Q&A with Amalgamated Dynamics Inc.
Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. (ADI), who created the practical creature effects for The Thing (2011), are possibly the most accomplished team of character effects artists active today. ADI was formed in 1988 by Stan Winston alumni Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis, two visual effects wizards who have been responsible for, among many other things, all practical creature effects seen in the Alien franchise from Alien3 onwards, indeed from Aliens onwards if we include their time working for Stan Winston, with Tom often having the unenviable task of being the man in the (increasingly elaborate and sophisticated) suit. The late, legendary and sorely missed Stan Winston was responsible for one of the stages of the Kennel-Thing's transformation in John Carpenter's The Thing.
Tom and Alec's work has won numerous accolades, including an Academy Award for Death Becomes Her and nominations for Alien3 , Starship Troopers and Hollow Man. These brilliant men continue to push forward the boundaries of all aspects of character effects artistry and technology and it has been a pleasure and privilege to have them take time out of their busy schedules to answer questions about their work on The Thing (2011). None of this would have happened without forum member jayneandd taking the initiative to contact ADI and to pilot this, for which we are very grateful.
Alec answers in RED
That is every practical effect had some sort of green screen element to it on set that was later embellished with CGI?
Pretty much, yes.
I don't know.
The audience "sees what it sees"
and if one is satisfied with the look, chances are they're not going to have
much of an online presence. It's the negative reaction that motivates
someone to complain so no surprise that most of the comments are negative.
In general, there was some pretty successful digital work, but yes, I thought
more than what was needed or planned. Specifically I think a lot of pathos
was robbed of the character of Edvard when he transformed. There was a
beautiful, subtle, humanity to the animatronic that was buried under an overall
kinetic quality of rippling, mutating flesh. It turned him completely into
a monster and eliminated any sympathy we might have for a human being in battle
with an alien element within.
The Ice Block Alien under the
building featured the most practical work. Generally, we're proud of the
Creature Designs in the whole film, regardless of technique.
There are aspects or shots within
scenes that featured practical effects only, like the ice block creature
discovered under the shed. But the Thing encounters were all pretty big,
involved scenes with lots of overlapping elements, both by design and in
In discussions with the director, he
liked the idea of a sick or wounded dog under a porch. We built around that
concept. As we got closer to shooting it was decided to have the creature break
through to the upper part of the building before getting torched.
The footage featured the discovery
of a fossilized Pilot hanging in repose (which you now see as a big cylinder of
fractured lit pixels) and a surprise reveal that another Pilot is alive and has
been infected by the Thing. It dislodges from its pilot seat and
approaches Kate and Carter rescues her by setting it on fire with his
flame-thrower. It's a disappointment to have something that's taken a lot
of creative work from a lot of creative people eliminated. It hasn't
happened to us a lot but it's part of the business. I was also
disappointed to have done a big burn stunt, playing the Pilot, to provide fire
elements for an intended CG version and not have it be of use. We designed the
Sanders Thing that replaced the Pilot beats, but all of the replacement work
happened in post without our involvement.
We've heard that since the dvd market
in general has dropped off, studio's will offer fewer Director's cuts and
supplemental materials. It's probably a long shot. Would you support it? Well,
the cut would be incomplete since much of the practical pieces would appear
unfinished. Edvard-Thing would have no limbs, for instance. And support arms,
cables etc. would be visible. Not to mention creatures that wouldn't be in the
film at all, like the arm centipedes.
Not sure - that was a decision
made among the director and producers.
Not sure we understand this
question...we had no physical pieces that Rob built, nor replicas or castings.
We used frame grabs, BTS photos from magazines of the time etc. to study his
We left messages in hopes of
getting in touch when we were first awarded the show, but he didn't respond.
No animosity! There has only been
respect between us and the filmmakers. We were off on other jobs during post
Had not heard that - we weren't
invited into the editing room for any of the post work so I don't know what set
certain decisions into motion.
We have mulled that question. From
what we see of the CG business, it might be even more brutal in terms of last
minute revisions, studio demands, runaway production, etc. than Makeup and
Animatronics. Practical work usually can be accomplished with fewer people, so
we feel less of a "factory" environment. "Control" is not necessarily in the
hands of a digital company any more than a practical company.
I think for the most part, the
quality of work has always been there, but the studios and/or producers were
driving for digital approaches on a nearly unilateral basis for a long time.
We certainly design and create sculptures that are much more realistically
textured over realistic forms than what has been done in the past or by others.
And material advances, particularly in silicones, allow us to replicate reality
in great detail. But it's only as good as what can be captured on film.
Much depends on the budgets and
schedules we're given. The more time and money, the better the results. Those
kind of jobs are getting scarcer. Having said that, we're interested in greater
refinement of performance through motion control, smaller more powerful motors
that can move heavy silicone skins, motion capture, etc. Take a look on youtube
at some of the astounding robotics being made outside the movie biz!
hope we don't move back to the 80's. Eliminating useful (albeit sometimes
overused) tools that the digital world offers would be a hindrance to filmmakers
who want to tell great stories with all the fluidity of pacing, camera movement,
and actor interaction.
It's about investment in technology.
Entertainment corporations have invested billions into developing CGI for
movies, gaming, surgery, military and medical training, etc. There hasn't been
that degree of development for animatronics. One can envision an AI animatronic
creature that walks, runs, flies, and performs on a movie set, but that will
probably happen only after other industries pay for the development of the
The danger is the self-fulfilling prophecy of not wanting to invest too much
trust and funding to practical effects for fear they will have to be "saved" at
the end of the schedule. So we are guided to build less than what we can
build and not reach too far and once we wrap on set, the machine has already
been put into motion to have to spend $5 million dollars to digitally fix what
could have been done right for an extra $100,000 in the first place.
Nowadays translucent silicones make
makeups and creatures look more real to the eye, so we don't have to be as
precious as we used to be. That's good, but we agree with Rob that it's what you
don't see that scares you. There's a recent tendency in effects films to try to
amaze audiences by showing too much. That's a popular stylistic choice that
we're hoping will wane. Now that CG has been around for awhile, audiences aren't
as easily impressed. In our opinion it's time to get back to what has always
made horror films effective. Suspense, atmosphere, dread for instance.
The ideal is to always design in
the world that the Production Designer envisions and that the Director of
Photography creates. But today, films on a big studio level are pinching
preproduction schedules that interrupt that organic process of everything
fitting together. Less time means fewer meetings, fewer tests, fewer
collaboration among all of us to deliver the visuals the director wants to use
to tell his story.
On Starship Troopers Phil told us
that the seduction of CG is that you can get 75% there quickly, but it's the
rest that can easily sink your best efforts. Not so sure it's a question of a
lack of artistry. There are amazing artists doing beautiful digital work that
you probably don't notice because it's so good. But the technique's strength is
also it's weakness. Pixel by pixel control over every aspect means that almost
no aspect of CG is "real". It all has to be created. Nothing is given to the
digital artist, (O.K. maybe not true of mo-cap, photographed textures. But it's
still about images not actual objects) It's an artistic interpretation of
reality. But we can't say it doesn't work. District Nine is a prime example of
great digital. It is out there.
If we're not involved and embraced
from the start, then there is even less interest in viewing us as consultants.
There has been a fracturing of visual contributions to films ironically by the
very mechanism set in place to foster it. In many cases, we rarely talk to
a director the way we used to. Everything we bring to a project is
filtered through a Visual Effects Supervisor who is entrenched on the front line
with the director. It's a hierarchical thing which you have to appreciate
as it has cropped up in part to answer the shortened prep schedules and to
shield the director from a bunch of tech-talking monster-makers I'm sure.
But one of our strongest assets is our ability to communicate directly and
clearly without condescending and without requiring that the director knows
anything about creature effects. It's all about what he wants to see and
what options we provide for him to achieve it. Even worse, some times the
Visual Effects Supervisor has only a digital effects background so he himself
has to be sold on techniques he's not familiar with.
The challenge was as much about
schedule as anything. The digital option was always there to handle the
transformative effects that are time consuming to build practically and shoot.
The main goal was to replicate the
actors playing the role and show them in constant torture and turmoil while
still leading to the version that was revealed in the Carpenter film.
Correct. Although it was a late
addition to the film. We designed it and sculpted it months after we wrapped
I guess the closest thing in our
version was the autopsy on the Hendrick Thing after it is burned in trying to
escape from under the shed. The whole point of that reveal was to show to
the audience that the Thing was absorbing its human victims so it was less about
dissection. But yes, had there been scripted moments to allow us to really
investigate the organic make-up of the Creature, it would have been very
Our job was to present a wide variety
of designs that stayed within the language established by JC and Bottin. It's
always an unknown as to whether repeating forms adds to a motif or looks like a
lack of imagination. Glad you liked some of the designs that were not chosen,
though! We have books full from jobs over the years!
thinking about the THING's universe, we thought it might be fun to speculate
that the SST world and THING's world might crossover. We kinda snuck a tiny
reference in. Nothing overt, just a hint to the observant fan. SST v THING?
Okay, maybe not...
Only the Pilot effects explained
There's plenty of expansion of themes
that could be possible, but it was clear that part of the intent was to bring
the THING concepts to a new audience that might not have been exposed to the JC
film. Kinda wish we could have had some dog action.
I think we did everything we had
set out to do. It comes down to the question of where do practical effects
end and what is the right balance of digital enhancement - an issue which is
getting far too much attention...
It is interesting that some people
can and some can't see the demarcation. Regardless, hopefully the practical
pieces helped IE create convincing realism, but that's a question for them.
It seems to be a stylistic choice.
While our practical pieces have presence, no doubt some would feel they are not
dynamic enough. There is a trend in current VFX films to rely on frenetic
movement. Our performance approach was more influenced by Bottin's work. It's a
can't imagine the studio considering that undertaking to merit enough of a
return for the amount of work it would require, either in added-on income or
something less tangible like goodwill to the fanbase. A lot of peole seem
to have the misconception that there was a practical-only version of the film.
That was never the plan and it didn't exist. Given the plan we all started
with, that would leave some puppetes hanging without legs, tentacles etc.
Not that it couldn't be done that way in some variation, but it didn't.
Practical effects are generally less
expensive. We did a cost comparison on AVP between practical and digital.
Digital was 5-6 times costlier. Depends on who is doing either, and the
complexity of the work.
depends on the amount of work called for. I remember hearing that Rick
Baker had 9 months to create Harry for Harry and the Hendersons. Rick is
the only one who could get that kind of support in build time then - I don't
know how he faces the shortages of time we deal with but I would expect it's
become a grind even on him as well. We had 4 and a half months on AVP.
Less on AVP-R. I can't comment on the work pipeline for digital effects,
but they're in a race as well. Our work has to be built and shot by the
end of scheduled photography. Digital is always racing to the release
Not sure we understand the question...are you referring to the Pilot? If so, that animatronic was built with articulation of the torso/head only. It was originally meant to be seen "awakening", then get torched. Shortly before shooting it was decided that it would pull itself out of its "chair" and menace Ms. Winstead. At that point a CG version was needed. Later, the Pilot was replaced entirely by the digital Sander Thing. In short, the original Pilot was limited in it's movement. Hope that answers the question!
42) Were any of the digital ‘Things’ seen derived directly from 3D scans of your practical versions and if so, which ones?
To my memory, everything we created was scanned, as were the actors who were involved in transformations. This is often done as an insurance policy in case changes are desired. How much those scans were manipulated, I do not know.