Co-founder of Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated, Alec Gillis has been in the film industry for 38 years, creating – with partner Tom Woodruff Jr. – makeup and practical characters and creatures for films such as Tremors, Death Becomes Her, Alien 3, Starship Troopers, Jumanji and It.
Gillis has now written, directed, produced and performed roles in Playtime, a 13-minute short – presented on ADI’s YouTube channel – that explores the question: what becomes of an animatronic star in the digital age?
The protagonist of Playtime is Billy, a ‘Chucky’-like 80’s-era animatronic doll whose hopes of returning to the big screen are raised with Variety’s announcement of a current-day reboot of the ‘Playtime’ horror film franchise. Billy is ready for his closeup – until he learns that his role will be played by a computer-animated character.
I spoke with Gillis about the film’s evolution and message, and where he – and animatronics – fit within today’s movie-making machine.
Writer/director Alec Gillis coaches Billy, the animatronic star of his satirical short film “Playtime,” available to view on the studioADI YouTube channel.
CINEFEX: How did Playtime come about?
GILLIS: A number of things converged to make Playtime happen. After all these years in the business, I’m constantly trying to stay relevant, and it is a challenge, especially as technology changes. So I’m always thinking about that. And then, I started immersing myself in silent films, and looking back at those people who didn’t make the transition to talkies – a subject that is brilliantly portrayed in Sunset Boulevard. There’s another movie, The Comic, about a silent film star who ages and ends up sitting on a park bench.
CINEFEX: As does Billy.
GILLIS: Exactly. The character in The Comic is named ‘Billy Bright,’ and that name stuck with me. I love all those stories of Hollywood, partly because they point out how superficial we all are in the industry, and how we attach so much importance to what we do – which is ultimately just entertaining.
CINEFEX: So your experiences and observations from inside the film industry were the inspiration for this movie.
GILLIS: Yeah – I joke that it’s an autobiography, but in a way, it really is. And then, of course, if it makes a statement about practical effects, which is my first love, and if I can create a character that emotes and even gets some emotion out of the audience, then I’m enforcing the idea that animatronics are still viable as a technique. Those are all the dry reasons I made this movie – but ultimately, I love writing and performing comedy, and I wanted to have some fun with this. I wanted to do something where I would be unfettered by commercial concerns or movie executives.
Watch Playtime on the studioADI YouTube channel:
CINEFEX: You not only wrote, directed and produced Playtime, you are the voice of Billy, and you play the role of movie producer ‘Robert Gorman.’
GILLIS: I really wanted to play that part because I sometimes find myself in a producer role, adopting a producer-like sensibility; and then, Billy is arguing the other side. The dialogue they have during that exchange, the producer explaining why Billy can’t be in the new movie – what Gorman says in that exchange are all paraphrasings of real things that have been said to me by executives. Things like, ‘Reality isn’t inspiring.’ So I loved this character – this producer who has a thin veneer of courtesy, but really, he’s just tolerating you, and he feels as if he is doing you a favor by entertaining your silly little notions of using practical effects.
CINEFEX: ‘Robert Gorman’ – can’t help but think of ‘Roger Corman’ in that name.
GILLIS: It’s a deliberate homage to my old boss, Roger Corman – who, by the way, never had that attitude. But I had to pay homage to him, one way or the other.
CINEFEX: You even wrote and sang the end credits song – ‘Hahahaha Hollywood.’
GILLIS: That was fun. Actually, Ben Brown, who shot the movie, wrote the music, and I wrote the lyrics. I’m always writing dumb rap poetry, usually for my family. But then I thought: ‘Why should I contain my genius to the family? I need to share my gift with the world!’
ADI artist TimLeach crafts the Billy animatronic puppet.
Under the skin of Billy’s mechanical walking rig.
ADI artist Amanda Taggart works with the puppet.
Billy as a work in progress at ADI.
ADI artist Sasha Glasser attends to Billy’s costume.
CINEFEX: And the world thanks you. Tell me about how Billy’s design evolved.
GILLIS: Obviously, he’s a riff on Chucky from Child’s Play, but beyond that I wanted a design that would play to the strengths of animatronics. Rather than come up with a design I fell in love with, and then do anything to build to that design, I decided to come at it from the other direction. What do I need? I need good facial expressions, emoting and performance – and that required a head that was proportionately larger than any real doll’s head. Dave Penikas, our animatronics designer and engineer here, said, ‘As long as you don’t give me a head that’s too small, I’ll be able to give you a beautiful performance.’ So that was the start of the design – this oversized head that would enable us to fit in all the animatronics we needed for a good performance. Then I brought in Tim Martin, who is an excellent sculptor, and he designed Billy’s face based on his own kid.
CINEFEX: When we first see Billy, in the 1980s ‘Playtime’ movie, he’s a pristine looking doll. But when we cut to current-day Billy, he looks very much the worse for wear.
GILLIS: Yes – so we shot all of that beginning, with the kid and the babysitter in the mock Playtime movie, first. And then I went in and jacked up Billy’s look. I glued the eyelids down and made the skin look like it was peeling. I actually used the forehead mold of Pennywise the clown from It on Billy’s forehead, so it would have that cracking, corroded look. And then I painted him with a kind of Norma Desmond-ish makeup, making him look as ghastly as I could.
CINEFEX: There is so much expression in Billy’s face – that must have been a fairly sophisticated piece of animatronic machinery.
GILLIS: It was, but it was mounted on top of a cable-articulated body, which was not a particularly sophisticated bit of machinery. I knew we needed his face to perform and emote, but that his body could be a little funky. It was okay if the body looked like a cheap animatronic. So we built the body in a very simple way, but the face was very complex and realistic.
Alec Gillis and puppeteer Mike West put Billy’s cable control system through its paces.
CINEFEX: In the movie, there are three people puppeteering him – was that the actual number?
GILLIS: Yeah, it was – Dave Penikas, Mike West and Zac Teller, and they all worked on the build, as well. Dave was in charge of the head, with assistance from Mike West; and then Mike was in charge of the motion control system, where I pre-recorded all of Billy’s facial performance. Normally, we do facial functions live so the performance can be directed by the director. But in this case, since I was the director, I just blocked out the scene in my mind and did some rough storyboards, and then I preprogrammed all the facial expressions. We had complete control over the eyes, brows, cheeks, and there was even a little animation in his hair, so the wig could move back and forth. And then, Mike West preprogrammed all the lip-synch animation.
CINEFEX: Even though the point of the film was to use practical effects, there must have been some visual effects necessary.
GILLIS: We had a couple of visual effects shots. One was when it is revealed that Billy is watching his old movie – he walks up to the television set, and his reflection is in the TV, and the image degrades to look like VHS static. Andrew Ceperley did those shots. There were also visual effects shots for the little greenscreen demo you see on a kid’s iPad, and in a shot of girls outside a convention hall, screaming ‘Billy, we love you!’ Those shots were done by Stephen Norrington, my old buddy who directed Blade and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He thought the project was a hoot, and so he wanted to help out.
CINEFEX: Any visual effects required for Billy operator paint-outs?
GILLIS: No, we always just framed them out – except for those moments where I wanted to show them for comedic effect.
Puppeteers Mike West and Zachary Teller with Billy on the ADI stage.
CINEFEX: At the end of the movie, Billy discovers that there is still a place for him in the film industry – that there are fans of what he represents.
GILLIS: That’s autobiographical as well. Because there are a lot of fans of practical creature effects, and there is no reason to have a knee-jerk negative response to all things digital – because digital frees you. I wish fans of practical effects would embrace the overlap between the digital and the practical. There’s nothing wrong with CGI; it’s just that techniques should always be used to their strengths, no matter what the technique is. I wanted to end the movie with a message about the practical and the digital coming together.
CINEFEX: Do you have plans to enter Playtime into any film festivals?
GILLIS: I haven’t done that. I did this primarily for Studio ADI’s channel on YouTube. It was kind of a gift to fans of practical effects.
CINEFEX: Thank you, Alec.