Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis are the founders of special effects studio, Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. They worked on Aliens under Stan Winston before forming they’re own studio. They’ve worked on many films since then including handling the effects on Alien 3, Alien Resurrection, AvP, AvP Requiem and The Predator. We originally did an interview with both of them back in December 2006, Next, RidgeTop visited the StudioADI workshop in December 2017 and produced a report and video interview with both of them. We then had Alec Gillis on the podcast in November 2018 where we asked him about his work on The Predator and Neill Blomkamp’s Alien sequel.
We’ve now interviewed Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis for Episode #126 of the AvPGalaxy Podcast. It was originally recorded at the end of 2020 but was released on Alien Day – April 26, 2021. You can watch the episode below or continue on for a transcription of the most important parts. This is a more generalised interview about their work in the franchises.
Aaron: We’ve been able to track down some people that have had a huge stamp on the on the Alien franchise and it is none other than StudioADI’s Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff. We’re going to start off and this one’s addressed to Tom because Alec as already been subjected to these on his last appearance.
So, one of the traditions that we have on the show when we have new guests on is to ask them about the first time, they’ve ever experienced the franchises that we’re going to be talking about. Now you pair obviously have a really extensive history with the franchise so it goes back quite a bit. So, when we had Alec on the show, he told us about watching Aliens with Jim Cameron and he worked on Predator. So, Tom, do you remember the first time you came across Alien or you came across Predator?
Tom: My story is rather charming because it’s embarrassing and self-deprecating but a friend of mine had an older brother who was in college and he said “We’ve got to go see this movie that opens this afternoon. It’s called Alien” and somehow just because of the way he described it and the fact that I had just read about this other movie called Dark Star. So, somehow, I had in my mind “Okay we’ll go have some fun, see this goofy movie”. Then suddenly within a minute after the opening credits, I realized well I’m not in that movie and that was like a horrific movie, in a good way. A horrific movie to sit through. I recommend anytime you go see a scary movie, picture a stupid movie first, with all due respect to John Carpenter.
Aaron: What about Predator? Did you did you get your hands in on that one or was that one you watched after the fact?
Tom: Predator, I did a little bit of work at Stan Winston’s shop and then they went down to Mexico and neither of us went down to Mexico to be on set and we decided to stay back. We had the option to stay back and keep Stan’s shop open which meant turning it into sets for a short film that we were making, with his permission of course.
Aaron: So, Tom, another long-running argument on our message boards revolves around the human skull sorry in H.R. Giger’s original Alien design and whether or not you’re a fan of it? Now we know Alec isn’t team skull but Tom, what’s your stance on that?
Tom: In the way that you see it in the film, you see so little of it. When you see it, it’s cool. I love the idea of layering translucent layers of things. If I had the option… Cameron had us go away from that look.
Aaron: Didn’t you sculpt the head and I think there’s some dimples on there that looks like some disguised eyes?
Tom: Yes, you’re right and that’s because James Cameron wanted to get rid of the shell. He wanted to see all the relief of the Alien head and a bone ridge down the center. I believe that was all because of the way he was planning to shoot. He didn’t want a big shiny smooth shell over top of everything. So, I did. You’re right. I left the temple kind of shape in there but then smoothed off the entire front of the face and that was under his direction. But the only thing that I would have a question about it is why is it a human skull. It’d be cool if it was something a little less human, a little more Alien.
Aaron: I think it’s the aspect of it being a genuine skull in there when Giger was making it.
Tom: Is that true? The last thing I heard was when David Fincher went over to Switzerland to see Giger at the beginning of Alien 3. Alec, didn’t he say that Giger has his first wife’s skeleton?
Alec: That was his claim, that it was his wife. I don’t know how you would possibly get.
Tom: So where did the second skull come from?
Adam: So, about the Chet skull in AvPR. Was that something that you guys wanted to try or is that at the direction of the Strause brothers?
Alec: I think that was us. I think that was us saying it has taken on aspects of its host right. It grew inside a Predator and Predators have eyes and you could make the same argument for why the Alien grew in John Hurt. So, why isn’t it a chain smoker? Partly it’s like well “If you’re gonna do that, let’s commit to a more clear dome so that you really can see it right”. In the first film, what was kind of cool was I don’t think I was even aware that there was a skull inside of it until production pictures started coming out.
So, it was kind of just a big hint. So for me, I don’t consider the design of the first head to even have those eyes with those eye sockets on it. So, for purposes of the film itself, to me, it’s like they’re not there but after the fact, it’s interesting of course. You can’t argue with H.R. Giger’s look and the visual language that he used because he’s H.R. Giger and it’s phenomenal.
When I say I’m not team eye socket, I feel like it’s just if you have a “What was so cool about that Alien”. One of the many things is that it apparently did not have eyes so how is it finding you? Yet it can still find you. All that made it a little more implacable which I think is a great thing about that but I’m looking at the at the head of the Predalien right now and we wanted to give it a little bit of that to just bring it into the Predator world.
Adam: So, continuing on with Aliens, in the earlier script for Aliens, a new type of worker Alien was introduced. It was a smaller white creature that tended to the Queen but it ultimately never appeared in the movie. Do you remember if there was any design work actually done on this creature?
Alec: Those drones, right? I never saw anything Tom. I know it was discussed but I feel like we read about it but it was dumped pretty quickly probably because of budget.
Tom: Yeah, I don’t remember seeing any designs or anything other than just some talk about it early in the production, in the pre-production which is our build time.
Alec: It would have been a Jim Cameron drawing anyway.
Adam: And as we all know, you both worked on Aliens under Stan prior to forming ADI and basically becoming the Alien FX guys. So, naturally we have to make sure we ask you both about your time on Aliens. Tom, I think you were largely responsible for one of the earliest creature effects run time wise in Aliens and that was Ripley’s Chestburster nightmare. Could you tell us a little bit about that one?
Tom: Yeah, you’re right, that’s the first thing that shows up in the film and I had to do a torso casting of Sigourney and Stan took me over to the dressing room to do that with him and it’s funny because I don’t remember Stan doing a lot of hands-on work on Aliens because he’s the designer but for some reason, he was involved in doing that body cast of Sigourney Weaver so that must have been an important one on his list.
So, we just did it and we just did this shell and was this kind of very simple trick where she’s lying on a slant board so her head is up like this. Her arms are up like this and we put this the torso over her and the torso was open at the bottom. So I could put the puppet in underneath and come up through a hole inside and I just remember it was a strange place to be introduced to Sigourney Weaver because she’s laying this thing with her legs are on either side of the slant board. Then I push down inside and I have to reach up inside and I’m trying to puppeteer this thing that we’re in between takes and Jim Cameron says “Have you met Sigourney yet?”
Aaron: You were also both involved in filming the scene in which Bishop’s torso splatters to the floor after the Queen rips him apart and I believe it was one of the more interesting effects that both of you actually worked on in Aliens so how much fun did you have lobbing Lance Henriksen around the set?
Alec: It wasn’t that much fun. It was fun building the stuff but when you’re on set with Cameron and you’ve spent a couple of months building stuff. You’re proud of what you’ve done and the cosmetics are just right of it and then he takes it and says “No god damn it!”. And face plants it into the floor and I don’t even think the camera was running. I think it was just him demonstrating how he wanted us to toss this Bishop dummy but it was a great lesson. You can’t become too precious about your work or too attached to it because after all, it does have to function on a set and be part of a movie.
If you like build something that’s so delicate or that you just want it to be nice and pristine after you’re dead shooting. Why? I mean you should beat the crap out of it so that it looks dynamic. It looks great on film but I think the first take I started with like “One… two… three….” He’s like “No! Like this” but it was fine. I mean we’ve told the stories before of I think we ran out of milk and yogurt products that we had in an ice chest at some point because we’re just shooting so much. So much is spewing all over the place that I ran and grabbed a milk bottle off the tea trolley but by this point, tea was long done and so was the milk.
Lance came back the next day and he was “Buddy, I was up all night puking” and yeah because it was spoiled. Then we had to dress him in this crispy… we didn’t want to wash the costume. He was wearing the upper half of the costume but he’d been soaked with all the milk products. He said “Nah it’s better to just leave it for continuity’s sake”. So, he had to put this thing on that smelled sour and terrible.
Adam: It’s interesting in the behind-the-scenes stuff like how on Alien and Alien 3, when you guys did it, you used real like animal guts for the ox right. Like does that still happen in the industry?
Tom: Everybody was going on about the first Alien and how like inside the Alien egg there was this Nottingham lace. We were trying to find a way to come up with something that was artificial and I can’t remember… the ox was built. It was all the synthetic hair and everything and we had a bunch of guts.
Alec: Because we’re gonna shoot for like a few days right. We had to get these intestines and we just decided “Let’s just have a refrigerator”. It was outside the workshop for that period of time and the shooting went on much longer than we thought so that meant that every day, a guy from the abattoir would come and put a new set of the intestines in the freezer for us and it would just sit there and we would go get it and sometimes it would be kind of frozen but it was not good. That’s old-school stuff where you use the entrails and you gotta have gloves on. You gotta make sure nobody rubs their face with this stuff because you could get very sick from that and as the day would go on, I think we’d replace it a couple of times a day. So, there was a lot of a lot of this stuff and I can tell you it was awful.
Aaron: You were talking about being precious about your props and your effects and stuff for them on set and obviously over time, have you seen pictures of the original suit? The state that’s in now with the latex degrading over time? Is there any sort of like conscious effort like on your guys’ part to kind of preserve the work that you do because you have things like the statues and stuff made rather than the original suits on show and display?
Tom: The reason for that obviously is because they’re often made out of combination of fiberglass and urethane and pretty permanent materials because we want them to be permanent and we pull them out of the original mold so they look exactly the same. The number of people from the crew are still with us at the shop so they’re painted by the same people. So they’re absolutely perfect replicas meanwhile the suits do rot and they don’t rot in the same way. I think Alien 3 suits went pretty went pretty quickly.
In fact, by the end of the movie when we got back to the States, we only had one Alien 3 creature suit left I believe. Then Alien Resurrection, those lasted a little bit longer but so many things happen to them on set. The slime that we use has some kind of trace amounts of a solvent in it because wherever it laid on the suit overnight, leaving it for continuity. That part of the suit has degraded. It gets hard and crumbly. It turns to dust. Whatever latex is in there vulcanizes so I have seen suits from Aliens that survived that collectors have given them a lot of love and put them on mannequins.
I think the reason those survive is because all of the sculpted bones and everything those are all done with the polyurethane foam. So they were already not a natural product so they didn’t degrade that much. There was very little. It really was a spandex bodysuit with a dozen foam pieces glued on and painted and done in such a way that they could be minimalistic. So it was all about movement for these guys that were inside the suits and not so much how it looks in the light of day.
Adam: And as far as like the Sideshow and the CoolProps stuff, are you guys involved to a degree, just like making sure that they’re faithfully keeping your designs when they make their products?
Alec: Yeah, we have been, particularly Sideshow and also CoolProps. We’ll provide the masters that are right out of the mold so we’ll repose them and they can remold them for their production runs. Then we will also do a paint master for them to match but CoolProps has done some of their own sculptures and some of them are pretty good. I think the CoolProps… there’s a lot of nice stuff out there. There’s a lot of really nice collectible pieces out there. There’s so many Dog Aliens that have been done.
It’s also interesting to see how people interpret the design as well. We’re very familiar with the sculpture of the miniature for instance and then you’ll see someone who has sculpted a beautiful version of it but you go “Oh look at look at how they interpreted that detail as being something that goes in instead of coming out or look at how slender the hip joint is”. It’s because it’s an interpretation. It’s very interesting. But that’s what led us to create our own art pieces from these.
We got the license through Fox and did a bunch of our own pieces. So, that something out there would actually be 100% authentic from the molds that we used in the film from the studio, from ADI that created them originally. We would have some number of people who actually worked on the actual pieces.