Can StudioADI Prove the Future of Indie Film Is Practical?

In 2010, filming began on a prequel to John Carpenter's landmark 1982 sci-fi horror movie The Thing, with practical effects created by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. of Amalgamated Dynamics (or ADI), complete with animatronics and monster suits worn by Woodruff himself. But the movie released in October 2011 was shorn of most of their work, replaced with computer-generated effects.

It wouldn't be the first or the last time the creature creators created special effects that never make it to screen, including for blockbusters like I Am Legend and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. But since 2011, when Gillis and Woodruff launched their YouTube channel, StudioADI, their work no longer goes unseen. The channel highlights creations from The X-Files, Starship Troopers, Death Becomes Her, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, Alien vs. Predator, X-Men: First Class, Mortal Kombat and interviews with other artists in the make-up special effects field, like Kevin Yagher of the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

In opening up their process, they found themselves in the position to create effects for their own projects and a growing constellation of creators and fans, beginning with their 2015 movie Harbinger Down, directed by Gillis and funded by Kickstarter. Now, the trendlines of the blockbuster production calendar no longer determine their output.

"It used to be that it didn't appear, and it's like, 'Oh god, the world will never know,'" Gillis said. "But the heartbreak days are over for us, because now we're in direct contact with our fans."

When Gillis and Woodruff founded ADI, the era of digital effects was just dawning. Their first movie, 1988's Tremors, used animatronics, miniatures, foam latex body suits and even hand puppets to create their immense, palpitating, predatory desert "graboids." But just a few years after Tremors, Industrial Light and Magic's computer-generated dinosaurs overturned the special effects world.

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A "Tremors" graboid. Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc.

"When Jurassic Park came out a lot of people who do practical FX were worried," Gillis said, explaining the historical context for our current special effects era, where even practical effects masters like Phil Tippett [Star Wars Original Trilogy, Robocop] started learning the CGI ropes after Spielberg ditched Tippett's practical "go motion" technique for ILM's digital dinosaurs. "We looked at it and saw that the digital tools are powerful and broad-reaching, but we decided we're going to stay specialist."

It was a gambit that paid off. "We have a found a way not just to survive, but thrive," Gillis said. "A lot of directors are coming back to practical work."

But even with practical effects returning to screens in movies like It and The Predator, plus a gig here and there designing creatures for movies like the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong, ADI has found their growing community of fans and collaborators empower them to chase their own projects.

"The big movies aren't coming in hand-over-fist like they used to, but we're finding great people to work with," Gillis said. "We can be a hub of creativity."

Since Harbinger Down, which applied the tools created for The Thing to an icebound horror movie pitting Lance Henriksen against mutated monsters burst from a crashed Soviet moon lander, Studio ADI has set out to prove even low-budget independent films can pull off astounding practical effects.

Their next project is the upcoming indie Wellwood, starring Keisha Castle-Hughes ( Game of Thrones) and directed by Eliza Hooper. In this sci-fi horror story, newlyweds Nick and Laura grapple with her decision to halt her cancer treatment, until a crashed spaceship provides a unique opportunity: the creature inside is dead, but its wounds are healing. Could this alien be Laura's last hope? And what will it cost them?

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A look at the crashed spaceship from the upcoming movie "Wellwood." Cooper Gordon / StudioADI

"A major question I was trying to answer was 'How do you accept a decision that isn't yours to make, when it affects you so greatly?'" Wellwood screenwriter Reid Collums told Newsweek, describing his own father's cancer diagnosis and difficult decisions about how to approach treatment. "That is where Wellwood was born."

"We did the creature effects for it, it's kind of a labor of love for us. It's a very intimate story," Gillis said.

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Alec Gillis and ADI artist Adam Dougherty work on the alien as director Eliza Hooper (striped shirt) and writer Reid Collums (red shirt) observe. "In a way, the alien in 'Wellwood' represents cancer. Nick and Laura are struggling with it in different ways," Collums said. Cooper Gordon / StudioADI

Like with Harbinger Down, Wellwood will prove small-budget features can do better than bottom-tier CGI. It's familiar territory for Gillis and Woodruff, since each got their start in micro-budget movies, Gillis with schlock legend Roger Corman and Woodruff with straight-to-video impresario Charles Band, who created the Puppet Master series.

"We hope to do more of these films," Gillis said, describing StudioADI as a hybrid entity, recently empowered to pursue big-budget special effects work and their own, small-scale passion projects. "They're very low-budget, but we're trying to focus on practical effects. They're not Sharknado."

"But if the Sharknado people call, we're there," Woodruff interjected, with a laugh.

Beyond their YouTube presence, Amalgamated Dynamics is also the subject of a brand-new exhibition at The Hollywood Museum on Highland Avenue in Los Angeles, which will highlight "30 Years of Make-Up, Monsters and Magic," including a complete replica of Bill Skarsgard's Pennywise from the 2017 It, the titular aliens from Alien vs. Predator, and Gillis and Woodruff work from The Nun, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and the Alien series. The exhibition opens to the public on Wednesday, Oct. 3 and will run through the end of 2018.