Invaders on the Fourth of July
The question of
whether or not
we are alone
in the universe
has been answered.
The Alien invaders of Independence Day are not seen up close in the film until Hiller knocks one down after its craft crashed. The creature is subsequently seen within a laboratory where the film recreates a key sequence concept common to science-fiction classics it homages — a close encounter with one of the invaders. Patrick Tatopoulos, production designer of the film, designed the entirety of the extraterrestrial elements of Independence Day, including the Aliens themselves.
Director Roland Emmerich insisted that the Aliens should draw inspiration from popular folklore, but with a new spin. “I wanted them to follow the mythology of what people expect aliens to look like,” Emmerich said in The Making of ID4. “There’s a certain kind of popular image that everybody constantly draws and I wanted to stick to that.”
With these guidelines in mind, Tatopoulos conceived two possible versions of the creatures: the first was “a complete fantasy,” the artist told Cinefex, “large and threatening, with eight tentacles on its back and very narrow hips that gave it an insect quality.” The creature was also eyeless: “nothing is scarier to me than something that doesn’t have eyes,” Tatopoulos said, “because you don’t see any emotion. […] You don’t see their eyes. You don’t know what these creatures feel. You don’t know if they’re scared. The main alien in Independence Day has very small gaps where the eyes would be, but you don’t see them, which means you don’t see emotion: that’s scary.
The other direction was a smaller, more traditional configuration, with a disproportionally large head and spindly limbs. “[It] was a small humanoid with big eyes and a big head,” Tatopoulos said. “It was similar to the description given by most people who say they’ve seen Aliens.” Both designs drew inspiration from insects, and especially locusts — thematically linking them to the story, where the invaders are compared to those insects.
When Emmerich was presented with the concepts, he actually decided not to use just one of them but to combine the creatures into a single idea to use in the film. “Once Roland got re-orientated towards a more conventional design, I designed two different versions of the creatures,” Tatopoulos told SFX Magazine France. “He studied them both, but could not tell me which one he preferred. It was then that idea came to his mind that there could be two Aliens in the movie, one inside the other. He presented it as an organic shell that would give a colossal force to a being that was physically frail.” He added in an interview with SciFi Now: “one of the ideas that I loved was that the small Alien inside the big one is actually the true Alien – because, being a very fragile Alien, it would be travelling inside a suit [which is] now an organic being. It’s almost like a man covering himself in the skin of a bear.”
With the suit concept, Tatopoulos also linked the inner Alien to the pearl of an oyster — hence the pearlescent quality of its skin and colour scheme. “I tried to avoid a H.R. Giger look,” he said. “I wanted the Aliens to look like locusts with a reminiscence of a human. They were designed as living exoskeletons, like an oyster, with the pearl, or small alien, inside.” In a subconscious coincidence, the Alien’s head also ended up resembling the Alien crafts. “When I designed the Alien,” Tatopoulos said, “I also designed the small craft, the attacker, the destroyer and the mothership; all those things have to feel a part of the same civilisation. When we finished we looked at the Alien head and the attacker, and we realised that the top of the Alien head looks exactly like the aircraft – it was two designs without really thinking about it. That sort of thing comes instinctively.”
Once the idea was settled, the script for the film was rewritten to incorporate it through dialogue and specific scenes.”The first image of the Alien is not what you think they typically look like,” Emmerich said. “You later discover, in a surprise, that they’re exactly how we think they should appear. We simply disguised them first and then slowly revealed their true appearance.”
A backstory for the Aliens was also conceived. “Technically speaking the small Alien is the real Alien,” Tatopoulos said in a featurette. “The other one is actually another Alien, a living creature that the small Alien uses to travel through space. These Aliens live on a planet where there are other creatures. They take these big, dumb but powerful Aliens and use them as suits so that they actually become physically strong enough to travel through space.” This specific concept is not explained in the actual film, but is articulated by Dr. Okun in the novelization.
With a limited creature effects budget and only four months of preparation available, Tatopoulos and his special effects studio devised two practical approaches for the creatures: full-size animatronic and suits and small scale puppets.
To portray scenes where the Alien is seen in full view, the Studio built 1:4th scale rod puppets in three variations: the biomechanical suit with its head closed, the suit with the Alien within exposed, and the Alien itself. Sculpted by Thom Floutz, the puppets featured a thin steel armature covered by foam latex skin. The puppets featured ports for the green screen puppeteering rods to be inserted. Tatopoulos explained: “there was one rod behind the head, one behind the hips, one behind each foot and one at each wrist. Elbows and knees were voluntarily left inert. The joints were designed to bend freely and follow naturally the movements of the wrists and feet [imparted by the puppeteers]. Finally, there was seventh rod, hanging from a platform, ensuring the vertical posture of the puppet.”
To synchronize the animation, the puppeteers had a pre-visualization of the composited scene in real time. Once the scenes were filmed, the puppets were composited by Digiscope. The tentacles, when present, were filmed separately and combined with the rest of the puppet within the final sequence. One of the rod puppets — with the Alien exposed within the suit — is seen in the autopsy sequence, intercut with the live-action elements.
The life-size biomechanical suit was sculpted by Jake Garber, Tully Summers, Thomas Floutz and Jaremy Aiello, whereas the small Alien was sculpted by James Kagel. All versions of the Aliens were painted by a team of painters supervised and led by Gino Acevedo. The biomechanical suits were moulded in silicone, whereas the small Aliens were moulded in translucent urethane. Both creatures had an inner supporting structure moulded in fiberglass. The mechanical elements were all designed by Guy Himber; for the suits, the weight of the silicone used for the skin dictated that most of the mechanisms had to be cable-controlled, with as few internal elements as possible. Tatopoulos commented: “silicone has a fabulous appearance, but it presents the inconvenience of being extremely heavy. It was therefore necessary to limit the weight wherever we could to compensate. This also forced us to place the cable-operating motors on the outside of the puppet. The weight of the silicone forbade the insertion internal motors. The skin was about a half-centimeter thick, and resting on an inner shell fiberglass.”
A large array of full-scale models was built: two head-and-torso puppets (one mechanized and the other puppeteered internally) and a full-size inert dummy were built to portray the suit with its head closed. When the Area 51 scientists begin the ‘autopsy’, they elicit the suit to split open; a specific head-and-torso animatronic was built for this purpose. The organic membranes of the suit interior were urethane and foam latex sheets, painted and covered in KY Jelly. When the Alien awakens, a fourth puppet served to portray its initial stirring — with articulation in the arms of the suit, as well as the head and arms of the inner Alien. This version was operated by puppeteers beneath a hollow autopsy table.
A fifth version was a suit of the head and torso, worn by Jake Garber. The performer only controlled the movements of the arms, with the small Alien being a mechanized portion of the suit, maneuvered by remote control. The face of the creature, being mouthless and thus with a limited range of emotion, dictated that the Alien should show emotion with another kind of body language; it was fully mechanized with plates under the urethane skin, as well as lights to portray a faint bioluminescence. Tatopoulos explained: “the design forced us away from traditional ways of showing emotion, but I think that worked in our favour because it made them seem more alien. Underneath the clear urethane skin, we positioned 12 face plates to move the cheekbones, jaw and eyes so we could create movements suggesting the Alien was aggressive or agitated or angry. We also placed computer-controlled lights beneath the surface of the skin, played from a keyboard to change their intensity and create patterns based on what the Alien was feeling.” The complex suit needed a total of seven puppeteers to operate. When the Alien is finally shot and falls back, a full-size dummy was pulled back with wires.
Along with the puppets and suits, the special effects team also built an array of insert puppets: two sets of cable-controlled biomechanical suit arms (with cable-controlled fingers) and two sets of rod puppet legs were constructed. All versions of the suit had tentacles operated by an entirely separate puppeteering unit — affectionately called ‘the tentacle unit’.
A 2:1 scale face section of the small Alien’s face, built specifically for the close-up of its eye opening, with the scientists reflected on its surface (an effect Emmerich insisted to be shot on set, despite the possibility to achieve it in post-production). The eyes themselves were moulded in reflective plastic; the rest of the head, as well as the nictitating membrane, were cast in urethane.
The Aliens are not seen again until the film’s climactic Mothership sequence. Rod puppets portraying the closed suits were used to animate the thousands of soldiers boarding the carrier ships: a single puppet was animated singularly multiple times and then multiplied digitally. Each time the puppet was filmed doing a specific action (such as walking up a ramp), the puppeteers imparted slightly different movements. The scenes were composited by Ocean Post and VisionArt.
Built for the scene were also various full-size versions of the small Aliens — head-and-torso puppets (maneuvered by cables) as well as full-body dummies to portray dead Aliens. The puppets were at times filmed against green screen, with the performance synchronized with a pre-visualization screen. The 1:4th scale puppets were also used in certain shots.
For more images of the Invaders, visit the Monster Gallery.