Interview With Tom Woodruff Jr.
We are enormously pleased to have been able to interview, along with www.thulestation.com, highly-acclaimed creature-effects virtuoso and creature performance actor Tom Woodruff Jr. from Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated (ADI.)
In response to the disappointing and misguided replacement of their wonderful, practical creature effects by digital counterparts in The Thing (2011), Tom and ADI co-founder Alec Gillis, whom we’ve also been lucky enough to interview at this auspicious time, have been putting their decades of expertise in sci-fi/horror filmmaking to the best possible use by striking out on their own with their eagerly awaited respective directorial debuts Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs and Harbinger Down.
To read an earlier interview we conducted with Tom and Alec at the time of the release of The Thing (2011), please click here. A great deal has happened since then. We’re delighted to have been able to catch up with Tom about this exciting development, and also to ask him all manner of questions about the industry and his long and legendary career, in which we have the firm belief that the best is yet to come.
ADI official site:
ADI YouTube channel:
Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs Facebook Page:
Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs Trailer:
Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs official site:
‘CG or Not CG War Crimes’
Can you tell us a bit about Fire City, your own first directorial project? How did this come about? Is it something you had wanted to do for a long time before the time was right? What's it like making the transition to Director? Have you enjoyed it?
Fire City first came to us as a trailer to help sell the project by the writer/producers Michael Hayes and Brian Lubocki. I read their full script, Fire City, which revealed a very interesting world of Demons that live their own life just outside of our ability to see them for what they are. And within their world was a cool story about how they live and die and survive. It was a very dense script with substantial demon effects throughout the script - millions of dollars of demon character work. In paring back the focus for the trailer, we were asked to create a singular demon character, Rufus, and since the guys had come to us through a filmmaker friend who vouched for them, we jumped on board and gave them a creature beyond what they could afford. But connecting with the project, it was in our interest to be part of the team because we could see the value and where this ting was headed. The trailer brought them some strong interest in the project but at a disadvantage since no one was connecting them as the creatives despite the fact that they had created the world and the characters and the story which was earning the interest! After a year or so, they decided to follow up with a short, but a more complete story to again demonstrate that they had a handle on this demon world and show it in the structure of a story. That's when we talked about directing and wanting to be a stronger part of the project than a creative character source. We've spent too much of our career delivering what has sometimes been the best part of not such good movies (the monsters) and propping up filmmakers who, on set, didn't seem to be too creatively focused. It's been disappointing and an eye-opener to see someone blowing off an opportunity to create and make something unique and catchy when you've spent too much time trying to get off the bench and onto the playing field yourself. I had to take the risk that creating a new set of demons was worth my time as a director or walk away from the project.
The transition to director was already in place for years, just waiting for the moment to be put to use. It was one of the reasons that led to my leaving Stan Winston in the late 80's and creating ADI with Alec Gillis. I've since directed second unit and TV and certainly 30 years of being on sets of movies large and small has formed a background of how to solve problems. I've been able to work directly with some of the best directors of the time and have learned as much from the ones that weren't so good. I knew I was in the right place on the first day of shooting when I asked for something and was first met with a vacant stare before it was accomplished. It's the magic of turning the vacant stare into a solution that lets you know it's working.
Are you playing any of the creatures in Fire City? If so, what has it been like trying to direct yourself inside a suit?
I chose to stay behind camera. It's an interesting idea; to direct and play a creature, but it depends on the film and the creature. I grew up looking at pictures of John Landis directing his first feature in the early 70's, Schlock, dressed in costume and makeup as the ape creature. I thought, that looks like a good thing to do. I did put a couple of people into creature suits that work well on screen; Connor Woodruff plays the demon character that I played in the original trailer, Johnny Leftwich plays a far-underused demon thug, and Robert Anderson jumped into a demon suit for a night as well.
Harbinger Down seems to be pushing the boat out with the use of new translucent materials and embedded LED lighting. What sort of techniques are you using on Fire City?
Compared to Harbinger Down, the approach in Fire City is more character-driven, centered on prosthetic make-up design on some very accommodating and talented actors and a handful of intimate character effects. Whereas Harbinger Down is our big, explosive monster movie, Fire City is the other side of the coin; smaller and intimate but no less engaging.
Can you tell us about the cast?
Michael and Brian made the first pass on casting based on their expectations mostly as writers and partly as producers. It's a long process and the guys went through hundreds of candidates to put names on pages that they felt was the way to start. I cast on mechanics; the look and movement and sound of an actor. Michael and Brian need to consider the following of a particular actor and if it will help get our movie seen. We came up with some really good people that fit our need and our expectations. We read a few good men for Vine but Tobias Jelinek was at the top of everyone's list every time. Having heard of casting nightmares, we were lucky to find someone so quickly that came up with the essence of Vine and maintained it since he was the hook that every other character had to hang from. Danielle Chuchran was a lucky find for us since, after we wanted her and told her she would be a beautiful demon but be in prosthetics throughout the whole film, she told us an early role was in prosthetics as Thing One in The Cat in the Hat. We could not make Kimberly Leemans ugly enough as a demon to combat this innocent, provocative dynamic she has and that made it work. Harry Shum, Eric Edwards, and Mary-Margaret Humes each delivered and brought their own following of fans which is so important to an Indy level film, particularly a crowd-funded one.
Alec has assembled an interstellar group of practical FX legends such as Robert Skotak to work on HD. Who have you pulled in to work on Fire City and what strands of practical effects are you focusing on?
Since our focus was on the demon characters and accomplishing them as prosthetics, our needs were more dependent on make-up artistry than large scale creature effects. David Woodruff coordinated the make-up department and brought in his partners for special and visual effects. Dave Elsey was our Oscar-winning backbone who handled Vine's 17 days of full prosthetics over an 18-day shoot. Wayne Anderson, a Face-Off heavy-hitter was in charge of Chuchran's Cornelia. And a list of talented artists actually worked for pennies on the dollar or for free.
What kind of responsibilities do you have as producer on Harbinger Down? How's the experience been working with Alec and the rest of the team in a slightly different capacity from usual?
Producing Harbinger Down was not a very hands-on role I have to admit. In a way, my producing Harbinger Down and Alec's producing Fire City is a nod to the fact that we each took on additional duties at ADI to allow the other to concentrate on executing his film. We've been such strong support of each other over the years in the creating of designs and story beats, and the mechanics of how to pull off a character effect that we know what the other is capable of and producing at this level is a way of support, creatively and functionally.
To dwell on The Thing Prequel for a moment. It's implied in your latest YouTube video that you guys only found out what was happening three days before the release of the film? What happened communication wise between the principal photography and the screening? Did you guys ever see any of the footage/dailies of the Pilot Thing scene that was cut? How much contact was there between you and Image Engine?
Once principal photography was done, so were we. In the past, we were part of the team making the movie, we'd watch dailies during lunch breaks or at the end of the day with the director and producers and other heads of departments and everybody could keep an eye on what they were responsible for and integrate with others responsibilities. Today there is not the same sense of cohesive creativity. Big films are more and more sterile, at least from the corner of the room we occupy. We were artists. Today they want to think of us as vendors delivering a box of monsters that they can decide how to use.
Much of what ADI are currently doing was in response to the disappointing and unwise replacement of much of your practical effects on The Thing (2011) with digital versions. Since having become vocal about this and taking the steps to create your own practical effects horror movies, have you had any contact with the director/producers of The Thing? Have they been supportive or at least understanding?
Your new vid on StudioADI's YouTube channel also paints a grim picture for the practical effects industry and particularly those in California. Have ADI ever considered adding a digital component to their business in the same way as Phil Tippett? Relocation or franchising to another state/country with better tax rebates or partnering with a digital agency to offer an integrated service?
We've had some plans and made some experiments with moving into digital effects but it's such a different game than hands-on creating. It's much more technical and departmentalized. I believe Phil's success is in part due to his hands-on understanding of performance through stop-motion animation. The success of an on-screen character is about his motion and what is the right level of motion.
For us to chase tax credits around the country doesn't make sense because the artists who know what they're doing and have the experience to work with the minimal prep schedules offered today are here in our backyard. We also have an extensive infrastructure in our studio with multiple spray booths, walk-in oven, roto-cast equipment, machine shop, etc., and all in the context of OSHA health advisement and the comfort of our artists. It's not a short term pack-up-and-move kind of work environment.
Motion capture is becoming more and more commonplace in digital VFX and video games. Is this an opportunity for practical effects performers to become more involved in the process?
It's more the domain of actors with physicality rather than physical people. There is an art to body performance but there is also a natural quality that depends on simple performances.
It was refreshing to see some clear practical effects aspects going on in some of the recent on set footage from Star Wars VII. Given that and the clear support for HD - Could this earmark a renaissance for practical effects?
It's a renaissance that's been in the making for a number of years. If it's HD that goes down in history as the first canon fired to hit its mark, then hurray! People sometimes miss the point of the Practical/CG debate as being one will survive at the cost of the other. Nothing could be worse. CG makes Practical work better and Practical makes CG work better. The whole "I don't want to pay for it twice" argument is void. I have a car that runs on gas and electric - the best of both worlds and the flexibility for the right technology at the right moment.
How did you and Alec meet and start working together. Did you know each other before being part of Stan Winston's team?
My recollection is meeting at Stan's just as we were beginning Aliens. Alec was offered a position earlier on Terminator but obligated to finish another film first and Alec's a very strong, responsible guy and had to fulfil that other commitment.
What's the organization like at ADI? Is either you or Alec the overall 'boss' or do you share equally the responsibility of running the company?
How hands on are you and Alec on the creature design and construction these days? Are you every bit as involved in the nitty-gritty as always or do you work more now in terms or coordinating other people's work?
We're both equally very involved in the design of the character work and the methodology put to use to pull it off. There are often certain aspects of every show in which one or the other may take lead on design or approach if he has a particular angle and with the scope of the larger shows, it benefits us to be able to breakdown the workload. But it's very much a shared responsibility to run the show.
The recent passing of H. R. Giger was a terribly sad loss to cinema and art as a whole and I'm aware that your relationship with him was not as good as you would have liked it to have been. I understand that this is a consequence of what happened on Alien 3. Would I be right to imagine that the real problem here was that David Fincher asked both you and Giger to do the same job (of designing the new Alien?) Did you ever reconcile with Giger?
I think this has been addressed a number of times in the past. Giger was sending work to Fox in London, not actually employed by the studio or the production company to be involved. You can't blame him for his passion. The Alien was certainly 100% his creation. People often look for the drama in this event but the simple facts are that we designed the Alien effects (the method and mode of how each effect was achieved) while at the same time inventing a couple of new evolutions of Alien creatures. We returned the approach to the Alien after what had worked for Aliens in providing dozens of warriors in very simple ways. Our approach was to recreate the art of the Alien as we saw it in Giger's own work in a form that worked for a man inside the suit. Someone along the line quoted us as saying we were improving Giger's work rather than properly conveying that we were improving what had been done before to look more like Giger's work in his own original art. His publicist ran with this "affront" and it took a number of letters from us to Giger before we finally heard that he understood the miscommunication.
Can you tell us about ADI's work on Godzilla?
One of the longest running IMDB pieces of mis-information - we had nothing to do with the new Godzilla.
Of all the creature performance work you've done, what was the most enjoyable? What was the most challenging?
Hard question to answer. A little too hard...
There’s perhaps been a bit of a perception of the Tom-Alec partnership as being something like the ‘splitface’ monster in The Thing. But now us fans of your work will get to see you explore your individual artistic impulses as never before, so what I would like to ask you is: in what ways do you and Alec differ, in terms of your influences, artistic tastes, sensibilities and inclinations?
It's a good question, but I don't know how to compare and contrast all the personal history of influences, tastes, etc. that led us to where we are as filmmakers. Maybe I'm making it too complicated. But I think the best answer comes from someone on the outside looking at our separate films to be able to fairly evaluate the differences.