Special: Why was the Pilot Creature fired from ‘The Thing’?
As Kate Lloyd enters the ancient spaceship — in the climax of Matthijs van Heijningen’s The Thing — she discovers an enormous, luminous tower. Hologram pieces continuously assemble and disassemble, moving geometrically. It is here that she is then attacked by the assimilated Sander, who has taken the form of a horribly mutated, distorted creature. The final cut of the film, by itself, was a distortion of the director’s original idea surrounding what was hidden in the ancient and otherworldly spacecraft.
The creature effects of The Thing were assigned to Amalgamated Dynamics; the company was tasked with designing and constructing all of the creature’s gruesome transformations, as well as additional alien creatures. Several full-sized models were built, ranging from rod puppets to suits. Due to a studio interference, it was decided late in production to actually replace most of the practical work with digitally rendered effects, as the film “felt too 80s.” An exception is represented by a creature, labeled by the filmmakers as ‘the Pilot’.
In the final film, said Pilot was replaced by the hologram tower (mockingly labeled as “the Tetris version” by the film’s own director), and the Thing, ultimately, took the form of a monstrously deformed and mutated Sander — the last transformation designed for the film, and brought on the screen directly as a digital effect. “We created the Sander-Thing the last minute,” the director said, “and it shows, unfortunately.” The replacement was actually established after test screenings, and as such the Pilot-Thing can be still briefly seen in the film — hidden by the shadows and camouflaged among the machinery. This is in all probability unintentional, and the question emerges naturally:
Why was the Pilot Creature fired from The Thing?
Monster Legacy asked to the directly involved — Alec Gillis, co-founder of Amalgamated Dynamics, who was kind enough to answer my question on the matter. The special effects veteran detailedly explained:
“The Pilot was the Thing perfectly replicating the species of aliens that built the saucer. It was replaced after a screening that apparently confused viewers as to what the Pilot was. It was felt that, since the audience had only been shown iterations of the Thing that were asymmetrical, split open and grisly, to present a creature that looked like it evolved through normal biology was a violation of what had been seen in the 2011 film as well as the John Carpenter film. It was then decided that the Thing in the climax needed to be more ‘Thing-like’. We designed the Sander-Thing as a maquette that was scanned and animated.”
The original backstory — which the director developed for the film — conceived the Pilot as part of an advanced, space-faring alien race. Following the director’s concept, a scientific crew composed of members of this race collects and classifies various alien lifeforms from different planets across the infinity of the cosmos, storing them inside research pods. Unaware of the oncoming disaster, the crew of extraterrestrials accidentally find the Thing — disguised as another lifeform — which then proceeds to break free of containment, and assimilate both the alien researchers and the specimens they had collected. The last remaining crewmember, the Pilot, severs its own ‘breathing tube’, killing itself, and making the ship crash on purpose, with the intention of killing the Thing. The creature however survives, erupts from the craft and escapes — only to stop a few hundreds of meters away and freeze.
As Kate enters the spacecraft, she sees the mummified remains of the Pilot, and is ambushed by the Thing, which has mutated into the form of the Pilot race (having already assimilated their genetic code). The spaceship seems to be maneuvered through the use of biomechanical technology, as the Pilots neurally connect themselves with the craft via cables biomechanically embedded in their backs, through “bio-ports” (reminiscent of a Surinam toad, according to concept artist and sculptor Paul Komoda). Having imitated the Pilot’s form, the Thing is thus able to restart the spaceship for its own, obscure and perhaps incomprehensible motives. When it attacks Kate, the cables detach from the Monster’s back.
Carter, already assimilated, reaches the inside of the ship, where Kate is threatening the Thing with her last grenade (paralleling MacReady with his fellow crewmembers in Carpenter’s film). The other iteration of the Thing, disguised as Carter, reaches the Pilot chamber; the most convenient move for it is to set the Pilot-Thing on fire, in order to be still disguised as human. Van Heijningen commented, saying that “Carter runs in and sees what she [Kate] is doing, and blows up the Sanders-Thing, just to convince Kate that he is human: he basically has no choice, because had he fried Kate with his flamethrower, everybody would’ve blown up.”
A team of artists were involved in the creation of the Pilot design. Early concepts were drawn by Paul Komoda (who based the skull of the creature on that of a chihuahua) and Michael Broom, whereas the final creature was designed by Jordu Schell. It was “a great opportunity to design and build a unique alien life form,” according to Alec Gillis. A conceptual imperative was that it should not be visually reminiscent of the Thing — which is what eventually caused confusion in the test audiences. “We wanted to be sure it looked like its own, stand-alone lifeform,” Tom Woodruff Jr. said in our conjoined interview, “and not something that was already infected by the Thing – that was a crucial story point. So to that end, it was designed with a very biological symmetry, very specific eyes, and hands and feet that looked like they were nimble and with enough dexterity to pilot the ship.”
No specific earthly creatures inspired the Pilot, a grotesque combination of otherworldly traits: three eyes, disposed vertically, sprout from the single socket in the center of its bulbous head, and blink with circular nictitating membranes. The digitigrade legs feature thin and elongated toes — and seem to be merged at the end of the feet. Concept art of the walking Pilot was produced with variants on how it precisely disposed its fingers and toes during locomotion. In said concept art and in McCallum’s storyboards the legs are split apart — either an ability intrinsic of the Pilot race or a mutation of the Thing.
Several small-scale maquettes were sculpted by Clint Zoccoli and Paul Komoda, to establish the final appearance of the creature. Ultimately, the Pilot was brought to the set as a full-sized, fully articulated rod puppet, sculpted by Mikey Rotella, Clint Zoccoli, Miyo Nakamura, and Casey Love (who also painted the Monster). Once the creature detached from the control systems, a digital counterpart was to be used; and for the scene where it is set on fire, Tom Woodruff Jr. wore a special ‘fireproof’ suit — with arm extensions — to shoot reference footage of the fiery demise; the scene would later be finalized with the addition of the digital Pilot-Thing being burned.
To portray the ship’s real Pilot, who had died aeons before the events of the film, Amalgamated Dynamics built a featureless model of the mummified extraterrestrial corpse, basing it on the same moulds for the animatronic version; surface detailing and a decayed color scheme by Yuri Everson provided the effect of the mummified skin. The model was then connected with cables going upwards in the spaceship interior set. The ‘breathing tube’ that connects the Pilot’s lower jaw to its chest is severed, suggesting how it actually killed itself (“basically Colin in space,” the director said). Another mummified Pilot was built, to portray another corpse Kate originally had to stumble upon, before entering the Pilot room.
Von Heininjen commented on the sequence: “what had to be done was showing the slaughter fest, while Kate was going through the ship — seeing multiple Pilot aliens dead, half transformed, burned. Something terrible had happened in the ship. I liked that idea because it would have been like the Norwegian camp in space. Kate sees the pod room and one broken pod, which gives her the clues of what happened. What didn’t work was that she wanted to find Sander and stop the ship from taking off, and still solve the mystery in the ship. These two energies were in conflict.”
The Pilot was not the only character deleted from the final cut of The Thing. To portray some specimens contained in the “research pods” of the Pilot race, ADI built six featureless dummies of the creatures by “kit-bashing” previous moulds. Recycled moulds include body parts from the Tremors films, Starship Troopers, Alien: Resurrection, and Dragonball: Evolution. Originally, Kate stumbled upon the “pod room”, before she actually entered the Pilot hall. The scene was replaced with her examining the ship structures powering up.
Alec Gillis explained to The Thing Prequel Facebook page: “We did create six or so ‘Pod Creatures’. These were weird silhouettes meant to show a variety of aliens that had been collected throughout the universe. They were in frozen pods, one of which had burst open from the inside. There was a hallway one of the characters walks through, where a mummified Pilot alien was collapsed on the ground, supposedly killed by the Thing.” Even before the Pilot itself was removed from the film, the Pod Creatures received the same fate. Van Heijningen added: “We needed a lot of money to show the [Norwegian camp] version in space, with all the dead aliens. The studio thought it was too expensive and too complicated, so we erased that whole back story.”
An alternative cut of the film featuring the Pilot is unlikely to be seen, for two main reasons: the footage shot with it was unfinished, and a digital counterpart of the Pilot was to be inserted after the creature detaches itself from the cockpit; the cost of finalizing such footage is elevated. The Pilot and the pod alien specimens can only represent the remnants of what could have been portrayed in The Thing, before Studio executives, as often happens in Hollywood, tampered with the creative vision of the director. Although ‘fired’ from the film, the Pilot received brief days of glory at the 2012 Monsterpalooza convention, and currently resides in Amalgamated Dynamics’ display room, along with the special effects company’s most popular creations.
ADI also published several behind-the-scenes videos detailing their work on the Pilot creature:
For more images of the Pilot and the lost Pod Aliens, visit the Monster Gallery.