Terminator, Predator, Aliens, Tremors, Pumpkinhead, Starship Troopers. These are just a few of the many creatures special effects/makeup wizard Tom Woodruff Jr. has conjured up during his career. He has been creating some of cinema history’s most memorable characters for over three decades and his latest work is featured in the indie horror/drama The Monster. Tom was nice enough to speak with Unger the Radar. Here’s how that conversation went:
So you have been in the creature business for quite a long time now. How did you first get into the field?
Well – and I can tell you that Alec’s story is very similar – I grew up on the East Coast. Alec grew up on the West Coast, right around the same time we were 8 years old, 9 years old, and just loving monster movies. Alec always told a story about how as soon as he learned Harryhausen was the guy behind the animation of all his favorite movies, he totally fell in love with the idea of being a monster maker. For me, it was the old Universal monster movies that I would find on TV that made me think that’s what I wanted to do, and there was never anything else that ever kind of competed for my attention.
And you got right into the Universal spirit with Monster Squad.
Yeah, that was great. It was great, and it was this wonderful Shane Black script and Fred Dekker directing, and being able to do all those monsters I grew up with was a real blast.
So out of all the monsters that you grew up with, do you have a particular favorite?
I do. The ones that kind of brought me into this world, I always comment on the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Oh wow, yeah.
I always thought it was the coolest monster, the coolest man in the suit. It was – I thought – way ahead of its time. I think there are aspects of it today that are still very effective and very successful.
Well, you know, I really hope they do a remake and that you are the man behind those effects.
Well, I tell you what. Go off somewhere, become a multi-millionaire, and then we’ll get this thing done. (laughs)
Okay! I’ll do my best. What attracts you to science-fiction horror?
Well, in general for me, those are the genres that openly embrace monsters, and whether the monster is the Alien, which is definitely science-fiction, or whether it is more of the Predator, which is less science-fiction and more horror. To me, anything that’s got some creepy, scary, deadly force – a creature character force – in it, I’m all in.
Nice. What makes a good monster movie?
In my opinion, a great monster is made from the story. I think to just have a big monster fest, I find that I get pretty bored with those now, and I don’t know if it’s because of my crazy advanced age or the fact that there’s so much stuff out there today. You know, I look at the online presence of so many artists and so many fans and so much creativity that to me, it’s really overwhelming in a way. There’s so much stuff out there now, and to just present it that way as opposed to – I think monsters really come to life when they are in stories or video games or whatever their realm is if it integrates them into an emotional story, I think is the most important part.
Okay, great. Tell me a little bit about your creative process. What goes into the thought process of creating these bizarre creatures that leap off the screen?
Well, for us, it’s like there is the perfect approach, which is the one I’m going to tweet about, where we are given a script, and we have the opportunity to talk to the director, and we kind of get his thoughts. Not kind of, I mean, we really get his thoughts and his ideas on what the picture is all about and what he wants to see of the monster. The more information he gives us, the better, and then we can kind of sit and cull through all of that on our own, and we will do an exploratory period where we produce not finished art that is ready to go on the movie poster, but it’s almost like a concept where it is so loose and subjective. In a way, it’s almost like we show them a lot of silhouettes of different kinds of creatures to get a feeling for it, like a Rorschach blot test, and find out what is really appealing to them and then we slowly build up from there and we create things. I mean, we’ll do flat art, we’ll do digital art, we’ll do sculptures, we’ll do 3D sculptures, and to me, the tools are not as important as getting to a feeling that he can understand. Unfortunately, the way that it doesn’t work so well and the way that is really being followed today is the studios will go to some sort of outsource design, and they’ll have a bunch of concept work produced, and then they will come to us, and they will hold this stuff very dearly in their hands because they spent money on it. They say, “This is what the creature has to look like,” and at that point, it’s a little bit of tying our hands creatively because we don’t have the option now to fine-tune things to the story or towards what we understand the director’s needs are, and we still do the best we can. We still make some pretty cool creatures that way, but it’s not quite a cohesive or as clean a through line as if we’re brought in from the very beginning.
So how do you get through that barrier of the director having his vision and you have your vision? How do you kind of just mesh? Is it a rocky relationship?
No, never at all. In fact, we’re big believers in the autonomy of the director. We still think the director is such an important part of the process that we will defer to him, and even in situations where – I can give you an example. On Alien: Resurrection, wonderful director Jean-Pierre Jeunet wanted the final third-act creature, this newborn creature that was going to erupt out of the belly of the queen, he wanted it to have eyes, and we talked to him at length and said you know, this is sort of breaking a very strong pretense in that the alien has never had visible eyes. We never knew how the alien found his intended victim, and the director would counter and say, “Well, this is something new,” and we told him, “You know, we’ll do the best job we can with it, but we weren’t really thinking that the audience will kind of be keen,” but at that point, we’re part of the director’s crew of bringing his ideas to life. We will certainly challenge directors and certainly answer director’s questions, but we’ve never gotten to a point where it’s ever been an argument or a rocky situation.
That’s good. Yeah, because I’ve heard working with James Cameron can be kind of an intense experience. How was working on Aliens?
It was fantastic. In my history, I was working with Stan Winston earlier on Terminator, and Jim was such a driving force, and he was so creative. It wasn’t like you were questioning the decisions, but it was the execution of those directions, and he had such a razor-sharp attention and focus on every aspect, every detail, and once Terminator was complete and it became a huge hit and then we were going back to work again on Aliens, I remember thinking that it was going to be a tremendously rough job on set, but at the end of the day, it was going to be an amazing movie. So that’s the balance that makes it all worth it.
I’ll tell you that the Alien Queen is probably one of the most memorable creatures ever put on screen, and I just want to thank you for that movie.
And that’s great, and that’s very nice to hear, and certainly a lot of that thanks belongs to Jim Cameron and Stan Winston and the rest of the crew. But you’re right in the thing that made that, again, what made that so fantastic, all of the decisions made from the way it was lit and the way it was presented and the way it was first revealed to the action, and that’s sort of a good example of highlighting what I was saying about the monster standing on its own. In some environments, it doesn’t do anything for me. It’s the build-up and the excitement and the anticipation and suspense that makes it all work.
And that brings us, fast-forward thirty years, to The Monster now, your newest film. How did you get involved with this project?
This is really cool. We like to do these little seek-and-destroy missions that come along where it’s quick and it’s small and it’s under-the-radar, and every once in a while, we will get a situation like this with the monster where it’s just so totally engaging. First of all, Alec was already into Bryan Bertino’s work, and he kind of turned me on to The Strangers, and I loved it. I just loved – to me, as a monster maker, I love it when a director and a storyteller can get so much suspense out of something before we even see what it is. You couldn’t ask for a better arena to play in, so we were all for it, and the script was wonderful, and Bryan had a couple of sketches of what he wanted the creature to look like, and it wasn’t a case where the studios had gone and spent money and had some high-end digital artist work for months. It was some pencil sketches he did and then with his description when we met with him of what he wanted to do, it was very easy to understand, and he had a very effective approach at getting this monster on screen.
Kind of going back to Alien: Resurrection, I don’t think this creature had eyes as well, am I correct?
No, actually, and this is interesting because very early on, he was very adamant about making sure he had these bright, very reflective eyes, and I think where it may have been lost to you is that the creatures’ appearances are so quick and so brief and startling, and you never get a chance to get this loving look at the creature because the creature was definitely not built to sustain that kind of attention. He was built again with Bryan’s input, from the point of view of Bryan, knowing exactly what he needed, and it had to be that tight because the budget didn’t give us the time and the money to build and shoot this thing in any other way than to get all of the pieces exactly right.
And it works beautifully.
Thank you, that’s so nice to hear. We loved – Alec and I saw it at a film festival out here in Hollywood when we first saw it in a full theater of people, and it’s wonderful. It’s just so revitalizing to get the feeling of the monster first before you reveal the monster.
And so beautifully revealed.
Yeah, because most of your movies, most of your monster movies, you see the creature in the whole body pretty quick early on in the film, but this, you know, it’s an hour or so into it, that’s when you really get the first glimpse, so I think it was kind of a change of pace for you guys. Am I wrong?
It is certainly a change of pace for most of the movies we work on, and again, I’m not going to bite the hand that feeds us. I love those movies. I love every opportunity. For me, from where my senses lay, I love the big movies, but I prefer seeing something like this once in a while, just to break it up. Also, because there is more of an intensity to this I think because this story was all about this woman and her daughter and not just them personally but this tragically messed up relationship between them. That, to me, resonates on a much more personal level than oh shit, these aliens are coming through a rift in space, and they’re going to destroy the world. That’s become so big and that becomes an adventure, and that’s great, but I don’t want to spend all my time on the roller coaster. Sometimes, I want to get in the spooky, scary haunted house and get some scares that way, so I think they all survive in the same world, but they are definitely grabbing at different parts of the psyche.
Right, you get the thrills but in smaller doses.
Yeah, so to compete with the less-than-grand scope of a bigger movie, you have to make the intensity of that emotional contact more intense. (laughs) I just said you have to make the intensity more intense. Can you add some more words? And the other thing we wanted to say about loving a project this size is being able to work with a guy like Bryan is so refreshing. It really helps give balance to the scope of projects that we’re working on from day to day.
I hear you. It’s a great movie, and I hope it gets the attention it deserves. It’s not a big blockbuster, but it’s still a quality film nonetheless. So what do you have next? Anything new with Amalgamated Dynamics?
We’re working right now on a movie called Bright for Netflix, which is about a lot of creature make-up in it, which has been really cool and great because it is shooting here in Los Angeles, which is a very rare occasion these days. We’re also at work building the creatures for the next Predator movie that Shane Black is going to be directing.
So were you responsible for the original film creature effects, the design of the creature?
That was all Stan Winston, and I worked on the show. There were a bunch of us working there at the time, so I didn’t go on set, but it was great to just be there and seeing it all come together and knowing that it was going to be a very cool monster.
Very nice. One of my favorite characters, favorite villains of all time. Side note, are you familiar with Todd McFarlane?
He has taken a lot of your characters and then brought them to life, like little statues. I don’t know if you’ve seen his action figures of Movie Maniacs. He’s done Alien, Predator, Terminator, RoboCop, all that fun stuff, and I don’t know what your relationship is with him or if you have a relationship.
I have been in touch with him, and yeah, his work has always been phenomenal. It’s always been the best at this stuff and then there’s also, we’ve been working too with Sideshow Collectibles, which is a much higher-end version of collectibles. But in terms of realism and attention to detail, it just blows us away. It’s been great.
That’s great. Well, I hope you continue making beautiful art. You’ve done so for a while now, and you’re just going to do more in the future. I just have one question here, last question, what advice do you have for aspiring special effects artists?
That’s a good question. It’s a tough question to answer because things are always kind of evolving, and it used to be so easy to say that you have to plan on transplanting to LA, but that’s not the case anymore. There are some great artists at work in parts of the country and other parts of the world and the scope of work is always changing, so it’s tough I think for some of these artists. It’s certainly not a full-time occupation like it used to be, and it’s because there are so many more people involved and because the art is so accessible now. People are creating their own personas online with the kind of art they can deliver, and there’s still a lot of work out there, but there are so many artists available for it now, so it’s a really interesting point of time to see how it’s all going to shake down and how many people are going to be able to get to that point in their career that we all hope to.
And I’m sure you serve as a strong inspiration for a lot of those young people.
I hope so! I don’t have that self-awareness. I still think of my heroes when I was growing up that are sadly no longer with us, like Ray Harryhausen, Stan Winston, and John Chambers, and it’s weird to think that I’m now in the position that they were when I would write letters to them when I was thirteen or fourteen years old, and I remember, you know, they had the same problem with answering questions like how do I get into the business because it’s sort of the kind of thing you have to just experience.
Alright, so I have another last question. So with movies like Avatar and motion capture technology gaining more and more popular, do you find it more difficult to work in that current movie environment?
We find it difficult to get producers to value our techniques without seeing them as old-fashioned or old school. We’ve made tremendous advances in the technology, the materials, and the application of what we do, but they’re not really as cool and sexy as the latest CGI thing to come out, and there’s plenty of huge box office examples because of how great that production pipeline works. It’s basically throw everything into the CG world and just do it in post-production, so we’re always up against having to try to re-prove ourselves with every job.
Wow. Sounds challenging.
Yeah, it is, and in fact, thinking back, if I could ask you to give us a plug –
We have a channel on YouTube. The channel is just called Studio ADI. It’s very easy to find on YouTube, but there are hundreds of videos that we put up there of the kind of work that we do before it gets altered or changed or cut from the movies, and I hope that we can put something up there on The Monster after it finishes its run. We have to wait until the movie is out and people have had a chance to see it, but that’d be a great place for your readers and your followers to visit once in a while and get an idea of the scope of things that are created for these movies.
Sure, it’s Studio ADI. It’s on YouTube, right?
That’s correct, yeah.
Okay, cool. Well, that about does it for now. If you’re ever in New York City, we’d love to have you if you could do another interview and just want to thank you for your time, Tom. This was awesome.