to it in terms of acting. A lot of it is dealing with the physicality of the suit and the demands of each particular set-up or each particular shot, but for the most part, it's this sort of weird kind of, outside or third person point of view, that I always see the performance in.

Alec Gillis: Each time we work on one of these movies we are trying to be true to the designs, for example H.R. Giger. Each director brings a different sensibility to the to the project and we try to accommodate that sensibility.

One of the wonderful things about Alien Resurrection was working with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. We have been huge fans of his since Delicatessen. He was very interested in was the way the eggs open. He said to us that he didn't really care for the kind of mechanical stiff opening that was in the first film. He wanted something that was more undulating and organic, so we came back and built an egg that was very, very, articulated. It sort of had a body squirm, kind of like a little Hawaiian hula dancer. Its petals opened up in three different points of movement along the tips. All along the inside of the lips of the petal we put little air bladders that we could pulsate and make undulate even further and in big bladders on the inside of each other. We had about six puppeteers on one egg, just to give it an extra life like movement. Once it did open, there was massive organic fleshy material in it that included a face hugger tail that would pull through and it would squirm and pulsate.

I remember when he saw this when we brought in on set and it was all slimmed up. We demonstrated it as he turned around and hugged us and said: "Thank you very much." I think he kissed us on both cheeks, like the French do. Right?

Part of the fun of working on these movies, is that there's been a wide variety of directors. We've worked with Jim Cameron, David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and now Paul Anderson. Each one of them has their own unique vision of how an Alien movie should unfold and we've been thrilled to be able to bring their sensibilities to it as well as ours. We consider ourselves caretakers of these creatures now that we have done a Predator as well. The Predator was designed by Stan Winston, who is our mentor, so we can't mess that up. We have to be very careful that we're making the right decisions in whatever changes that we make, and hopefully, AVP will become its own franchise and we'll follow through with it.

RG: How did you approach creating the Predator as opposed to the Alien? Was there much of a difference?

TW: I think the Predator is a little more complicated, because in some ways, it's like having to do two creatures at once. Because of the demands of the script, at one point we were going to see Predators without any armour, basically bare Predators, awakening out of a sleep in their ship coming to get suited up for battle. We had to create Predators head to toe that could be seen. This meant a lot of detail, a lot of body surface detail from head to foot.

What Paul Anderson wanted to make clear to the audience was, first of all, a connection with the Predators that had been established in the first two Predator movies, and how the look of that armour related to what we were going to see in AVP.

This is basically the heavy duty cold weather version of what had been inherently been an armoured design for use in the tropical jungle or in the hot, humid climate of New York City. It was basically an extension of that look, but encompassing the entire body, so there was a lot of cosmetic work in design and in fabrication to make both the Predator, and its armour suit, be screen ready.

Once we got over there with changes to the script and changes to the schedule, we didn't get to the point of ever seeing them unclothed, so they were always covered up, but it was still a lot of extra work that went into it.

Also with the face of the Predator, there is a lot more emotion that's readable than in the face of the Alien. The Alien has no eyes, so there's no real focus for the audience to look at. It's all about the mouth and the lips, and the inner mouth that can fire in and out of the Alien's head. But with the Predator, once his helmet comes off, he is supposed to be a very emotionally readable character. We have the actor's eyes in contact lenses, but we also have mechanically articulated brows, cheeks, the mandibles, which can open and close and move all over. We're trying to get a readable range of emotion out of what is essentially a very frightening looking monster. There's a lot of radio control capability in the head of the Predator to deliver that kind of emotion that the Alien doesn't have as well.

RG: How do you decide what you spend your budget on? Do you get a set amount for certain scenes, or a total budget that demands you spend more money on certain aspects?

AG: Normally the way it works, and AVP was no exception, is that we will be contacted by the studio; we'll read the script, do a breakdown and do a rough estimate of what we think a build list would be. How many creatures do we need? Perhaps even before we meet with the director, we'll budget it. We'll figure out a number and say this is how much, or perhaps a range of numbers. We think about how much it will cost to produce the creature effect.

Then, once we meet with the director, we get an idea of what he or she is looking for and we streamline that list. Sometimes the list will grow, sometimes it will shrink, and then after awhile we come up with our budget, which is how much we think it's going to cost, and then the studio tells us what they think it should cost. We go back and forth and we come up with what is the right balance. A studio is obviously trying to be as economic as possible, which is the same way we run our studio. We don't want to waste money. We don't want to overbuild things, so we very quickly fall in sync with the studio.

Sometimes, we'll work with a director like Paul Anderson, and we can talk to him and say: "How exactly are you going to shoot this?" He'll have storyboards that tell you exactly how it will be shot and then you know that you don't have to over build it. There are some directors that don't really know, so you have to sort of play it safe, and you may end up building much more than you need.

The great thing about AVP was that it was all storyboarded. It was all decided well in advance what was needed, so we knew we didn't go in there building things that were unnecessary.

RG: What's the most dramatic effect you've ever been involved in creating?

AG: I think for me, one of the highest impact scenes that we've done, from an emotional standpoint, was in Alien Resurrection. When Sigourney Weaver goes into the laboratory and sees the clones' versions of herself, the failed attempts to clone an alien which has a horrible mix of human and alien DNA. Then, of course, she sees they're all dead but they're formaldehyde jars. Then she sees the one that is being kept alive, and it has a number seven tattooed on it's arm and she has a number eight. So, she's facing herself almost in another life in this horrible condition and it's a very emotional scene. Sigourney was so great with digging deep and getting that emotion, and she wasn't afraid when we did the make-up on her to look terrible. She actually enjoyed that. That was a very emotional scene I think.

TW: I think for me, one of the most memorable things was on AVP. It's because of the technical advances that we've been able to make with a full scale mechanical Queen. The Queen, back in Aliens, had two stunt men inside manipulating her arms, and now everything is completely mechanical. All the body movements are controlled by hydraulics which is basically run by a computer control system that we helped to develop that allows puppeteers to input their performance into the puppet. Then there's a whole range of facial stuff, which is electronic, which we had a huge crew working on the construction of. This crew was dedicated just to working on the Queen in order to get it done in the amount of time that we were left with following the start of our pre-production.

The day it had to be packed up and shipped to the Czech Republic, we had a huge number of people and a big piece of our financial resources committed to the Queen. Actually, there were a couple of our mechanical designers that had actually worked on Jurassic Park movies, and they were just marvelling over the fact that there were close to twice as many points of movement in our fourteen foot Queen as there were in the full size 24 foot T-Rex from Jurassic Park. We figured that was a great coup as well - to be able to squeeze all of that into such a tiny package, and have it work as well as it did, and as flawlessly as it did on set, as well as to be able to get the performances we needed.

AG: In Death Becomes Her, that was a wonderful challenge, because we had to not only create likenesses of two beautiful actresses, but we had to do some very strange things mechanically as well. The other great thing about that was, for the first time in our career we got to experiment with digital work. Jurassic Park and Death Becomes Her were being made right around the same time. This was one of the first digital movies. But it was fascinating to work with Ken Ralston and James Lim in the overlap of the digital and the mechanical pieces.

We did an entirely robotic Meryl Streep with her head twisted around backwards and a number of other pieces as well. I think some of the successful effects in that film were the combination of the digital and the practical. For instance, when Goldie Hawn gets shot with a shotgun and she stands up out of the fountain, that is our animatronic body with water gushing out of it. But it's Goldie Hawn's real face composited onto her animatronic body, so we love that mix of technologies.

I think that our philosophy on AVP was that wherever you can stay away from doing something digitally, that's always a good thing. Because very often, if there's only digital work in a film it really becomes very apparent. If there's only animatronics, you start to wonder why aren't I seeing wider shots of the creatures doing this or that. So each technique has it's limitations, but when you use them in concert with each other, you get a much more believable and satisfying product.

RG: Is it hard watching your work being destroyed? I know that you create a lot of your creatures to be blown up or set on fire, but it that painful to watch when you've put so much hard work into creating them?

AG: I would say that when we build creatures, we do become attached to them as if they are our children, but at least we know that usually these children are destined to be slaughtered. So we willingly march them into the fire as long as it's for the better and the greater good of the film.

We love to see things get blown up and destroyed and you know, just beat the crap out of them. That makes it a more satisfying movie-going experience. There was a time in our careers where we would sort of hesitate to put slime on things, because we didn't want to mess it up. We worked very hard on it, and the paint job was so nice, and then we'd look at some dailies and say, "you know, what the hell are we doing? What are we thinking?" I think it was really on the first Tremors, where we were pulling back on slime. We went out the next day and we started shovelling dirt all over them, put slime on the inside of the mouths, mouths made of sludge, mud and saliva made the creatures look more real. That's the bottom line: whatever makes them look more real. Whatever serves the story, that's what we do.

TW: We just totally hate the whole idea of nicknaming - it's always somebody on set that's got a great clever nickname for the monster and they'll tell us what it is and - sorry man, none of these things are working. We just refer to this as Alien number one, Alien number two, Predator one... it's mind numbing. We don't mind if you want to blow up the monster, but if you want to give it a dumb name, we take exception to that.

AG: Yeah, that's the greatest insult. Usually, when we walk on set with a creature you hear all the same comments: "That looks like my ex-wife/husband" or "I think I used to date him/her." If a creature has a tentacle to it or a long tongue or something, the women always ask if they can borrow it.

TW: "I bet you guys have a lot of fun at Halloween?"

AG: Yeah. What else? "You guys must have a lot of nightmares." And our standard response to that is: "Only about deadlines" or "only about producers".

RG: Did the comic book have any impact on your work on AVP?

AG: The comic book did have an impact on AVP. Certainly the director had been looking at some of those concepts in the comic book for production design. In fact, one of the storyboard artists was one of the main guys who had illustrated the comic book.

In spirit I think what we were looking at in this project, as it is a sequel to one film, a prequel to another, but it's also a version of a video game and it's a version of a comic book as well. AVP has existed as a comic book and a video game for quite some time, so you can't really ignore those source materials. And the way that manifested itself for us, in particular, with the design of the Predator, was that we went for more heroic proportions than the comic book has.

Our Predator has broader shoulders and a narrower waist. He's also got longer dreadlocks. I think that Paul Anderson brought to the screen a somewhat more enhanced kind of sense of action that is maybe a little bit more like a comic book. I thought in feel, it was very similar to Aliens, so we were very pleased with that.

And I know that there are purists on the Internet who are into the first Alien. I think at this point in history you do have to start looking for ways to bring something new to the project, to the franchise, and one of them was to embrace the concept that the action was going to be more enhanced, and that this was going to feel more like a thrill ride. Like the comic book or the video game.

RG: Do you think the audience now expects to see greater and greater special effects? And is there pressure to come up with bigger and better effects?

AG: You know, we're kind of the guys that, in the meetings, we're always looking for a way to reduce the effects because if you have an over reliance on special effects, you desensitise the audience to them and they very quickly see through a lack of substance in the filmmaking.

If you look at a movie like The Sixth Sense, there are very few effects in that film, yet there is so much audience reaction out of simply reaching towards a door knob to turn it. That is masterful filmmaking.

AVP is not a kind of a film that you can present without any effects of course, because the audience would be very disappointed if there were nothing. We joked about that. You could really make it a low budget monster movie if the people would say: "Look at that, why I've never seen creatures fight so furiously before." But after awhile you have to open up the stops but we are big believers in doing things bit by bit, in order to involve the audience more in the characters.

TW: It is getting harder and harder to be able to hold onto that balance of what we feel makes an effective special effect because it's like Alec is saying, if you unload everything right up front in the beginning of the movie, there's really no place for it to go. What we're faced with, a lot of times, is that we will have the studio or the producer, saying in some cases: "Look audiences today are very savvy. They know what these things look like." They know what they have come to expect from a monster movie, and when it's time, you've just got to get it out there as quick as possible and satisfy that urge.

Our feeling is that there still has to be some kind of a balance. You still have to be able to build up to the point where the audience is ready to see the creature or to see the effect, whatever it may be, because throwing it all out there too early does not give you the opportunity to build the kind of suspense or to build the kind of anticipation which makes it a much bigger payoff. In everybody's quest to match what's being done at the time, we're sort of seeing that there's a very strong element of suspense and tension in storytelling that is getting short-changed at the of expense effects. It's funny, coming from guys whose entire reputation is built on doing effects. We still believe in them, and we still want to do the greatest work possible, but we would just as soon see our stuff start to show up in act two as opposed to page five on the script.

RG: How involved are you in the DVD process?

TW: We are very much in favour of all the DVD material. I know that some people think that it's like a magician giving away the secret of his trick. I don't really think that's the case here, because people going to see these movies aren't mystified the same way as someone who is watching a magic act. I think it's totally different. I think the audience is so well aware of the fact that it's all created. They know that we're not really on a spaceship. They know we're not really flying in space. They know we're not really looking at a creature. And that again puts the pressure on the storytelling and the filmmaking abilities of the director to pull all of that together.

But for us, we totally document everything we can. As kids growing up ourselves, it was very difficult to find that kind of material. Because of that feeling of: "Let's keep this from the audience - don't let them look behind the magic curtain." It was a big struggle to find out that information, and I don't know if that's also partly what got us where we are today.

You develop a real tenacity to hang in there, when you're trying to find out information that everybody seems to be shielding from you. And with the proliferation of the home video market there is that element that serves which we on AVP documented. I think we had close to 15 hours of digital video stuff that we had shot. We had thousands of still images that we shot that we actually incorporated into a book that we put out shortly after the movie came out.

Toward the end of our tenure, over in the Czech Republic, we were getting offers to do conventions when we got back here to the States, and we thought: "We've got to do something different for these conventions."

We came up with idea of shooting video of the two of us in behind the scenes stuff, sort of letting the audience in on our process or the way we wanted to present our process. We spent a few days when we were in Prague on set, not at the expense of the effects of course, but shooting video of me walking around and just totally annoying the crew with my kind of bloated ego... my impression of myself, as an actor in a monster suit, and then coaching all the guys on the crew to walk away in disgust. Some of them didn't take much coaching actually.

We were also shooting an equal volume of Alec spending his time at the craft service table and the lunch tent. I think the Alec aspects are being held for a different Alien movie in the future, and my stuff ended up on all the videos we sent off to the DVD company. After it was all locked in, the producer said: "Oh, by the way, we took all that video footage of you walking around on set like an ass and we put it into the DVD as a secret Easter egg thing to find." So I'm looking forward to that lots!

RG: How would you describe the experience of being in the suit?

TW: When I'm in the suit, being able to focus on the scene, I think, is what just keeps me from going nuts, because it's very uncomfortable, but probably in an opposite way. So many people come up to me when I'm in a suit on the set and they're going: "Wow aren't you hot?" And in most cases, I'm exactly the opposite, because we put the coating of slime on and it just basically sucks all the body heat out through the suit. So in most cases I'm actually shivering. I'm cold and then a person can't win in a conversation with me, because if we're outside and it's cold out, people walk up to me and go: "Are you cold?" I go: "No, I'm hot in this suit." So the poor guy that's asking me the questions about my body temperature always loses.

There's also the weight of the head. The heads are always built around fibreglass skull casts which are strapped onto my head.

There's just a bunch of things that if you focus on those, it would just slowly drive you mad. I'm basically at the will of the filmmakers to be in a suit for anywhere from four to six hours. The longest suit I've ever worn continually, even through lunch break, without taking the head off, was thirteen hours, which I don't ever want to do again. So, by focusing on the scene, that's the only way I can get through. In fact, if I'm not on the set, it's miserable. If I'm on set, and I can focus on what I'm doing, and I know that they're getting film and the creature's going be in the movie, then it's one thing to get through. But just left alone, it just maddening sometimes.

RG: Which do you prefer, Alien or Predator?

AG: Well, if Tom doesn't fall on the side of the Aliens, I think he's really a turncoat. Personally, that's a really difficult question. The Aliens are very, very beautiful, non human and very insect like. It's a fantastic design. H.R. Giger's design is just brilliant. Acid blood, the striking tongue that comes out and the tail that could be used as a weapon. It's a brilliant creature.

On the other hand, the Predator, is a little bit more human and he's got that warrior kind of cool vibe, as well as all those cool gadgets. He's got the wrist blades, and the computer. He can go invisible. He's got the throwing disc, he's got the telescoping spear, and if he doesn't like the outcome of the fight, he can always, blow everybody up with a nuclear bomb. So that's pretty cool too.

I have to say I'm totally undecided. We've been with the Alien more, but the Predator's sort of a new addition to our family, and I have to hold out a little bit longer and see how these Predators develop a little bit, and see what kind of character they come through as. They tend to like to upset the chess board when they don't get their way. I think that's a little bit immature of them.

TW: I got to say, I like the Aliens. It's my bread and butter.

RG: What's going to be the next generation of creature in this series do you think?

TW: I think the fact that AVP ends on such an ominous note of this hybrid creature really needs to be addressed to make it a very pleasing sequel. I think what seems to be the next iteration of these creatures is a blending, a melding of the two. And for us now, creatively, is when it starts to get really kind of super charged. Because now there's an opportunity to come up with something that is a new represented light form, that's new to both franchises, and be the guys to be able to get it up there on screen.

RG: Thank you for your time.

With thanks to Liz Silverstone at DSA

Alien Vs. Predator is available to buy on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment from the 07 March 2005

Buy the single disc edition of AVP on DVD for £10.99 (RRP: £15.99) by clicking here

Buy the two disc edition of AVP on DVD for £13.99 (RRP: £24.99) by clicking here

Buy the limited edition tin edition of AVP on DVD for £29.99 (RRP: £34.99) by clicking here

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