Hunter — Predator
“A monster from another planet that kills for sport.” This is the brief, poignant description of the Predator given by producer Joel Silver in a promotional interview. Shortly after the release of Rocky IV, a joke made its way in Hollywood claiming that, since Rocky had run out of Earthly opponents to fight, the next one should come from another planet. Said joke unwittingly inspired the Thomas brothers — Jim and John — to write their first script: Hunter, later retitled Predator. “We had an idea about doing a story about a brotherhood of hunters who came from another planet to hunt all kinds of things,” Jim said, “but we realized that wouldn’t work very well, so we picked one hunter who was going to hunt the most dangerous species — which had to be man, and the most dangerous man was a combat soldier.” The first-time writers, devoid of agents, slipped the script under the door of Fox executive Michael Levy – who shared it with John Davis and Joel Silver, the future producers of the film.
Throughout the script drafts, the Predator progressively changed appearance. Key features, such as the basic humanoid configuration, the ‘luminous’ green blood, and camouflage technology remained consistent. Initially, however, the creature was much more human-like: in a 1985 draft, the Predator was described as featuring a “strikingly human-like face.” In addition, “beneath the smooth, hairless, nearly traslucent skin, a delicate network of VEINS and VESSELS can be seen, pulsing rapidly with pale green blood.” The eyes of the alien — perhaps implied to have evolved within a lightless environment — were “pink and weak-looking, like an albino”. Later versions of the script excised the more detailed descriptions of the creature, allowing more creative liberty for its design.
Steve Johnson and Boss Film Studio was initially hired to bring the Predator to life. Part of the crew was also Steve Wang, who would later aid Winston Studio with the final creature (“Fate truly had cursed him to be such an integral part of the show,” Shannon Shea commented in retrospect). Johnson was immediately provided with a design upon which to elaborate since the first meeting. “We have this meeting and we’re sitting around a board table and it’s the usual suspects,” Johnson recalled. “It’s all of the executives. It’s Joel Silver, the producer; it’s John McTiernan, the director. With great pomp and ceremony, McTiernan comes in and slams down a bunch of designs that have already been done by a production designer, and they were awful.”
The designs Johnson was provided with portrayed a tall and gangly creature with insectoid and reptilian qualities. “It looked more like a cross between an insect and Speed Racer,” said Boss Film sculptor Stuart Land, “or pick any Japanese cartoon hero. Or, maybe, one of those man-things that fight Godzilla. The production drawings were very good, but as a design for a new scary thing, it wasn’t.”
A key trait of its anatomy were the digitigrade legs, an anatomical feature that had never been constructed as part of a creature suit before. This meant that Johnson and his crew had to research and develop a whole new technology to make it work. Combined with the fact the creature suit would have to be shot on location — in a jungle — Johnson immediately told the producers and director that a suit version of that design would be impractical. “It was ahead of its time, let’s put it that way,” Johnson said, “but the head did suck. They said, ‘here’s what we want you to make.’ What they needed was a character with backward bent reptilian legs, extended arms and a head that was out here and they wanted to shoot on the muddy slopes of Mexico in the real jungles. It was virtually physically impossible to do. I told them it wouldn’t work.”
Despite Johnson’s remarks, McTiernan insisted to proceed with that design and translate it into a fully functional suit, which was to be worn by famed action star Jean Claude Van Damme — who took the role in hope for his career to benefit from that. “They wanted to just tell the guy to hop around like a frog and it was Jean-Claude Van Damme who had no idea what he was getting into,” Johnson related. “He was just off the boat from Brussels. He thought he was going to show his martial arts abilities to the world.” According to Land, Van Damme was definitely not the best choice for a suit actor. “The creature was supposed to be very tall and very thin,” he said, “so who do they hire, but Jean Claude Van Damme, short and muscular — short for an alien! He was an unknown then, having just finished his first Karate film. His ego was the same, though. But, I have to give him credit. He achieved everything he bored us with week after week.”
The initial maquettes were sculpted by Jim Kagel, and once the design was finalized, the full-scale sculpture of it was crafted by Steve Wang. The special effects team built only one hero suit and a ‘red’ mockup suit, which was to be used as the base for the camouflage effect. The first problems came in during Van Damme’s first fittings. “Jean-Claude comes in and we’re fitting him in this red suit and just assuming, like the slaves that we are, that the higher ups have told him exactly what’s going on,” Johnson recalled, “but he thought this was actually the real look of the monster in the movie and he was, ‘I hate this. I hate this. I hate it. I look like a superhero.’ He was so angry! I’m like, ‘Jean-Claude, did no one tell you? It’s a cloaking device. You’re invisible for half of the picture. This is not you’; which made him even angrier because he thought he could do his martial arts, he could fight Arnold Schwarzenegger. He didn’t realize that he was just kind of a stunt man, right? We get him out there for the first shot and he’s just seething. We got him in at lunch and you could see his eyes through the rubber muscles of the neck and he’s like, ‘I hate this head. I hate it. I hate it. Hate it.'”
The hero suit had a thick, arched neck with a mechanism that allowed the head to perform a wide range of motion. Parts of the costume were also casted in clear vacuform plastic, to create an exoskeleton-like surface. “The head was so highly articulated we had to build an upper body puppet to contain everything. It could even look 360 degrees over its own back.” The full suit, as Johnson had predicted, also incorporated mechanical cable-operated arm and leg extensions. The technology for the leg extensions was still a novelty at the time of shooting, and proved unsuccessful: the first functional ‘prototype’ leg extensions would be first used about a year later, during the production of Dead Heat. In later tests, external supports from a harness and a wire rig were also added.
Only a small number of scenes were actually shot with the Boss Film Predator, which proved itself too impractical for the action sequences requested by the script, also due to the aforementioned harnesses. Shannon Shea commented on his Blog: “requiring a crane to hold the creature up on it’s spindly alien legs severely affected the shooting schedule and was too limiting for director, John McTiernan, to constantly frame out.” Both the actual creature and the ‘red suit’ resulted inefficient. “The basic problem was that they were on location in a jungle,” said Shane Mahan in The Winston Effect, “with no controlled soundstages and sets, and they needed a creature that could climb and fight and walk through water and everything else you see in the film. The original suit just didn’t fit the action requirements.”
Production assistant for Boss film, Chris Mason, also stated in an interview: “I remember, in one of my last days at Boss Film, that we came in and they had packed all the pieces into crates for shipping down to the Mexico locations. Later, I had heard that the suit didn’t allow for the kind of ‘movement’ that the director had hoped for, because this guy was literally hung in a harness. Also, the alien was only intended for a lot less action, and that, on the jungle set, they wanted it to do more than it was originally designed to do. About the comment that it was a terrible job of creating… well, that’s up for interpretation, I guess! [Boss Studios] had designed a really cool suit. I think once this suit got to Mexico, things changed out on location, in the jungle… There was no way that the Boss suit would have done any of what the Winston suit was eventually asked to do. The idea behind the Boss design was to make a creature that would have made it hard to tell that it was a ‘man in a suit’.”
The combined issues derived in the decision of the director to just start anew with the creature effects. With the original monster gone, Van Damme also left the project. “From my perspective,” said Shannon Shea in his blog, “the only place where the Boss crew went wrong (and by that, I mean, where production went wrong since they had to approve the design process every step of the way) was that they were way ahead of their time. Their concept exceeded the contemporary effects technology where it came to leg extensions.” The film crew now still needed the titular monster. Shooting of the climax and other creature-centered scenes was shifted to the end of the schedule, and shooting was ultimately interrupted for six months.
Robert Short and illustrator Alan Munro were then brought in by production consultant Mitch Suskin to collaborate with McTiernan to redesign the Predator. “The first attempt was to cover the existing suit with an armored space suit to make it more fearsome,” Short related. However, it was quickly decided to entirely discard the original iteration of the creature and redesign the Predator from scratch. During this new design phase, Fox briefly contemplated replacing the Predator with an out-of-character version of the creature from Alien. “While my team was in the middle of the redesign, the studio thought that it would just be a lot less hassle to use an already existing creature they already owed than deal with trying to create a brand new creature after the Boss suit stalled,” Short related. “So, for a while the Predator concept was just going to be replaced by the Alien.” This idea however did not resonate for long.
Thus, a new approach was devised — making the Predator a more animalistic character: a hunched beast wearing armour and a space helmet. It is at this stage that Robert Short and Alan Munro endowed the new creature with multiple mandibles on the sides of its mouth, an essential trait the two artists borrowed from their own unused concept art the they had devised for the unmade Roger Corman film Goblins.
Although McTiernan decided found the mandibles a fitting design choice, he was still unsatisfied with the beast-like version — instead wanting the character to look more advanced; he selected the base of the design in an illustration of a Masai warrior. “The director brought in a line drawing of a real Masai Warrior created by artist George Jensen,” Short said, “and development shifted to create an African alien warrior.” The design curve shifted back to a humanoid configuration — but this time it became a retro-futuristic, tribal warrior character. Munro sketched two iterations of the suited Predator and a study of the Predator’s face, complete with the the mandibles inherited from his earlier concepts, as well as the dreadlocks. concepts featured a protective mask or helmet, as well as dreadlocks growing from the creature’s head. The concepts, delivered to the studio, became the essential foundation of the Predator design.
Rick Baker was contacted to bring the Predator to life, but could not join the project due to scheduling issues. Based on the groundbreaking work on The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger thus suggested Stan Winston and his creature effects crew. The advice was quickly accepted. “My feeling from reading the script was that the Predator had to be a real character, rather than a generic creature,” Winston related. “He needed to be a very specific character — and that’s what we came up with.” By the time Winston became involved in the project, the time to develop and construct the Predator was significantly decreased — to only six weeks. He explained: “there was a lot of pressure to get this done, because production was waiting for the new character so they could start shooting again; and there was additional pressure because somebody else had already failed. We didn’t want to be their ‘strike two’. Not only that, we’d been recommended by Arnold, who was a dear friend, and we didn’t want to let him down.” To avoid schedule conflicts with the other project Winston Studio was concurrently attached to — Monster Squad — the crew was split in two.
In designing the Predator, Munro and Short’s concepts were used as a starting point; Winston’s iterations were largely a refinement of the Munro illustrations. Steve Wang was instead assigned the Predator armour, which was inspired by Japanese science-fiction designs.
Winston and Wang briefly considered removing the side mandibles, deeming them as an old design trope. Ultimately, instead of removing them, they were combined with a traditional mouth. Once a satisfying design was selected, it was sculpted into a maquette by Wayne Strong. Many details of the concepts and maquette were excised in the final iteration of the Predator — including chest spikes (alien substitutes of chest hair) and a forked tongue (in Winston’s drawings); the latter would return in the animatronics devised for Predator 2. The relatively simple humanoid anatomy of the new concept would allow more freedom in shooting, without the need for cranes, harnesses or other supports — issues that had determined the failure of the original suit on location. Winston said: “often you’ll hear filmmakers say, ‘let’s do something that doesn’t look like a man in a suit. I’ve said it myself, in fact. ‘Let’s do something more high-tech, not a man in a suit.’ But a man in a suit works just fine as long as you connect the character’s mythology as humanoid, as an alien man. ‘Man in a suit’ only denotes the technology that got you that. As long as it doesn’t look like a man in a suit, it doesn’t matter if that’s the technology that got you there.”
Creature performer Kevin Peter Hall — who had played another extraterrestrial hunter in Without Warning — was hired to play the creature, due to his impressive height of 7′ 2.50″. “I’m not just somebody shuffling around in a monster suit,” he said. “I’m a kind of puppeteer from the inside who is attempting through arm and body movements to give the creatures I play a sense of personality.”
Based on a mould of Hall’s body, the Predator was then sculpted in full-size — by Steve Wang, Alec Gillis, Shane Mahan, Shannon Shea and Matt Rose, with the last working on the head and the former three on the body. The mandibles were sculpted separately to ease the detailing, moulding and assembly processes. Due to time constraints, the Predator’s body armour — with the exception of helmet, shoulder cannon and wrist gauntlets — were sculpted directly onto the body and moulded with it. At this point it was suggested that the Predator would have elongated fingers — a design trait inherited by the Monster Squad Gillman. Finger extensions were sculpted and mounted on Hall’s hand casts. Again, time restraints affected the crafting process. “The responsibility of creating the Predator created substantial pressure on Steve Wang,” said Shea. “With such a quick schedule, the body sculpture would have to be completed first and at a record pace.”
The suit was cast in foam latex, with the teeth cast in acrylic. The relatively quick-sculpted texture detail was compensated with an innovative, layered painting process devised by Winston and Wang. “Steve told Stan he was concerned that the sculpture would not be as refined as he had hoped,” Shea related, “to which Stan told Steve that the Predator suit was going to be all about the paint job.” Wang based the colour scheme and patterns on the desert locust; the brown spot pattern was instead inspired by an old banana peel. In retrospect, Shea defined Wang’s painting work on the Predator as “an industry changer.”
The Predator’s head was an elaborate mask whose features were mostly mechanically-operated; only Hall’s eyes, endowed with contact lenses, could be visible from the outside. Richard Landon designed the mechanics of the Predator’s face, which included nine servomotors that enabled motion of the brow area, mandibles, as well as a subtle “cheek squint” that enhanced the realistic quality of the animatronic. As a last addition, the lower mandibles — which previously did not open as widely as intended — were fitted with an external servomotor, hidden within the ‘backpack’ of the Predator. The dreadlocks were moulded and attached onto the head one by one. The performer’s jaw movements puppeteered the gross movements of the Predator’s mouth, with finer motion controlled by the servomotors.
A total of two suits was built, along with a stunt head, a hero head, and a ‘caved-in’ head used when the Predator’s head would be covered by the helmet — in order to ease Hall’s performance. Additionally, a red spandex suit was built for the sequences featuring the Predator’s peculiar camouflage. It was created by Shannon Shea with the help of Leslie Neumann; the dreadlocks were excised from it, as they would significantly add time to the displacement and animation process required for the camouflaging effect.
The first suit test in Los Angeles proved that some design changes were required; along with other things, the elongated fingers were excised to ease Hall’s performance. Shea recalled on the matter: “we suited him up with as much as we had finished — which was a suit, a pair of unpainted hands with the finger extensions, and a test, stunt head that Steve had painted but had no dreadlocks on it. As we stepped back and looked at the creature, we noticed that some things were going to have to change instantly. Kevin, although his fingers looked long and spider-leg-like, was having difficulty handling the weapons and holding onto the little tools in his medical pack. New gloves would need to be sculpted, molded, run, seamed and painted immediately.” All the suits were fitted with a coolant mechanism, used to mantain the performer’s body temperature at normal levels.
The Predator’s blood is a glowing green liquid. Originally, the creative team had intended the blood to be glowing orange; when the special effects team was requested to make the blood of that color, some shots had already been rotoscoped with that feature. Due to an unavailability of glowing orange sticks, the production was forced to make the Predator’s blood green instead of orange — to the dismay of the visual effects team, who had to re-rotoscope the shots that had already been completed.
The mask that the creature originally wore featured a complex texture design — a translation of the monster’s connotations to a mechanical device. According to Shannon Shea, Matt Rose designed it to be “intimidating, beautiful, and yet look somewhat functional.” Producer Joel Silver, allegedly, “hated it instantly,” said Shea. “He said that part of the mystery of the Predator was that first he was ‘invisible’ then next when we see him, he’s wearing a mask, and finally he takes the mask off to reveal the face. Matt’s design ‘tipped the hand’ too much revealing what was going on underneath.”
The helmet was discarded and a new design was commissioned and built — with more tribal features and a more vague, smoother appearance that seemed to harken back to Munro’s original drawing. The original mask prop would be later recycled for one of the members of the Predator tribe in Predator 2.
Of the Predator’s original weapons, only the wristblades and the shoulder cannon — all designed, sculpted and painted by Steve Wang — made it to the final film. The formers, mechanized by Wayne Strong, used customized air rams for the extending action. The shoulder cannon was developed by David Kindlon, and was manually coordinated with the movements of Hall’s head to create the impression that the helmet directly controlled the cannon. A spear and a spear-gun — seen in use only when the Predator injures Blain, seconds before shooting him in the chest — were proposed, but were ultimately discarded. Those ideas would be later recycled for the sequel.
A sword was also planned, but excised after the first suit test. Shea explained: “originally, there was to be a sword handle sticking out of the backpack close to the gun. You can see the ‘curve’ of the blade represented by the curve of the backpack (which always reminded me of a shrimp for some reason). But when Kevin turned his head to the left, the protrusion of the Predator’s muzzle would smack right into the handle of the sword, so it was eliminated. From a trivia point of view — there were two fiberglass swords that were run and painted. They ended up hanging, blades crossed on the wall of our truck when we got to Mexico.” The Predator’s medical kit was created by Brett Scrivener; a ‘spreader’ tool was also reconfigured into a ‘clamp’ by Richard Landon. A loin cloth was also built out of fabric as a last addition, to cover up a the raised belt line in the suit (a failed attempt to give the illusion of longer legs). Final touches included the netting and sculpted laces decorated with the bones of alien preys.
Stan Winston commented in retrospect, saying that “the Predator is an iconic character, as well known and loved in science fiction film history as any character out there. And he’s basically a man in a suit. I think one of the reasons that the characters that have come out of Stan Winston Studio are so memorable is because they are not about the technology. We use higher technologies where they need to be used; but we don’t use them for their own sake. Predator was a perfect example of that philosophy.”
For more images of the Predator, visit the Monster Gallery.
Next: Predator 2