Like most genre fans, I tend to hold John Carpenter's 1982 version of The Thing in the highest possible regard. It's arguably his masterpiece as a filmmaker and boasts by far some of the best practical FX work ever committed to film courtesy of Rob Bottin. So when the prequel to The Thing finally went into production, the entire team of filmmakers involved were well aware that they had big shoes to fill. But the enthusiasm and reverence that director Matthijs van Heijning, the FX crew at Amalgamated Dynamics and the digital FX crew from Image Engine is evident in the meticulous detail that shines through the first half of their movie. However, when the feature opened in theaters in October of 2010, savvy genre fans felt that the finale of the film didn't quite match everything that had come before it, and while it connected to where Carpenter's film opens, it wasn't exactly a smooth transaction from film to film.
Several weeks back, the guys at Amalgamated Dynamics posted a behind-the-scenes video clip showcasing all of the wonderful practical FX that they'd planned and shot for the movie. While most of it ended up in the final film, there's still a good chunk of it that had curious fans wondering why all of it wasn't on the big screen. When FEARnet dropped by the Amalgamated Dynamics studio, one of the first things we noticed was a full sized alien pilot that was meant to be The Thing's final appearance for the grand finale in which the creature transforms itself into the lifeform from the previous planet it invaded in an attempt to pilot the ship off of Earth. Seeing that, as well as the behind-the-scenes You Tube clip warranted further discussion. So we sat down with Amalgamated Dynamics' Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. to get the full scoop. Check out this behind-the-scenes clip and our chat below, along with a handful of exclusive behind-the-scenes photos.
It seems like a lot of FX artists now are showcasing and making available a lot of their work on-line; practical things that didn't make it into the final film. Why did you guys feel the need to share the behind-the-scenes footage from The Thing? Was it meant as a tribute to all the people that worked so hard on it?
Alec Gillis: We're aware of what's said on the internet and the questions that fans have. We often get questions emailed directly to us asking, "what was practical in that and what was digital?" So we thought maybe it's time now that the movie's had its theatrical life for our crew that (like you said) worked on it so hard to get some credit & share that with the fans. There's no value or judgment on how we felt it turned out, this was just our contribution to the movie and we're thrilled that it's gotten such a strong positive response.
The FX that Rob Bottin did on John Carpenter's The Thing are still incredible and still hold up. When you first started work on the prequel, how'd you guys approach coming up with things that would match and compliment what Carpenter and Bottin did on the original?
Tom Woodruff Jr.: It came to us as a dream project. I mean, to be able to tackle that subject with all the different iterations of creature work that goes into The Thing and also to be on the same page with the producers and the director about the importance of it being a practical approach driven project because of wanting it to be in the same league, the same filmatic quality of the original Carpenter movie and all of Bottin's work. It's technically challenging, because no matter what the director or producers say, there's so many other aspects that you deal with. There was a lot of convincing of other people doing the visual FX aspect of it of what we can still achieve because people have forgotten. In trying to progress to the next level, I think we've chopped a lot of techniques and options out of our approach that weren't necessarily right decisions to make. In a quest to be part of the newest cutting edge, a lot of stuff gets kicked out the back door, things that are still very effective if done right. To me, simplest is always the best way. Simple means small and personal and to me what we achieved with practical FX and animatronics and puppets and all that stuff really is small and personal and tactile. It's actor to actor. It doesn't show everything all in one swoop. It was important for this type of a movie.
These days, as much as you do practical stuff, it's just a given that you're going to have to coordinate and work with digital FX artists. How closely did you guys work with the people you knew would be doing that side of things for The Thing?
Alec Gillis: We worked very closely with Image Engine and we're fans of theirs. The stuff they did on District 9 was impeccable. They're very nice guys and amiable. So we all sat down with (director) Matthijs (van Heijning) and we'd spitball ideas of how an effect might work and we'd act it all out. It was really fun and a great experience which we haven't had as much recently to be working with the filmmaker and other teams to conceptualize. Not to say that it like the opportunity that Bottin had with Carpenter where from what I've read he would pitch things to Carpenter and they would go back and forth. It was the two of them with their ideas. In none of the accounts on that original Thing have I read anything about studio influence or due process from the studio or anything like that. It's just not that way anymore. Studio movies aren't made that way. When we talk about transformations of The Thing or how to effectively create these FX, the digital component was always a part of it. We're not the type of guys that would come in and say, "this movie has to be all practical!" That doesn't seem to serve a story to walk in and say there's only going to be one technique. If we were stop-motion artists, we wouldn't walk in and say "this has to be all stop-motion!" Really? No make-up? No animatronics? No CGI? For a contemporary horror movie that has to do with transformations and bodies splitting open and limbs changing, there has to be a CG element, and the things that Image Engine have done are some photo-realistic CG work. It felt like everything was lining up to be as good as it could possibly be. I don't think we're quite as hard on the digital work as a lot of the fans that we read are about it. I also think it's a different era. Tom and I really appreciate the outpouring of support for practical. Not specifically for just us, but we love that there's a big interest for practical FX. That is just great and I hope that somebody in the higher levels of Hollywood is paying attention to that. It's a potential gold mine to be able to come up with FX that look different from all other FX; that don't look like they were created by a factory of 400 people. If you can do something that looks real and suspends disbelief in this day and age, then you should be able to capitalize on that. That's all people want is that kind of quality. One thing I hope fans understand about The Thing is that everyone involved wanted this movie to be a success and a worthy partner to the Carpenter film. Nobody went into this with an attitude like we were competing with the original. Everybody went in there with respect for the original. We were all feeling the same way. There are a lot of questions we can't answer about the way the film turned out because we weren't involved in the year of post-production.
After I saw the prequel, I went home and immediately watched Carpenter's film as a double feature. It seems to me as a fan that a lot of thought went into a lot of the meticulous detail to make the two movies fit together, yet the third act of the prequel doesn't totally gel with Carpenter's movie. In your studio here, you've got an alien pilot, the last iteration of The Thing morphing into an alien from the previous world it inhabited in order to fly the ship back into space. Yet we never got to see that alien anywhere in the movie and the ending was changed. Were you guys involved in the alternate ending that ended up being the conclusion to the released film?
Tom Woodruff Jr.: That ending was all still being talked about as we were shooting and while we were on set. The idea came up that the studio wanted a bigger, splashier ending than the original one with the alien pilot. We had seen so many things leading up to that third act that the studio felt boiling it down to this one alien was a bit anti-climatic. The other thing was they felt the pilot was a confusing character to introduce right at the end of the movie. These decisions never come down to one single person. Its group decisions and I would've been the one to go the other way. I think introducing that pilot character wouldn't been a cool way to see yet another new thing, a new creature in this movie. In the end, they still came back to us because they wanted the overall creature designs to be congruent. So we created the design and we created a maquette which at that point it had been decided it would be an all-digital creature. We were right at the end of the shoot so all the stages were going to be gone. We were involved in that aspect of it. I think fans champion what we do and what practical FX artists do and they want to believe we hold more power than we do. But it's never been that way for us! I would counter that it was that way even for Rob Bottin when he did the original Thing.
Alec Gillis: They'd be telling him he's not a team player. Like him and H.R. Giger are geniuses with a very specific vision. And these days in the corporate world of filmmaking, they'll look at those guys and instead of having a unique voice, they'd look at them as not being team players. "This is bigger than one person now!" And really, can ya blame them? Movie these days cost a lot of money. The Thing cost $43 million? What'd the Carpenter one cost in adjusted dollars back then? I don't know what that would be…
Tom Woodruff Jr.: We want to be as diligent not only as artists but as craftsman meaning we want to service the stories and we want to service the characters, but the problem we're running into is that in the push to value these $180 million dollar budgets, everything has to be so big, you have to have such a huge canvas and just throw everything at it and see what sticks. I believe the only way to be satisfied in terms of creature FX is to go underground, we've got to find the lower budget movies and go prove ourselves. If you look at Clint Eastwood back in the 60's, he was a huge TV star and nobody thought he could be a movie star, so he had to run away to Italy to become a movie star there before he became one here. As much as I love working on the big movies, we are still putting all of our time and attention into lower budget opportunities because that's where we get to be creative.
Alec Gillis: The big movies carry so much risk for studios that they're trying to be diligent about how they make them. They want to hammer out any perceived flaws, which is why there will be a test screening early on. You look at Pixar, they do all that stuff and they always triumph. So I'm not one of these people that think movies should never be altered because of test screenings. Generally, they do a lot of test screenings. And it's not a perfect system by any means. It also doesn't mean your movie is going to crash and burn because of it, and again Pixar is a part of that. The difference is Pixar is doing PG movies that are broad in audience base, and what fans want with horror is usually edgier & grittier and tougher than what the mainstream audience is used to. We're usually not a part of that process. People have to keep in mind, we step out of a movie and a year later it comes out. We're not necessarily going to test screenings. We see the movie a little bit in advance and we see dailies when we're on set, but for the most part, you never know what aesthetics change in post-production. And in the case of The Thing, we really don't know what the dynamics were that guided any new footage.
Tom – you have a reputation for physically wearing the costumes for most of the movies you work on, from the Aliens movies to the Gillman in The Monster Squad, etc. And sure enough, in the clip from The Thing, it looks like you're performing as The Thing in a lot of the practical stuff.
Tom Woodruff Jr.: Honestly, I feel like I'm the best guy to do it, because I'm still very physically fit and still luckily have my endurance, although I feel I'm much closer to the horizon of that not working than I used to be! But I've also got the 100 percent commitment. The way we approach our creature work is not just to draw something on paper, build some rubber, and shoot it. To us, movement and character is every bit as important as how the creature looks. Over the years, I've seen plenty of films where something looks cool, but it doesn't move cool. I prefer something that moves cool and I see less of it, then something that is ornate and beautifully sculpted and well rendered. It doesn't have any degree of character to it. There is a certain intent, even in the things we built, there's a way of creating a creatures' intentions just from their facial articulation or in the way it moves that makes it work.
Alec Gillis: That's what I think is missing from a lot of stuff these days. The fall out of being part of this big digital revolution is that we've lost subtlety strangely. Like in Bottin's work in the original, you'd have a slow unfolding of something and part of it was the limitations of the time & the materials, but the effect that it had was people looking in disbelief for a moment and you (like the characters in the movie) are looking at something and thinking, "what the hell is it doing?" It's doing something. Nowadays, it seems to me that things need to be the baddest, fastest killing machine, which all those seeds were planted back with Alien. All that stuff was planted, but the limitations planted on filmmakers back them were their saviors. We worked a bit with Ridley Scott on I Am Legend when he was going to do that movie and he said that Alien suit was made out of non-stretch rubber like a latex mask. They got the guy suited up and he couldn't move! And he thought "oh shit. How do we shoot this?" He could reach out and grab you but he can't be a fast, stealthy, predatory thing like he'd hoped for, so he had to recalculate how he was going to shoot it. And thank God, because the movie was much better with what you didn't see. Nowadays you tend to see everything, especially in science fiction and horror.
The Thing is available on DVD and Blu-Ray January 30th. Check out more of Amalgamated Dynamics work at their YouTube page and official website. Also check out the Icons Of Fright career spanning interview with Tom Woodruff Jr.