The Thing From Another World – Part 1
Is that a man in there or something?
“I first became aware of a movie called The Thing when I saw the original film,” said John Carpenter. “It was 1952 and I’d been about four or five years old. I think I saw it on a re-release. It was one of those films that, as you watch it, it was so frightening that my popcorn went flying out of my hands. When they’re up to the doorway and they had this Geiger counter — they open the door and he’s right there — I went nuts. Crazy. Then I read the short story in high school and I realized it was a lot different from the movie. What they’d done in the first film was make the James Arness monster more like a Frankenstein-type of creature. Yes, it was a kind of vegetable that could reproduce various lifeforms but he wasn’t the imitator; the creature that could imitate any lifeform from the original story. The John W. Campbell story Who Goes There? was basically Ten Little Indians with a creature in their midst; and it’s imitating either one or all of us; who’s human and who isn’t? That kind of idea fascinated me. We went in a sense back to that idea with the Bill Lancaster screenplay.”
The first discussion of a new adaptation of John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? was had between producer Stuart Cohen and John Carpenter in 1975. In Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World — one of the early films that contributed to the ‘monster boom’ in the ’50s — the titular alien was portrayed as a vegetable entity that imitated a humanoid form — however, due to budget and technology restraints, its shapeshifting ability could not be conveyed. In that film, the Thing was played by performer James Arness in extensive make-up.
The groundbreaking concept of a creature able to shapeshift, assimilate and mimic any lifeform — the two argued — should be the driving force behind the story. The duo began to envision a film about the loss of identity, growing paranoia and distrust. Cohen sold the pitch to Universal in 1977, but the project was put on hold — the studio executives argued that a monster movie would not draw enough audience; and Carpenter was considered a filmmaking novice. Time would prove those executives wrong on both fronts: not only did Carpenter direct the highly popular and resonating Halloween, but the overwhelming success of Alien just two years later served as a catalyst to proceed with the making of The Thing: it proved that monster movies could still turn into considerable profit. At this point in time, Bill Lancaster began working on the script — quickly joined by Carpenter after the release of Escape from New York.
Special effects artist Dale Kuipers was initially hired to conceptualize and bring to life the Thing for the new film, based on his earlier collaboration with producers Larry Turman and David Foster on Caveman. “John asked for a creature that wouldn’t swim, fly, crawl or walk.” Kuipers’s concept for the creature was that of an alien that employed illusion and hallucinations to project monstrous forms onto human minds — a psychological warfare. Having the Thing resort to illusions instead of literal shapeshifting — Kuipers argued — would prevent it from becoming an invincible “super-alien”, and endowed it with a “fraction of vulnerability.” The character that Kuipers eventually crafted was an arthropod-like parasitic creature that would clamp onto a host’s head to probe its brain patterns — effectively duplicating them. The Thing would then lay eggs into the host’s esophagus. Kuipers portrayed his concept in illustrations and maquettes alike.
During this design process, Rob Bottin was brought onboard the project; Carpenter had discussed The Thing with him during their collaboration on The Fog — for which Bottin created a number of make-up designs, including the ‘worm-head’ ghost that attacks Stevie Wayne (Adrianne Barbeau) on top of the radio tower. In addition, Bottin had recently demonstrated the effectiveness of his craft with the groundbreaking, edge-cutting creature work devised for The Howling. When he became attached to the project, Bottin reluctantly expressed dissatisfaction on building off someone else’s designs — instead wanting to have direct influence on the creature concepts. Putting absolute trust in Bottin, Carpenter decided to allow him creative control over the design of the monster. Bottin was aware of the fact he should not compete with Alien, instead bringing his creature into a radically different direction. “It was originally going to be a bug — then, it was supposed to be a creature like in Alien,” Bottin related. “I said, ‘I don’t want to do this thing if I have to compete with Alien. I’m too insecure to come up with one definitive thing.'”
Bottin’s concept for the Thing differed greatly from Kuipers’s, and coincidentally harkened back to the mimic monster portrayed in Campbell’s short story. Carpenter recalled: “he came in with a wild concept — which is that the Thing can look like anything; it doesn’t look like one monster, it looks like anything; and out of this changing shape — this imitation — come all the creatures throughout the universe that the Thing has already imitated, and it uses these various forms.” Nothing — Bottin argued — invokes more fear than the unknown; the Thing would thus be an amorphous and completely unpredictable being. “Since it had been all over the galaxy, it could call upon anything it needed whenever it needed it,” Bottin said.
It could have imitated a million lifeforms on a million planets. It could change into any one of them at any time. Now, it wants lifeforms on Earth.
Bottin alone could not work out the necessary concepts in time — and so Carpenter resorted to hiring comic book illustrator and storyboard artist Mike Ploog.”John asked me to draw [the concepts],” Bottin recalled, “but I told him it would take too long, so he suggested I work with one of the storyboard artists, Mike Ploog. When I described my ideas to him, he dropped his coffee cup. But what he came up with was great. We must have gone through a thousand drawings — all good stuff. There was enough for six more movies.”
Working in close collaboration with Ploog, Bottin crafted various storyboard sequences depicting the Thing’s monstrous transformations. During the process, Bottin concerned himself more with the visual presentation and shock offered by the creature’s forms rather than the actual feasibility of their construction. At the time, Lancaster was still developing the screenplay — but was more than willing to implement the new ideas Bottin and Ploog offered into it. He recalled: “out of the five or six big sequences, I had written something I thought was pretty bizarre, and I didn’t know how they could do it; but then, Bottin and Ploog got this look in their eyes and said, ‘oh, you think that‘s strange, Lancaster? Watch this!’ Right then, it was like a game of ‘can you top this?’ Looking at where they’d taken my idea, I had to ask, ‘is that really possible?’ Bottin said, ‘sure’.”
Not all of Bottin and Ploog’s ideas could be realistically brought to the screen — no matter how many funds the production received; but Carpenter always encouraged them to unleash the most grotesque and imaginative things possible. “It was a dialogue always between Rob and John Carpenter,” said Brian Wade, part of the crew. “Carpenter was clearly open to all of Rob’s ideas. It was like a crowd horse running free — not wild, but free. And Rob had no shortage of ideas!” Wade also added that Bottin’s continuous creative developement felt “almost as if he wanted to keep it interesting for himself.” In order to avoid external influences on his creature designs, Bottin avoided reading Campbell’s short story. “John was real supportive as what as what I wanted to do; he told me not to worry about time or money. He did ask, ‘can we do this?’ but I don’t think of ideas in the sense of ‘can I do them?’ because I think it restricts me.”
One of the first decisions Carpenter and Bottin made regarding the creature animation was to have the Thing move hecticly: “we both agreed that we wanted it to move like a machine-gun monster,” Bottin said. “What I wanted to do was have something happen, then another thing happen so fast that they wouldn’t even want to try and stop and think about it. They would just start getting beat over the head with this razzle-dazzle stuff.”
Bottin and Ploog’s designs echoed back to the look and vibe of the E.C. horror comics of the 1950s, as well as the pulp horror and science-fiction magazines of the 20s, 30s and 40s. Ploog related: “Rob and I had the same idea. We wanted it to have the ‘old pulp’ look as much as possible. One of the first thing we came up with was the head stretching off the table, and the tentacles coming out. That’s right off the cover of an old pulp magazine. And we didn’t inhibit ourselves with the practicality of it. You can’t come up with something great and different if you’re concerned with how you’re going to have to do it. You go ahead and come up with something ludicrous, and then sit there and say, ‘well, we can’t do that, can we? Well, how can we make it work?’ And then you pull it back. You depend on people like Rob and his crew to eventually figure it out. That’s much more effective than creating something built around what somebody already knows how to do. You don’t come up with anything innovative if you do that.”
Medical books and photos were also used as reference, and at a certain point the Thing was going to sport a ‘dead-baby’ visual motif — something ultimately discarded. “You should have seen some of the ideas that we came up with for the Thing. They’re the most absurd looking monsters you’ve ever seen! We went a little crazy in the beginning. We went through our dead-baby phase — Rob had this medical book on dead babies, and we had this whole series of dead-baby monsters, misshapen bodies and such — but that was way too gross.”
Arguing that excessive gore would drain the viewer’s experience, Bottin also deliberately avoided too much human blood during the transformations. “That’s my cut-off point — the blood. It doesn’t make them scared, it makes them sick,” he explained. “It’s a human violation. Now, if my dog jumped up on me and his face split open and started shooting blood all over, I’d throw up. But if his head turned inside out, and I saw purple and green instead of red — well, dog’s heads just don’t do that. I’d say, ‘now, that’s an alien.'” While blood is indeed present in certain sequences and shots, it is often replaced with alien ichor and ooze of varying colours — from green, to yellow, to purple. “If you had blood spurting all over in some of these scenes,” Bottin related, “I think you’d make people chuck.” Unlike contemporary horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Bottin considered the transformations of the Thing “pure, harmless fantasy.”
Both Bottin and Ploog found that a collaborative approach was essential. “Rob was always saying, ‘make it a big mouth,'” Ploog recalled. “So you’d say, ‘a big mouth is horrible. It sounds good, but it’s horrible. You have to have more than just a mouth.’ ‘Well, put some eyeballs on it.’ ‘But you can’t just put eyeballs on a mouth!’ Well, you go back and start playing with it, toying with it, pushing it and pulling it around, and then it becomes something. To be absolutely honest, you cannot say if one particular thing was your idea. It’s something that’s born out of an enormous amount of discussion. You can come up with a brilliant idea, but unless it has a certain degree of practicality, or a certain degree of cinematic believability, your idea is useless. It takes a marriage of minds.”
Once the storyboarding process was finished, the two presented the ideas to Carpenter. “After we finished the storyboard process I piled them all up and walked back to Carpenter’s office,” Bottin related, “and he said, ‘let’s see what you got!’ We pinned them all up on the wall — covering all of those office walls. Then [Carpenter] looked at me and said, ‘do you know how to do all this stuff?’ And I said, ‘no!'” Carpenter also added: “Rob was very daring in his approach and I must say that sometimes even I was doubtful as to whether he could pull it off or not.”
Despite Bottin’s optimism, he and Ploog had to go back and reconfigure some of the shots — transformation effects that clearly could not be achieved convincingly with the technological restraints of the time. Bottin explained: “what you see in the movie is a toned-down version of the razzle-dazzle that we originally wanted to do. We picked out the stuff that we didn’t think was necessary, and we left the basic stuff in. We were always changing stuff. We had to.” The design process continued well after actual shooting began, and after first unit filming was wrapped, Ploog left to work on Superman III — replaced by Mentor Huebner to storyboard the climax and revise some earlier sequences.
As the storyboards were completed, construction and assembly of the creature effects began. While Bottin initially relied on the experience of physical effects veteran Roy Arbogast — who designed the mechanics for two of the dog puppets seen in the kennel scene — the latter eventually refused to work collaboratively. Arbogast resorted to working to physical non-creature effects, while Bottin had to assemble a mechanical effects crew of his own.
Having already collaborated with him on The Howling, Bottin hired Erik Jensen to supervise on the budgeting and scheduling of the effects; Ken Diaz (whom Bottin referred to as “purveyor of ripping flesh and nasty gore extraordinaire”) was brought in as sculpting coordinator, and David Kelsey headed the mechanical effects team. According to Bottin, the techniques used for the film were wide and varied: “most of the techniques are obvious if you think about it,” he said. “We used cables, servos, pneumatics, hydraulics, hand puppets, wires, radio controls, marionettes, even a little reverse filming. All sorts of things. Probably every effect known to man is in this movie.”
The Thing required unprecedented amounts of foam latex to be run and fill enormous moulds. For said job, Jensen first contacted Tom Burman, who declined due to scheduling conflicts; instead, he recommended his son — Rob Burman — and another member of his studio, Dale Brady. Burman Jr. spent weeks experimenting to find a proper formula fitting for the purposes of the project. Moving tentacles for all iterations of the Thing were moulded in urethane, and static models were crafted in fiberglass. For certain gags, unusual materials were also used — including the same kind of food thickener that had been used to make the titular creature from The Blob.
Another The Howling collaborator Bottin brought in for the project was painter Margaret Beserra, who spent more than a year elaborating the appropriate colour schemes and patterns of the various Thing iterations. She painted almost all of the film’s creature animatronics. “Rob and I sat and discussed everything,” she recalled. “Rob doesn’t like solid colours. He wanted colours that were bizarre and different.” Beserra thus painted undertones with an airbrush, and used brush and sponges for details, crafting an overlapping effect with layers of wash. Beserra was also in charge for the hair work.
Bottin, Carpenter and Cundey collaborated in staging the effects sequences. As with The Howling, Bottin was very specific about how his creations should be lit. “Rob was always very sensitive about his creatures, whether there was too much light on them,” Cundey recalled. “We always sort of joked, if it was up to Rob he would build the creatures to be incredibly interesting and imaginative and then not put any light on them because he was afraid of showing them.”
Generally, the effects shots followed the schemes established in Ploog’s storyboards. Bottin explained: “all I had to do is make sure that all the things did the right thing when they were supposed to. You just set up the shots and compose the frame like you’re looking at the storyboards.” Carpenter was sympathetic towards the necessities and issues of the effects work. “People don’t understand how much work this takes because it’s toys,” Bottin related. “That’s why I like working with John — he appreciates this stuff, and he can understand where the money goes.”
As time went by and deadlines approached, it became apparent that the needed time and bulk of work had been underestimated — to the point where Bottin pushed himself to working up to 18 hours a day. Sculptors worked in double shifts, and many crewmembers would ‘normally’ work through entire nights. “It would have been easier if the effects had been just some guys wearing monster suits,” Jensen related. “But we were trying something totally different on each gag.” Some crewmembers quit for sheer exhaustion, and others called in sick. “We were putting in so many hours toward the end that we’d have 25% of the crew out at any given time,” recalled Diaz. “That really complicated matters when it came to deadlines.”
The already hectic work was worsened by pressure put on the effects crew by Universal executives, as well as the Make-up and Hair Stylists Union — which objected Bottin’s involvement. Combined with Bottin’s refusal to sleep normal hours and his questionable diet during work days, the overwhelming pressure resulted in the young effects artist being hospitalized. “The only reason I got sick is because what I do is very important to me,” Bottin said. “It affects me.” He would often be needed in several places at once — either designing, sculpting, supervising of others’ work, directing of actual effects scenes. The amount of needed work concentrated on him was overwhelming. “It takes a lot out of you,” he said. “There are only a certain number of hours in the day, and you start running around going crazy trying to do all this stuff.” Despite that, Bottin was enthusiastic throughout. “Frankly, I thrive on this stuff,” he said. “I love being under pressure. That’s the way movies are made, and it’s never going to change. I love being tortured.”
Bottin’s hospitalization laster nearly two weeks before he could reprise his role. during that time, Jensen took charge of the effects work supervision, maintaining continuity and keeping everything on track. Jensen kept Bottin posted on the work in progress. “We had been working on the film for so long that a lot of the creative input had already been established,” Jensen said. “If something was unsolvable, I’d call Rob or go see him in the hospital. But generally, we were able to proceed with things because they had already been discussed. My main concern was not usurping anything that was Rob’s. While he was away, we held off on changing anything that was a part of him. I had good rapport with the crew and we knew where we were supposed to be going. It worked out.”
For more pictures of the Thing, visit the Monster Gallery.
Next: Part 2