Monsters have been a staple of film horror from the beginning, from Dracula and Frankenstein, through The Blob and Alien. During the fertile period from the late 70s through the 80s, F/X wizards from Dick Smith to Rick Baker came up with fantastical creations that still stand the test of time. But, in recent years, filmmakers have begun to overly rely on computer-generated F/X to bring the unnatural to life, and real, on-camera, practical F/X have often been put aside, to the disappointment of horror fans. In response to that, Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., heads of F/X company, ADI (Academy Award winners for Death Becomes Her, and behind Starship Troopers, the Alien vs. Predator films and X-Men franchise) have made their own creature feature entitled Harbinger Down. (Check out our preview here.) It has just been released into select theaters, and VOD, from iTunes, Amazon and Vudu to DirectTV, Cablevision and more. Writer and director Alec Gillis was nice enough to answer a few of the Gore 4’s questions from how the movie came about to the future of practical F/X.
Gore 4: After doing F/X work on so many high profile, big budget pictures, what was the impetus for making this movie on your own, and using Kickstarter as the initial source of funding?
Alec: I’ve wanted to direct a movie for some time and have been writing and selling projects here and there over the years. When I learned there was a big on-line community of PFX lovers who shared my beliefs that movies need more ‘real’ stuff in them. It wasn’t too hard to connect the dots to crowd-funding to see just how serious the fans would be about taking matters into our own hands as a community of like-minded film buffs.
Gore 4: What was the inspiration for HARBINGER DOWN, and was this a story you had floating around for awhile, or did it come about once you decided to make a practical F/X monster movie yourself?
Alec: The notion of HARBINGER DOWN wasn’t really mine. After we posted an on-line video of our unused animatronic work from THE THING 2011, ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBzpT7VmSaU ) we heard from fans who wanted a THING-inspired PFX film. I’m a fan of both THE THING and ALIEN, which have similar elements, so a respectful homage to these two classics seemed appropriate. Throw in a setting like that of DEADLIEST CATCH and that was that. I viewed this film as an assignment given to me by the fans.
Gore 4: You’ve worked with the legendary Stan Winston. What other artists and films have inspired you and your work?
Alec: I’ve had the good fortune to work with many great filmmakers. Cameron, Fincher, Zemekis, Nichols, Ephron. But I started at Roger Corman’s so my roots are in low budget. I love SS Wilson and Brent Maddock’s script for TREMORS, and Ron Underwood’s direction. Stan Winston’s PUMPKINHEAD was a classic cult low bujjer. Cinematographers like Alex Thomson, Jordan Cronenweth and Bojan Bazelli showed me how beautiful genre films could be.
Gore 4: What can you say briefly about the use of practical F/X in movies and TV, as opposed to using CGI for everything?
Alec: I have nothing against CGI. It’s an amazing art practiced by many talented artists. The ‘versus’ debate is a bit off point in that it’s about balance. The best films blend the two techniques. My objection is when a single technique is over used. Or used inappropriately. Or poorly. PFX has a tactile quality that helps convince the viewer that what you’re watching is real. To me suspension of disbelief is the end goal. Often times CG artists are asked to do too much in a short amount of time and aren’t given the proper resources. That isn’t fun for them and the works suffers leaving the audience shortchanged. PFX sits on the sidelines saying “Put me in coach”, but it falls on mostly deaf ears (to find out why watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qdDwrY5KpvI ) PFX look real, and are cheaper than CGI. At the end of the day both tools should be available to the director to tell the story. You can’t build a house with just a saw.
Gore 4: As a big fan of the SyFy show, Face Off, I was wondering if that is something you watch, and are there enough movies and TV shows being made today to counter the use of CGI so that practical and make-up F/X artists can find plenty of work?
Alec: There are not as many opportunities for PFX artists as there were when I was starting out. However shows like FACE OFF both foster interest in the art and by its ratings, prove that there are tons of fans of PFX. We need more smaller films featuring Practical FX to be made. With HARBINGER DOWN and FIRE CITY, Tom Woodruff and I are doing our part to create a PFX renaissance so that there will be more and more opportunities for the next generation of makeup FX artists and monster makers.
Gore 4: How cool is Lance Henriksen to work with, and what experience did he lend to the making of the film, and in working with the other actors?
Alec: I’ve known Lance for 30 years and have worked with him on something like 11 films. He is the kindest, most supportive person you could hope to meet. I wrote the part of Graff to show more sides of him than you usually get to see in his movies. We had a range of experience levels among our diverse cast, and Lance took an active interest in all of them. Any actor benefits by being in a scene with him, or just watching him ply his craft. He’s the best. With the actors, he was the Captain of the ship.
Gore 4: Now that the movie is finished and being released, what are your hopes for the future for yourself, your F/X company, ADI, and practical F/X continuing to be an important storytelling technique in the industry?
Alec: I’m grateful to the Kickstarter pledgers and to Sultan Saeed Al Darmaki’s Dark Dunes for funding HARBINGER DOWN. They gave me the chance to cut my teeth as a film maker and they put my team to work. I hope we get the chance to make more films in all budget ranges, that put fun characters and cool stories on the screen. PFX are in my DNA, so anything I do will have a healthy dose of reality in the imagery. We’ll continue to create top quality animatronics and makeup FX for film makers who understand what the fans want to see, and we’ll continue to evolve as film makers.
There you have it. The Gore 4 would like to thank Alec Gillis for taking the time to answer our questions, and enlighten genre fans in the filmmaking process and the use of practical F/X. And thanks also to everyone behind Harbinger Down for making a movie us fans can get behind. Please support the film by viewing it with whatever platform best works for you. We hope the release of Harbinger Down serves as a turning point for the production of more films utilizing all the great talent out there to create fantastic creatures and horrific monsters, in a world where PFX and CGI work together to make the best projects possible for fans to enjoy.