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A Quest for the Unknown
06/27/2008 - By Tobi Tesoriero
MonsterQuest’s Tom Phillips on a mission to find all things eerieMany of us have looked for monsters under our beds or in our closets or held our breath as we heard weird creaking or saw a strange image out of the corner of our eye. As we investigate, we hope and pray it‘s just our imaginations and breathe a deep sigh of relief when we find nothing of substance. We are content to find our universe, comfortable and intact, with no monsters present. Holmdel resident Tom Phillips, however, is not content just peeking under the bed skirts to make sure his world is monster-free. He travels the world in search of monsters, creatures, and unexplained sightings and occurrences that haunt our psyches and imaginations. He is a writer, producer, director of photography, and director of re-enactments for the popular History Channel show “MonsterQuest.” Phillips has traveled the world researching the sightings of legendary and obscure creatures.
When not on a quest for monsters, Phillips is an involved environmentalist. He lends his talents and expertise to the creation of media products that educate the public about the environment. He has worked for non-profit organizations as well as governmental entities and citizens groups to support this effort. Specifically, Tom is most concerned with protecting our water.
Before he left the country to research and film more shows for “MonsterQuest,” Tom Phillips took some time with Living In Holmdel to discuss his work and environmental endeavors.
LIH: Can you describe or explain the television show “MonsterQuest” for those who may never have watched it?
TP: Well, it is the second highest rated show on the History Channel now. The best way to describe “MonsterQuest” is to say the thing that makes it different is the scientific approach and the scientific experiments used to look at old myths and folklore…that it covers all kinds of creatures.
LIH: How was the show started?
TP: The conceiver of the series, Doug Hajicek, is a friend of mine. I worked with Doug for 5 years. He brainstormed this whole thing on his own. He did a show called “Giganto.” It did the same thing…taking science and applying it to mysteries to find some real answers. Doug loves mixing science; he’s an inventor and has made his own cameras. So for him it is the fun of the monster angle, the mystery of the fable, and trying to go in there in different ways; that is where he creates the show’s method.
LIH: How long has the show been on?
TP: It has been on since last year – 2007. I believe it started on Halloween night last year. It is fairly new. We are now shooting more shows that will air for another year and a half or maybe 2 years.
LIH: Which is your favorite episode and why?
TP: There are a couple. The one that I produced is one of my favorites.
LIH: And that is?
TP: The Mysterious Flying Creatures. That was a lot of fun.
LIH: What were the Mysterious Flying Creatures?
TP: There are camera apparitions that appear on videotape, and some people are saying that they are living objects that visit us from another dimension, or UFOs. We had to go out and investigate what these images were. As a matter of fact, one was investigated by the FBI and is still an open case.
LIH: Does this usually occur in one specific geographic area?
TP: No, it happens all over, but the FBI investigation was on one such sighting over Albany airport just after 9/11, so they took it as a real threat. There was an image recorded. It is really kind of neat-looking, but it’s an open case, trying to spot what it was. We did tests to determine what it was.
LIH: And did you come to a conclusion or was it left open-ended?
TP: We left it open-ended. We brought in Panasonic, who manufactures cameras. They came in and said that the camera, like the human eye, can be fooled. I thought that was an interesting answer. We actually ran tests in a wind tunnel at Iowa State University and made a copy of this so-called flying creature. We put it in the wind tunnel to see if the shape would fly. One of them did not fly that well; one had some potential, but they said it would take too much power to make it fly into the air, so that is how we approached the sighting.
LIH: Can you share the procedures and/or logistics that are used in making the show?
TP: It is a lot of fun. We go through cryptozoology websites; there are tons of them. We pick out creatures that seem most plausible, that seem like they have the most interest. Then we set up scientific investigations…deciding what we can do, what experiments we can set up to look into this deeper.
LIH: So in doing that do you travel all over the world?
TP: I was in Moscow and Exeter, England, last year. This year I am going to be all over the United States. I am going to – I am not sure if I am allowed to say exactly where, as the shows have not yet been made – but let’s say I will be going to a lot of tropical locations. I’ll probably be gone 4 to 5 months in a row.
LIH: Well, I guess if you get to be in tropical spots in the winter that’s a good thing!
TP: Well, I guess that is true, though I will miss Holmdel.
LIH: What is your role on and with “MonsterQuest?”
TP: I have four titles actually. I am a producer, writer, and director of photography; I am also a director of re-enactments.
LIH: Can you explain briefly what each of those jobs encompasses?
TP: Directors of re-enactments have historic oversight; I am sure you have seen or heard someone say, “Oh, well it was 10 years ago and I was parking my car and these creatures came out of the woods…blah, blah, blah.” We have to go back and re-enact those moments so people can see what the story was, not just hear it told. So that would be director of re-enactments. Being a producer means the episode producer. What that means is that you are responsible for the whole show; you write it and you do all the paperwork. You are involved with the editing, in setting up the interviews; you are involved in conceiving how the whole show is going to come together. The director of photography goes out and shoots everything; you light it and you are responsible for the look, the style, the feel of the show. Also, the lighting is key there. And writer – I think that’s pretty self-descriptive (laughs).
LIH: You touched upon how you got involved in this project. Is there anything else to share regarding that?
TP: The executive producer and I were working on another project together, and he was aware of my work. I am known for stylized
visuals – things like music videos or high-end commercials. So when they were looking to create a “MonsterQuest” series, the big question was how to put the monster into “MonsterQuest?” A lot of these scenes are about how you create the illusion or the feel of a threat. So they brought me in not because I had done monster shows, but because my stuff has a certain look to it and they thought I was perfect for the series. They brought me in as director or photography, and I ended up producing and directing also.
LIH: What is your professional and educational background, and how did that prepare you for what you are doing now?
TP: I actually started in music. I studied concert piano and was a pianist. Then I guess everyone at 17 wants to be a rock star so I went through that phase. I got into music videos. I am not really sure how, but I
remember there was a job where a friend of mine was shooting and needed help. It was a paying job, and when you are 17, 18 years old it’s like, okay, I’ll take that (laughs)! I ended up working on a shoot and I learned a lot from the cameraman. He was excellent with lighting; I learned a lot of my lighting from him initially. And then I made music videos for record labels. I did commercials for PepsiCo…and it just kind of went into TV shows from there.
LIH: So one led to the other?
TP: Yes, and also corporate work. It is funny, but the corporate work actually pays the best. I worked for CitiStreet, which is owned by
Citigroup. I worked for the insurance industry. I did that for about 7, maybe 9 years and learned all the not-to-do things. You learn about compliance, etc.
LIH: So what did you do there?
TP: I wrote, shot, edited…
LIH: Were they training videos?
TP: A lot of boring things (laughs). But they were things that were functional for the industry. They were filmed not so much for entertainment purposes. The interesting thing is that when you work for the insurance industry you really have respect for compliance. When we are shooting “MonsterQuest,” I see when something goes by and a flag goes up. You have that experience and background. It comes in handy.
LIH: Since you travel so much for the show, do you have any stories to tell of the places you have been?
TP: I have horror stories. They send me from one place to another, so you get off one plane and get onto the next. Sometimes you don’t know where you are until you get off the plane and read the airport name and you say, “Oh, I am in Spokane.” I remember once I was dropped off at night in Canada at 9 o’clock at night. I was alone, had my equipment with me, and had to drive somewhere where no GPS works and where there’s no cell phone reception. It was 9 degrees below zero, so I am driving to the point where there are no longer any street lights, no parkway exits. I had no idea where I was. I asked directions by going to a house and knocking on the door. Sure enough, that was the place I had to go to! That was really bizarre. On the way back (this was Fisher Branch, Canada) I was told, “Oh, you know the road you are on? Two people just died there last night.” So that was kind of scary! A lot of people we interview on the science side, we have the most intelligent people in the world…heads of universities, professors, engineers, scientists. Then you have the opposite end of the spectrum with the cryptozoology folks.
LIH: Colorful people?
TP: Yeah, they can be colorful. So, I remember one lady. I got out of my car and walked up to her front door. It kind of looked like the Addams family residence. I knock on the door and as I am waiting there these animals are all around me. The door opens up and there is smoke coming out of the house, like from a cigar, and then there are animals on the inside looking out at me and she says, “The animals on the out stay on the out, the animals on the in stay in.” I’m like, “Oh, boy.” I am bringing my equipment in and every time I open the door something is running in or out! I felt like I was in a sitcom. Then I’m setting up and the baby is climbing on the light stand; the lady comes in wearing a shirt with a skull on it. I was thinking, “This is not going to be good for the History Channel.” So you get to interview people who have some strange concepts of life.
LIH: About how many people are interviewed for one episode of your show?
TP: About seven to ten people are on that one-hour show.
LIH: And how many people are on your staff per show?
TP: We have about four people on staff, and about three under
LIH: Do you have any other cool or interesting stories?
TP: We did a story on a kind of Bigfoot down south called Skunk Ape. I went out and interviewed this guy Scott. He was a volunteer fireman, around 35 years old; he was a very mature, professional man, and on that particular shoot I had a psychologist with me. Scott told the stories of the creatures he saw as a kid. He had encounters twice with this creature. The stories were actually terrifying. He told the stories two or three times – he had never told them before – and he didn’t want to tell them on camera. The psychologist said he was not lying. He was telling what he believes to be true. Some of these stories leave you walking away saying, “No, no, no.” But when you go to sleep at night, you can’t write them off.
LIH: Do you feel there’s a grain of truth to the stories?
TP: Yes. You know two and two can’t be five. Scott’s story was very compelling. We did a story with a first-aid responder who we lit from behind so you would not see his face. His story was compelling. They got a call from a man who was driving on the road at night. He hit a man in an animal suit of some kind; that was how the report came in – “He is lying on the road in front of my car.” They go out to respond to this call, and when they get there, there is no body, but there is damage to his bumper. He hit something. But it got up and walked away. He went on [the show] but would not give his name, as he was embarrassed and didn’t want people to think he was nuts. They brought dogs in and got the scent of something that followed into the swamp. The two pieces of evidence ask, “What did he hit, and what were the dogs tracking?” How could it walk away, as he was going 55 mph? The question is, “What could take a hit like that and walk away?” Something happened. You just want to know. I interviewed the head of a worldwide zoological association, and he gave a 1% chance of a Bigfoot existing. Even he could not completely write it off, so no one can really say that it does not exist.
LIH: How do you conduct your investigations?
TP: That object [over Albany] looked like lines with a double set of wings. It was definitely flying along a missile trajectory – a straight line. This was taped by a cameraman at a CBS affiliate. They went back and saw this image when they freeze-framed it. It was a line with two sets of wings. We investigated; the video records showed what we call interlaced fields – two fields make one image. If an object moves at a certain speed it gets doubled, so a mosquito would have four sets of wings. An expert in England said it was possibly an insect.
LIH: Aside from your work, what other interests do you have?
TP: I am interested in environmental issues. Protecting the environment is a major love for me and I have done work for different organizations. I worked with Monmouth Conservation. I also worked with the American Red Cross, which is obviously not environmental. I am also involved with NJ/NY Bay Keeper and Citizens for Informed Land Use (CILU). They are concerned with the Holmdel water and land usage. We are working on a project with a video about water and are showing the dangers of fertilizers for the water. I live by the water, as you can see. [Editor’s note: Phillips’ home is located by a pond.]
LIH: Who is working on this video
TP: I am working on it with the township administrator, CILU, and the NJ/NY Bay Keeper. We all are gathering our resources.
LIH: And what is its purpose?
TP: To educate people on how to protect the water we drink and how to keep substances out of it. Fertilizers are a big one. Fertilizers create algae growth, kill other plants, and kill the frogs. I have seen firsthand what it can do.
LIH: Where would people find this video?
TP: We are in that process now. Maybe it will be posted on different websites where people can go get the information. We might also do DVDs and podcasts. I think this will be interesting.
LIH: How did you initially become involved in this project?
TP: Initially, my first project was with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife. Great people there. I did a bear video for them about protecting the environment. I saw this 500-pound bear come out of its hole. He really moved fast! It’s amazing how beautiful this animal was. I did some PSAs (public service announcements) for the state about black bears; from there, one on Monmouth Conservation – a video about protecting open space; now I am doing the project for water.
LIH: What do you see as the most pressing environmental issue at this time?
TP: I think protecting the water is key. We are not getting any more; also, land conversation is obviously important.
LIH: What would you like people to know about keeping our water safe? Can you suggest any organizations to contact or volunteer for?
TP: Well, I am not an expert to offer advice. But personally, I would say people need to be aware that if they don’t take care of what they have, it will go away. If you live in a place with open space and trees, there is less of that every day; it affects your physical environment as well as your emotional environment. People go through parks…the air is better, you feel better, and so we really need to save it. There are organizations out there like Monmouth Conservation, CILU, NJ/NY Bay Keeper, and DEP. So take notice and try to keep what we have.
Favorite restaurants: I have two – Office Beer Bar & Grill and Trinity, both in KeyportFavorite musician: Paul McCartney
Favorite movie: It’s a Wonderful Life
Pet peeve: people who don’t like people
Three people you’d like to have dinner with: Val Lewton (the originator of psychological
horror), Bill Gates, and Jimmy Stewart
Photo GalleryClick here for Slideshow. You can also click on any of the photos to start slideshow.
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