Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, of Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. (ADI) aren’t names that most people are familiar with, though if you have seen Alien, Predator, The Thing (2011), Monster Squad, Mortal Combat, The Fly, The Fly II among many, many others, then you are more familiar with their work than you think.
Despite such a pedigree, the film industry have for quite a few years been moving toward computer-generated images (CGI) instead of practical effects, like animatronics and models. A problem that accompanies CGI is that they are put into images after the film is shot. This means that the actors, when working with computer-generated images, are often performing against a stand-in (which is sometimes a tennis ball on a pole) because the actors need to have something to focus their attention on.
So, if you’re watching a movie like Transformers or The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and wonder what the actors are acting against when Smaug makes an appearance, it’s often not much at all.
ADI takes an opposite approach. Since they specialize in practical, tangible effects, often what you see in screen is what the actor is acting against. It seems logical to me to assume that it results in better performances because you don’t have to imagine that there’s some horrible monster in front of you, because there actually is.
For instance, in Aliens, when you saw Ripley trying to avoid the Alien Queen, there actually was a giant animatronic queen that she was acting against.
They worked on the special effects for John Carpenter’s The Thing–a remake of Howard Hawk’s The Thing From Another World (based the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell)–with Rob Bottin and also did the effects work for the 2011 sequel.
But someone decided to go with CGI instead of practical effects for the film, which means that ADI’s work–for the most part–went unseen. The incident inspired Gillis and Woodruff to start a Kickstarter campaign to fund Harbinger Down, a movie that eschews the computer-generated effects (CGI) in favor of practical effects.
I have no idea if Harbinger Down is going to be released it theaters or going direct to video, though either way, I intend to catch it. I think that you should too because the physical effects should be amazing, and supporting the film–and making it a success–will show that no matter how great CGI is, there’re always a time when practical effects are better suited.