“The Empire State building had their monster,” Larry Cohen, director of Q: The Winged Serpent, recalled, “but I thought the Chrysler Building was a better-looking building, so I thought, ‘well, they should have their own monster!’ And if you’re going to have a monster that’s a bird, what better place to have it nest than up at the top of the Chrysler Building? It’s kind of designed with a bird-like motif: It’s got gargoyles that look like giant bird-like creatures around the sides of it, and the whole top of it is kind of centered. If I was a giant bird and I was going to pick a nesting place, that’s where I’d go.”
Cohen thus began gravitating towards the idea of a giant avian creature nesting in the building. Extrapolating from Aztec mythology, he selected the legendary figure of Quetzalcoatl — a deity in the form of a feathered serpent. “I started looking for a bird that was a monster, and, well, [Quetzalcoatl] is probably the prime bird-monster there is,” Cohen continues, “and the fact that the Aztecs worshipped it as a god and performed human sacrifices to it, that all fit in with the story I was going to do.”
Cohen’s initial plan was to combine point-of-view sequences with full-scale models. He first experimented with red and green optical filters to give the aerial footage a ‘creature-vision’ effect to represent Q’s point of view. Deeming them as too derivative of similar sequences in the 1981 film The Wolfen, Cohen discarded them.
The director first hired a New York propmaker to craft a full-size head and talons. The former left Cohen dissatisfied; he thus hired Steve Neill to create another full-size head, which was also shelved. It was at this point that Cohen began to consider bringing Q to life with stop-motion animation; Neill referred him to Randall William Cook, who drew a quick concept design of the creature. Cohen had concurrently contacted Jim Danforth for the project, and compared the two pitch designs they offered. Eventually, Cohen decided to go for Cook’s version.
“Larry wanted to see a complete design breakdown of the thing,” Cook said. “I was a bit suspicious of him, since all we had talked about were these amorphous shapes zipping by the camera.” Cook’s design represented a streamlined dragon-like beaked creature, with little resemblance to the traditional depiction of Quetzalcoatl. “I drew up a flying dragon which looks nothing at all like Quetzalcoatl,” he continues, “but I thought that a naturalistic, sculptural rendering that was faithful to Aztec mythology would be too boring for my taste. Besides, I had a dragon design that I’d wanted to do for ages. So I dredged up this old chestnut, and Larry bit on it.”
Cook contacted long time collaborator David Allen to help him on the project, which only had a very limited budget for the special effects sequences. While Cook sculpted a prototype version of the model, Allen constructed the inner armature of the stop-motion model, using metallic components scavenged from the The Howling werewolves and the Caveman creatures. For the armature of the wings, Allen actually reused those that Marcel Delgado had devised for the unfinished project Creation about five decades before.
When Allen’s armature was completed, Cook sculpted the final creature directly over the metallic components, and moulded it, with Allen casting the foam latex skin afterwards. Cook and Allen also devised a stop-motion model of the serpent’s head and neck for close-ups. Its armature employed parts from the Caveman Tyrannosaurus skull and other tail and neck pieces.
The fact that Cohen decided to hire a visual effects crew only after the three-week principal photography had been finished put an additional weight on the workload. “Larry was very flexible with us, and we had a great deal of freedom within the obvious limitations,” Allen said. “Of course, since we were presented with a ‘finished’ film, there were no storyboards at all to begin with. Randy boarded a few things and Larry photographed new scenes to satisfy certain concepts — pickup shots in New York of people gaping in awe and new plates of the Banker’s Trust building for the shot of the bird crashing into the tower.” A key shot of David Carradine turning in surprise as Q’s head appeared behind him — originally shot with the full-size head — was also reshot as a bluescreen composite featuring the close-up model.
Cohen’s plan gradually shifted as he saw the results of the animators’ work. “At the start, it was just a wing beat here and a talon there,” Allen continues, “but after seeing some of our scenes, it was: ‘hey, we’ve got a creature that looks pretty good. We could choreograph specific things for it to do. And maybe we needn’t be so shy about showing him off.’ Frankly, I don’t know what Larry would have done had he not found Randy and me. It certainly would not have been quite the same picture.”
The biggest problem Cook and Allen faced was securing rear projection plates for the creature animation, especially since Cohen could not reshoot any of the aerial footage. “Out of miles of footage,” Allen related, “we picked a two-second chunk there and a .8 second shot there. The extensive effects at the end were largely done as afterthought.”
Allen’s approach to the animation of Q flying was at the time unique to the project, and combined elements from multiple traditional techniques. For most of the sequences, the serpent model was rigged on a glass compound through a hinged rod, nuts and washers. The glass was in turn encased in a moving system in front of a process screen. The glass could be moved in all directions in front of the projected background and be animated accordingly. For certain scenes, the puppet was instead suspended on wires — such as when Q crashes on the tower (a miniature matted into the plate).
Allen explained: “the system avoids matting costs and unstable aerial rigs, but the bird can’t really turn and expose both sides in the same scene. He has to remain more or less in the same attitude throughout the shot. However, since the puppet has a number of entrance points for mounting, the angle can be varied, and a certain amount of pitch and yaw can be attained. If you design the shots correctly, there’s no reason for you to expect to see both sides, anyway. Of course, there are ways of getting rid of the rods. In a bigger budget picture, you can rotoscope them out. But then, of course, you wouldn’t be working in front of a process screen!”
Motion blur of the wings — crucial to the success of the animation — was achieved by moving the drive screws during exposure. Allen related: “there are several shots that I feel are good examples of the system working at its best. One is of the monster when it has just plucked a bather from a rooftop pool and is flying away. it’s the first time you see it in full, and you’re getting a blur that’s just about perfect for the amount of gain on the frame. Then Randy did one — a tight close-up of the body going by, like a shark swimming past a porthole in an aquarium. And there was another where the monster flips a workman in the air. With mattes, you couldn’t get those kinds of edge characteristics, because it’s a true blur in front of a background. Coordinating the move of the model with thecycle of the camera shutter is sometimes something you just have to feel. It’s like grandma’s biscuits — she can’t tell you how she made ’em; she just knows the feel of the dough.” Electronic timers for exposures eased the process.
The serpent’s progeny is a newborn creature emerging from a giant egg. The baby was a hand puppet built by Steve Neill, whereas the egg was fabricated by Dennis Gordon. Cook puppeteered the creature from beneath a table. “We actually did one stop-motion shot with the hand puppet,” Allen related. “It’s the only composite scene where you see the baby bird and the people in the same scene. That was done by advancing the projection and having Randy move his hand a bit. We pixilated it and it worked fine. A large bird shell had been built for the live-action, but we just eclipsed it with our model.”
For more pictures of the winged serpent, visit the Monster Gallery.