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March 7, 2019

30 Years of Practical Effects with Amalgamated Dynamics’ Tom Woodruff Jr & Alec Gillis [Episode 13]

30 Years of Practical Effects with Amalgamated Dynamics’ Tom Woodruff Jr & Alec Gillis [Episode 13]

“We find that, particularly recently, is that most of the digital guys we work with say, ‘Please, do as much of this as a practical effect on set as you can.’ And the director says, ‘Do as much of this as a practical effect as you can’ … For u

Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr are former apprentices of the legendary Stan Winston, and for the past 30 years, their company Amalgamated Dynamics has been at the forefront of some of the most epic and large scale  practical effects in Hollywood. From the Graboids from Tremors, to the Aliens and Predators and even the dinosaurs from Jurassic World, Tom and Alec have been behind them all, and through the process have built one of the most prolific practical effects studios in history.

Despite their extensive accomplishments and indelible name in the industry, Alec and Tom still face the challenges that come with being a practical effects studio in a CGI driven Hollywood. Condensed timelines, lower budgets, unrealistic expectations, and the ever-present over-reliance on digital effects, are just a few of the challenges that come with doing what they do. But regardless, Tom and Alec continue to fight the good fight for practical effects. We dive into the challenges and splendor of practical effects and learn more about ADI’s creative processes behind creating some of the most iconic creatures in cinematic history. All of this and so much more on today's episode of the Nick Taylor horror show.

Overall I feel like this interview does a great job at illustrating the trails and tribulations of practical affect studios in this era of CGI. Regardless, the good fight is being fought as more and more directors like Guillermo Del Toro and JJ Abrams are outspokenly utilizing practical effects for their major blockbusters and blending it with digital. Even James Wan opted to use as many practical makeup effects as he could for his CGI extravaganza, Aquaman.

The pendulum is swinging back towards practical, and I personally believe that the reason we’re seeing so much rampant nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s is because of practical effects - people yearn for movies that had effects and characters that they could feel, that had true tangible gravity that their minds and hearts believed. It’s not just makeup effects either, explosions, car crashes, and other stunts and special effects are simply way more effective when they’re done practically. Just look at Mad Max Fury Road - George Miller did the majority of those insane car sequences entirely practically. (I could go on and on)

Here are some key takeaways for aspiring practical effects makeup artists from Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis.

  • Provide options for the director. Alec speaks to the importance of presenting different design options to directors so that you can get into his or her head and instantly understand the look they are going for through trial and error. Alec recommends presenting a boring option, an option that is completely out of left field, and then something in between.
  • Be a capitalist. Alec states that in creative endeavors, you need to understand business, probably moreso than in non-creative endeavors. Artistic professions are extraordinarily difficult to make a living at and require not only endless amounts of passion, but financial acuity as well. Alec says, that if you are an artist it is incumbent upon you to understand business, your products, your marketability, and to get out there and network and promote yourself properly.
  • Don’t forget to 'do you'. When Tom and Alec are recruiting other artists, they ask their applicants to show them not just what they worked on when they were working on big movies, but what they created on their own time. They want to see what kind of art matters most to their applicants because doing this enables them to really get a grasp on what their people are most passionate about. This is why it's critically important to constantly be improving your craft through your own personal side projects. It not only enables you to get valuable practice in, but helps you further develop and arrive at your own personal aesthetic. This is part of what shapes artists. Tom and Alec recommend building an extensive portfolio of your own personal projects because it will showcase your unique sensibility.