Update, June 11, 2013: On the last day of the project’s funding period, June 7, Harbinger Down: A Practical Creature FX Film was completely funded. To date ADI has raised $384,181, or 109 percent of the goal target. Gillis said in the article below that they expect to be filming within six months.
Since its creation in 2009, the crowd-funding website Kickstarter has provided financial backing for a wide range of creative projects, from video games and short films to comics and books. On May 8, 2013, Alec Gillis, co-founder of Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. or ADI, launched a Kickstarter campaign for Harbinger Down: A Practical Creature FX Film. Written and directed by Gillis and produced by his partner, Tom Woodruff Jr., the project promises to feature only practical animatronic and make-up effects. With a $350,000 funding goal, it’s ambitious by Kickstarter standards but laughably modest when compared to similar Hollywood fare.
The seeds for Harbinger Down were planted over the last year or so, as the ADI team found themselves criticized for their work on the recent prequel to The Thing, where much of their ambitious practical-effects work was replaced with substandard digital elements. To show what the original work looked like, Gillis and Woodruff posted a five-minute video online and were stunned by the positive response. Test footage of the original Green Goblin from Spider-Man followed, as well as early concept work for Ridley Scott’s vision of I Am Legend, and the response was equally enthusiastic. “With each of these videos,” notes Gillis, “people were saying, ‘Why do studios choose CGI over what you do? Is it more expensive?’ and we would explain that it was actually six times cheaper. For big studios to ignore a craft that’s been around since the beginning of cinema in favor of another craft with its own limitations is just wrong.
“At the same time, people kept saying, ‘You’ve got to do something on Kickstarter!’ which we were resistant to at first, because it looked like it was for people who wanted to get their short films made or whatever, but then I started seeing names like Phil Tippett, David Fincher and Charlie Kaufman on Kickstarter. And then the Veronica Mars film happened, so I didn’t want anybody mistaking me for a Hollywood bigshot with a ton of personal wealth who was asking the fans to give him more money, because that’s distasteful to me.
“But it wasn’t until I looked around my shop and saw an empty facility, while I was getting emails every day from my loyal crew people saying, ‘What’s happening? Is there any work coming in?’ that I realized that we were the antithesis of the Hollywood bigwigs. We were actually at the mercy of the studios that don’t actually care about our techniques anymore. They don’t care about us or about the fans, so why should we continue to play the game while our art form dies a whimpering death at the hands of these dispassionate corporate studio functionaries?
“Anyway, the convergence of all these different things made us think maybe we could just skip the studios. Instead of saying, ‘Hey, can we have a small sliver of your next big feature?’ and instead of waiting for table scraps, why don’t we just cook the meal ourselves? We could go directly to the fans, and if they want to see a movie like Harbinger Down, they would let us know by pledging, so that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Not all crowd-funding endeavors are so ambitious; in fact many of them are downright reasonable. For Jason Barnett, who was working on Charlie Gemora: Genius Monkeyman, a documentary about the legendary ape-actor/artist/designer, the bar was set at a modest $9,000. His final funding total was $10,600, or 117 percent of his goal target. “It’s always a fine line,” notes Barnett. “You don’t want to be obnoxious, but you are trying to raise money and find an audience to support your project, so you have to be aggressive about it. I think people ultimately respect that and say, ‘OK, this is a really good project; now it’s time to donate some money!’”
To keep the momentum going, Barnett asked industry people including Bob Burns and Rick Baker for their endorsements. “You need to target people you have connections with,” he explains, “so they can pass things on to the people they know. Fortunately, I had already completed a few interviews for the documentary, one of which was with Rick Baker, so that was a great help, having Rick’s name attached to the project and that helped get people to donate money.” (continued below)
Another successful Kickstarter was make-up/creature effects veteran Kevin McTurk, who was trying to launch his Gothic puppet tale, The Mill at Calder’s End. Modestly budgeted at $32,000, his ultimate tally was more than $65,000 (203 percent of his goal). “I think part of the strength of my campaign was I was in touch with a bunch of people with built-in audiences of their own,” he says. “That included Mike Mignola, who was a big supporter of the project and contributed T-shirt designs; and [artist] Guy Davis, who had just worked on Pacific Rim and did some concept-design work for this project as well, so I had all these great people helping me along the way.”
McTurk had wanted to do a follow-up to his 2012 atmospheric short film The Narrative of Victor Karloch, so Kickstarter was a valid, if somewhat nerve-wracking, alternative for raising money. “You feel a bit like a little kid who has set up a lemonade stand and said, ‘OK, I’m ready!’ but you don’t know if you’re even going to make five dollars, so it’s very daunting at first. I’m glad Alec got that initial burst of money out of the gate, because the first couple of days can really help set the precedent. People see that it’s caught on, as opposed to a project that has been open for a few days and there’s no activity. I think if people see some momentum, they definitely jump in.”
Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing proposition: If a project doesn’t reach its goal in time, the creator gets nothing, which can lead to a few sleepless nights. “My project wasn’t fully funded until the last 24 to 28 hours,” recalls make-up artist Mike Spatola, who was trying to raise $16,700 to fund The Monstrous Make-up Manual: Book 2 (he ultimately earned $18,031). “The funny thing is, if something is successful on Kickstarter, people will keep throwing money at it, but if it looks like it’s not going to get funded, they won’t, which is weird, because they have nothing to lose.
“During the first couple of days, I guess you get what you would call your ‘warm market,’ where your family and friends jump in, but it eventually becomes the cold market: people who don’t know you quite so well, or maybe they have my first book but aren’t ready to jump in yet. In the last day or two, I was wondering if it was going to happen, and suddenly it took off, which was a big relief, so it was a total nail-biter. You try to put it out of your head, but you can’t help checking all the time, so it was an interesting process.”
Once a project has been fully funded, when does production begin? While Gillis is still awaiting a final verdict, he already has a timetable in mind. “We probably want to hit the ground running,” he confirms, “but having said that, we only had three months to build all of the creature effects for The Thing, so my crew would probably kill me if I turned around and said, ‘You have three months to build everything!’ I think Rob Bottin had a year and a half on the original Thing and there was love and ingenuity in those effects, so I want to take the time to handcraft the effects on this film.
“I would say we would probably want to be shooting six months after we are funded. We can certainly start our location scouting and set building, but we are tailoring this project to the money we raise, so if the fans give us what we consider to be a minimum amount to do something, we will work within those parameters. If they give us a greater amount, we can open up the stops a bit more and control our production in a way that shows on screen.”
Meanwhile, the other Kickstarter-funded projects mentioned above are all moving ahead. “I’m in the editing room putting together the interviews and footage we have,” says Barnett, “and all the material I’ve acquired over the past two years is going into this project, so that’s what I’m doing right now. We have a goal of October, which gives us a reasonable amount of time to get it completed. We want this documentary to be extra-special, because Charlie Gemora was so special to us.”
For Spatola, who single-handedly did all of the make-ups for The Monstrous Make-up Manual Book #1, Kickstarter has given him the opportunity to bring in some industry rock stars for their own demonstrations. “After the first book, people kept coming up and saying, ‘I’d love to do something!’ so last week for example, we shot Joel Harlow’s fish-man make-up for Cinema Makeup School. I shot every step from lifecasting on, so that’s going to be a featured make-up in the book. Steve LaPorte has done a make-up, and I just shot a demonstration with Eryn Krueger Mekash last night, so I have some heavy hitters this time. It takes a little pressure off me to produce everything myself, so my fingers are crossed for a Halloween release.”
McTurk hopes to start The Mill at Calder’s End with a series of weekend shoots beginning in August or September. “Right now, I’m building the main characters, so Lou Elsey and I just went fabric shopping together, and it was great to go through racks of fabric and find the best stuff for these period costumes, so we had a ball. And because everybody was familiar with my first film, a lot of people have stepped in to sculpt something for the new one or get involved in some way. We’ve all been in the trenches together, so it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like we’re making a fun mini-Hammer film, so it’s going to be a blast to do.”
So is Kickstarter the right way to approach a project? “It does require a strong stomach,” Spatola says, “but there are certain projects that do well and others that don’t.”
“In some ways it makes things easier,” adds Barnett, “because once you find your audience, it’s just a couple of mouse clicks and they’ve supported your project, which they may not have done otherwise if it wasn’t so convenient.”
As for the future of Harbinger Down, Gillis would be thrilled to be part of a new paradigm in filmmaking. “At this point,” he says, “if Hollywood looks at what we’re doing and says, ‘Hey, there’s a lesson to be learned here!’ I would be thrilled to be part of that reorientation.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that those lessons are out there but it’s really not in the interest of studios to bring costs down, because there are a lot of producers getting very wealthy off these big, bloated budgets, so there isn’t necessarily a motivation to bring costs down.
“There is a motivation for us, because we are doing this as a labor of love. Tom and I got into this business because we were weird kids who just had to make monsters, and that is still our guiding principle.”
For more on the ADI Kickstarter campaign, go to: kickstarter.com/projects/1117671683/harbinger-down-a-practical-creature-fx-film?ref=live.