Oscar-Winning Creature Creator Alec Gillis Screens His Directorial Debut ‘Harbinger Down’ at NYFA


This month, New York Film Academy students were treated to a special horror film event, getting a firsthand look at the art and science of classic horror film effects. On hand to explain this “tra-digital” approach was Alec Gillis of Amalgamated Dynamics, who, with his partner Tom Woodruff, won the Oscar for Death Becomes Her. Alec was joined by star Camille Balsamo, who graciously flew in from a shoot on CSI New Orleans to join Alec and cinematographer Benjamin Brown, who also served as editor and sound designer on the picture. Mark Sawicki, Chair of 3-D Animation and Visual Effects at our Los Angeles campus, was the moderator for the evening.

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Mark Sawicki with Alec Gillis, Camille Balsamo and Benjamin Brown (Photo by Enrico De Conti)

According to Alec, Harbinger Down was created for the fan base that loves traditional creature effects as seen in classic films such as Alien, The Thing and Predator. During the digital revolution, traditional creature shops began to see more and more of their work replaced by computer graphics (CGI) at the large studios. Through the Internet, Alec learned that there is a huge fan base that objected to what they perceived as obtrusive tampering with a special art form. As a result, Alec decided to give this underserved audience what they wanted and create an old school creature makeup effects film with effects all done on set in an intimate performance with the actors.

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Alec Gillis (Photo by Enrico De Conti)

Working on a Kickstarter budget that was the highest ever garnered by the crowdfunding giant, the film still needed to be put together by modest means. Sawicki recalled how both he and Alec got their start on the film Galaxy of Terror while working with Roger Corman’s studio, and Harbinger Down reminded him of the fun tribal style of filmmaking that they both enjoyed so much in the 80’s. Camille agreed with that idea and remembered that simple tricks were used throughout the film to simulate being in a frozen Arctic environment. To mimic frosty breath clouds the actors would inhale a safe smoke concoction, hold their breath and release on their first line after “action.” The scene looked freezing cold even though it was shot in the heat of the day in Chatsworth.

Benjamin stated that the sea of clouds that the space capsule roars through was actually a big set of cotton, fashioned and lit to look like clouds. Much of the lighting was strung LED fixtures that could be run without generators. Everything was fine unless a makeup person turned on a hair dryer and tripped the breaker. Though the film was storyboarded throughout, both Alec and Benjamin worked in a “run and gun manner” to accommodate the opportunities and limitations of the set ups.

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(Photo by Enrico De Conti)

Alec charmed the crowd by bringing one of the baby whale puppets used in the picture to the stage and demonstrated the ease of creating a performance in real time with the realistic puppet. He also praised co-producer Camille for handling the challenges of finishing the film for distribution. Camille added that once a distributor is found there are at least a 100 deliverables that need to be accounted for — such as closed captioning and pan and scan — to have a proper package. She mentioned that few filmmakers take this expense and effort into account when they create a film.

The audience was delighted with the film and expressed a yearning to explore these tangible, traditional and magical methods of creature creation in their own films. Many thanks to Alec, Camille and Benjamin for keeping these special film crafts alive.

Harbinger Down has been released in theaters and is now available on Pay Per View. See it now…if you dare!


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Published on: September 24, 2015

Filled Under: 3D Animation, Guest Speakers

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