StarBeast — Alien, the Egg and the Facehugger
When Hans Ruedi Giger was finally hired as a designer for Alien, he was assigned the task to conceive all the otheworldly aspects of the film — the planetoid, the Derelict and its Pilot, and the Alien itself in all of the stages of its life cycle. Obviously unable to also construct all the needed creature effects within the tight schedule of the production, Giger was aided by special effects veterans attached to the project. First hired was Carlo Rambaldi, in the wake of his special effects work on John Guillermin’s King Kong. Though enthusiastic about the project, Rambaldi’s availability was limited, due to having already committed to other projects (such as Nightwing). Also hired was sculptor and model maker Roger Dicken, who had collaborated with associate producer Ivor Powell during the production of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Dicken also provided some of the sound effects for the Alien, in collaboration with Percy Edwards.
SPORE PODS: These are leathery, egg-shaped objects about one meter tall, which contain the larva of the Alien. They have a small “lid” on top which can pop off when a victim approaches.
-Dan O’Bannon, original letter to H.R. Giger
First seen in the film is a batch of Alien Eggs, stored deep inside the Derelict spaceship, “like termite [eggs] inside the walls of a house,” according to Giger. The final Egg design reflects the Swiss artist’s early concepts for the most part, save for its opening: as originally conceived, the opening was overtly vagina-like in appearance, something that the filmmakers, including Scott himself, found too explicit. Nick Allder, special effects supervisor, recalled: “Ridley had seen [the original Egg sculpture], and we were sitting there having this meeting and I think — I can’t remember who it was — somebody said ‘what do you think of the Egg?’ And Ridley’s exact words [were], ‘I think it’s fucking obscene’; and there was this deadly hush, and everybody looked around at each other. Gordon Carroll said ‘Ridley, what do you mean by ‘the Egg looks obscene?’; [Ridley] said ‘well, it looks like some great fanny’. Then Gordon Carroll said, ‘Ridley, you have the Alien running around with a three-foot penis on his head, the alien spaceship has got three fifteen foot tall vaginas that the space people are walking through and you call the Egg obscene?’ That just cracked everybody up!”
Regardless, Giger eventually changed the Egg design, implementing a splitting opening with four petals — which, when seen from the above, “has the shape of a starfish”. Most of the Eggs, including the hero Egg used for the opening sequence, use the four-petal design — whereas some background Eggs, out of focus in the film, actually display a design closer to Giger’s original intention. A total of 130 eggs, including the main Egg, was fabricated by Giger himself (aided by Nick Allder’s special effects crew) in fiberglass for the main body, and foam latex for the upper portion.
Mucous material is seen dripping upwards from the Egg. To achieve this effect, Scott simply filmed an insert shot of the hero model upside down. When Kane points his light at the inside of the Egg, the Facehugger is seen writhing inside. This insert shot (one of the last creature sequences of the production) was achieved by filling the Egg with cattle and sheep stomachs and cattle hearts (also used when the egg is open), as well as KY Jelly; Scott himself simulated the awakening of the creature, putting on rubber gloves and moving them from under the Egg. Allder’s crew fitted the Egg with a simple hydraulic mechanism to make the petals split coordinately.
THE ALIEN, FIRST PHASE: This is a small, possibly octopoidal creature which waits inside the Spore Pod for a victim to approach. When someone touches the Spore Pod, the lid flies off, and the small Alien (First Phase) leaps out and attaches itself to the face of the victim.
-Dan O’Bannon, original letter to H.R. Giger
Once the Egg opens, the Facehugger erupts out of it. Giger’s very first designs for this stage of the Alien were actually conceived before he was officially hired for the film. “As an idea of what he wanted,” Giger told Cinefex, “Dan O’Bannon sent me a sketch he had done of this thing popping out of an egg — it looked kind of like a flying omelet. To me, the appearance of something should be determined by its function, and since this creature had to jump out of an egg and grab onto someone’s face, I first thought about what it would need to do this action. I started out with a body that looked kind of like a large sex organ — which is what it was, really — and I added two hands to hold the head and a long coiled tail that worked like a jack-in-the-box spring.” Whilst those paintings further convinced O’Bannon that he was the man for the project, they were not entirely like what he had envisioned; the screenwriter, in fact, wanted the Facehugger to “fit on the face like a glove,” covering it and not engulfing the whole head.
The paintings were used as a starting point to design the Facehugger — the construction of which was assigned to Roger Dicken. Ultimately, the final design was the product of a collaboration between Scott, O’Bannon, Dicken, Cobb and Giger. “There was a big meeting,” O’Bannon said, “and everybody was talking at the same time and trying to tell Dicken what the hell [the Facehugger] should look like. Finally, Ridley pulled out Giger’s book and said: ‘look. I want these fingers here on this page, and I want that over there for the back; and then I want the tail from this other page.’ And Dicken was just confused. He couldn’t absorb it all the way — it was being thrown at him. So I asked Ridley if I could take a try at it. and he said, ‘go ahead.'” O’Bannon and Dicken then began to sketch a single, cohesive design that would combine the traits from Giger’s paintings that Scott wanted to see in the creature.
“While we were doing this,” O’Bannon continues, “Giger came in — his plane had arrived from Switzerland — and he had some new designs for the Facehugger. And they were very similar to what we were putting together on the drawing board — not identical, but similar. His had an eye on the back, and the shape of it was much more like the palm of a hand. I looked at them and I said, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ Then Giger looked at the thing I was sketching with Dicken, and he said, ‘no, that’s better; that’s much better.’ I was really flattered. So I said, ‘Then I should continue with it?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yes.’ So we went on. When it came to trying to figure out what kind of a skeletal understructure the thing would need so the fingers could hook up, I got Ron Cobb over and he scrawled out his ideas — which, as usual, were excellent. Then I cleaned the whole thing up a little and did it in ink — exact size — and that’s what we went with. I was really pleased because I had kind of eclectically constructed the Facehugger out of the things that Ridley wanted and the things that Giger wanted, and some good ideas from Cobb and from Dicken.”
“We wanted to be sure [the Facehugger] looked like an animal,” Scott said, “so we designed it very much from the point of view of something which had just come out of the womb. For that reason, we decided to use natural flesh tone. We tried coloring it in various other ways and it always looked hokey — and less frightening, somehow. I think it’s very effective now — the half armadillo, half hard-shell back; the pair of testicle-like lungs; and the real killer is that stinger tail.”
Dicken’s own idea of the Facehugger differed from the creature that was portrayed in the film — the appearance of which he found too ‘delicate’. He explained: “my own concept of the Facehugger was something a little more spiny, with claws – something you couldn’t get ahold of even to try and pull it off. Self-preserving, in fact. To me, those long skinny fingers just didn’t give the feeling that this thing had the strength to really cling onto someone’s face like that. But that’s how Ridley wanted them — thin and smooth. I’d also liked to have seen some kind of barbed fingertips rather than the smooth human-type nails they wanted.” Giger also tried to build his own version of the Facehugger, but could not finish it in time — considering the established schedule for the construction of the adult Alien. He recalled: “it was going to be very smooth and slimy, with eight long, fine, but very strong fingers. The main difference was that mine was going to be translucent. I wanted the inside to be visible because it had a sort of skeleton under the skin. After I’d started building the two small ones, though, the producers stopped me because they were worried that I wouldn’t get the big one finished in time.”
Upon Scott’s approval of the final design, construction of the Facehugger began. Dicken first sculpted the creature in plasticine. “I made a plaster cast,” Dicken recalled “and a slush rubber mold which I strengthened with fiberglass on the underside, ending up with a hollow crab-like shell. Inside was a metal spine going down the middle, with little metal sections on it to hold the articulated fingers. All eight fingers were cast from the same mold and were latex-covered, with aluminum armatures pinned at each joint so they would be absolutely flexible. These were sprung closed under tension. Then, from the tip of each finger, there were wires going up the inside, so that when you pulled on
them, off-camera, the fingers would open and it could clip over the actor’s face. To help hold it on, I put little eyelets in the fingertips and we ran rubber bands between them – under the head where they wouldn’t show. The tail was just a flexible cord covered with foam and latex.”
Dicken built a total of five Facehuggers; a completely articulated hero Facehugger, one for shots of its underside, and three stunt Facehuggers with poseable fingers. The hero Facehugger’s tail was puppeteered with a piano wire for the scene where it coils around Kane’s neck. Scott recalled: “you could leave that thing sitting on his face all day and nothing much would happen, but that tail gave it punch — made it alive. And articulating it was dead easy. We just covered the tail with vaseline to make it slippery, fastened a piano wire to the tip of it, and then pulled from below so it slid across his neck and tightened at the same time.” The Facehugger’s lung appendages were also fitted with simple bladder mechanisms to simulate its breathing. The creature was the second stage to go before cameras — for its reveal in the infirmary.
The ‘underside’ Facehugger, used for the brief autopsy sequence, was actually filled with real animal entrails. Scott explained that “you can’t build something like that. You could spend months on it, and it still wouldn’t look right; so I sent a guy off to the market every morning and he’d come in with plastic containers of offal and lungs and some stuff we call Nottingham lace — which is the covering of a pig’s tongue that they peel off like skin, and people eat it. It is beautifuL though. In fact, it’s so beautiful, it almost looks artificial. We also brought in bucketfuls of stuff from the local fishmonger. Then we had it cleaned and steamed — it was like an operating theater in there. Roger Dicken designed a rubber casing for it, and then Patti Rodgers would place the stuff in there and arrange it. She kept coming in while we were shooting saying ‘what do you think of this?’ — and if there were strangers on the set, we’d get some pretty amusing reactions. The most interesting results, we found, came from arranging miniature squid, thinly sliced, with mussels and clams and two large oysters. Just staring at it was enough to make audiences uncomfortable, and that’s what I wanted.”
When Kane inspects the Egg, the Facehugger violently jumps on his helmet. This sequence was one of the last to be filmed in the production. “I wanted it to happen so fast you could never really see it, like a snake when it attacks,” Scott said. “I wanted great violence; and I wanted it totally, absolutely lethal. That’s the whole reality of a creature like that. To get the effect I wanted, we placed an explosive charge inside the egg. Over that we put about forty feet of pig’s intestines — connected to an airline but deflated and coiled around the top of the opening. Then we laid Nottingham lace around the sides. When the explosive charge went off, we hit the air at the same time and the intestines went whoosh! If you run the film through slowly, you can see the intestines billowing out like delicate gossamer pipe with beautiful markings. At [the proper] speed, though, it’s lightning-fast. There are actually four very specific cuts in there, but it all happens so quickly the effect is almost subliminal.” Allder added: “we mounted the egg upside down on the stage, and then shot up into it. After all the intestines and membranes were blown out, we got a Facehugger which was made of rubber and fitted it to a glove. Then we had a guy climb up on top and thrust his hand straight down through the base of the egg and actually wrap the Facehugger right around the lens of the camera. Everything was so fast, though, that when the two pieces were cut together it looked like one continuous motion.”
The highly acidic properties of the Alien’s blood are discovered when Ash tries to sever one of its legs, only for a flow of blood to fall on the floor and begin corroding through the Nostromo’s decks. For the initial cut, “one of the fingers had a special joint where you could unclip it and take it off,” Dicken said. “For the acid scene, I made about six replacement fingers with tubes inside so we could cut into them with the laser and the acid would run out.” Dicken initially proposed a specially treated metal girder that would corrode upon contact with water; ultimately, however, the task of creating the acid effect was assigned to special effects supervisor Brian Johnson. He elaborated: “we had sections of the deck made out of styrofoam and painted silver; then we produced a mixture of chemicals that actually was pretty corrosive — you wouldn’t want to get it on your skin, you know.” The mixture was in fact mainly composed of chloroform, acetone, cyclohexylamine and acetic acid, with other compounds in minor quantities. “That stuff just ate right through the styrofoam, but it left enough color behind so it really looked like metal,” Johnson said.
For more images of the Eggs and Facehugger, visit the Monster Gallery.