Interview: FX Creator Alec Gillis

For the release of A24's latest film, THE MONSTER, James got to speak with one of the masterminds behind the creature's design, Alec Gillis of Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated. Alec, and co-owner Tom Woodruff Jr., have over 30 years of special effects work in Hollywood and their impressive credits include: The Terminator, Aliens, The Monster Squad, Pumpkinhead, Tremors, Leviathan, Death Becomes Her, Wolf, Starship Troopers, Alien 3 and AVP: Alien vs. Predator. 

James Carter: Hi Alec, thanks for speaking with me today!  To start things off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself for those who are not familiar with your work? 

Alec Gillis:  Sure thing!  Tom Woodruff Jr. and I are the co-owners of Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated and we are creators of special characters for movies and television.  We do it old school, no digital animation or anything, we are strictly special makeup, specialty costumes, and animatronics.  We will use the computer for the design, obviously we sculpt on the computer from time to time, and design in Photoshop etc., but in the end our stuff is real.  

JC: What inspired the creature design for THE MONSTER? 

AG: Well, the script mainly.  The script didn't give you a lot of specifics about what the creature looked like, it gave you actions but not necessarily what it looked like.  [Director] Bryan Bertino had an illustration that he liked and that was kind of a jumping off point.  The cool thing about the creature and the designing of it is that since it's a metaphor for the dysfunctional relationship between the mother and daughter it's a subjective psychological creature as opposed to a biologically derived creature that looks like it has to follow some rules of evolution and sensibility. We were kind of thinking of the creature as a Rorschach inkblot, mostly black creature with a few focal points such as reflective eyes and a dangerous looking set of jaws.  Beyond that we were looking for ways that texture would read at night, in the dark with rain on it, things like that.  They were all points that Brian brought to us and he was very meticulous about it and he had a clear vision of what he wanted from the get-go. 

JC: What were some of the challenges you faced in creating the creature?

AG: Well, you always kind of straddle the line when you have a performer in a suit.  There's always a line between accepting that it's a humanoid creature with two arms and two legs but also wanting to disguise the human form, so there's always the concern that it's going to look like a clunky stunt man.  We got lucky with Chris Webb, who was the suit performer in the movie, in that he is a stunt man but we knew that he was thinking in terms of a performance. On the very first days that we got together with him we gave him a set of leg extension and arm extensions and he got acclimated to them very quickly and then beyond just being able to move in them he was actually starting to put nuances into his performances and that's very important.  In some places you are wearing 4" thick rubber and to be able to get that to move and not just become stiff and ungainly you have to be able to isolate your body movements and make your movements read through the rubber. 

JC: Wow, so it's really physical acting through the suit. 

AG: Yeah and that's one of the challenges in suit designs, you don't want to make the suit so bulky or heavy that the performer is just weightlifting all the time, because if you are weightlifting you are getting exhausted and then you are not bringing the nuances that you might need to bring. 

JC: What does it feel like when you finally get to see one of your creations come to life? 

AG: Oh, it's always neat!  There are a few points during the build where you start to get excited. When you are testing out a suit and you look around and see that people have come from across the shop and are standing there looking at it with smiles on their faces you start feeling pretty good about it.  In any art project, any artists can tell you there's a period where you just hate what you are doing and you just have to power through it and keep going and fix what needs to be fixed and before you know it, it's come together and you are like "this is pretty cool." 

JC: That's true.  There's always that point where it clicks over and you start to see it materialize and you need that in order to keep going.  Lastly, are there any other monster creations that you are working on for future projects? 

AG: Exactly.  Some project we are working on are Shane Black's THE PREDATOR and we are also doing makeup for a Netflix movie called BRIGHT which stars Will Smith and Joel Edgerton. 

JC: Wow, those project sound really interesting!  Well, thank you for calling and chatting with me.  For those interested in learning more about Alec and Tom's work, visit their website at www.studioadi.com.  Also, make sure to check out THE MONSTER, now available in theaters and On Demand.