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Q&A: Tom Woodruff Jr. talks “HARBINGER DOWN” and Practical FX

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Though you may not recognize his face, you would most certainly recognize the work of legendary FX artist and creature performer Tom Woodruff Jr. A protege of Stan Winston and the head of practical FX house StudioADI, Woodruff has been Pumpkinhead, a Xenomorph, Gillman and more gorillas than you can count, all the while crafting movie magic behind the camera as well. But rarely has a project been as personal to Woodruff than HARBINGER DOWN, a practical FX-driven creature feature produced by StudioADI and starring Woodruff’s ALIENS collaborator, Lance Henriksen. With the film hitting select theaters soon, FANGORIA caught up with Woodruff  to talk about HARBINGER DOWN, the revival of practical FX and pulling it all off on a Kickstarter budget…

FANGORIA: One of the things I’ve heard about the film is, at least on a conceptual level, HARBINGER DOWN was born out of frustrations with what was practically built for THE THING (2011). Is this true?

TOM WOODRUFF JR.: I think those are dots that aren’t really connected. Certainly, fantastic things have come out of frustration, at least speaking for Alec and myself. But as for the creature stuff, what happened on THE THING (2011) was so artistically disappointing for us. It wasn’t necessarily devastating but it was disappointing. But what was a real game-changer was that the same disappointment was shared with all of these people who should have been fans of the movie we worked on.

They were there waiting to be impressed, and were waiting to jump back into the storyline of THE THING (1982). And since those decisions [to go from practical to digital FX] was made all too public, and how those effects were alternately achieved, that negated [their anticipation]. So if it was just our frustration, it wouldn’t serve us to just go into the next movie and throw our weight around to say, “We’re only going to do practical monsters and no one can touch it with CGI.” That’s just not going to happen.

But there was a deeper frustration in realizing that the only way to turn that ship around was to take the reigns as directors in a hands-on way creatively, and that’s exactly what Alec did. He developed HARBINGER DOWN, he wrote it and he directed it.

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FANGORIA: What was the experience like doing FX for a Kickstarter production as opposed to something like a studio job or even a bigger indie production, comparatively?

WOODRUFF: The big difference was that we were invested in HARBINGER DOWN as our own project and on creative terms. There’s nothing much different for us to work within a certain budget and a certain time-frame; that’s almost what we live and die by when we create creatures. But I’ve told so many producers that when we work on a movie like ALIEN VS. PREDATOR where we’re managing 95 artists in our shop, it’s not a big leap to go from keeping track of 95 artists working on monster to keeping track of a full crew on a movie set. That aspect has really been born out of the experience we’ve had over the years of commanding these crews and keeping everything flowing in the right direction.

In terms of big studio films, the difference is that there’s more time on set to perfect every little set, and that sometimes becomes a negative because you’ll perfect things to a point where you realize that there may be more than one way to make something work. I think there’s a window that something can work in, so you really have to know when you’re in that zone and you can still use the rest of the time in your day to achieve everything else.

FANGORIA: It certainly seems that filmmaking nowadays has really opened a lot of opportunities for SFX and VFX artists as creative forces in terms of directing and producing. Why do you think this shift has become so prominent?

WOODRUFF: Well, I think it’s like a pendulum, swinging from one direction to the other. And for the longest time, that pendulum has been swinging in the direction of digital FX, and to be fair, we don’t tell people that we hate all digital FX because we’re not cavemen throwing rocks at the wheel. We understand the value of CGI, but we also understand the value it serves the overall film as well as a particular effect.

You can take a look at movies that aren’t more than a few years old and look at their digital FX, and for all the marvel that they had in their original moment, they don’t hold up as well. That’s not discounting all CGI; certainly, Peter Jackson and Jim Cameron have it down, and as for the Marvel movies, nothing can be done better than CG because that’s how those stories are told. But what practical FX artists are saying that there are other stories that can be told and different ways to tell them, and I do think that’s because the fans started saying they were tired of an all-digital approach.

Soon enough, they encouraged us to get into directing, and the studios were the only hold-outs, but that only engaged us. I don’t even blame the studios since I know they’re corporations and they’re driven by the law of business. I don’t think anyone at the studios are deciding consciously to not do practical FX or that they don’t understand practical FX. But I think it’s hard to get a machine like that back on board after something else had seemed to been working so well.

FANGORIA: Considering that audiences and platforms are changing for horror films in the digital age, what was the most important thing to capture in the FX of HARBINGER DOWN?

WOODRUFF: My goal, right now as it has been for years, is to present something deeper in the FX, as if it’s deeper in emotionality. I think we’re better equipped to capture the emotion of a story moment with practical FX than digital FX can achieve. I think digital FX still resonates of the world of video games, where there are spectacular images and so much going on; hell, part of the fun of video games is that your senses are overloaded. But I don’t think that’s the best thing for telling a story with emotional content, so for me on something like HARBINGER DOWN, it’s about capturing an emotional depth. That’s why I find myself completely drawn to stories, my own or otherwise, as well as to different types of story elements that I can make more interesting or memorable. After all, nobody sees a movie just once anymore.

HARBINGER DOWN, directed by Alec Gillis and produced by Tom Woodruff Jr., hits select theaters on August 7th, followed by a VOD/DVD release on September 1st. Keep an eye out for more from Woodruff, as well as his directorial debut FIRE CITY, here at FANGORIA.com.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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