I recently had the chance to chat with special effects whizz Tom Woodruff Jr. While you may not know they name, you’ll definitely know his work. Tom is an Academy Award winning SFX designer and over the years he’s helped create the stunning visual effects featured in the likes of The Terminator, Pumpkinhead and Jumanji just to name a few. What’s more, he’s played the iconic Xenomorph alien in every sci-fi sequel since James Cameron’s Aliens. With 2011’s The Thing remake arriving on DVD and Blu-Ray today, I quizzed Tom on how he went about creating the movie’s dazzling creature effects.
Were you a huge fan of John Carpenter’s movie?
Absolutely. By the time I saw it I had just arrived in California to hopefully start my career and there was everything already in a movie that I’d ever wanted to do – make up, amazing animatronics and creature effects so absolutely it was a real eye-opener,
Rob Bottin’s (SFX designer on Carpenter’s movie) effects were pretty groundbreaking. Was there a lot of pressure going into the project to live up to those expectations and get it right?
Of course, there’s a lot of pressure, especially in the creature world and creature effects. It’s funny, we talked to a lot of fans who are absolutely reverent about the work in that movie and then we asked them a little further, ‘have you seen it recently?’ and they finally reluctantly say ‘well there are a few things that are now dated,’ but the thing is there are certain movies that will achieve…I want to say a cult level but it’s even more deep than that it’s almost like it becomes such a classic that some of the attributes of the filmmaking process at the time are just part of the movie now and what might be perceived as shortcomings today are as loved as the movie itself. To further riff on that idea, I think if Rob Bottin was doing those things today a lot of the aspects of this film would be enhanced, I think he’d embrace some of the tools that we have today that we didn’t have then like digital rod removal or digital rig removal or manipulation of images. It’s stunning.
Obviously this is a prequel, how much freedom did you have in designing the creatures?
Well, you know Rob’s creatures and John Carpenters theme is that we don’t know what the creature looks like, it was constantly changing and out of that huge borage of visuals that Bottin created there’s a general flavour and a general feeling that what was happening is not a specific image so in that regard that became our goal. Our goal was to not specifically duplicate something that we’d seen in Carpenter’s version but to capture that flavour and that general feeling and context of where we were going
The creature in the ice block has an insect-like feel to it, what were your main influences?
Honestly we had designed the initial appearance of the creature which is when The Thing has broken out and they find it underneath one of the rigs outside in the snow and so we just sort of back tracked from there. We kept certain aspects, we duplicated some of the claws and some of the big legs and we just thought it was a great place to start, you know, a kind of insect-y science fiction creature,
Obviously visual effects are key in this movie – was there an intentional push towards practical effects?
Well there certainly was, when we started the project everyone was excited and on board for doing everything we could do practically and enhancing where we could enhance with digital work. So to that end we built a number of animatronics puppets and did make up effects and then we were going to rely on aspects of digital postproduction to supplement them. For example when the Edvard creature bends over backwards and his arms and legs are falling off we created this very articulated silicone skin – this beautiful, absolutely gorgeous human being puppet where the neck could stretch and it was fully articulated but we didn’t bother to create the limbs because we let the idea be that that is something that’s going to constantly change on set we’d allow that to be a digital element. The creature legs that were erupting from the body are always in a constant state of evolution so it seemed much more practical for that to be a visual element and then we would just puppeteer the creature’s torso and do the performance of the whole body and head and then let the animators goin
Roughly how long does a creature like that take to create?
It was very elaborate and what people don’t realise is that our techniques have continued to improve over the years, as have our materials and electronics. Maybe it’s not to the extent of the development of soft wear and hard wear but we’re certainly still moving forward so it allows us to do a lot more. Everything we built on The Thing I think we did it in three and a half months which is unusual, I mean in the really golden years of practical effects throughout the late eighties and nineties we would get schedules of five months to create an equally complicated show and now it’s been shortened to account for film time
Another one of the most memorable sequences is the melded face. Was that difficult to create?
Well the initial scene was the same torso puppet that had the ability to bend down and stretch his neck and mesh against the actor and then it was a cut away and when they cut back it was a digital replacement of the two faces melding and actually forming and conjoining as the creature was driving everyone out of the room. When we next see it in the description we had an animatronic fake version where both the heads were connected and it was suppose to evoke the same image of the creature that McCreedy finds in the Carpenter movie. So I think that was one element that we were really trying to duplicate so there was some follow through. But again it was a beautiful puppet with a two completely articulated heads that were on separate neck mechanisms so that they could press together and pull and stretch and we had this wonderful webbing skin in the scene and it was all very visceral and flexible and translucent. It was a really great puppet
How many creature suits were used? Was the torso that splits in two in the helicopter scene a creature suit?
That was a combination of obviously the actor and some digital manipulation so when the actor sat up we duplicated his moves and we built a rig – a duplicate of the actor that was articulated. It split open and had claws and pincers and everything when it opened up and the plan was to, in postproduction, add a bustle of digital components that lash out at the inside of the helicopter. So that was something that was done as a combination of practical and digital effects and I was operating the bust and I was able to see with video goggles inside the pre shot footage of the actors so I knew what their movements and transitions would be
Fire is a big part of this movie. Was fireproofing the designs important?
No because a lot of the materials we use are pretty much fire proof. Silicone and some of the plastics – we used other materials that needed fireproof versions but there were only a certain number of characters that were ever exposed to fire so they were built specifically for that reason
Looking back, which effects did you find the hardest to pull off?
Well the most complicated one, I think, was the whole Edvard / Adam creature where Edvard first overtakes Adam’s body because that was a complicated puppet…I think there were 9 puppeteers involved and we had to basically recreate his movements as he walked across the floor without the benefit of seeing where the limbs were going to touch or be placed but we just came up with our thing and trusted that the digital artists would pick up on that and supplement it to make it look real but that was probably the most complicated effect
Which one are you most proud of?
It’s funny because the one I’m most proud of is the one that’s probably on screen for the shortest amount of time and that’s the Griggs character in the helicopter because it’s such a simple effect. I love doing simple effects, running an effect before a specific camera set up and knowing that as long as the camera is within the realm of what the plan is it’s very effective and when you have the benefit of everything happening right there on set with the blood and viscera and slime and all that visual impact – it’s like it’s really happening.
It must be great seeing all that play out live…
It’s great, the behind the scenes footage is fantastic because it’s so real!
Is there anything the director wanted that couldn’t be done?
I think everything can be done these days. I think it’s part of the problem, in general as an audience I think we see so much that it’s starting to become kind of dull and not as special as it use to be. Special effects are now sort of mundane. I’m not knocking anybodies work, I just mean in terms of how much we’re exposed to and not just in movies, in our daily lives in the incredible gaming images that we see and some of the other aspects of online artwork. It’s become more and more difficult and I don’t think the answer is to show more and bigger and kind of overpower the audience I think we’ve reached the tipping point where we’re baring out the rules that less is more. I’m more drawn to films that embody that practice. I would much rather see a story that uses effects because of the story and the characters and not have to rely on digital effects but know that visual effects are going to be present. They have to deliver the impact before you can shock someone.
Interview by Simon Bland.