Harbinger Down 2014
Saving a cinema art form one Practical Effects Master at a time
Harbinger Down is an upcoming American independent science-fiction monster horror film written and directed by Alec Gillis and produced by Tom Woodruff, Jr.; the founders of the special effects studio Amalgamated Dynamics (ADI).
A group of grad students have booked passage on the fishing trawler Harbinger to study the effects of global warming on a pod of Orcas in the Bering Sea. When the ship's crew dredges up a recently thawed piece of old Soviet space wreckage, things get downright deadly. One of the crew members has disappeared. The ship's captain, Gaff, and crew member Atka go down to the engine room to search for him. The crew member is no where to be found . . . and then all hell breaks loose.
It seems that the Russians experimented with tardigrades, tiny resilient animals able to withstand the extremes of space radiation. The creatures survived, but not without mutation. Now the crew is exposed to aggressively mutating organisms. And after being locked in ice for 3 decades, the creatures aren't about to give up the warmth of human companionship.
Funded by fan donations through Kickstarter, the film will feature exclusively practical creature effects created by ADI through the use of animatronics, prosthetic makeup, stop motion and miniature effects, as opposed to the use of computer generated imagery. In 2010, Amalgamated Dynamics was hired by Universal Studios to create the practical special effects for the 2011 The Thing prequel.
However before the film was released, the majority of ADI's effects work on the film was digitally replaced in post production by computer generated imagery. This decision was upsetting to the crew of Amalgamated Dynamics, as this was not the first film of theirs where they had found their work replaced.
After the release of The Thing, in response to fan queries about what became of ADI's effects for the film, Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. uploaded a behind-the-scenes video to Youtube which showcased their original practical effects prior to their replacement.
According to Gillis and Woodruff, the video received such an overwhelmingly positive response that it inspired them to create a Youtube Channel which would feature their archived videos of creature effects from throughout their career. These videos not only went on to receive similar praise, but promote requests for Amalgamated Dynamics to launch a Kickstarter campaign to create fund their own independent horror film.
Around this time Amalgamated Dynamics had been collaborating with Stan Winston's son Matt Winston on the creation of the Stan Winston School of Character Arts, and it was under his suggestion that ADI launched it's Kickstarter campaign. Gillis agreed, seeing it as an opportunity to bypass the studio system which had been compromising their work in the past.
Gillis said, "Honestly, we were resistant to it at first, so it wasn’t until I looked around my shop and saw an empty facility that I realized we were actually at the mercy of studios that didn’t actually care about our techniques anymore. They view it as a commodity and a product, and they’ve corporatised the structure of creating art and in the end it all becomes disposable. That’s not how the fans see our work."
On May 8, 2013, Alec Gillis began a Kickstarter drive for Harbinger Down, advertising the film as being a monster horror film that was, "in the spirit of two of the greatest sci-fi/horror films of all time, ALIEN and THE THING". The project would feature only practical techniques to create the films monsters, including the use of animatronics, prosthetic makeup, stop motion and miniature effects, with the films creatures featuring no digital animation outside of rod/rig removal and digital compositing.
With a budget goal of $350,000, the film would have Lance Henriksen attached to star, composers Joel McNeely and Michael Larrabee creating the musical score, and would also feature the efforts of Oscar nominated model builders Pat McClung, Robert Skotak and Dennis Skotak.
By 7 June 2013 Amalgamated Dynamics had successfully raised $367,000 allowing production to begin. Gillis' stated that while the money raised by the campaign would be sufficient to fund the "nuts and bolts" of the film, the films special effects would have to be created at Gillis and Woodruff's own expense due to the films low budget.
Lance Henriksen: "I've done the green tennis ball [CGI film shooting], there is no difference because when I did theater, we had no money so we painted everything black, put a chair in the middle of the stage, and did a play. So it never bothered me that it was black or green. But it isn't pleasant, and movies don't have language, a movie is all reaction.
So how much can you react to a tennis ball? They always cut it right on an acting mood, like a melodrama, and then SPECTACLE. I feel about spectacle, by it's own nature, is self-defeating. I always thought CG was going to be only things you couldn't do any other way. Like poetry, poetry is always concise and tight, and not spectacle. Let it serve us, but not take us over."
Michael Estime ("Dock"): "My experience working on this movie was amazing. Just to learn, so many things behind it, because I've done little roles, but I was just so in awe I was here. I thought, 'Oh my god, I'm doing a movie, wow, and posted it on Twitter, sweet!' But now I've felt as like a professional, meaning, I was taking everything, I was absorbing it from Alec. I walked through the gallery and I saw - 'Hey that's Predator, that's Terminator 2, that's Alien, who the hell is this guy.
And then I looked at his Kickstarter and I thought wow. Because I thought this was going to be a short film, low budget, but it's going to be allright. But then coming in and seeing the quality of work, the quality of actors, the time and preparation, and the set itself, this is not a stupid film on USC like I thought it was going to be. This is the real deal. Lot of love going on here."