StarBeast — Aliens, the Alien Queen
A PIERCING SHRIEK fills the chamber.
She turns. And there it is.
A massive silhouette in the mist, the ALIEN QUEEN glowers over her eggs like a great, glistening black Insect-Buddha. What’s bigger and meaner than the Alien? His Momma. Her fanged head is an unimaginable horror. Her six limbs, the four arms, and two powerful legs, are folded grotesquely over her distended abdomen. The egg-filled abdomen swells and swells into a great pulsing tubular sac, suspended from a lattice of pipes and conduits by a web-like membrane as if some vast coil of intestines was draped carelessly among the machinery.
-James Cameron, Aliens draft, 1985
Before being attached to Aliens, and even before the production of The Terminator, director James Cameron wrote a treatment for a story called Mother, which featured “its own type of Alien Queen.” Although it would never eventually be greenlit, Mother was heavily influential on Cameron’s conception for Aliens. First written towards the end of 1980, the treatment fundamentally concerned “a female, genetically engineered creature attempting to ensure the survival of its young,” hence the title itself. The concept of the Alien Queen and the climax of Aliens itself was, in fact, an idea first conceived for Mother. Cameron continues: “in the final confrontation in Mother, a human in a ‘power suit’ — a utility exoskeleton that is a sort of cross between a fork-lift and a robot — fights the alien creature that I called the ‘Skraath’ or ‘Skraith’, a black six-limbed panther that I had previously created for another project called Labyrinth.”
In a deleted scene from the first film, the Alien’s lifecycle had already been revealed — with the so-called Egg-morphing. Cameron, however, exploited on its excision to introduce his new idea. He explained: “If you follow Dan [O’Bannon]’s original concept, the closure of the original cycle was the human host turning back into a cocoon. I never found that to be very satisfying as it showed — when one had the facehugger attached, the embryo implanted, and when it burst out it killed that person. There was nothing going on with John Hurt in that respect. So there was a different version of it when the Alien grabbed Harry Dean Stanton and presumably put him into a cocoon. It’s certainly no great logical detour to assume that it might have used him as another host, but I think it would be a bit odd that he turned into an egg. That’s something that would have been hard for the audience to swallow because it involved the transformation of the human host and although one can assume the Alien can metamorphose, to have its biological properties take up residence in a human being and change it was going beyond the ground rules they set themselves. One of Alien‘s great attributes was that it set up a very weird biological process, but it has a basis in science fact all the way through, like the cycle of a digger wasp which paralyses its prey and injects an egg into the living body to mature. There’s a validity in all of that, but I dispensed with it because we never saw that in the film anyway. Had it appeared in the film I wouldn’t have violated any logic turbulence.”
Without the Egg-morphing sequence (which would be reintegrated in the Director’s cut of Alien decades after the production of Aliens) in the way, Cameron thus pitched an alternative explanation: “that adult [Alien] form — one of them, anyway — couldn’t possibly have laid the thousand or so eggs that filled the inside of that Derelict ship,” he said. “So, working from that image — acres and acres of these quite large eggs, two and a half to three feet tall — I began focusing on the idea of a hierarchical structure where the central figure is a giant Queen, whose role is to further the species.”
The director explained further in a letter to Starlog: “Extrapolating from entomology (ants, termites, etc.), an immature female, one of the first to emerge from hosts, grows to become a new Queen, while males become Drones or Warriors. Subsequent female larvae remain dormant or are killed by males… or biochemically sense that a Queen exists and change into males to limit waste. The Queen locates a nesting spot (the warmth of the atmosphere station heat exchanger level being perfect for egg incubation) and becomes sedentary. She is then tended by the males as her abdomen swells into a distended egg sac.”
Since the integration of the Queen concept in Aliens‘ script, Cameron had a precise idea of what the Mother creature’s appearance should eventually be. Winston told Cinefex: “Right from the start, Jim had a concept of the Alien Queen in the back of his head. In fact, when we first began talking about the project he showed me the beautiful rendering he had done of it which I liked immediately.” Heavily influenced by Giger’s biomechanical aesthetic, Cameron envisioned a tall, proportionally thin and feminine Monster, with an elongated head ending in a crown, and six limbs.
Although the anatomy of the Queen would inevitably conjure the image of a dinosaur — a bipedal creature with a tail — Cameron wanted the design to distance itself from those, instead taking inspiration from arthropods: “I feel a sense of authorship when it comes to the Queen. Somebody once described it as an anorexic dinosaur, which I suppose is inevitable even though that’s not what I had in mind. In fact, I wanted specifically not to suggest a dinosaur concept — at least overtly — because that would have been a little too commonplace and boring. For me, the Queen is really a blend of what Giger does with what I wanted to do, which was to create something that was big and powerful and terrifying and fast and very female — hideous and beautiful at the same time, like a black widow spider.”
Cameron also conceived the basic structure of a full-size animatronic Alien Queen, a marvel of unprecedented complexity. Suspended from a cable rig, the creature would contain two puppeteers that would control one large and one small arm each — in order to achieve organic fluidity to their movements. The rest of the Monster — which included the head, legs, and tail — would instead be puppeteered with a combination of hydraulic mechanisms, wires and rods. Although Winston was intrigued by Cameron’s concept of the Queen, he was initially skeptical about the intended structure of the puppet, for primarily practical reasons. “Jim had seen what we could do with puppets on The Terminator,” he said, “and so it made perfect sense that he thought of puppeteering techniques when he needed a way to realize the Alien Queen. But, even so, it was a huge leap of faith to believe we could build a 14-foot tall, acting puppet.”
Winston tried to elaborate his own renderings of the Alien Queen. He explained: “there were a few little things about the design that I thought could be improved, so I worked up a few sketches of my own and showed them to Jim. Actually they were pretty much like his, although on one of them I had deleted the extra set of arms and reconfigured it so that only a single stuntman would be needed inside.” Cameron rejected the ideas, adamant to adhere to his vision.
Though the director did not intend to use Winston’s designs, some of their traits were implemented in the final design — which, otherwise, essentially adhered to Cameron’s concept. “One thing Jim did like,” Winston continues, “was an idea from my redesign of the leg that gave it a double joint and made it look less human. In the end, Jim took into consideration some of what I’d said and the things I’d drawn and he went off and drew another Queen which was similar to his first but much more refined. In fact, when he came back, it was obvious that that was the Alien Queen. There was no doubt about it. We then sat down together and worked out a scale drawing — literally blueprinting her out in profile and front view, with her exact shape and exactly how she would have to be done to get two people inside.” The final Queen design also included more overt influence from Giger’s paintings — such as Alien Monster IV, which provided inspiration for both the Queen’s neck and hands. The Queen’s head also included a front portion able to move independently from the crown and ‘retract’ inside it when at rest. When the Queen is revealed, she is still attached to her Egg-laying sac, inspired by queen termites.
Once Cameron defined the final appearance of the Queen, the director worked with Winston to further elaborate the structure of the full-size animatronic, and whether or not it could be actually brought to the screen. A test was made, with a ‘garbage bag’ mock-up Alien Queen. Winston recalled: “once we came up with a design and an idea of how we were going to get it to work, we rented a crane and built a quick little body plate setup out of wood that would hold two stuntmen. Then we made a rough mock-up of the Queen using black foam-core and plastic trash bags and suspended our stuntmen inside it. For the big arms, we used ski pole extensions — which were lightweight, but very strong — and attached them to some creature hands I had developed for another project. Each stuntman would hold one with his arm stretched out straight so that from his shoulder to his fist would be the Queen’s upper arm and from his fist to the end of the pole would be her forearm. For the smaller arms in front, the guys were able to use their own arms without any extensions. We set this thing up out in our parking lot to see if it was going to work — and it did. There was still a lot of fine-tuning to be done, but the basic concept was good.”
The Alien Queen was first built as a 1:4th scale maquette, which served as a base for the construction of the full-scale puppet, as well as a moulding base for the quarter-scale rod puppet used in the miniature sequences. The maquette was sculpted and painted by a team of sculptors: Shane Mahan for the head; John Rosengrant for the body; Greg Figiel for the arms; Alec Gillis and Willie Whitten for the legs; and Brian Penikas and Shawn McEnroe for the tail. “We all had such a wonderful time sculpting that thing,” Rosengrant said in The Winston Effect. “At the end of each day of sculpting, we’d all look at it, and say, ‘this is going to be great.'”
The creation of the full-size animatronic Queen began with the construction of a solid understructure able to support the various components and mechanisms, as well as the two internal stuntmen. The two puppeteers inside the Queen were Nick Gillard and Malcolm Weaver. Winston recalled: “the first thing we had to do was build the inner body of the Queen. The strong fiberglass shells that would hold the stuntmen and the strong aluminium plate inside that would carry the hydraulics. That inner section would in large part dictate the size of the Queen’s body, so it was necessary to work that out in advance.” Assigned to the fabrication of the supporting structure were Rick Lazzarini and Wayne Sturm. Once completed, it was shipped to London, where the rest of the construction would be held. “We set up shop on a large effects stage at Pinewood,” Winston said, “and began building the different components of the Queen — which basically we designed and built and sculpted exactly as we had done the miniature. Armatures were built for the legs and arms and body and head and tail — all separately.”
The first section to be constructed was the Queen’s tail. “The simplest armature to build was for the tail, so I decided we should do that first,” Winston said. “Not that it was simple by any stretch of the imagination, but the tail was probably the easiest to build quickly and I figured it would be a good break-in project for my English crew to help me assess individual strengths and weaknesses. Once the tail armature was done, we could then go to clay on it while the rest of the armatures were being built.” The tail was sculpted by Steve Norrington, John Robertson, Christine Overs and Philomena Davis, whereas its internal mechanisms were devised by Ray Lovell and Richard Landon. The torso had to accommodate two stuntmen inside of it to operate the arms. Winston said: “foam human figures representing the two men were placed inside our already-completed body plate, and a wire mesh sculpting armature was constructed around it. That way we could be sure of having enough room.” John Rosengrant, who had sculpted the maquette’s torso, also sculpted the full-size torso. Welded steel armatures were built for the head, arms, and legs. Shane Mahan, who had sculpted the maquette’s head, also worked on the full-size head; Chris Overs, Steve Norrington, and Philomena Davis sculpted the outer arms; John Rosengrant, Tom Woodruff, and John Robertson sculpted the inner arms (which matched those of the Alien Warriors); and Graham High and John Robertson sculpted the legs. The same people collaborated in painting the Queen. A team of mould makers from Pinewood — headed by Keith Shannon — worked on the casts and molds of the Queen’s components. To minimize the weight of such a massive puppet, the Queen’s skin or surface was cast in a very light polyfoam — placed directly over the armature sections — and fiberglass for the more rigid parts, such as the crown extension.
For most of the sequences involving the full-scale puppet, it was supported by a crane arm; depending on the shot, it would be above, with wires, or from below, with a rigid bracket mount. Winston said: “the wires and the bracket both attached to a point midway down the Queen’s back. The wires were used primarily for the shots where you see her full body. Usually, though, you never see below her knees, and that’s where the bracket came in. The bracket came out of the Queen’s back, down one side of her spine and then under her body where it connected to the crane arm, at her pivot axis. The configuration of this bracket — which was built for us by John Richardson and his effects crew — enabled us to shoot the Queen without showing the crane arm, because the arm connected to the bracket well below the frame line. The bracket itself was also virtually invisible, mainly because we could run it down either side of her back and it would be concealed by her spiny vertebrae. The pivot action that allowed her body to turn was hydraulically controlled by a power steering unit off the crane arm. So an operator, if we wanted the Queen to turn from right to left, would simply turn a steering wheel from right to left and the body would do the same.” Two pivot devices allowed the Queen to respectively tilt forward and back and move her neck up and down. Trevor Butterfield devised the hydraulic mechanisms of the body. The controls for all body portions were connected to separate power steering units, each maneuvered by a single operator.
The Queen’s head had a wide range of motion. Both a stunt and a hero version of it were built. “We had two slightly different versions,” Winston said. “One was our major fighting head — which was built to take abuse — and the other was our ‘hero’ head which was finer tuned and lighter weight. Functionally, it was about the same as the fighting head, except that it had an extruding tongue mechanism inside and also had tilt capability. In addition to hydraulic controls, the head had cable-actuated functions as well. The face, for example, had its own movement that was independent of the head. The first time the Queen is shown, in fact — when Ripley discovers her in the Egg chamber — her face extrudes from the head almost like a turtle coming out of its shell. Along with the 360-degree facial movement, there were also cable-operated jaws and snarling lips.”
Since the elbow movement was to be controlled by a wrist, the Queen’s arms had to be very lightweight and maneuverable. Winston said: “it was especially important that the large arms be as lightweight as possible. As with our foam-core and trash bag mock-up, the stuntmen’s arms reached only as far as the Queen’s elbows, so the whole movement of each forearm and hand had to be controlled by the wrist of a person whose own arm was stretched out straight. For the forearms, we again used a ski pole set-up — this time with hands that could be either positionable or floppy. Depending on the shot, we could position them in dynamic poses or loosen them up so that they would move around freely when the arms moved. In either case, there was no real articulation as such — but amazingly, the approach worked very well. With all the thrashing around the Queen did, it was impossible to tell if the hand movements were free or directed. For our fighting arms, the ski poles were foamed right into the forearm section, which could thus take quite a beating. We also had a set of lighter-weight arms that were polyfoam down to the Queen’s elbows, but then the forearm was a thin vacuformed shell that weighed practically nothing. Those allowed the stuntmen to have much freer movement — but they were very fragile, so we couldn’t use them to bash up against things or else they’d crush.”
Insert arms were also built for scenes requiring great dexterity, such as when the Queen tries to catch Newt under the Sulaco floor grates. Winston explained: “the insert arms — which were done by Ray Lovell — had completely articulated fingers, cable-controlled by external operators. These we could use in one of two ways. Either we could position the Queen with her elbows out of frame — then come in from the outside with these articulated hands — or we could connect the whole articulated arm right to the Queen’s body. If we did that, though, we couldn’t have our stuntmen inside.”
For the legs, Steve Norrington and Richard Landon devised inner articulated armatures, in two versions. “One was for the full legs that were puppeteered externally by wires,” Winston said. “The other was for a separate set of legs that had no foam below the calf. These were used for closer shots where the feet were not in frame and could therefore be moved about simply by having operators grab onto the base of the armature and manually step the Queen through her paces.”
The internal stuntmen also contributed to puppeteering the Alien Queen’s lower body section and tail. Winston explained: “there was hydraulic movement of the tail at the base for ups and downs, but the side-to-side moves depended upon the amount of pressure the stuntmen put on their footplate — which also happened to be the Queen’s hips. Putting pressure alternately on one side or the other would cause the hips to move from side to side. That, combined with the hydraulic action, created a great deal of base tail movement. At the same time, the outer extremity of the tail was actuated by external wires — usually a combination of two or three wires, each controlled by a different operator.”
Although Cameron intended to use the full-scale Queen for most of the sequences, he acknowledged that it could not perform specific movements required by a number of scenes in the script. It was decided to combine the Winston animatronic with a quarter scale puppet, maneuvered with rods and wires. Stop-motion was initially considered, but ultimately discarded for budget and practical reasons. “As a director, I find it tough to deal with stop-motion,” Cameron recalled. “I was very happy with what was done on The Terminator, but by that point in the story we were dealing with a mechanical device and I didn’t feel the look of stop-motion violated anything we’d already done. I was a little more worried about it with Aliens; the scenes involving the Alien Queen were very important, and what we were trying to do was create a real and believable character. Plus, when we started to analyze the types of shots we’d be doing we realized that most of them would require fairly quick action — turns and spins and rapid strides — the sorts of moves that in stop-motion would cause so much displacement per frame that the arms and legs would end up strobing. There are things you just can’t do in any other way, though, so originally the plan was to have a rod puppet version and a stop-motion version. But eventually it got down to budget and it became a choice of either one or the other. Given that, the rod and cable-actuated puppet seemed more appealing for a number of reasons. One was that I had never worked with that kind of thing before and I wanted to fool around with it and see what could be done. Also I just had a feeling that with a lot of the floor effects we’d be using — smoke and steam and that sort of thing — we’d have more flexibility with puppets we could shoot ‘live’ on a miniature set.”
To build the fully articulated small-scale puppet, Cameron hired Doug Beswick — who, like Winston, had already collaborated with the director on The Terminator, being responsible for the stop-motion effects of the Robot. Among his effects crew for Aliens were mechanical designer Phil Notaro, cosmetics supervisor Tony Gardner, and construction supervisor Jim Belohovek. “Our puppet was going to be the same size as Stan’s miniature model — about three feet tall — so while they were still in the process of sculpting, Phil would go over there and take measurements and photographs of it so that he could begin working on some early mechanical designs.” As devised by Beswick and Notaro, the Queen would be supported by a pole that extended from the base of her spine and was attached to a maneuverable overhead crossbar. Her basic motion was controlled by rods attached to her feet and inserted through slots in the miniature set floor. The Queen’s proportionally thin design made it complex to devise a mechanical system that could be fitted inside her anatomy. Beswick continues: “from a mechanical perspective, the design was very difficult — mainly because the Queen was extremely complex and extremely skinny. During that first month when the model was still being sculpted, Phil was able to do some of the mechanics we’d be needing, but not a whole lot because the dimensions weren’t totally locked in yet. In fact, we ended up having to do a couple of things over — like the back joint. Phil underestimated how deep they were going to sculpt the undercuts all around the thorax and, as a result, when it was finished the mechanism he’d worked out for it didn’t fit. So he had to cut it way down, and even then it just barely made it.”
The internal mechanisms fit tightly inside the miniature Queen. “The thorax narrowed down to a tiny triangle-shaped area that was maybe three inches from corner to corner,” he said. “That in itself wasn’t bad, but because the Queen had so many mechanical functions we ended up having to run 49 cables through that area — through a hole that was only about an inch and a half around. Complicating things further was the fact that the Queen was going to have to bend at the waist. As a result, we had to put in a massive joint that would enable her to bend with all those cables in there, plus an inch of foam all the way around. It was important that we have a lot of control over the body. Most especially, it had to be solid enough to hold its position so that when the head was slashing back and forth, the body wouldn’t follow it. The arms were also a problem. They were only three-quarters of an inch in diameter on the outside, yet they had nine functions each. The arms and shoulders moved up and down, forward and back, and rotated. The elbows and wrists bent, the forearms rotated, and even though they were smaller than a soda straw — about three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter — all of the fingers had to be functional. We kept trying to talk Jim into either simplifying the Queen or fattening her up a bit, but he was very adamant that we stick to the design. It got to be kind of funny because we’d go to him and say, ‘couldn’t the fingers be a little bit bigger?’ And he’d say, ‘that’s not the design.’ Or we’d say, ‘there’s not enough room for a mechanism in here.’ And he’d say, ‘but that’s the design.’ Everything we asked for, we didn’t get.” Ultimately, the small scale puppet replicated the final Queen design perfectly, as Cameron had intended it to do.
A basic aluminium armature was built and mechanized. Available space was always a concern. “As each new mechanism went in,” Notaro said, “space became very tough to come by. I’d lay out a game plan for where I could put something — usually in some tiny little space somewhere — and then I’d have to go in and shift everything all around to actually make it work. It was a long, continuous process. By the time I finished, there was virtually no room left inside at all.” The Queen puppet was fully articulated; the head could be moved widely, complete with the signature independent facial motion, as well as opening jaws and an extending tongue. Her lower neck section could also perform a wide range of movements. The outer arms could move fluidly, and were fitted with functional fingers — whereas the inner arms had more limited motion. The wrists of both versions were floppy, allowing the hands to move about as the arms were puppeteered. The Queen’s back spines could also move up and down whereas her tail was both mechanized and puppeteered with external wires.
In order to minimize the number of required puppeteers for the 1:4th scale puppet, Notaro devised coordinated cable functions that could be controlled with a single joystick — an idea that also allowed more organic movement. Notaro explained: “oftentimes the difference between jerky, unnatural-looking movement and fluid, natural-looking movement is the way the functions have been organized for operation. When I hook up these kinds of things, I try to group the cables together in such a way that one puppeteer can handle several functions. But they have to be interrelated functions. On the Queen, for example, the head, neck and face functions were all fed into one set of joysticks so that just one operator could control everything needed to give the character expression. That’s the only way to get a real flow in the character. You don’t want to have one operator controlling two different functions; nor do you want to have one function operated by a whole bunch of people. It just makes sense. If the functions are interrelated, you can get a better feeling for the character and make it look more realistic. It also means less breakdown in communication. If you want something to happen, you tell one person as opposed to telling three or four and then trying to choreograph their movements.” The Queen’s 49 cables were controlled by ten joystick systems, operated by a total of five puppeteers on the set — although four assistants were also needed: from above the set, two supported and directed the Queen, and two others puppeteered the legs from below the set. At times, the Queen was also shot upside-down, in order to better conceal the wires.
Placing the Queen’s skin also proved to be difficult — since the special effects artists had to determine the thickness of the layer of foam latex. “Usually, we have a fiberglass substructure in our figures,” Notaro said, “but, in this case, there was no room for one. So the foam had to be thick enough that we wouldn’t have metal things poking through it, yet thin enough to still bend and fit the character. We had a core that was put inside to hollow out the foam body, but by the time I was done putting in all the mechanics, Tony had to literally cut the foam down to paper thinness in some spots.” The Queen’s large crown also posed a practical challenge due to its sheer size and ratio between it and the Monster’s neck. The structure had to be light and resilient. “It was about 18 inches long,” Beswick said, “which was huge in relation to the tiny neck joint it had to rest on. So it had to be very light, yet strong enough to make it through shooting. We made it out of the thinnest fiberglass we’ve ever used — about 30 thousandths of an inch thick. We used a little bit of gel coat, then one layer of angel hair, one layer of half-ounce cloth and a very little bit of resin. We did it in two sections — the top and bottom separately — and then seamed them together. Amazingly, it was very strong and it held up through the filming like a trooper.”
A more robust, stunt version of the Queen puppet was built by Graham High, Verner Gresty, and Steve Onions. “Jim realised it was a bit precious to risk on the egg sac sequence,” High said, “and took too many operators to get a smooth performance, so Stan asked me to build another more robust cable controlled [version].” The stunt Queen, supposedly simpler, actually featured a total of 70 control cables. It was used to shoot scenes where extensive articulation was not required. High and his crew also built a third stunt puppet, but it was never actually used for shooting. Both miniature versions of the Queen seen in the film featured an additional finger in the inner arms — but they were filmed so that it would be never shown onscreen, keeping consistency with the footage of the full-size creature.
Following Cameron’s instructions, the Queen was animated with quick and agile movements. Beswick said: “one of Jim Cameron’s comments when he saw our dinosaur from My Science Project was that the Alien Queen would have to move very fast — almost like a blur. The dinosaur had to move very slowly, which was actually more difficult. It’s really much easier to get smooth movement from something that’s moving quickly than it is from something that’s moving slowly. I think Jim got the effect he wanted from the Alien Queen — quick, yet fluid action.”
Expectedly, both the miniature and full-scale Queen proved to be very complex to film, although the anatomy of the Mother creature allowed more screen exposure than the Warriors. Some of the Queen sequences were shot at a quicker speed, at times with 12 to 16 frames per second. “In photographing the Warriors,” Cameron explained, “we tried to be circumspect so as not to make them look like men in suits. That was always a concern. With the Queen, however, we felt sure that it would hold up because it clearly isn’t a person. It has extra limbs and spines and other features that defy normal human geometry, and we, therefore, knew we could show it longer without blowing the game. All we had to do was make it look nonmechanical — which proved not to be a major problem, given Stan Winston’s handiwork and my own tendency to shoot action scenes in very quick cuts.”
The Queen is introduced in the Egg chamber, which was built both as a miniature set and as a full-scale portion of the environment. The scene, in fact, employed a combination of the full-scale Queen and the 1:4th scale, stunt puppet built by High and his crew. In this ambience, the Mother creature is secured in position by extensions of hive material, and is still attached to her Egg sac– which was built both as a partial, featureless extension of the full-size puppet, and as an animatronic extension of the 1:4th scale puppet. The miniature Egg sac was also filled with miniature Eggs, KY Jelly, and egg yolk. A miniature puppet of the Queen’s ovipositor was also built. All of the components of both versions of the Egg sac were cast in translucent foam latex. Dennis Skotak recalled: “it was a very difficult environment to work in, and as usual, Jim was very specific about how everything had to be. The egg sac had to operate in a certain manner, the eggs had to move in just such a way and the ovipositor had to deposit an egg precisely and with just the right amount of goo. To create a breathing effect, we had wood poles on the sac leading away from the camera and wires to move the Eggs inside. Then, to get the ovipositor to work, someone had to reach way over through an opening in the side of the set, slide his hand into the Egg sac from the rear and guide the Egg out. One of the biggest problems was that there was so much slime in there that we’d get an Egg all positioned and ready to go and it would keep popping out before we got to shoot it. So someone would have to climb back in and reposition it — and it got messier and more disgusting every time. In fact, everything about that set was unpleasant. There were KY jelly and ‘superslime’ dribbling all over the place and it was extremely hot. We had steam rising from below and smoke and all kinds of smelly things in there — even cans of freon spurting from both sides. It was like shooting in hell.”
Ripley sets the Egg chamber ablaze and shoots the Queen — also discharging her grenade launcher at the creature in the process. Skotak continues: “that was another messy one — especially since we found that the most dynamic way of shooting it was up close, with a fairly wide lens, so the sac exploded right into the camera. We0d get everything all set up and then blow the sac apart with charges and all of this goo would come splurting out and collect in a bucket down below so we could recycle it. For some reason, shooting that scene always drew an audience. We’d warn people to keep their distance, but invariably someone would wind up with a face full of slime.”
Lashing in a frenzy, the QUEEN DETACHES FROM THE EGG SAC, ripping away and dragging torn cartilage and tissue behind it. SEEN DIMLY THROUGH swirling smoke, it rises on its powerful legs and steps forward.
-James Cameron, Aliens draft, 1985
When the Queen detaches from her Egg sac, “it wasn’t possible to do that in full-size, so we were faced with the difficulty of dealing with flame in scale. Bob came up with the idea of using mirrors. One of them was placed behind the Queen and positioned in such a way to reflect a flame bar we had set up about 15 feet away. At that distance, the flames — which were six or seven feet high — looked quite small in the mirror. It was a good scale. In the same shot, another flame bar was positioned similarly, but in such a way that when photographed through a beam-splitter, flames would also appear to be in front of the Queen. Obviously, we could have done the same effect optically, but this method allowed us to move the camera during the shot and also introduce mechanical effects and falling debris in front of the background flames — and do it all quite simply.”
Ripley sees a silhouette moving in the smoke… a glistening black shape which FILLS THE CORRIDOR TO THE CEILING… the QUEEN.
-James Cameron, Aliens draft, 1985
The Alien Mother chases Ripley and Newt as they reach the lift at the end of a corridor — one of the last scenes to be filmed with the 1:4th scale Queen. “The idea was that the Queen was really too big to fit in the corridor very well,” Notaro said, “and that’s how Ripley gets ahead. For us, it was a difficult shot in that she had to be crushed down to much shorter than her usual height and then squeezed through a quarter-scale set representing the hallway. To make it work, I readjusted the support post so that rather than coming out of her back and up, it came out from the rear, away from the camera. Then I disconnected the joysticks and ran all the cables through slots I had cut in the post. She had to travel about six feet down the corridor, so I put the post with the cables on it on a camera dolly that I’d rented and then reconnected the joysticks. It was still a very tight squeeze. Even shortened to her minimum height, she just barely fit in the hallway.” As Notaro had to fly back home, the Queen was eventually maneuvered by other puppeteers at Pinewood — but according to him, “it came out real nice.”
During the film’s climax, the Queen’s acidic blood announces her presence in the Sulaco. Several different chemical combinations were tested, but ultimately the crew had to resort to the polystyrene approach. Richardson recalled: “we went back to the polystyrene approach but tried to give it a different look. Instead of acetone, we used carbon tetrachloride — which produces basically the same effect — and we mixed it with all sorts of dyes and soaps and other chemicals so that when it hit not only would it dissolve the polystyrene, but it would smoke and bubble while doing so — which was much better than just seeing something melt through. Also, I found that by adding metallic powder onto the surface of the polystyrene, as it dissolved the powder floated on top of the solution — and looked very much like molten metal.”
The Queen violently impales Bishop with the dagger-like tip of her tail — then lifts him up and rips him apart. Winston explained the complex effect: “the Bishop rip-apart was a multistep effect. At first he’s just standing there and he gives a little jolt and for an instant you think maybe he’s got a Chestburster inside him. Then the tail comes right through him from behind. The normal way to do that effect would be to put him on a slant board with a fake body, but we didn’t want to do that. We wanted him to be standing in plain view and then suddenly have this thing shoot out of his chest. To do it, we made a slightly built-up chest plate for Lance Henriksen that allowed a flexible rubberized tail to be inserted and take a bend. So in the start position, the tail piece was lying flat inside the chest plate. It was then pulled up and out through his shirt by a wire that you couldn’t see because of the way it was shot — wires can be hidden. Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis developed that part of the effect. Then we did a switch. The next shot was a variation of the old arrow-through-the-head trick. John Richardson’s crew built a harness that went through Lance’s back. On the front side, there was a rigid tail piece that was the length we had pulled out in the previous shot. The back side connected to the Queen’s actual tail. Lance’s feet weren’t in the frame, so we were able to put him on a teeterboard to lift him up. Jim set up the shot in such a way that it starts out tight on Lance with the tail sticking through his chest, then widens out to reveal that it is, in fact, an Alien tail that has come through from behind and finally follows that tail all the way up and into the drop-ship where the Queen is looming overhead. With her tail, the Queen lifts Bishop right up to where she is in the drop-ship. Her arms come out. One hand grabs the upper part of his body and the other hand grabs the lower half of his body and she literally rips him in two. Lance said they weren’t paying him enough to do that shot, so we had to come up with a dummy rig.” The two-part dummy that had to be ripped apart featured a spring-loaded armature that would “pop apart” and push the Queen’s hands (which were put into slots) along with it, creating the illusion that they were actually tearing the android apart.
After ripping Bishop apart, the Queen lowers herself down from the dropship; the full-scale Queen was used. Winston recalled: “for the scene where she lowers herself down from the dropship, we ran wires from the pivot point on her back up through the ship to the top of the stage. Our stuntmen were inside operating the arms and we had wire riggers off to the side lowering the Queen down onto the ramp. Other wires — connected to the knees and to the ankles — allowed the legs to be controlled from above too. It was like a giant marionette. And so the moves wouldn’t look floppy, we ran additional wires from her ankles to specific landing points so she could step down firmly in a dynamic position. Her tail also had to uncurl, which meant other wires and other puppeteers. It was pretty rugged. Jim had multiple cameras going and we did it a multitude of times, but the shot was worth it.”
The Alien Mother chases Ripley when she runs towards the cargo hold door. This was actually the first scene to be filmed with the 1:4th scale Queen puppet. “We had everything working on that shot,” Notaro explained, “two guys supporting the Queen from above, two others walking her from below and five cable operators for the other functions. In all, the Queen was capable of about thirty movements, but Jim wanted one more when we got to shooting — a rotating move right at the top of the tail so that she’d be able to turn more quickly. So we added a tiny mechanism in her butt that allowed her whole body to turn around farther and faster. That was also helped along by turning the post she was mounted on. By turning the post, everything turned.” After several sessions of rehearsal, smoke and alarm lights were introduced into the set as the scene required. The sequence was shot at 36 frames per second, meaning that the puppeteers had to maneuver the creature faster than usual.
Cameron allegedly “showed no mercy” to the small-scale Queen puppet during filming, according to Notaro: “during our next shot, we had two puppeteers literally ramming the puppet into the sliding doors as hard as they could — over and over again. Then, after about ten takes, Jim would say, ‘here’s how I want you to do it.’ And he‘d it three times harder than anybody else had. Luckily, the Queen turned out to be very durable. We did have some slippages in the mechanisms, but that was to be expected since they had been built to fit into a very thin, small area and they were being abused very badly. I was constantly adjusting things to keep it operating correctly. We also had to keep it looking good because we might do a scene one day where she was completely battered and the next day do a scene where she had to look brand new. There was constant maintenance going on.”
The climactic fight with the power loader ensues. Special effects supervisor John Richardson explained: “during the fight, there were a lot of different things happening all at once. In fact, for the scenes where we had the Alien Queen and the power loader working together, the whole stage was full of special effects people pulling wires and pushing levers. It was quite a sight.”
The sequence employed an orchestrated combination of footage with the full-size Queen and the 1:4th scale puppet. When the Power Loader violently smashes the Queen with its lifting arms, the dummy version was used. “We used the floppy Queen for a lot of the tumbling and falling sequences,” Notaro said. “It was just hard and soft foam pieces glued together. We’d throw the floppy Queen over a bunch of boxes, for example, then cut back to the articulated Queen for when she stood back up.”
Ripley realizes that the only way to defeat the creature is to eject it out of the Sulaco’s main airlock — a method familiar to her. “Where Ripley wallops the Queen with the Power Loader arms, then grabs her by the neck and lifts her into the air — that was all done live action,” Notaro explained. “We picked it up with the puppets at that point, just as Ripley is about to toss the Queen into the airlock. We had a couple shots of them fighting, then the Queen breaks one of the hydraulics on the right knee of the Power Loader and it buckles up, sending both of them crashing to the bottom of the airlock.”
When the Queen falls into the airlock, the dummy Queen was used. The full-size creature was then filmed under the Power Loader model. To portray the Queen being ejected into outer space, the airlock portion of the set was bolted to the ceiling, with a starfield blanket below. Both the miniature and full-size Queen (which was adequately supported by wires) were used when the creature attempts to hold onto Ripley’s leg, before finally falling to her demise.
The final shot of the Queen writhing aimlessly as she falls towards the camera was again achieved with the 1:4th scale puppet — which was attached to a motion control system, and filmed against bluescreen. Visual effects supervisor, Brian Johnson (who had already worked on Alien) commented: “in addition to the rotation, the Queen had cable-operated head movements, cable-operated arms, and legs, plus a few exterior wires to jiggle the tail a bit — all of which were nonrepeatable. So that was another instance where we had to use bluescreen.”
Giger himself commented on the Mother Monster, asserting that “the Alien Queen is very complicated, like the way I would have done. I like how she moves.” He also said in an interview with Cinefantastique that “She’s a bit smaller in the face than my Alien, but my basic design was very well studied. She was frighteningly well animated.”
For more pictures of the Alien Queen, visit the Monster Gallery.