StarBeast — Aliens
Hans Ruedi Giger, the original Alien designer, did not return to work on Aliens. None of the filmmakers involved in the project contacted the artist, whom at the time was attached as a creature designer to Poltergeist II. “we didn’t know exactly how long that commitment was, but we heard that he was busy,” director James Cameron said. “But honestly, I think that if we had really wanted to fight for him, we could have worked around it.” Giger himself recalled in The Alien Saga documentary: “I was a little depressed because nobody asked me to work on this film. I was in Los Angeles at the time working on Poltergeist II, and I asked around about Aliens. For me, it would have been the most logical thing to work on that film. I was very anxious to collaborate, but nobody called me. I’d much rather have done a second Alien than a second Poltergeist — because, naturally, I felt more related to Alien. Perhaps the Poltergeist II people wanted to keep me away from Aliens for fear of losing me. I inquired everywhere, but no one could or would inform me about it.”
Cameron, having already successfully collaborated with Stan Winston on The Terminator, hired the artist and his crew of Stan Winston Studio to bring the horde of StarBeasts to the screen. The creative team wanted the new Alien designs to adhere to the aesthetic estabilished by the first film, whilst also trying not to copy it in an uncreative manner. “My attitude on the Alien was to render unto Giger what was Giger’s,” Cameron told Cinefex, “but hopefully not limit myself too much in the process.” Winston himself said: “we tried to be as true to the original film as we could, without disallowing ourselves a little bit of artistic freedom to do things that we considered — if not improvements — something to keep your head above water, so you’re not just doing what was done before.” The special effects crew had at disposal some of the original models portraying all the stages of the Alien’s lifecycle — save for the Chestburster; those served as a base to create the new models for the film.
The Alien menace is actually visually introduced in the film when the Marines enter the Hive — composed of secreted resinous material. Similarly to the deleted Eggmorphing scene in the first film (which, at the time of Aliens, was simply excised and did not appear in any cut of the film) the Aliens pinned hosts to walls. Cameron explained: “the Alien structure provided an interesting opportunity for us to do a Gigeresque-type structure created biologically by the Aliens — much the way ants do when they cement the walls of their tunnels using saliva mixed with granules of rock and sand.”
A structure of otherworldly geometry, with swirling biomechanical shapes, the Hive was built as a massive ‘make-up’ for the Power Station set. It was sculpted in its various components in clay and then moulded in latex and fiberglass, depending on the specific piece. Production designer Peter Lamont explained: “We got two castings a day from each mold. Some were cast off in fiberglass and others were vacuformed. In all, there were hundreds of pieces, most of which were painted by one of our scenic artists. We spent about three weeks on that while the power station was being cleaned up. Then we moved into the plant and started fitting these things into place. A team of painters had already gone through with I don’t know how many gallons of silver spray paint, so already it was starting to look not much like a power station. By the time we finished, it was really transformed. We had just three weeks to complete the work once we got inside. It was quite a chore. We started on the lower floor and were still working on the upper floor when production began. As Jim came up shooting, we were gradually retreating behind.” Most of the cocooned colonists were sculpted dummies with faces cast from various actors.
When the Hive is introduced, the camera pans down the ceiling of the colony structure, encrusted with the resinous material. The sequence actually employs a miniature devised by Robert and Dennis Skotak, combined with forced perspective. Robert Skotak explained: “It would have taken forever to do that for real, not to mention the expense. So after thinking about it for a while, we decided the best way to do it would be with a hanging miniature. The way the shot was set up was that the actors would be very close, literally right on their heads underneath it — and then they’d kind of look around and walk back into the depth of the set. So what we needed to do was to continue the encrustation up above the actors, and also continue the pipe work and the scaffolding and the catwalks and everything else. The art department had gone to Acton and gotten all the measurements — where the lift was, where the pipes were, basically the whole floor plan. Then, to save time while the plant was being cleaned up, they reconstructed that section in plywood on L stage and built the cocoon mass over it in carved styrofoam. While it was there on the stage. Dennis and I set up a camera in a position we’d selected while at Acton and determined all the measurements we’d need for the hanging miniature and its supports. Then we ran some film through the camera of the beginning, middle and end of a tilt-down, made prints and traced on top of them where we wanted all the lines and pipes and everything to go. We gave that sketch to Steve Begg and he went up to Acton with Chrissy Overs, and together they finished the miniature on site.”
The miniature was 10 feet high and 12 feet wide, and had to be blended with the full-size Hive set beyond it. Dennis Skotak recalled: “there were a lot of last-minute adjustments to be made, mainly because the live-action set was not quite ready until a day or so before we started to shoot. Since a lot of what we had to do depended on the final set dressing and paint job, it was pretty crazy those last couple of days trying to get our blend just right.” Cameron decided to shoot the sequence in the fog, and as such vapour had to be emitted in lesser amounts on the miniature — since it was closer to the camera (a uniform emission would have caused “an inconsistency in aerial density”). Dennis Skotak continues: “it was a very delicate balance. We found as we were there that by adding the slightest amount of fill light on the miniature and then wetting everything down and blowing in just the right amount of fog that it all worked together. It was transitory, though. Cast and crew would be standing around waiting, and when everything looked right, we’d say: ‘that’s it! Shoot!’ — and everybody would go for it. The blend was there literally just for moments and then it would be gone. We were very fortunate that after all the struggle it worked.”
The Alien Eggs underwent cosmetic changes in proportions and animation — with their petals splitting and moving downward for their entire length. Rick Lazzarini devised the hero animatronic used when an Egg opens. “I used a cable stand-off on polypropylene technique,” he said, “to allow the petals, [or] lips to curl back and seal back up organically. The Hero Egg I worked on was used in a number of shots in the film.” Winston Studio also built several background Eggs — either closed, for Eggs with Facehuggers still inside or open, for already hatched Eggs. Small scale vacuformed eggs — eight to ten inches in height — were also constructed for the miniature Egg chamber set.
The Facehugger’s role was expanded upon compared to the first film. “In the first film, the Facehugger — after its leap onto John Hurt’s face — appears simply as an inert form,” Cameron said. “In Aliens, we changed that. Now it has the physical capability, should it miss on that first leap, to run around on its eight legs and leap again — which made for a really interesting sequence.” The design of the Monster was partially changed, with its underside inspired by Giger’s paintings — a vaginal opening with an extruding proboscis. Cameron explained: “the bits of oysters and stuff inside [the first Facehugger looked great, but I did want to see the disgusting thing that had been down the inside of Kane’s throat. You never see it in the movie, so I figured we’d gross everybody out. All of Giger’s designs have a really sexual undercurrent to them, and that’s what horrified people about the Alien as much as anything. It worked on a kind of Freudian subconscious level, and Ridley and Giger knew that and went for that. This film was never intended to be as much of a horror film as the first one, it was working on a different thematic level, but I still wanted to be true to some of those ideas, some of those design concepts.”
Winston added: “we took a few artistic liberties, nothing anyone’s even likely to notice. It was just one of those things. If you work on something long enough, you’re bound to find things you feel can be a little bit improved. Sculpturally, I think ours was a little more organic than the first one, although the first one was brilliant. The finger appendages on ours are a little more like fingers than they were on the original. We made the knuckles a little more knuckle-like and on the tips of the fingers we actually put nails. Basically, we took that which we saw as the intent of the original design and carried it a step further. Also, we lengthened the tail by about six inches so we could do more work with it — wrapping it around necks and getting a whip-like action out of it.”
Alec Gillis sculpted the Facehugger, with the original models as reference — whereas Lance Anderson devised the internal mechanisms of the main models. Several different Facehugger with specific ranges of motion were built and used depending on the requirements of the sequences. As opposed to the original creature’s actually organic underside, the new Facehuggers had foam latex skin. Various dead and decomposed Facehuggers were built for the first Hive scene and the Med Lab scene, and a dead Facehugger with real organic innards — including chicken skins — was devised for the autopsy sequence.
In the Med Lab scene, two of the Facehuggers in the stasis tubes are still alive. To portray the creatures suspended in water, the models were controlled by cables. “For the [Facehugger] that slams up against the inside of the tube,” Winston said, “the difficulty was that it had to be operated underwater. The tube had to have a water-tight seal, but we had to be able to move in and out with our cables. Getting the tail to whip around in a confined space and underwater was a major challenge. We tried various things such as air pressure and water pressure, but nothing seemed to work. Finally, Ray Lowell came up with a spring-loaded tail that was cable-operated. Pulling on the cable would curl the tail up very tightly and then releasing it would allow it to whip open. At the same time, two other cables moved the base of the tail in a 360-degree axis so that it would pivot around while the tail itself was whipping. It worked beautifully.”
The two Facehuggers are released by Burke in the Med Lab. In this key sequence, several models were employed, including a fully articulated hero Facehugger. “Lance worked out most of the finger mechanisms before we left for England,” Winston said, “then, after we got over there, the tail whipping action and the extruding tongue elements were added, along with some fine-tuning of the controls. Everything worked on that one, requiring something like nine operators. For scenes where it’s crawling up the table, we built another one that was basically the same except that it didn’t have the tongue element within the body. Then Ian Rolph worked on a third one that had just the finger articulations. That was to help it scurry along and turn around on the wall before leaping off. We also made a series of floppy Facehuggers that had articulated fingers, but the fingers were left loose so the creatures could be thrown around like you’d throw a dummy off a cliff. Some of those were also used in the scenes where the Facehuggers are blown up. It’s amazing how some really good dynamics came out of stuff as simple as that. We’d be wondering what sort of fancy doodad to come up with for a particular shot and Jim would say, ‘let’s just make a bunch of dummies — we’ll throw them and blow them up.’ And for quick cuts that worked.”
One of the Facehugger animatronics was devised to scuttle around on the floor. Winston recalled: “I wanted to do a pull-toy type of thing, where we would literally pull it across the floor and a wheel would turn underneath or something and cause the legs to move. In a way, that’s pretty much what we ended up doing; but at the start we couldn’t quite figure out how to do it, so we got off on a few tangents.” Ultimately, Cameron was inspired by his earlier work on Piranha II. Winston continues: “Finally, Jim called me from England and said: ‘I don’t know why I didn’t think of this, Stan, but I did this thing for Piranha II, where a fish was pulled through the water over a wire and we had a little mechanism inside to make the tail wiggle.’ So, working from that idea, he drew out a little design of what he thought the insides could be for the Facehugger, sent it over here, and Rick Lazzarini proceeded to make it work — which was quite a job since there were still an awful lot of problems to overcome. The Facehugger was on a wire that wrapped around a rubber-surfaced gear on the inside and was held taut by two operators on either end. Pulling the Facehugger along that wire would cause the gear to move which in turn would move other smaller gears connected to the legs. The gearing mechanism turned out to be very intricate, but the simple brilliance of the idea was that there was a correlation between how fast you pulled the Facehugger and how fast the legs would go. If you pulled it fast, the legs would move fast; if you pulled it slow, the legs would go slow.” Lazzarini himself added that “it could even ‘jump’ if the front operator moved his end of the cable up and down rapidly.”
An early dream sequence portrays Ripley’s nightmare, where she sees the Chestburster pushing itself through her chest. “It’s actually a wonderful effect,” Winston said. “She pulls her top up and you see her whole body stretch as the Chestburster pushes out from the inside. For that particular gimmick, Sigourney was on a slant board under the bed with a duplicate appliance body on top and an operator underneath pushing the Chestburster up. It was particularly effective because anyone who’s seen the first film knows exactly what it is, but it never actually bursts through. Tom Woodruff was largely responsible for that effect.”
When the Marines first enter the Alien Hive, Dietrich discovers one of the colonists still alive. The cocooned woman is however rapidly killed by the creature erupting violently from her body — the Chestburster. Winston commented in Superior Firepower: The Making of Aliens: “The Chestburster in the original Alien was one of the most shocking and wonderful effects in film history. We had to repeat it, but we had to do something a little different.” The design’s head and snout were partially altered, but the most prominent change was the addition of two developed arms — a trait originally considered by Roger Dicken for the original Chestburster. What remained in the final creature for the first film was a sculptural suggestion of arms at the sides of its small torso. Tom Woodruff, part of the crew, recalled: “the thing we were noticing in the original sculpture was there was an indication [that] there were to be little arms on the thing, and I wasn’t really aware of them in the film.” Alec Gillis, part of the crew, added: “[Cameron felt that] it was a bit too larval, a little too disconnected from what it would later become.”
A Chestburster with arms would be able to help its eruption from the host’s chest — and would additionally be able to crawl on the Hive’s walls. Winston elaborated further: “the only thing we added to the Alien Chestburster was a pair of tiny little arms that folded up very tightly against the body. We thought the Chestburster ought to have them to help pull itself free — and, after all, the big one it grows into has arms. To maintain continuity, we made our Chestburster look exactly like the original when it first emerges. Then these little arms come out and work. Of course, the scene and the moment are so dramatic that only the most discerning eye will even notice, but we thought they ought to be there.”
“For the Chestburster scene,” Winston recalled, “we built the set so that the woman — Barbara Coles — was leaning slightly forward, cocooned between a couple of pillars. The lower part of her torso — from the waist down — was a fiberglass duplicate of her body surrounded by all this cocoon stuff. She could thus lay right up into that form and the upper part of her body would be real and the lower part would be fiberglass. That was the configuration at first when she speaks. Then, for the scene where the Chestburster comes out, she was on a slant board with a foam rubber appliance from the neck down.”
The actual Chestburster was sculpted by Tony Gardner, and portrayed by two distinct puppets. The first model was used to actually burst through the colonist’s chest; Bill Sturgeon elaborated and built the mechanisms of the ramming Chestburster. “It had a very strong metal structure and cables that were used to provide its various movements,” Winston said. Three joints in its waist allowed it to move, achieving a crawling motion. “We were literally able to punch it through like a punching rod,” Richard Landon, creature effects coordinator, said. “[It came] through the foam latex skin and the t-shirt that [the colonist] was wearing, with a lot more energy than the John Hurt Chestburster from the first film.” Meeting an issue similar to the set-up for the first film, the crew had to film multiple takes of the bursting sequence, as the pre-distressed t-shirts did not tear appropriately until the last take.
The second animatronic, a fully articulated hero model, was developed by Steve Norrington. “That one had even more life than the first,” Winston said, “mainly because it didn’t have to push through anything, so it didn’t have to be as strong.” The puppet featured multiple layers of vertebrae-like discs, through which cables ran — allowing a total of four directions of motion for each segment. Cable actuated rods for the arms and a full jaw opening mechanism were also included. “For the last scene,” Winston said, “we built a complete duplicate of the actress in her death position — head, body, everything — which we then put into the set. At the same time, we replaced the original Chestburster with the one Steve Norrington had made and had it writhing around and really going crazy. The movement was stupendous — the little sucker was really alive!” To the dismay of Winston’s crew, however, the entire set — including the Chestburster — had to be torched.
ANGLE ON WALL as something begins to emerge. Dimly glimpsed, a glistening biomechanoid creature larger than a man. Lying dormant, it had blended perfectly with the convoluted surface of fused bone. The troopers don’t see it.
-James Cameron, Aliens script draft, 1985
With the death of the Chestburster, the Hive awakens. “I think if you can do one, you can do any number,” Cameron explained. “Anyone who’s been through the process of creating a creature effect, or a character that’s sculpted in clay and molded and blown and painted or whatever, knows that to make one takes six months and to make two takes six months and a couple of extra days. I’m exaggerating slightly, but there’s an economy of scale there. It does create additional problems when you’re shooting, though. All the things that can go wrong with one creature go wrong five times as often with five creatures. On the other hand, you have times as much to look at so your attention is a bit divided.”
In the original story treatment for Aliens, Cameron included both the Alien Warriors (“my term for the single adult seen in Alien,” according to Cameron) and a new Alien caste among the horde — the ‘Drones’ — whose role was to excrete resinous material to build the Hive. “The Drone is a small albino version of the Alien creature,” the original treatment reads. “Where the Warrior has a set of striking teeth within its head, the drone has an excreting probe, like an organic stucco-gun [sic].” The concept was maintained in early drafts, but dropped in further drafts, and was not even explored in any conceptual designs.
In the final film, the Alien horde is represented by the Warriors — which adhered to the originally established anatomy for the creature; the filmmakers were creatively constrained by the fact it had been shown in its entirety in the climax of the first film. Winston elaborated: “I loved Alien, it was probably my favourite horror movie of the decade. But if there was anything that I was disappointed in, it was at the very end when the Alien gets blown out of the ship and you realize at last that what you’ve been waiting to see all this time is simply a man in a suit — a great suit, but a suit nonetheless. I found that very disheartening in the movie, and even more disheartening going into Aliens knowing that millions of people had seen this thing and therefore knew exactly what the Alien looked like. Our hands were tied — we had to be true to the original.”
For that very reason, the artists were sent one of the original Alien suits to their Studio for reference purposes. Howard Berger, part of the crew, recalled: “we pulled this thing out of a crate, and it was unbelievable to see how it had been constructed. It had black-painted, hard macaroni pieces glued all over it to give it texture, with black-painted bottle caps at the waist; and the feet were just black Converse tennis shoes, covered with a slip-latex skin! When we got this thing out, put it on a mannequin, and saw it in broad daylight, it was amazing to realize what Ridley Scott had gotten away with, just by using slime and careful lighting and the right camera angles.”
Even using the suit as their fundamental reference, the filmmakers allowed themselves cosmetic changes to the Alien anatomy. The most prominent example was the removal of the Alien’s signature translucent dome on its head, for both aesthetic and practical reasons. Cameron recalled in a Cinefex interview: “on the original Alien, there was a translucent cowl covering the whole top of the head that looked kind of like a porpoise back. We planned to do the same thing with ours, and to that end Stan had Tom Woodruff sculpt up a ribbed, bone-like understructure that would fit underneath and be slightly visible through the cowl. When it was finished, they gave it a real nice paint job and I took a look at and said, ‘hey, this looks much more interesting the way it is.’ So we ditched the cowl and decided that this was just another generation of Aliens — slightly mutated.” A later explanation — initially suggested by David R. Larson on an issue of Starlog, and approved by Cameron — portrays the differences as results of an aging process. From a practical standpoint, the frenetic actions that were to be performed by the Alien suits represented a constant danger for the domes to receive consistent damage. “Jim just wanted to remove [the dome],” Gillis said, “thought it would be a hassle. He was afraid of it cracking or it having to be replaced — we’d have to cut and switch the dome.” The design of the ridges was actually based on the patterns that Giger had painted on the sides of the original Alien’s underdome structure.
The removal of the dome implied that the Alien’s skull would be exposed; to maintain what Winston called “the Alien’s eyeless menace,” the human-like skull portion was smoothed over and painted with darker tones. Traces of it are still present, in the form of small indentations in the front of the Alien’s head — detectable upon close inspection. Other changes were strictly made to distance the appearance of the Aliens from “the man in a costume look of the original.” Those include the Aliens’ hands, whose fingers were greatly elongated. “We’ve redesigned the hands so that they are longer than original,” Winston said, “the fingers are a little bit longer — again, we took certain licenses to get away from the human look of a hand in a glove; and then we’ve developed articulated mechanical hands for close-ups, which do things that a person’s hand in a glove couldn’t do!” Interestingly enough, the sixth digit (corresponding to the double opposable thumb) was removed. The first digit of the Aliens’ feet was also modified and designed to grow at an angle, a trait included for them to convincingly climb walls. The rest of the changes amounted to simple cosmetic modifications. Winston explained: “It was all quite subtle. Details that were obviously tacked onto the first one — little hoses and things — we worked at in a sculptural way so that the organic and inorganic elements blended together better. It’s nothing you could ever detect on film — just the kind of thing you do to keep from getting bored duplicating exactly what someone else has already done.”
The original Alien suits were rather detailed but were impractical: they could not perform the fast and agile movements that Ridley Scott wanted to portray. In order to avoid the same issues met by the filmmakers of Alien, Cameron and Winston decided to modify the structure of the suits — with an emphasis on movement rather than detail. “I thought that quick, blurring, lizard-like, or insect-like leap was more important than the physical, sculptural design of the suit,” Cameron said, “and I think that that’s a mistake that a lot of make-up and prosthetics people make when they’re dealing with this sort of thing is that they lavish all their attention on the sculptural detail –the surface texture, etc. — and they fail to realize that people need very few pixels of information to identify a human figure, and most of that identification is through motion. The way we walk is so ingrained in us mentally that you can see it just like that; so what we did was we actually redesigned the suit and made it simpler and less sophisticated and basically freed it so that it was much more flexible.”
Winston explained further: “what Jim wanted were movements that were sporadic and odd and strange, so that even though they were men in suits, they didn’t move like men in suits. So the big thing for us was to figure out a way to make these guys move and act in ways that were unlike a human — hanging from ceilings, hanging from wall to wall, doing insect-like moves and so on. The Alien in the first film could never have done these things because it was a full rubber suit and was very difficult to move around in. To avoid that problem, we had to come up with an alternative design that allowed for great freedom of movement. We did that by eliminating the rubber suit aspect altogether and using instead black leotards with lightweight foam pieces attached to them. If you were to look at them hanging on a rack, you’d think, ‘my God, those are just black leotards with pieces of stuff on them.’ But when you see them in the film and they’re wet and they’re slimy, you can’t tell the difference at all between ours and the original — and ours had complete freedom of movement.” The lighting and angles of the film also aided in the objective.
The Aliens were sculpted and constructed by Tom Woodruff, John Rosengrant, Julian Caldow, Nigel Booth, Lindsay McGowan and David Keen. Various stuntmen and dancers portrayed the Aliens in the various scenes featuring the creatures; none of them reached Bolaji Badejo’s towering height, and as such the filmmakers had to resort to camera trickery. Cameron recalled: “for Alien, they went out of their way to find a very tall person to be inside the suit — Bolaji Badejo was something like seven feet tall. We knew right off that we weren’t going to be able to find ten people who were seven feet tall. On the other hand, in studying Alien we found that there was really only one shot in the entire film that shows a direct scale relationship between the creature and a human being. In all the other shots, it exists separately in the frame.” In actuality, both the Alien and an actor are seen in the same shot in a number of sequences, but only one — the Alien raising in front of Lambert — offers a real sense of scale. Cameron continues: “we decided that rather than go for height, we’d go for people who had the right physique to be in the suits — the thinnest people we could find that had the strength to do the kinds of movements we wanted, such as hanging on wires and crawling upside-down and that sort of thing. In the end, they averaged under six feet tall, but by putting them on footstools or doing low angles on the creatures and high angles on the people looking at them we were able to create the impression that the Warriors were much taller than they actually were.” The Aliens’ tails were at times puppeteered with wires. For specific sequences, upside down sets were built and filmed with the performers in the Alien suits; the footage was then mirrored vertically, creating the illusion of the creatures scuttling on the ceiling.
The suits were actually combined with a large number of stunt and hero puppets with various purposes. The Winston Studio crew built a total of six, eight feet tall stunt puppets — whose purpose was to be damaged, shot at, or crushed. “Whenever we could,” Winston said, “we used one of the puppets because they were about eight feet tall and very thin — there was no way they could have been humans in suits. A couple of them were rod and cable actuated and we could put their arms into positions that a human just couldn’t get into. Others were floppy puppets that were just jointed so they could be thrown or crushed or blown up — whatever was needed.” Insert animatronic arms were also built. For the most detailed actions, a single, fully articulated hero puppet was constructed from the torso up. It featured articulated lips, head, neck, and hands, whereas its arms were puppeteered with rods. To further differentiate the Aliens, the suits included hollow blade-like extensions on their arms, something absent in the stunt and hero puppets.
Giger commented on the Alien designs, saying that “I didn’t like the ribbed cranium of the Alien Warrior, although you couldn’t see the Aliens very much.” Otherwise, the artist stated in a Cinefantastique interview that “It’s all beautifully done, everything, the designs and the way they’re executed.”
For more images of the Aliens, visit the Monster Gallery.