“I wrote five different drafts of the script,” said Jon Spaihts, one of the writers of Prometheus, to Empire magazine, “working with Ridley very closely over about nine months. And even as we were working, we were constantly toying with the closeness of the monsters in the film to the original xenomorph. You can see an interesting balance, even looking at the movies in the Alien franchise, between homage and evolution. In every film you’ll see that the design of the Alien shifts – the shape of the carapace, the shape of the body – and some of that is to with new technology available to realise the monsters, but a lot of is just a director’s desire to do something new.”
Neal Scanlan Studio provided the practical creature effects for Prometheus, which were accompanied by digital counterparts devised by Weta Workshop. A key creature of the film is the Deacon — whose primary stage is the Trilobite, the creature Elizabeth Shaw gives birth to after being ‘impregnated’ by Holloway — who had been precedently infected by the android David with the black liquid ‘mutagen’ contained within the urns found in the Engineer building. As with the other creatures from Prometheus, the designs were first inspired by animals catalogued by Ridley Scott. “Ridley is a great and ghoulish collector of horrible natural oddities,” said Spaihts, “real parasites and predators from the natural world. He had a tremendous file of photography of real, ghastly creatures from around the world – they’re chilling, some of them! He would tell these tales with relish, of wasps that would drill into the backs of beetles and plant larvae, or become mind-control creatures. Terrible things happen, especially the smaller you get. As you get into the insect world or the microbial world, savage atrocities are perpetrated by one creature on another. And Ridley was thrilled with all of them. They inspired a lot of the designs and a lot of the ideas we tried.”
The birth sequence that first introduces the Trilobite to the screen was conceived to be particularly gruesome; Martin Hill himself was surprised by how graphic the scene was supposed to be: “When the previs came in for this, our jaws hit the floor and we couldn’t believe they wanted to go for something this graphic,” he said, “when we got on the call afterwards, ‘Really? Do you want it to be opened up this much?’ The whole sequence is very analogous to the chest-bursting sequence.”
In fact, Spaihts’ original draft conceived “Shaw’s baby” as an actual Chestburster, which was replaced with the Trilobite in the film. The screenwriter explained to Empire magazine: “David ties [Shaw] up and deliberately exposes her to a Facehugger. He caresses an egg open and out comes a Facehugger. David doesn’t smell like a person — his breath isn’t moist — so he can handle the thing like a kitten. It doesn’t want him; it’s not interested. But then he exposes it to her and it goes for her like a shot. He toys with her for a bit and then lets it take her. That, in my draft, was how Shaw was implanted with the parasite that she had to remove with the medpod sequence.” In said draft, the Chestburster is surgically removed, but proceeds to mature into an adult Alien and slaughter many crewmembers — before being killed.
Although it was one of the first ‘finalized’ design of the production, the baby Trilobite still went through many different incarnations before the final appearance for the creature was approved.
The newborn Monster at first resembled a cephalopod, much like its adult counterpart. Neville Page designed the final creature — described as an embryonic form. Its tentacles are initially fused, only to progressively grow and split into more tentacles as the creature grows. Neal Scanlan Studio built a life-size, considerably flexible animatronic, which was used when the creature is seen held by the gripper arm of the med-pod; it was sculpted by Ivan Manzella, built by Simon Williams, Andy Colquhoun and Joshua Lee, and puppeteered through a performance system designed by Matt Denton. The slithering movements of the creature were achieved with a multi-sectioned animatronic spine. The cables that controlled the creature were hidden in the gripper arm above it, so that it could be filmed at all angles with ease.
The birth sequence was particularly complex to achieve. At first, Noomi Rapace simulated the creature’s movements inside her abdomen — given she had precedent experience in belly dance — with a certain level of digital enhancement. A dummy of her body, from the neck down, was created; similarly to the technique used for the chestburster sequence in Alien, Rapace sat on a chair underneat the set, so that only her head and neck would be seen. Scanlan’s team inserted the Trilobite animatronic in the dummy and maneuvered it from below, giving the further impression of the creature writhing inside Elizabeth Shaw’s body. When the creature is finally extracted, the shot features the computer generated creature, machinery and incisions. Real caesareans were used as reference for the scene. “While it’s in the placenta sack,” said Hill, “that’s fully digital. There was a model made of the placenta with the baby inside, but the internals weren’t articulated and we wanted it to convulse as it was being pulled out, which meant we had to go into a lot of scattering work with the rendering to make sure all the volumetrics worked – the blood and goo inside the placenta sack.”
The ‘adult’ stage of the creature was, again, designed by Neville Page. It is in this point of its growth that the creature effects team initially wanted to incorporate traits from an actual Trilobite — and thus labeled the character with said nickname. “One of the things I came across that I thought was appropriate,” explained Arthur Max, producer, “was a creature out of the Cambrian era you could buy a petrified version of online called a Trilobite, which is basically a very early arthropod. This particular one had feelers and a nasty kind of patina because it was petrified — and was kind of an inspiration.”
The specific Trilobite type Max referred to was Dicranurus, a genre of these ancient arthropods that lived between Euramerica and Gondwana (modern-day Oklahoma and Morocco) in the lower Devonian, about 2.8 million years ago. It included three species displaying similar size (approximately one inch) and configuration, which included two curved horn-like protuberances. One of the concept art pieces by Neville Page, seen below, displayed the influence from these ancient creatures most evidently. The look of the creature, however, would progressively abandon the actual Trilobite-like traits and lean towards cephalopods.
Although the creature is an ‘ancestor’ of the Facehugger, the designer did not want the Trilobite to be an obvious representative of the latter creature from the Alien series. In the original drafts for the film by Jon Spaihts, the place of the Trilobite was occupied by actual Facehuggers. What Elizabeth Shaw had to extract from herself was, in fact, a chestburster; the initial intention was to show someone survive the chestburster. As production progressed, however, the ancestral monster replaced those.
Neville Page said: “We weren’t going to do the Facehugger, and we weren’t going to do any kind of metaphor to the first film, but at the same time this Trilobite creature became like the uber-metaphor of the Facehugger in a way, because it’s very tentacular, it’s in the same way somewhat sexual. And honestly, when I was done with the ‘face’ of it — if it even has one — it has the most vulvas that I’ve ever put into a design! [Laughs] …It was a celebration of vulvas, really, which seemed appropriate.” Earlier concept art pieces also incorporated crustacean-like traits, that ultimately did not make it to the screen-used design. The creature that appeared in the film was mainly based on cephalopods. In particular, octopi and squids in formaldehyde were thought to be interesting by Ridley Scott — due to their decayed skin, which was used as reference for the Trilobite adult’s multiple and invertebrate-like skin layers.
“There’s something about formaldehyde that turns everything pale,” explained Neal Scanlan, “It’s very insipid. So the colour is lost, and this milky white sort of creature, crammed into a jar, left a lasting impression on everybody, including Ridley.”Arthur Max added: “There was a giant squid in yellow formaldehyde in a huge glass jar which I showed Ridley photographs of, and he said, ‘that’s it, that’s the quality I want to this creature’.”
Although cephalopods were the main influence for the Trilobite, Neville Page did not intend the tentacled monster to directly resemble an octopus. “The fact that it had seven tentacles, that was a struggle [for] me for quite a while,” he said, “because we didn’t just want to do an octopus — and there were a few images in the very beginning where it looked just like an octopus. But in the end, it was all about one pose that I did to give it a sense of one locomotion, and make it look like there was power and strength in these tentacles to actually lift it off the ground.” The movements of the Trilobite were also based on various mollusks.
The creature designers were also influenced by artist Jean Giraud (best known as Moebius)’s illustrations for a comic strip, The Long Tomorrow, written by Dan O’Bannon and published in 1975. Specifically, what served as an inspiration was an extraterrestrial shapeshifter being, an ‘Arcturian’, previously disguised as a woman, which attacks one of the characters in a sequence. The fight between the Engineer and the Trilobite is somehow analogous, although the outcome is not as bright for the pale humanoid.
Neal Scanlan commented on the design of the Trilobite: “He [Page] sent a design over which you could see the origins of man in. You could see where it had come from, and you could see the prehistoric elements, and yet alien-like qualities to the character.” The special effects crew built a full-size animatronic, with complex head and mouth mechanisms, and enormous tentacles.
In the final film, however, the digital counterpart for the Trilobite — spanning over 18 feet — was used for most of the sequences featuring the creature. It was animated by Mike Cozens’ team. These shots were rather complex to achieve, due to the number of tentacles and parts that had to be animated at the same time, and the necessary synchronization with Ian Whyte’s performance as the Engineer on set. “With a tentacled creature,” said Hill, “it is always a big challenge to create an animation rig that doesn’t collapse or twist, but still gives the animator full control of where the tentacles go. Also making sure that the stretching is even across the tentacle and that one section doesn’t get stretched more than others around it, which defies the elasticity of the creature and makes it look unnatural. On top of this, where a tentacle is wrapping around the Engineer or pinned to the floor it needs to fix there, but also needs to be able to compress and deform against the surface it’s touching. Matthias Zeller, our Creature Supervisor used the layered deformer approach to the muscle rig that would fire the muscles in tension and relax them in compression. This was then passed through to a solver, which would wrinkle skin where it was more heavily compressed. Where it is stretched it would wrinkle along the tentacle. These same tension and compression attributes were passed along to the shading system so that when the skin was taught and tense it would become lighter and shinier. In compression, it would become rougher and darker in the folds of the wrinkles. On top of that there was a secondary peeling/flaking skin which sat on top of the other deformers and was fixed in place at the base of the peeling skin of the underlying structure, but didn’t stretch with the main tentacle motion.”
Standing about four feet tall right after its gruesome birth, the Deacon was described by the filmmakers as an ancestor of Giger’s Alien — although the creature does not directly resemble the latter Monster. The creature was the result of a long process of creative ideas and changes. Both Scott and Spaihts always wanted peculiar, new “kinds” of Alien to appear in the film. “[Scott] was always pushing for some way in which that Alien biology could have evolved. We tried different paths in that way. We imagined that there might be eight different variations on the xenomorphs – eight different kinds of Alien eggs you might stumble across, eight kinds of slightly different xenomorph creatures that could hatch from them. And maybe even a rapid process of evolution, still ongoing, in these Alien laboratories where these xenomorphs were developed. So Ridley and I were looking for ways to make the xenomorphs new.”
Both Scott and studio executives, however, became increasingly interested in using other, new creatures — as opposed to the classic Alien — for the film. In Lindelof’s version of the script, Aliens and mentions of them were completely excised. “A lot of that push came from the studio very high up,” Spaihts elaborated. “They were interested in doing something original and not one more franchise film. That really came to a head at the studio – the major push to focus on the new mythology of Prometheus and dial the Aliens as far back as we could came down from the studio. So one of Damon’s major jobs when he came onboard was to replace the menaces of the xenomorphs with other things.”
Carlos Huante designed both the Deacon and the Ultramorph, which were originally separate characters: in Spaihts’ version of the story, the Deacon was the creature birthed from Holloway, whereas the Ultramorph bursted from the surviving Engineer. “The genesis of [the Deacon] came after a conversation I had with Ridley,” said Carlos Huante in an AvPGalaxy interview, “about a design progression of the creatures to the xenomorph of the first film. I went home and thought about it but kept on with the Gigeresque Ultramorphs. Then as I worked I thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool if these Aliens who are born of humans and haven’t been mixed genetically with the Engineers yet would look more human and less biomechanical’, of course this was for a different version of the script, but that’s where the Deacon (or Bishop, as he was originally named) came from. He later became an Ultramorph — and as the script changed slightly after I left the show, it became that thing at the end.”
The characters of the ‘beluga Alien’ and the Ultramorph were merged into the Deacon, and the third Alien present in Spaihts’s version was partially replaced with the Fifield creature. Most of the artists involved in the creature designs for Prometheus attempted to envision the creature, with Huante leading the creative team. The creature was labeled as such after the pointy shape of the back of its head. “It looks like a bishop’s mitre,” Max said, “the evil deacon’s pointed hat.” The entirety of the concept art pieces maintained the configuration of a long head with a pointed back end. “The first impressions are often the best. I remember [that] when we joined the project there was a drawing in existence [by Neville Page] of a rather silvery metallic looking Deacon — the Deacon being the description for the pointy back of the head — still unapproved. It was quite impressionistic, but it was great,” said Neal Scanlan. The final design was the result of a long brainstorming process, which involved Neville Page, Carlos Huante, David Levy and Steve Messing — the work of whom ultimately gave the most influence on the final design of the newborn monster.
Messing’s concept art pieces were mainly based on horse foal births; the skin of the Deacon is, in fact, designed after the placenta of a horse. “Foals are gangly and ungraceful but have to grow quickly,” explained Scanlan, “a foal or a giraffe, if they’re born in the wild, out in the open, have to get on their own feet and ambulatory [sic] very quickly. They’re ungainly, but they develop fast, and that’s what we wanted, so that was the strategy with the Deacon. Steve managed to get it — something between horrific and beautiful with the way he rendered the quality of the surface treatment. It had a sort of iridescent quality we really wanted. So it was kind of beautiful-scary.” The designers also tried to infuse human elements into the creature, much in the series’ tradition. Like the original idea for the Alien, the Deacon featured feminine elements into its design — due to its ‘genetic cocktail’. “It came from Shaw and Holloway, which then produced the Trilobite,” said Neal Scanlan, “We tried to hold on to some Shaw, some femininity. It was born of a female before being born of a male.”
The Deacon’s peculiar jaw structure was based on Mitsukurina owstoni, the Goblin Shark, a real abyssal species with a unique ‘extendable’ jaw. “There is a shark,” said Scanlan, “that Ridley cited as reference for us right from the start that has an entire new jaw that unfolds from the inside of its skull, so the jaw opens and a secondary jaw comes out. Had someone told me that I would have thought that was pure fantasy, but when you see the real creature, it’s amazing. Ridley also cited an angler fish that has a light that sits forward of its head, which again is an amazing thing to see.” The mouth and lower jaw were redesigned to build in the mechanics of this structure. Giger’s original works were used as reference for details, designed by Florian Fernandez’s team.
Carlos Huante, who had already collaborated on Alien Vs. Predator, based his early designs on the same shark; according to the concept artist, however, they were rather different from the final result. “[the Deacon has] some of the mouth structure from the goblin shark,” he said, “or at least the concept of how the mouth shot out. The Goblin is very delicate, and my creatures were not delicate. I wanted them to be elegant but wickedly strong.” Huante later added: “I really thought they were going to make my Deacon, but for some really strange reason they went with the one from the storyboards which was not my character and not the design. The board artist illustrated it for the purposes of storytelling for the storyboards but not as the design. I had illustrated a couple of efforts for the open mouth which they showed in the documentary but they were for an even different version that was after the Deacon, when I thought of making the creature even more human. The design of the actual Deacon was abandoned.”
Ridley Scott had felt that the early takes on the creatures, including the Deacon, were “too monstrous” in appearance, and distant from reality; as such, he decided to tone them down for them to remain confined in the “realm of real”. It is noteworthy to mention that after the idea of the creature and most of its aspects were established, the concepts (among all of the other creatures’) were shown to H.R. Giger, who designed his own version for the Deacon — ultimately not considered for the film.
For the creature’s gruesome birth sequence, a hollow dummy of the dead Engineer was created, and filled with internal organs and a puppet of the Deacon — which was compressed in a three-foot-diameter latex embryonic sac (it is unclear whether the in-film Deacon was actually ‘compressed’ whilst inside the Engineer’s body). The Engineer dummy was operated from beneath the set, in order for it to convulse and for the Deacon to burst out and fall on the floor. In this sequence, the Deacon was a combination of a rod puppet with digital enhancement and a completely computer-generated creature.
“We sculpted the Deacon quite late in the day,” added Scanlan, “we knew, practically, how we were going to do it, but artistically we were still unsure, so we started to sculpt a full-sized creature. It stood about four feet tall and was one of those things that once we were on the right track, the ideas started to flow in 3D. Ridley came in and we worked with him for several hours on a Saturday and Sunday and just pushed the sculpt until everybody felt, especially Ridley, that that was the way it should look. He’s very smooth, metallicy [sic]. He’s full of mercury-like material, silvers and metallics.”
Carlos Huante commented on the final Deacon’s iridescent, dark blue skin: “Why it was blue? I don’t know… The illustration was blue so as to emphasize its whiteness in a dark blue setting and I was following some inspirational paintings that a contemporary Russian painter did of a man’s head that Arthur had sent me from Ridley. The creatures were all supposed to be albino. They were supposed to look simple, beautiful and ghostly like a Beluga whale in dark Arctic water.” Weta augmented the digital Deacon’s muscles and joints in order to make them feel more natural and realistic. Due to the creature’s unique pearlescent skin, a custom shader specifically designed for the project was used to render the way it reacts with light, combined with blood and mucus layers. The lighting was matched by Florian Schroeder and Adam King.
For more images of the Trilobite and Deacon, visit the Monster Gallery.
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