Hello, readers! Welcome back for another installment of one of our featured columns here at Daily Dead, Deadly Dialogue: A Conversation on Cinema, in which we catch up with notable talent who have worked in the horror and sci-fi genres—both in front of and behind the camera—to discuss the films that inspired them to become the artists they are today.
Throughout his career in special effects, which has now spanned over four decades, Alec Gillis has established himself as one of the premier artists of his generation, lending his talents on numerous films including Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Cocoon, Invaders From Mars (1986), Aliens, Death Becomes Her, The Monster Squad, Alien Nation, Spider-Man, Pumpkinhead, Hollow Man, Starship Troopers, and several films in the Tremors franchise, among others.
During his career, Gillis has collaborated with some of the greatest talents in the industry—from Stan Winston to James Cameron, to Roger Corman and Paul Verhoeven—and has consistently pushed for the importance of practical effects in cinema alongside his creative partner, Tom Woodruff Jr., with whom he formed Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. in 1988.
During a recent interview for The Monster, the latest film to feature his effects work with Woodruff, Gillis discussed the films that helped foster his love for the creative arts.
It was sort of a step-by-step process. I have very vivid memories of the original Planet of the Apes coming out that summer in 1968, and my brother and I going to see it every day. I just loved that there were characters in it that were fantasy characters that talked and had a point of view and were really like actual characters, and not just monsters. That was one moment of realignment in my little brain.
I also loved the Ray Harryhausen movies, like Jason and the Argonauts. I remember trying to technically analyze as a six-year-old the skeleton sword fight scene. I remember thinking, "Well, they're not people wearing costumes because I can see right through them." Then, of course, I had a dad who was into this stuff, and he would explain what he knew about it. He didn't professionally do movies, but he was interested enough and had learned enough and had read enough to be able to talk to me about it.
I also remember things changed for me, too, when I picked up a copy of Castle of Frankenstein in maybe 1974, and on the cover was Talos from Jason and the Argonauts. I opened it up and started paging through and I realized, "Hey, this has stuff on most of my favorite movies.” There was even the Hydra, which was a monster I loved. I realized that in that issue there was an interview with Ray Harryhausen, and it went off like a light bulb in my head that there was a person, an artist, who was responsible for these things and that it was a job. It was an actual, viable career.
Up until that point, I just didn't really think about where movies came from or who made the things in the movies, but to see that most of my favorite stuff came from the hands of one individual was really inspiring. That was the moment when I just looked up and said, "I have to do this."
I was initially interested in just being a stop-motion animator. When I was about 19 or 20, I interviewed with Roger Corman, and it was for Battle Beyond the Stars, where I would be making models and miniature landscapes and things like that. I remember talking to my mother about it and saying, "I don't know if I want to take the job because it's not stop-motion." She kind of looked at me and said, "Are you crazy? This is one step closer to what you want to do." That’s when I realized, "Oh God, what am I saying? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes." That's when I started my career, and I haven’t looked back.