Special Effects Wizard Alec Gillis on the Rebirth of 'The Thing'


Makeup and visual effects maestro Alec Gillis is no stranger to alien invasions. An Oscar winner for his work on Starship Troopers, Gillis, along with his partner Tom Woodruff Jr., has also crafted effects for all but the first Alien films, along with Alien Nation, Skyline, and Invaders from Mars. Now Gillis is tackling what may be his toughest challenge yet – creating outrageous visuals for the upcoming prequel to John Carpenter's The
. I caught up with Gillis on the film's Toronto set, where he told me, and a group of my fellow journos, how he feels about following Rob Bottin's legendary work on Carpenter's film, and what fans can expect when The Thing finally invades theaters next fall. Check out our full chat after the jump. 

Do we ever see the Thing's original form in this film? It was unrevealed in Carpenter's film.

I think what's important is that you never see the true form of this creature. What you see are two life forms that are close. We get to design a couple of alien life forms that are presumably evolved biologically on another planet that happen to be infected by the Thing.

Rob Bottin's work on the original is worshipped by effects guys. Is it intimidating to carry the torch?

Yeah, it's intimidating as hell. Because you know, in 1982 I watched that in college. Bottin is just a couple of years older than me. So I'm sitting there at like 20. He was 22, I think, when he helmed that. And I'm sitting there thinking, "Whoa!" Cause I was just getting into the business. "What do I do? What do you have to do to be in this business?" Because it was so…the term ‘groundbreaking' is always used. But it was so imaginative, beyond even what the technical aspects of it were, the materials used. The concepts were so very imaginative. So one of the things that that film kinda put into perspective [for] me is you can break ground technically or you can break ground conceptually. What we're hoping to do is take the updated technology – which is not code for digital, because I know there's a lot of concern; I share that concern obviously, especially on this film – to not go too digital-heavy, because that's not the language of The Thing. But we're hoping that conceptually we've got something that fits within the lore of the film.

If you look at the Howard Hawks version, which had makeup, exclusively makeup, and then you look at the Bottin version, and it had makeup and animatronics… this one will have the cutting-edge animatronics and the little mini-revolution we've had since 1982 in the world of animatronics, plus it's got the digital to embellish it. I don't think you can really tell this story without digital because as great as animatronics can be, and as big a believer in them as I am, I think that you still need to open things up a bit with the digital, especially when it comes to transformations. And so once you have the best of both worlds, you're free to let the audience enjoy the conceptuals.

What was the hardest model?

Well, I think probably it's the Edvard, which I think you guys were staring at over there on the other side. It's a little beat up right now. But because it's a human being, that's always difficult. We've done some great human likenesses, but when you're articulating them like this, it becomes that much more difficult. Then when you have an entire torso that has to do weird things, you know, neck stretching and so on, that gets into a very dicey realm. So you have to be very careful, and very exacting. I love the creature stuff, but you use a little more slack there.

One of the iconic moments for a lot of people is the head that starts walking off. Is there gonna be anything like that in this film?

Well, I think that's the Edvard. I think what happens to him is kind of an homage to that. But we're going with the full body. And what's cool is that that transformation is what lead into this "two-face" guy from the Carpenter version. So I hope that the fans appreciate the loving adherence to the plot points in the first movie, and what's set up as the story in the Norwegian camp. You'll get to see why they killed themselves to avoid the Thing. I hope the fans like it.

What was your inspiration for the other aliens?

Well, this pilot and what we're calling the Heinrich attack alien are the result of a pretty exhaustive design phase where we got to work with Matthias, the director. I miss him. I don't get to see him as much as I did during that design phase because he's so busy. But with the attack alien – the idea started off as the creature in the ice block, what was in the ice block. What would look cool? Well, we started designing a silhouette of just jaggedy, vicious-looking shapes. That was while the script was being worked on. And Matthias was liking what he was seeing, and then he or the writer came up with the idea of "Hey, why don't we take that creature and make it something? It looks so cool, let's have it out of the ice block, and what would he be like then?" And we're like, "Oh shit, how do we build this thing?" So we kinda designed backwards from that silhouette, and that is in fact a creature suit that Tom Woodruff wears. Tom's not in today unfortunately, but he's the other half of ADI and does a lot of the suit performance and the creatures that we've done. But we've taken long, kind of crustacean, insect-like joints, so I don't think you'll ever be able to tell the creature, as it's used, that it's a guy in a suit. Which is fun, if you can really effectively disguise a human being. Then you get the benefit of the organic performance along with the creepy, crazy… We just finished shooting that stuff yesterday. It's pretty cool. But anyway, then the pilot, that is the Thing mimicking the creatures that built the spaceship that is under the ice and it's trying to get away at that point to spread his evil around the globe. Or perhaps on another planet. I think he's just trying to get somewhere else and start it up again. But the idea here is that one of the creatures was kind of embedded into the ship. But also had a kind of wicked, kind of decrepit look. Like he's more about his intellect than he is about his physicality. These arms are kind of bent back in a weird, a weird inhuman way and then these toes, in my mind, are like the Manchurian fingernails of the ruling class, you know, because they don't have to do anything, right? Now the interesting thing is that this character has to go from that to being a very active character, so there's gonna be a CGI version of this as well. So we gotta figure out how to deal with these toes when he starts running around. But anyway, that's basically it. Something wicked, beautiful, implacable in its face. You know, we don't want to be able to read expression right off the bat.

I like those kinds of challenges. I remember on Starship Troopers when we did the brain bug, the big full-scale version of the brain bug, which has six eyes and a weird proboscis, and said, "Wait, how are you gonna make this look frightened?" And I said, "Oh, we'll make it look frightened." So we did this cool thing where we had it on a big crane and we would shake it and lower it down, and when it gets low, and then the eyes look up, dart around, and look up, and all of a sudden it's like a cute little puppy. Then it can rise up and when it looks down at you and its head pulsates, it looks frightening. So I like the challenge of taking a non-human face and getting the emotion out of it.

Is it challenging to create an alien creature that doesn't look like all the other alien creatures that have been featured in movies? 

Yeah. Let me tell ya – I've been doing this since 1980, and it was a lot easier then than it is now. Because now so much has been done – gaming and movies, and even our own films, you know? I mean, one of the things that we're really trying to avoid is, "Does it look like Giger's alien, or does it look like a Predator, or does it…?" There are a lot of beats that you find that you sort of…your brain, your neural paths have been worn down and you start to go that way, and then you [go], "No, no." But one thing that has helped us avoid that is not only Matthias' taste, because he was very involved in the design phase as well, but we had a great group of designers that we brought in on this one, so Tom and I are basically art directors and we'll do thumbnail sketches and we have not only people doing traditional pencil sketching, but also Photoshop artwork and then sculpture. We're big believers in traditional sculpture. I mean, the software, 3-D sculpting software, is great, but it isn't as informative as clay. So we would work on clay sketches and produce a bunch of those. Even if they weren't totally detailed, and then we could show them to Matthias, and we would all sit there and change it and move them around, and…we took pictures of them first in case we were making them worse.

Do you think that the effects in this film are taking what worked so well twenty odd years ago and then adapting the technology today to sort of enhance it?

Yeah, a lot of it's changed in technology. There's a lot in that movie that still holds up. The articulation of the human faces in that are still enviable by any standards. What we're trying to do is not come in and arrogantly say, "Ha! We're gonna outdo The Thing!" Because it's The Thing, it's the original, you know? And in my book, the first Alien is the best Alien, you know? There have been great Alien movies, but it's the first one because it's the original. And so we're very respectful of that, but at the same time we can't be too timid. We can't say, "Well, what would Bottin do?" Or "How is this going to stack up?" You just have to press forward and bring everything you have to it. And continue the kind of through-line of The Thing.

One of the guys looks like a venus flytrap. Is that an homage to the first film, when the guy's chest opens up?

Yeah, the thing about this that's so fun to me… And you have to be careful where homage becomes rip-off. You have to be careful that you're not repeating the same look. But at the same time, fans want to get the feeling they got when they saw the first film. And this has gotta appeal to more than just fans, right? It's gotta go out to a sort of broader public. But if we can capture any of that, those essences or resonances of the first film, and make people today feel the way they did when they saw that jaw open up, and the guy's arms get cut off, then we're doing pretty good.

Carpenter's film creates its own little back-story mystery [with the Norwegian camp]. Have you guys talked about how this could lead to another prequel, another universe to explore?

Yeah. I think that the focus right now is on this film. [Laughter.] However, I'm already going like, "Okay, how can we pitch the race of these aliens?" Because you know what, that's what Ridley Scott's talking about doing with the [Alien prequel]. I like the idea of prequels, because you're just reaching back deeper into the back-story. But I think if you were to ask anybody – maybe not Eric Newman and Marc Abrams, maybe they have a master plan – but for us, we're like, "We gotta get through this." We get threatening emails from fans sent to our website. The things that are said are like, "We don't think this movie should be re-made. However, we know we can't stop it, so we implore you to dig deep." That's what a lot of them kept saying. "Dig deep. I wanna be fucking scared! I wanna feel like that thing is inside of me!" And then, you know, "God bless you." [Laughter.] Then at the end it says, "P.S. No goddamn CGI. Except for landscapes." So they're very specific, you know?

What do you think about that? Is that lighting a fire under you?

Yeah. We're pros, and we go about our daily jobs, and we do this movie, and that movie, and all that stuff. The Thing comes along, and you go, "Oh my God, why wasn't there a sequel to this movie five years after this was made?" Then you start thinking about all of those implications. And your brain can lock up if you allow yourself to do that. Especially having been in my early professional years when the movie came out, you can really go into a constant freeze, you know? So you have to kinda go, "Yes, I know it's The Thing, but we've got a job to do, and we've gotta tear it up, and we've got a schedule to meet." But there's a big responsibility that goes along with it. But we have full confidence.

The tentacles in the first movie are very wild, and they seem very real. Will we have tentacles in this movie, and how much of them will be CGI?

Yeah, the interesting thing about this movie is that not only is there going to be real practical stuff that is completely animatronic and needs no digital embellishment, but there is also going to be a combination of the techniques. The most interesting aspects of that, I think, are when you, in a single frame, have the two techniques working side-by-side. If, for instance, Griggs – the venus flytrap guy – when he opens up, we talked a lot about this, the air-hose thing, do we do that – [makes a spooky sound] – scary, crazy, creepy? And we thought, "You know what? For performability, let's have it open up and we'll give a cool-looking interior but then we'll shoot elements." We shot a bunch of elements of tentacles dropping against green-screen [unintelligible] and all that kind of stuff, so those will get composited into the scene. Then of course I'm hoping that things will get embellished. Like Edvard, he has – if you remember the torso up there – he has nubs for legs, because we did not build the big digital appendages that are gonna grow from his arms and legs. So within the shot you'll have a foundation of the physical piece with digital legs that are morphing and growing, and then other little things that are sprouting out of him. So it should be fun and chaotic, but still somehow rooted in reality. I don't mean to trash digital…I have my opinions about how it should be used and how it should not be used, but we have the guys that did District 9. So even I, as a snobby animatronics and makeup guy, I look at that work and I go, "That is frickin' amazing work." So I think we're in very good hands on the digital end as well.

Is there any chance that this will be PG-13?

[Laughs] I don't think so, I hope not.