Halloween Horror Celebration IV / Interviews

Interview with special effects master Alec Gillis!!!

Alec Gillis on set of his directorial debut, Harbinger Down.

Alec Gillis on set of his directorial debut, Harbinger Down.

Alec Gillis.  It may not be a household name, but I guarantee you know his work.  If you have seen any of the Alien films from Alien 3  on, if you’ve seen Death Becomes Her starring Bruce Willis and Meryl Streep, if you have seen Mortal Kombat or Point Break, you have seen his work.  He and his company, Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc., are masters in the field of practical special effects.

Recently, he directed his first feature film, Harbinger Down (read my review of the film here), and I had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with Mr. Gillis.


1. Harbinger Down is your directorial debut. Despite working in the industry for years, how difficult was it to transition from practical effects work into being responsible for the whole ship?
 I drew on my entire skill set for this. Directing is not unlike what I normally do, but certainly being in charge of the entire production meant that there was NO downtime.
2. Harbinger Down reminded me a lot of John Carpenters classic film The Thing. Was that intentional and practical for the types of effects you were going for?  Is the film intended to be an homage?
 Absolutely! This film originated as a Kickstarter project with the promise to pledgers that this would be an homage to THE THING and ALIEN. I wanted the film to embody what we love about the 80’s sci-fi/horror films. The point was not to reinvent or spoof. Just a loving look back at the 2 greats sci-fi/horror films of that era. It’s cinematic comfort food. Movie meat loaf.
3. There have been stories about the work you guys did for the reboot of The Thing that was covered up by CGI. Is there any truth to the stories and how did studio interference inspire you to start the Kickstarter campaign to make Harbinger Down? 
Yes, much of our work was replaced by CGI. When we saw how heartbroken the fans were we decided to give them a voice in the matter through Kickstarter. HARBINGER DOWN was our assignment from the fans and KS pledgers.
4. As a film fan in general, and a horror fan in particular, I do so enjoy a good film with practical effects. Over the years, we have seen practical effects being used less and less in favor of CGI. I know I am starting to get sick of the cartoons most films are becoming (see Terminator Genisys).  Do you feel that fans like me are creating a resurgence for practical effects?  Are studios even tapping into this desire?
 Fans like you have been vocal on the internet for a long time. But that has not led to a drop in business for big CGI centered films, so naturally, studios have not listened. Why should they care if there’s no affect on their profits? However, when big directors like JJ Abrams echoes the fan’s love of Practical FX, studios perk up and start to tow his line. The survival of PFX requires fan involvement but also ‘hero’ directors like Abrams, Del Toro and Favreau. We did our small part with HARBINGER DOWN.
5. The work you have done with Amalgamated Dynamics is legendary. From Tremors to your directorial debut, Harbinger Down. Is there any project you have worked on that you are particularly impressed with?  Or are all of the films you have worked on your babies and you can’t pick a favorite? 
There are standouts like TREMORS, STARSHIP TROOPERS, DEATH BECOMES HER, JUMANJI. But it’s always great to hear the movies other people love. I can’t tell you how many people are smitten by the presidents masks we made for POINT BREAK!
6. Now that Harbinger Down has released on DVD (where’s the Blu Ray!), what are your plans for a follow up film?  Are you planning on directing again?
 I very much want to direct soon! I have several scripts waiting in the wings. It’s always a matter of finding that funding. When I do get the next chance, it’ll be more forward looking than HD, but still loaded with PFX!
7. How difficult was it using the Kickstarter process to get Harbinger Down financed?  Is it something you would consider using again to finance another practical effects creature feature?
 I would consider it. I’m proud that we were so diligent about getting prizes out in a timely way. We got a lot of great responses on the management of the campaign, so I think the pledgers were happy. Anyone contemplating a KS campaign needs to be aware that it is a TON of work! Ours has been a 3 year process with almost 10,000 individual prizes to dole out. Many well-intended KS campaigns fall apart due to the inability to organize the whole affair. Having said that, I love the direct fan interaction that gave me the ability to get a movie made!
8. How has the reception been to Harbinger Down?  I personally dug the film and would love to see another practical creature feature.
 It’s two-sided coin. Folks who were on board with our KS mission statement from the beginning love it. Some folks coming into it without knowledge of its origins may not love it so much. We have gotten some really bad reviews and some incredibly positive reviews. They say things ranging from “Gillis is a genius!” to “Gillis should get out of the business!”. Some people see it as a love letter to a bygone age, others think its hackneyed and unoriginal. I guess one man’s ‘homage’ is another man’s ‘ripoff’. Having said all that, it is renting and selling well, so perhaps it’ll open doors for more PFX based films. I hope so.
9. What is the film that inspired you to begin working in special effects?  Is there any work done by another company that you were extremely impressed by and which film?
 As a kid I loved the original KING KONG and PLANET OF THE APES. The classic Universal monster movies were terrific. But really probably the work of Ray Harryhausen inspired me the most. Though he did not direct he was the indie auteur behind his films. Amazing artist and filmmaker.
I would like to thank Alec Gillis for taking the time to answer these questions for us. Click here to pick up Harbinger Down and support practical effects driven films.  Sadly, it is becoming a lost art form that should NEVER be lost.

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