Alec Gillis is no stranger to the Alien and Predator franchises. Having co-founded special effects studio Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. with Tom Woodruff, ADI have worked on numerous blockbusters over the years handling the practical effects for them. The both initially worked under Stan Winston on Aliens before they founded their own special effects company.
Since then, ADI handled the special effects for Alien 3, Alien Resurrection, AvP. AvP Requiem and most recently Shane Black’s The Predator. We sat down and had a chat with Alec Gillis for Episode #77 of the AvPGalaxy Podcast in November 2018, where we delved into creating The Predator, as well as the work they did on Neill Blomkamp’s Alien sequel. You can listen to the interview below or read on for a transcription of the interview.
Adam: First off, we would like to thank you for taking the time to sit and talk with us today. It’s very much appreciated. Before we get into it, we’d also like to congratulate you on the opening of your exhibit in the Hollywood Museum. For our listeners in the States, be sure to check it out if you get the chance.
We also have a tradition of asking our guests about the first time they experienced the franchises we’re going to be discussing. So, Alec do you remember the first time you saw Alien? I assume it was prior to working on Aliens. And do you also remember the first time you came across Predator? I believe you were working with Stan Winston at that point but you didn’t work on the original film?
Well let’s take it in sequence, in chronological order. Alien I remember I saw… it must have been in like what 78. I was at a Starlog convention and I saw a slideshow. I can’t remember who the guests were but it was a slideshow of the sets and there were no creature pictures but the sets and some of the costumes – like a space suit, the samurai style spacesuit – and I was just I was blown away and I remember there was a guy sitting behind me…I was very jealous of them.
This was pre-internet. I think I was about 19 or so… 18 maybe and there was this kid behind me about my age and he had a facehugger that he had made out of cotton and latex and he was carrying it around. He had it perched on his shoulder and I’ve never seen anything like it. Like what is that thing. He said “It’s a creature from the movie” and I’m like how the hell does a guy my age with no connections… Because I was into creature effects at the time. I was making things so I was very upset that someone had that scoop on me but looking very much forward to seeing the movie.
When I did see the movie, I went with a friend and we were out in Brea California which is not far from where I grew up in Santa Ana and we saw the movie had sat there with our jaws on the floor… amazed and impressed and that guy was James Cameron that I saw the movie with and just quickly I know a lot of people on Instagram give me a hard time. They’re like “Will you please stop talking about Cameron” but it was a pivotal thing in my life to meet Jim before he got into the industry and then work with him.
But I had met him through an art teacher that taught at my high school and her husband taught oceanography at Cal State Fullerton where Jim was a student. She said “Hey you like making monster effects, this guy’s doing that stuff too” and Cameron’s about six years older than me but I called him up and went out and saw his films – Genesis that he shot on 35mm. He was like heads and shoulders above me in talent and ability so it was great. It was like having a big brother that was like already a starter of the football team teaching you things. So anyway, that was a kick because he and I saw Alien at the mall when it first came out and then five years later, he’s directing Aliens so that’s how mercurial his rise was.
Aaron: That’s awesome. I don’t think I’ve heard that story before.
And then in terms of Predator, I did work on the original Predator first. I wouldn’t call myself one of the key artists on that because we were doing maybe Pumpkinhead at the same. I can’t remember. There was a couple projects going on so I would jump in. Like I helped with the body cast of Kevin Peter Hall which everybody did because he was so massive. Then I sculpted on the bodysuit as well but Steve Wang and Matt Rose were the lead artists on that so I was kind of just a support player and I did not go to set with it either. In fact, when they packed off to go to set Tom Woodruff and I stayed behind and made a little short film in Stan’s studio while I thought he was in Mexico shooting Predator.
A little bit more background on the Predator. When they came to Stan with it when the film had kind of like they pulled the plug and they were talking about being dissatisfied with the previous draft of the creature and Stan was very much a guy who loved challenges. He loved to rise to the occasion. He liked to be the superhero and save the day and all that and Joel Silver was a big producer who was saying “You got to help me stay on it”. We only had I think six or eight weeks to build that creature – the Predator. We had just come off of Aliens. We had done some pretty cool stuff – Terminator, Aliens I guess maybe – I don’t think Leviathan but Monster Squad.
Things like that and the studio was really on the map at that point and we begged Stan not to take this movie because we just didn’t think there was enough time to do anything great. I remember quoting saying “look Stan, Rick Baker is doing Harry and the Hendersons. He has a year to do a single character. You want us to do something in six weeks” and Stan was like adamant. He said “Guys I’m sorry but you don’t get to decide what jobs I take. Basically, I’m doing this whether you’re helping or not” and Stan was also a great cheerleader so he kind of pumped us up and convinced us it was possible and he was right.
He was absolutely right. He threw himself into it – into the design. He was just constantly drawing and he was also excellent at choosing the right people for the right tasks. To pick Steve Wang and Matt Rose who were really young but super talented guys with tons of energy to put them in as the key artists was a great move because Steve had the color scheme in his brain. He had all the amphibious stuff and he was a wiz with an airbrush and doing something really fresh there and Matt Rose is just an awesome sculptor. Sculpting the head and Stan proved us all wrong.
Aaron: An ongoing but friendly argument that we tend to have on the AvPGalaxy boards is about the skull in H.R. Giger’s original Alien suit. Do you like it or do not like it kind of thing? As a creature designer I’d be really curious to hear your opinion on the human skull? Are you pro or anti-skull in the Alien?
Well I think that it is a genius like so much of Giger’s work. It is a genius touch that I’m happy that I didn’t really realize it was there in the first viewings of the film. It wasn’t until the behind the scenes that it registered in my brain “Oh my god there’s a human skull in there!”. It’s almost like an easter egg for me. It’s so subtly presented in the film that I think it works beautifully. If I was to say from the get-go… to me it’s an eyeless creature and that transparent dome is the thing for me that is really the hook so I probably am a little more on the less thrilled about the skull eye sockets inside. If you look at it as a little kind of a meter with a needle.
However, it matters so little to me because it isn’t in my face. In fact, if it’s not that anyone can see PredAlien in AvPR but we prominently display the eye sockets in that’s so there must be something about it I like. So, I don’t know. I don’t know. There you go. I love the creature. I think Giger’s original Alien is pretty much a perfect design so the amount that I was aware of that those eyes which was next to nothing is perfect for me.
Adam: I think you’re right there. I think it works best as like a very kind of subtle effect.
Aaron: I am losing this argument so badly.
You love the eye sockets?
Aaron: I get the appeal of the eyeless sort of feature but I also find the idea of this empty skull terrifying as well. It’s what is probably the main thing I love about Chet. His design I really dig that skull but fair enough I will continue losing with grace and continue asking questions.
I will say that what’s brilliant about it is that the 79 Alien is birthed… the host as a human being so in my book it has always taken on characteristics of its host and that’s a characteristic of the host. Maybe it’s a useless just a vestige of mimicry or human DNA or whatever that is in the Alien and it’s never evolved the eyes. To me it’s very interesting. My big concern about it would be if you created an Alien with eye-sockets like that, it would look corny. Oh, wait a minute I just criticized the Newborn.
Adam: You do see that in one of the video games as well in Aliens Colonial Marines. They have a Giger style Alien but without the dome that’s just the exposed skull and yeah it does look a little silly.
It’s interesting. Tom Woodruff sculpted the head in Aliens and Cameron had us remove the dome which I was very much against but his logic was “look this is a stunt movie. We’re gonna be doing things with this Alien that they never did in the 79 Alien and that dome is gonna be cracking constantly.” To which my response was “well then, we’ll just have more.” We’ll just make a bunch of domes and we’ve done that subsequently without any problem. I don’t think Jim was as familiar with some of the durable plastics. He just thought it was gonna be shattering like glass every time a guy took a fall and that’s not the case but having said that in Aliens, Tom sculpted the head that did not have a dome. The front of it has no eyes so I think Cameron wanted to maintain the eyeless look without a dome
Aaron: Did you guys never get as far as having any dome on the Aliens’ Aliens at all because it is a story that Cameron said what he said. That they’d break but my memory of it was that they were breaking which was why they got rid of them.
No, we never made them. We never made domes – it was his certainty from the get-go. The movie is great so you have people who embrace that because they love the movie. If the movie had not been great people would say “Not only did the movie suck but they screwed up the Alien”.
Adam: You’ve always had kind of a fan preference argument between the domed heads and the ridged heads and I was honestly happy to see it come back for AVPR but it did mess with a couple of fan theories how they were like “Well that it’s a result of the Aliens aging which is why they they’re ridged headed in Aliens” but I’ve always just took it as a design difference.
It’s very naïve. A lot of times when I read fan theories because you’re like “no that’s just the directors.” The Strause Brothers for instance like Aliens more than they like Alien and they don’t like the dome” so out that went the dome and nobody’s plotting these things or a structure or lovingly taking into account any kind of mythos. They’re just doing what they think looks cool.