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John Carpenter's


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
Tom answers in orange

1) Can you clear up some confusion that seems to exist around the practical effects for the prequel. Is it true to say that it was intended from the start that the effects would be a mix of both practical and CGI?


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. 

2) The film bombed at the box office. Why do you think that happened? 

I don't know.

3) Did you see the version of the film that was shown to test audiences ahead of the original April 2011 release?


4) How do you react to the largely derogatory comments from some audiences about the CGI used in the film particularly on the scenes where you provided practical effects on set? Do you think the CGI was "overdone"?

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.

5) What scene or effect are you most proud of?

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.

6) Are there any scenes that are actually completely practical in the final movie? 

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 afterthought.

7) There seems to be quite a lot of your work untouched in the scene where Henrik is attacked and the team are shooting at the creature. How were you briefed on the behaviour/movement of The Thing in this form?

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.  

8) Can you tell us about the original scenes that were shot in the Alien ship. How did you feel about these scenes being rewritten and reshot and were you involved in these reshoots? 

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. 

9) Are you aware that there is a petition to Universal to release a "practical cut" of the film. What's your view on this?

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. 

10) Why were the thingouts done so relatively bloodless next to Rob Bottin?

Not sure - that was a decision made among the director and producers.

11) Did you have access to any Bottin material as the majority of it never made it out for us to look at.

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 work.

12) Do you know where Rob Bottin is? No.  The man has vanished and did you speak to him?

We left messages in hopes of getting in touch when we were first awarded the show, but he didn't respond.

13) Was there any animosity between yourselves and the studio when the decision was made to replace your work with CGI?

No animosity! There has only been respect between us and the filmmakers. We were off on other jobs during post production.

14) Is there any truth to the rumour split-face practical was abandoned because the director didn't like the expression its face?

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.

15) Have you guys ever thought of opening a digital arm that way you are in control of both aspects?

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. 

16) I saw the online vid of the practical stuff you guys did and it's the first promo of effects work I have seen since Jurassic Park. I was blown away by how realistic the skin looked on the creatures so much more so than 15 years ago. 
Could you elaborate on what has changed since the mid nineties in terms of realistic human textures? 

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.

17) What upcoming advances are in the pipeline for future practical effects work.

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! 

18) Do you think the golden age of practical effects are over or is there a chance we will see an 80's like resurgence?  

 I 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.

19) Is there anything that would help practical compete with CGI such as advanced robotics?

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 technology. 

20) With Studios giving much more post time and much less pre-production days is that hampering effects houses such as yourselves?

 Absolutely.  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.

21) Bottin was notoriously afraid to light his creatures full on for fear of giving the game away. Did you have similar reservations?

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. 

22) I remember on an aliens promo where you mentioned the alien warriors were painted like skeleton costumes so that in the harsh smoky blue light they became something else. 
Do you often run into similar circumstances where how the film is shot makes the effect work or have the advanced to the degree where even if there is an issue it can be fixed with CGI.

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.

23) I'm a film maker myself and believe a lot of the problems from CGI come from animators who are more technicians than artists (this is why I believe Tippets company is doing some of the best CGI due it's stable of artists from the stop motion days). This creates issues with unrealistic movement and a distinct lack of gravity to the creations in the digital world. 
What as artists are your gripes with modern day CGI and what are the solutions?

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.

24) Are studios fighting using practical effects guys like yourselves for heavy FX movies and forcing new film makers to do quick and dirty CGI using guys like yourselves as all round consultants and think tanks?

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.

25) Where there any of the effects in this movie which you found daunting?

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.  

26) Why was split faced redesigned from the Bottin version?

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.

27) Was the Sanders thing always intended to be CGI as I saw no sign of the practical version on your promo.

Correct. Although it was a late addition to the film. We designed it and sculpted it months after we wrapped principal.

28) What I felt was missing in this movie was the twisted sculptures of flesh from the JC version such as the skinned fused dog thing after it got burned and had it's flesh cutaway which looked like a piece of modern art without the goop on it and so forth. As the script didn't present such an opportunity would you have enjoyed to have made such a creation? 

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 satisfying.

29) No offense intended but the one down side to the effects I found was some of the manifestations being very similar e.g. Juliette, Sanders and Griggs wound being essentially a moving mouth surrounded by limbs. I was amazed to see some of the amazing alternate designs that you guys did which never made it, especially for Griggs which I think would have been far more effective. Was there a reason behind creating them in this manner or was it a decision from the director?

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!

30) Did you read the sci-fi channel miniseries script and what were your thoughts?

Did not.

31) The ice block alien had similar traits to the Starship Troopers bug, was this intentional or just a coincidence?

 In 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...

32) Where there any practical effects designed that never made it whatsoever into the film?

Only the Pilot effects explained above.

33) Is there anything the screenplay never did but as an artist you would have liked to have done with the thing?

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.

34) If you could hypothetically take on the original JC The Thing with today's modern effects, what would you have done differently?

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...

35) Does it annoy you or please you that people couldn't tell the difference between your effects work and the CGI stuff? It seems to me that some people thought the Things were doing stuff that wouldn't be possible practically, but you managed it.

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.

36) Do you know the ratio of practical vs CGI?


37) Why was the majority of the brilliant practical FX cut either replaced or completely over layered by CGI?

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 choice.

38)  I want to see the practical FX restored more then anything, is this even a slight possibility any time in the future?

 I 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.

39) What is the price difference between using practical vs. using CGI?

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. 

40) How long does it take to create pratical and deploy/shoot it in a film vs. creating CGI and editing it into the film? 

 It 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 date.

41) We saw the standlaone screenshots of the practical FX in the The Thing in various images across forums and sites on the web... though never really got to see any film shots of it in action? I think some may be "jumping the gun" and assuming just because it looks awesome in a single picture they saw on the web also means its just as fluid and more realisitic during live action filming... more fluid than CGI that is, with better character quality. Is that true? Or is that simply not the case... that just because it looks good on a single screenshot, that it perhaps did not work effectively in motion?

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.



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