Scum of the Universe – Men in Black, Part 3
Rosenberg is revealed to be a mechanical human disguise that houses a small, green humanoid alien — dubbed ‘Chucky’ or ‘Mr. Gentle’ by the crew — designed directly after classic depictions of grey aliens with large eyes and craniums.
The idea of a minuscule creature hidden within a human-shaped vehicle stemmed from an early elaboration of a key scene. “The Rosenberg alien came about in a really interesting series of exchanges,” Setrakian said. “I’d been reading the script and there was a scene where Kay was going to reveal to Jay that there were aliens among us. They were sitting in a bar and he said, ‘hey, like Chucky here, the bartender, he could be an alien.’ The bartender lifts up a little bit of skin around his neck and you see some light come out. That’s how it was described in the script.”
Baker and crew agreed that this sequence was too dialled back and lacked punch. In addition, they noticed that it shared similarities with the 1985 film Cocoon — in which the aliens’ real appearance is that of luminous humanoids. Baker assigned crewmembers Jim McPherson and Mark Setrakian the task to concoct a new alien concept for the sequence. “Rick said, ‘that was done in Cocoon. Let’s do something better.’ He said ‘you guys come up with something better for tomorrow morning.’ We were leaving for lunch. Mark and I talked about the alien at lunch and yes, the idea of an alien with foot pedals, levers and monitors was Mark’s idea.” Baker added: “the idea that we came up with was this face that opened up like a door, and there would be a little green man inside working his levers — he would be waving, pull a lever and close it back. Inside he would have little monitors through which he could see [the outside].”
While Setrakian first conceived the idea, the small alien’s appearance was devised in a haste by McPherson. The design was developed in contrast with the frightening designs done before Cinovation’s involvement with the project. “The look was my idea,” McPherson revealed. “specifically, I did a grey or little green man-type alien because I had seen tons of great scary alien designs done at the studio before Rick was hired; that made Barry nervous, and I decided I had to be very literal with the alien design — and appealing, not scary.” The design was influenced by Whitley Strieber’s first-person accounts of an alien abduction.
The idea captured Sonnenfeld’s attention, and was immediately approved. McPherson was thus requested to build a test model in record time. The maquette portrayed “this guy lifting up his entire face and revealing that his body was a robot and there was a tiny alien sitting in his head piloting him,” Setrakian said. “The whole concept was just a throwaway. It was something that you would see for a second, like this really cool reveal, fake head with a hand and then this little alien.” McPherson added: “it was supposedly going to be photo-composited into a head, and maybe even used for a video test; though I was busy and don’t recall seeing that happen. Rick told me to paint it red. Barry said — when he saw it — he didn’t like anything that colour.” Chucky’s colour scheme thus switched from red to greenish hues, a trait that would be inherited by the final design. A test animatronic was then constructed.
The concept was so well-received that the bar scene was excised — replaced with the worm guys — and the idea was inherited by Mr. Gentle. “They liked the idea so much that they cut out the bar scene altogether and then wrote a completely different scene with the Rosenberg alien,” Setrakian said, “which had dialogue and became this thing where it was revealing one of the plot points of the film.” The alien and cockpit design was further refined by Huante following its new central role in the film; Sonnenfeld was so fond of the initial concept so much he asked for the design to stay close to that configuration.
Originally, Rosenberg was an emissary of an alien race called the Baltians, sent on Earth for a peace treaty with the Arquillians — another race the Baltians had been fighting over a miniature galaxy. The Bug’s plan was to steal said galaxy to keep the war going — because its race fed on its spoils. Sonnenfeld explained: “in the original script, two warring parties — the Baltians and the Arquillians — were fighting over this very small galaxy; and this third race — Edgar’s race — had come down to steal this galaxy to keep the war going between the Arquillians and the Baltians because as long as the war continued the Bug race would be able to feast on the carnage of both parties.”
So two galaxies have been fighting for years. And the only people who’ve been benefiting are a race of creatures called bugs. Then the two galaxies decide to make peace… and the bugs send this guy down to make sure the fighting never stops.
By killing the emissaries, and stealing the galaxy they’ve been fighting about.
After a test screening left the audience confused regarding this articulate political subplot, producers requested Sonnenfeld and crew to simplify the storyline. The new concept involved the Bugs attempting to steal the Arquillians’ galaxy — with the Baltians excised completely. Rosenberg himself became a member of the Arquillian royal family.
The original conflict was narrated through key sequences that could be edited or cut without the need for additional reshoots: the dialogue in the restaurant scene was changed to subtitled alien language; Frank the pug’s expository lines were rewritten and dubbed; and the MIB headquarters screen showing the crossfire between the Arquillians and the Baltians and their communications with the MIB was altered to a single Arquillian battle cruiser. Additional sequences of the MIB agents commenting on the war were cut. The only hint at the earlier storyline is that the high-rank Arquillian the Bug kills is described as having a peculiar bone structure (hinting at an organic being as opposed to a human-shaped vehicle like Rosenberg’s). This single line was most likely overseen by the filmmakers.
Far before this plot change occurred, construction of the Chucky character — the cockpit-head and the alien within — had already been completed. Rosenberg was created in two sizes: a life-size animatronic element and a 4:1 scale oversized version that would allow the desired amount of detail in both texture and physical animation of the creature, since lip-synchronization mechanisms and other complex functions could not be installed in the small, life-size version. The large scale Chucky is seen the most — composited with the life-size cockpit or in close-up. Construction was performed by Cinovation under the supervision of Jose Fernandez and Aaron Sims, in collaboration with the ILM crew (which built the oversized version of the cockpit).
The large Chucky puppet could perform a wide range of motion — from moving and blinking eyes, to breathing, to talking. “We used lip-sync for the shot,” Baker said, “which was very hard to do with a puppet. To make things easier, we preprogrammed the same dialogue used during the live-action shoot. My head mechanical engineer, Mark Setrakian — who built the mechanism and puppeteered the little version of Chucky — had done the voice when we shot the scene with the principal actors. He also puppeteered the large scale version at ILM, so we simply used the same track of him doing the voice. Mark modified our motion control system using Midi software so that we could tweak and adjust the computer sequencing to repeat the lip-sync precisely every time.”
Men in Black ends with the ultimate zoom-out: the camera pulls back from Earth, past the moon, the solar system and then the milky way and the cluster of galaxies it belongs to — revealing that our cosmos is encased in a marble that’s being used for a game by an unknown entity.
The galaxy player was modeled by Tony Hudson and endowed with several internal components portraying its circulatory system and pulsating organs, as well as a translucent green skin and flesh. The shot was designed at ILM by digital artist Derek Thompson and supervised by Scott Farrar and technical director Pat Meyers.
Both Cinovation and ILM ultimately brought their entire tool repertoire to successfully bring to life the aliens of Men in Black. “We had some really smart people working on this show,” Brevig said, “who were especially gifted at translating the technical elements into eloquent visual images. By allowing them creative freedom, their raw talent had the opportunity to emerge fully on the screen.”
Special thanks to Jim McPherson for providing some out-of-this-world insight for this article!