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June 08
2021

ISSUE

Summer 2021

ALEC GILLIS: PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES OF ANIMATRONICS IN TO THE FUTURE

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Alec Gills.

Alec Gills.

 There is no holding back Alec Gillis, especially when discussing whether special effects artists get the proper respect and recognition from the film industry. The two-time Oscar-nominee dislikes the practice of special effects being left off of award ballots and feels that more can be done to promote and support the efforts of their practical-minded colleagues. All of this is done good-naturedly as Gillis talks from the porch of his house via Zoom. He has earned the right to his own opinions after being schooled by legends Roger Corman and Stan Winston, co-founding Amalgamated Dynamics, and working on Alien3, Tremors, Starship Troopers, Cast Away, Zookeeper, It and The Predator. 

Even though special effects have been around ever since French illusionist, director and actor Georges Méliès dazzled audiences with the first of his 500 films in 1896, a lack of awareness and understanding remains today. “A lot of what we do is educating when we’re dealing with clients because people don’t know what goes into it, how meticulously things are crafted, and nothing exists until they put money into it, which is a difficult concept for producers to get,” states Gillis, who had to deal with the complications of running a business under pandemic protocols. 

“After six weeks of being in quarantine,” he says, “I went into the shop and was looking around thinking, ‘We have enough space to socially distance. We have four bathrooms so everyone can have their own.’ We fall under the category of manufacturing, so we are considered to be essential here in L.A. Nothing was stopping us. People were comfortable with it and came back. We have inched towards finishing projects, and there have been no COVID-19 illnesses.” 

 Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Gillis grew up in Santa Ana, California. “I could see the Disneyland fireworks from my bedroom window. It was a time where my mom would drop my brother and I off when we were nine and 11 at Disneyland. We would run around the park for an entire summer. That was amazing because of animatronics. I remember when the Haunted Mansion was new. It was all great fuel for the imagination. The summer of 1969 was when The Planet of the Apes came out. We’d hide under the seats in between shows to watch the movie again. It was such a compelling story, and I felt that I was watching an adult movie with interesting themes and, of course, that twist ending. Then you realize that Rod Sterling wrote the script and he’s the Twilight Zone guy! You’re becoming a fan of people’s work and start thinking, ‘Individuals make these things that I love, so why couldn’t I be one of them?’” 

The patriarch of the family was a U.S. Marine turned insurance salesman who was a big fan of learning about how movies were made. “I remember my dad waking me up when Jason and the Argonauts premiered on CBS and seeing the moment when the skeletons are coming up out of the ground,” recalls Gillis. “That was when I was sucked into how wildly creative the world of effects was. But it was always mixed with storytelling.” 

Alec Gillis has been part of some major Hollywood franchises such as Aliens vs. Predator.

“I went out to Pomona one night where James Cameron’s friend was a projectionist to see his 35mm print of Xenogenesis. Jim was 25 and I was 19. I remember thinking, ‘He’s light years ahead of me!’ It was stop-motion, big models, robots and 35mm. We went back to his house and looked at giant pre-production paintings and a seven-foot-long spaceship model. For about a year I helped him with that.” 

—Alec Gillis 

 The experience created yet another fan of Ray Harryhausen. “My business partner, Tom Woodruff Jr., is good about contacting people and sending letters, so when we were in London for Alien3, he arranged for us to meet Ray Harryhausen and his wife Diana. He showed us his big display case of all the skeletons as well as some animation that was done on an unfinished Grimm’s fairy-tale short. These British animators had rebuilt the puppets and completed it. It was really good. I always admired the artistry and expressiveness of Ray’s animation, and the boldness of his designs. He was an independent filmmaker and an auteur. Ray did the panels that showed the layout of the effects sequences and story beats, developed it with Charles Schneer, and brought in the director. I liked that.” 

Plans to attend film school at USC were interrupted for the aspiring cinematic talent when his application was declined. “However, I did get accepted by the art school there, but instead decided to get a job,” states Gillis. “I did manual labor, like delivering mattresses. The husband of my high school art teacher taught oceanography at Cal State Fullerton and had a student who made movies. He suggested that I should meet him. I went out to Pomona one night where James Cameron’s friend was a projectionist to see his 35mm print of Xenogenesis. Jim was 25 and I was 19. I remember thinking, ‘He’s light years ahead of me!’ It was stop-motion, big models, robots and 35mm. We went back to his house and looked at giant pre-production paintings and a seven-foot-long spaceship model. For about a year I helped him with that. I had taken over my mom’s garage with stop-motion puppets and makeup, which caused a Cal State classmate of my sister to offer to get me a job interview for Battle Beyond the Stars. I didn’t have a portfolio, so I decided to bring Jim along because he’d make me look good. We interviewed with Chuck Comisky and the Skotak brothers, Dennis and Robert. Six months later we were brought in to build miniatures. I worked alongside Jim each time he moved up a rung in the ladder.” 

Gillis helped friend and colleague James Cameron in creating the title adversaries in Aliens.

Gillis does touch-up on a lifelike dummy of Bishop (Lance Henriksen) to be included in Aliens

An important aspect in designing believable creatures is understanding anatomy. 

Human characters get as much attention to detail as their alien counterparts.

After dropping out of UCLA’s film school, Gillis was referred to makeup and creatures effects wizard Stan Winston by Cameron. “Stan used to remark, ‘I love working with clay, but now people are my clay.’ He was good at putting a crew together, spotting talent and giving it an opportunity. Coincidentally, this was why he was able to have his own life. Stan would put a lot on your shoulders and go home, but his presence was felt as he was the boss and through his art direction. Stan corrected my misconceptions about how to run a shop and how to interact with clients. Stan would say, ‘It’s your job to explain to a producer why it needs to be this way. Don’t get tongue-tied or angry. Communicate. Both of you want the outcome to be great.’ He was a team player, had a can-do attitude, was positive and had a big ego. It can’t be an unchecked ego, but you need to have one. Stan could be very opinionated, but he would listen. He told me once, ‘You have to learn to find good ideas and utilize them.’” 

“Working on Aliens was a surreal experience, because in 1979 Jim and I had gone to see the first one as fans at a theater in Brea, California. We came away thinking it was a tour de force sci-fi film,” states Gillis. “Five years later, Jim is directing the sequel. I was one of Stan’s main guys at that time. It was exciting because Stan’s team had been through The Terminator with Jim and I had been through the Roger Corman experience with Jim, so we were a tight unit. It felt like filmmaking the way it’s supposed to be, where you have a nice bond with the director and there aren’t layers between you.” 

Subsequently, Gillis partnered with Stan Winston colleague Tom Woodruff Jr. to establish special effects company Amalgamated Dynamics. “In 1987, Tom and I were getting interest in an anthology script that we wrote, and Stan only wanted to work on his own projects. The movie did not happen, and I realized that there was a glass ceiling. I respectfully handed in my resignation to Stan and there was no animosity upon leaving. Tom followed shortly after that. Gale Hurd called us with this script for Tremors, which was our first feature, but we had also done a couple of other television jobs.” 

Gillis instructs the workshop crew at ADI.

Miniatures are part of the special effects toolset used by Gillis.

Gillis is in dangerous proximity to an infamous doll known for being possessed by the spirit of a serial killer.

An aerial view of the ADI workshop with the centerpiece being a massive animatronic alien creature.

Tremors has gone on to become a cult classic. “Because it was a low-budget movie, we kept it simple and did manual puppeteering,” remarks Gillis. “We suggested that the Skotaks should be brought in to build and shoot the miniature sets while we’d construct the miniature creatures. There was a big cable puppet with levers that was very articulated and simple hand puppets with articulated mouths. There are miniature shots all through Tremors of creatures coming up and diving. It opened up the film. After the studio saw the edit, they decided to give more money, which was used for additional miniature shots.” 

Amalgamated Dynamics went on to win an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for Death Becomes Her, as well as nominations for Alien3 and Starship Troopers. “Alien3 had name recognition. Death Becomes Her was an oddball movie, but Robert Zemeckis was riding high on his great work and it had some ground-breaking digital effects. And with Starship Troopers there is always something over the top and sensational about the work of Paul Verhoeven.” 

For Wonder Boys, a sophisticated dead dog needed to be created for filmmaker Curtis Hanson. “Curtis was calm and affable,” recalls Gillis. “He said, ‘Sometimes I want it floppy but to also have rigor mortis set in.’ An armature was made that had these locking joints. We’d go in, set the joints for the rigor mortis scenes, and then unset them. That was a nice gig, and they gave us the resources to do it right.” Animatronics technology has become precise. “We made a talking gorilla for Zookeeper that had 34 servo motors in its face. 

We had the ability with our motion control system to pre-program all of those lip movements to get a beautiful sync and also get the facial performance right.” 

The head of a massive baby created for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.

Gillis poses with the animatronic gorilla created for Zookeeper

No creature is too big or small for Gillis to create.

Gillis demonstrates a deadly moment in a well-crafted piece of prosthetic artwork.

After dropping out of UCLA film school, Gillis was referred to makeup and creature effects wizard Stan Wintson by James Cameron.

Gillis makes adjustments to a larger-than-life special effect.

Gillis orchestrates some on-set puppeteering.

A favorite childhood film of Gillis was The Planet of Apes, which contributed to his fascination with special effects.
 

Though not having the budgets afforded to Rick Baker and Stan Winston, Amalgamated Dynamics has made the best out of the situation. “We’ve been fortunate to be connected to a lot of cool projects. Tremors is the closest to pure our design. We have gotten into franchises like Alien and Predator, which I love working on. You’re trying to push the boundaries to give audiences something new, but not depart too far from it.” 

“I would love to do more nonhuman full-scale miniature creature characters where we could push the boundaries of animatronics,” states Gillis, “fully motorized and pre-programmed, so we can animate in the way that a digital artist does. Refine, edit, get all of the bugs out of it, and have a character where you can push a button. It’s more of an effect than a live puppeteer. It would be great to have a project where we could invest in new technology to enhance our facial performance.” 

Animatronics have been created beyond the big and small screen, most memorably as a big baby for the Shanghai World Expo in 2010. “The live installations are fun. We’ve done work for Banksy as well. You’re using a lot of the same construction techniques, but it’s a different drill when it comes to maintenance. There are some amazing animatronics going on in theme parks right now, like the Avatar stuff that Disney has done, which is gorgeous. But, as a storyteller, I love the characters in movies. There is a lot we can do with animatronics or a combo platter with digital.” 

“We’re still fundamentally sculptures, molds, rubber skins and mechanisms,” notes Gillis. “But within that we do have silicone skin material where you get real translucency, more flexible motion-control systems that are designed around our use rather than flying lights around stadiums, and smaller and more powerful digital servos that are cleaner in their signal. 

“We’re still fundamentally sculptures, molds, rubber skins and mechanisms. But within that we do have silicone skin material where you get real translucency, more flexible motion-control systems that are designed around our use rather than flying lights around stadiums, and smaller and more powerful digital servos that are cleaner in their signal.”

—Alec Gillis 

Gillis takes a self-portrait while on set.

The Green Goblin and his hoverboard are brought to life in the Spider-Man trilogy.

The principal photography takes place on top of massive mechanical rig.

Gillis has received Academy Awards nominations for Alien3 and Starship Troopers.

We are not a deep-pocket industry. Digital had a great advantage in that the gaming companies are making more money than the movie business. They were funding a lot of development, and now you see Unreal engine and real-time stuff in The Mandalorian. It’s photographically real and fantastic.

“Someone would have to come to me with a big chunk of money and say, ‘We want to build AI into a character.’ Maybe at this point that’s just theme parks. But that would be a lot of fun. I have ideas for live attractions that allow you to be in and among crazy creatures and animals and safely interacting with them based on AI.” 

Various-sized puppets were created for Tremors.

 


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