Studio ADI: Kickstarting the Cause to Champion Practical Effects in Films

This isn’t a war against computer graphic visual effects. Think of it as an aesthetic crusade being waged to champion an effective, cost-efficient way to create the things that cannot be in a practical way, both literally and economically. Call it creature design, special effects makeup, animatronic puppetry or guys in really cool monster suits, the names are not important — it’s the end results which appear in a feature film that count on the screen and at box offices.

(L to R) Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, co-founders of Studio ADI and filmmakers championing the cause of practical effects.Actually, there is one name that is quite important to this crusade: Studio ADI — or Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. if you prefer — the film industry leaders in practical effects who have now taken it upon themselves to champion their skills and successful track record on behalf of effects creators everywhere. ADI’s main opponent in this campaign is not CG effects nor the artists who render them, since ADI can work in conjunction with these same artists on their films. Instead, this is a battle of perception in Hollywood — one of the toughest wars to win.

Consider ADI’s co-founders Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. to be field generals in this campaign and their strategy is simple: make their own movie HARBINGER DOWN to make their case about practical effects, and you can help them. The pair bring over thirty years experience to bear on film projects, amassing an impressive resume with top tier filmmakers and actors, not to mention an Oscar win plus three more nominations for their effects work in THE TERMINATOR, ALIENS, TREMORS, ALIEN³, DEATH BECOMES HER, STARSHIP TROOPERS, CAST AWAY, ALIEN RESURRECTION and THE THING (2011) to name a few. Gillis and Woodruff, students who learned their craft under the tutelage of the masterful Stan Winston, today stand at the top of their field.

Practical creature effects comparison between THE THING (1982) at top with ADI's creation for THE THING (2011).

Practical creature effects comparison between THE THING (1982) shown at top and ADI’s creation for THE THING prequel/reboot in 2011.

Their astounding creature work on THE THING prequel in 2011 became an unexpected watershed for Studio ADI in ways both exalting and troubling: Gillis and Woodruff’s skillful expansion upon the groundbreaking creatures made by Rob Bottin for John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982) stood center-stage in the 2011 reboot film. Then a strange thing happened: ADI’s ingenious practical effects work was largely obscured or replaced by redundant, much less convincing CG imagery. In contrast, thirty years ago Bottin’s on-set mutating monsters gave Carpenter’s THING a disgustingly visceral, horrifically palpable impact, realizing an impossible shapeshifting creature for both actors and audience. While THE THING’s horror darkness couldn’t hold a candle to E.T.’s box office-dominating heartlight in 1982, its claustrophobic tension and unprecedented practical effects work have given Carpenter’s chiller a lengthy afterlife today far beyond theatrical release, earned critical reappraisal of its dramatic power, and engaged a second generation of devoted THING fans who treasure the reality of its terror.

For a variety of reasons, Matthijs van Heijningen’s 2011 variation on THE THING likely will not enjoy equal success thirty-plus years from now and one reason may be that its horrific, gut-busting star monsters were digitally-dominated beings that stretched victims and visual credibility a bit too far to feel frighteningly real. What was solidly slimy and physically terrifying on-set for the cast, thanks to ADI, became digital stand-ins despite Gillis and Woodruff’s best efforts to ensure the prequel enjoyed that very same practical creature advantage Bottin gave the original shocker in 1982. Once the filmed-on-set monsters were superseded by post-production cameos born from rendered computer code, the horror reality of this Antarctic nightmare simply melted away.

That disappointing result, a commonly seen trend by Hollywood studios who regard CG effects as magical fix-all solutions backed by industry buzzword cred, was likely the ignition point of ADI’s campaign to not only prove practical effects’… practicality… but to demonstrate its overlooked power as a filmmaking tool that conservatively dates back to 1933’s classic KING KONG in blockbuster pedigree. As a professor of mine at UCLA once put it, this is the business of show, and in order for Gillis and Woodruff to prove to Hollywood that practical effects are still a powerful tool ignored at studios’ own peril, they must show them it’s true.

As of this May, Gillis and Woodruff plan to make their own feature film, HARBINGER DOWN, using only practical effects to realize their story’s creatures. The Amalgamated Dynamics duo have launched a Kickstarter campaign to enlist the aid of those sympathetic to their artistic cause and creations who will help defray the film’s basic production costs. The ADI crew will basically donate their hard work to realize the effects used in the film and prove their larger point to Hollywood studios. ADI’s YouTube video channel is bursting with examples of their practical creature effects during production of THE THING, and fans around the world have raved about these physical monsters to the point of petitioning that a new version of the film be released with ADI’s work shown unmolested by pixels. Inspired by such public support of their work, Gillis and Woodruff decided to produce their own showcase film to build on this momentum.

One of ADI's THING creature designs attacks Halloween Horror Nights fans in the flesh during Universal's 2011 Halloween season.

One of ADI’s THING creature designs attacks Halloween Horror Nights fans in the flesh during Universal’s 2011 Halloween season.

As a show writer in the themed attraction industry, not to mention a lifelong fan of haunt shows and events, I can personally testify to the effectiveness of ADI’s creature effects as facsimiles of them appeared in a THING-themed maze at Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights in 2011. The park’s creative director, John Murdy, lobbied to use ADI’s actual creature molds from THE THING to recreate their shapeshifting monsters from the film in HHN’s THING haunt maze, and boy were they successful. With no cost-efficient way to rely on CG effect imagery to scare his guests, Murdy and other attraction creators know all too well that audiences respond to live, physical in-your-face characters to inspire Halloween terror in Universal’s thousands of HHN fans. ADI’s original creature work borrowed for Universal’s in-park horror show made THE THING maze a crowd-pleasing hit of the 2011 season. Now imagine how impossible it might be to scare live guests in a haunt maze by recreating a monster than could only ever appear as pixels rendered by a computer and scanned onto film stock, never having existed in the real world for one second. Reality is a result you simply can’t simulate effectively on a flat screen, and even when fans in a haunt maze confront creatures that aren’t actually alive, these characters still inspire terror by their sheer physical presence in a way our brains cannot deny.

Without practical effects to establish the reality of a creature — a subtle but all-important trait that we humans are genetically programmed to recognize in a split-second upon sight — the use of CG effects alone often fails to fool our eyes or our minds. There is no misdirection because there is no other art form employed in conjunction with CG to distract from its own limitations… just as a skillful application of CG can augment and hide the limitations of practical effects. With no hope for such illusory misdirection, bare CG effects alone become the subject of direct scrutiny — our skeptical brains can’t help but evaluate digital images with critical eyes because no other competing input distracts us from that task. At a certain point of visual processing, our brains demand some references to reality, to three-dimensionally shaped objects that engage us daily; lacking such realistic data, our brains disengage from the story as a kinetic curiosity that can’t fool us into investing our emotions. When that happens, CG extravaganzas fall flatter than a pixel at box offices, costing studios billions of dollars and leaving producers glaring at balance sheets wondering why the most popular tool in their arsenal failed them so drastically.

Creature concept art by Studio ADI

Creature concept art by Studio ADI

This syndrome is what Gillis and Woodruff at ADI are fighting against with HARBINGER DOWN, mainly because their track record (and Hollywood history) shows that a skillful application of practical effects along with CG and other tools inevitably yield the best, most audience-engaging results. Deep down, audiences demand realism even from the most fantastic, magical, horrific or implausible creatures appearing on the silver screen. Talented artists of all disciplines, combining their skills together in an alchemist’s blend of effects techniques, provide the best, most potent movie magic. Sadly, the unwise dependency on CG imagery alone has created a huge imbalance across the industry, leaving practical effects houses like ADI scrambling for a diminishing number of assignments if not directly competing against each other for survival. It doesn’t need to be this way, and it shouldn’t be.

Hence Gillis and Woodruff’s Kickstarter campaign to help fund their own horror feature film which will demonstrate both the unique visual impact of practical creature effects and the sheer dollar-per-dollar efficiency of these time-honored techniques. In short, ADI’s thesis states a feature producer can easily get more bang for their buck by using practical effects and often see better results that audiences will embrace with ticket sales. Of course, good storytelling always helps a film avoid becoming an effects-smothered mess, but director Gillis already has that job covered by penning the script himself.

The Kickstarter phenomenon has recently starred in its own controversy as a crowd-funding effort when seemingly well-funded Hollywood figures turn to the public to fund their own projects that might just as easily be paid for out of a star’s or filmmaker’s pocket. Important to note this controversy does not apply to ADI’s film-funding mission here, as Gillis and Woodruff often take effects assignments that barely pay for their material expenses and meager salaries for their crew. Sadly all too often, the Studio ADI team profit most in doing the work they love by doing it for the love of it all, taking a job to get the next job, and hence their reluctant but necessary call reaching out to fans to help preserve this effects art form that might needlessly disappear from Hollywood production all together without support.

So whether you’re a fan of classic family-friendly creatures like Willis O’Brien’s iconic KING KONG and Ray Harryhausen’s masterful stop-motion animation skeletons from JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, or you prefer the mind-bending mutant monsters of films like ALIEN and THE THING, I urge you to check out Studio ADI’s HARBINGER DOWN Kickstarter page, watch their concept trailer and video updates, and consider putting a little of your money where your screaming, smiling and jaw-dropped mouths are when you enjoy the amazing effects work of Gillis and Woodruff in your favorite films. This is definitely a cause worth fighting for and an investment that will pay off for all monster-loving moviegoers around the world. Let’s get rolling on this.

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