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Latest Special Effect: Producing Indie Feature

As Alec Gillis maneuvers around the dismantled sets of his low-budget indie film “Harbinger Down,” he has only one request – no photos of the monsters. Principal photography wrapped on the horror film this month but it has yet to be released, and scattered about a Chatsworth warehouse were various forms the space creature takes as it devours its way through the crew and visiting scientists aboard a crab trawler. If “Harbinger Down” were a big studio production, the monsters probably would have been created on a computer and inserted into the film during post-production. But not only was the film not big budget it is the handiwork of Gillis and business partner Tom Woodruff Jr., who run Chatsworth special effects house StudioADI. In an age when CGI has threatened the livelihood of practical effects artists, Gillis, 54, and Woodruff, 55, decided to make a move financed by $385,000 raised from horror movie aficionados through a Kickstarter Inc. campaign. “My promise to the pledges was there would be no digital animated creatures in the film,” Gillis said. And that’s not the only unusual strategy the company has taken to market its talents and stay in business. It’s also creating effects and props for non-entertainment uses, such as lifelike human replicas for medical training and specialty props used in exhibitions by mysterious British artist Banksy. Still, for anyone familiar with the company’s pedigree that may seem like a strange course to take. Gillis and Woodruff started the company in 1988 after having worked for the late special effects pioneer Stan Winston. The company made its name for creatures and animals, including “Alien vs. Predator,” “Alien 3,” “Alien: Resurrection,” and Bernie, the talking gorilla from “Zoo Keeper.” But the realities of the entertainment industry, with studios and production companies chasing after tax incentives to limit their costs, shortened production schedules, and use of more and more CGI effects made it difficult for StudioADI to rely exclusively on film work. Pre-production time has shrunk to three months when it used to be six to nine months, Gillis noted. “Anything that requires preparation is on the chopping block, and that includes practical effects,” he said. Grisly history The company’s founders have had personal experience with the difficulties in getting practical effect to screen. StudioADI created an animatronic/makeup hybrid mask for the Green Goblin character in the 2002 film “Spider-Man,” which was rejected. It later created the vampire-like creatures for a version of “I Am Legend” to be directed by Ridley Scott that was never made. For the 2011 feature “The Thing,” the effects house came up with practical creature effects that were later replaced with digital effects. Short YouTube videos of these lost effects created a reaction among horror and science fiction fans. “Believe me, people were amazed and heartbroken about what didn’t make it to the screen,” Gillis said. From that amazement and heartbreak came the genesis of “Harbinger Down” and making it a practical effects film. Not only would it make the fans happy but the film could show others in the entertainment industry that CGI isn’t a necessity to get a story told. The Kickstarter campaign drew the interest of more than 3,000 donors putting up as little as $5 and as much as $10,000. The Cinema Makeup School, in Los Angeles, was among the $10,000 donors. Michael Spatola, the chief academic officer, contributed personal money to the project and served as head of the makeup department for the film. In addition, the school gets mentioned during a scene. Like Gillis and Woodruff, whom he has known for more than 20 years, Spatola is old school when it comes to movie effects. Rather than actors fighting an imaginary foe against a green screen he prefers to see them alongside actual creatures. “It does not look fake or as if they are fighting with a cartoon,” said Spatola, a two-time Emmy nominee whose film credits for makeup include “Iron Man 3” And “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” As satisfying as it has been for Gillis to work on “Harbinger Down” outside the studio system, he knows that the non-entertainment work will take on a greater role in StudioADI’s future. In 2010, StudioADI created its largest prop ever – a 20-foot-tall baby with moving eyes and mouth displayed in the Spanish Pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai. For artist Banksy, the company did the animatronic animals for Village Pet Boutique and Charcoal Grill, an exhibit in New York that commented on relations between humans and animals. Last year, the crew designed a bumper car with a grim reaper behind the wheel also displayed in New York. At the exhibit, Gillis said he was surrounded by people with British accents but unaware if one was the reclusive artist himself. “I may or may not have met him,” Gillis said.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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