Exclusive: Interview with Adam Johansen
Monster Legacy had the privilege and honour to interview Adam Johansen, head of Odd Studio, about their work on Alien: Covenant. For the film, Odd Studio merged with Conor O’Sullivan’s Creatures Inc. to create a series of practical creatures that would serve both as onscreen effects and as reference for the digital effects.
Monster Legacy: A more personal question first. What inspired you to become a make-up and special effects artist?
Adam Johansen: As a child, I was always obsessed with creatures, monsters, ghosts and folklore etc. and films like Star Wars, The Dark Crystal, The Thing, Alien, Jaws, E.T., Gremlins etc. had a huge impact on me. As long as I can remember, I was always making and drawing things and my parents tell me I had a very vivid imagination as a child. My inspirations were like every other monster kid -Dick Smith, Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Steve Johnson, Chris Tucker, Stuart Freeborn, Ray Harryhausen, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Steve Wang and Jim Henson.
Monster Legacy: Alien: Covenant reveals that David creates the classic Alien through crossbreeding experiments. Was that always the pitch or did this story dynamic change during the course of production? Did this direction in any way influence the creature designs?
Adam Johansen: From the time I began working on the film, that was always the story. Yes, the designs of the creatures were to be more animalistic, more raw/primal and far less refined than the biomechanical xenomorph we know from Alien.
Monster Legacy: Looking at behind-the-scenes pictures of the Alien animatronic head, I noticed the skull underneath the dome has distinctly-shaped eye sockets and no nose hole. Was this design choice inspired by H.R. Giger’s Necronom IV and/or his early concept art for the Alien with the black bug-like eyes?
Adam Johansen: H.R. Giger was most definitely the primary source of inspiration for the Xenomorph. Even though it predates Giger’s Alien, it obviously needs to be in the same world and part of the evolution.
Monster Legacy: Let’s talk about the Alien design process at large! The practical version looks like an anatomy mannequin from hell — with bones and exposed muscles – with a head that looks very reminiscent of the original Big Chap. You also said that Ridley wanted to reference flayed waxworks.
Adam Johansen: We made a few versions of the Xenomorph. One full scale, over 9ft tall bunraku suit worn by Andrew Crawford and a traditional smaller scale foam latex suit worn by Goran D. Kleut. In addition to the suits, we made a full scale torso animatronic Xenomorph puppet. Ridley likes shooting everything in camera and wanted the practical creature suits on set, to work out his shots and also so VFX had real elements and movements they could use when required. There were loads of Covenant Xenomorph designs produced by many, many brilliant artists. At the time of preproduction, Ridley had not decided on a definitive design though. Our creature dept combined elements of previous designs Ridley liked, references of flayed waxworks Ridley liked and some of our own designs (Maquettes, ZBrush and Photoshop) to come up with a creature look Ridley liked. Bradley Simmons sculpted the head, Dominic Hailstone and myself sculpted the body, Colin Shulver did some ZBrush designs and Conor O’Sullivan did some photoshopping. Upon first viewing, Ridley didn’t love the face and Conor and I eventually made the call to redesign it, to give it more of the original look (more skull like with stretched tendons etc) and Damian Martin, Colin Ware, Rob Trenton, Julian Ledger and myself did the final artworking. The final designs of the creatures were all realised in the creature dept, which was a great honour for our team.
Monster Legacy: A new kind of bunraku-inspired puppeteering rig — which I have found similar to the effects approach for the Phantom Menace C3PO — was devised for the production, but could not be refined within your time schedule. What were the bugs and problems that you met with that rig?
Adam Johansen: Bunraku puppets aren’t new but we did put a bit of a twist on it for our 9ft tall Xenomorph. Originally, there wasn’t going to be any creature suits, with our workload consisting of all the burster scenes/fx, some creature puppets (chestburster, face huggers), prosthetics, dummies, over 100 engineer corpses, working eggs and a whole of bunch of creatures and experiments for David’s Lab. However, 2 months before filming Ridley expressed he wanted creature suits for the Xenomorph and Neomorph. There were obvious restrictions on a suit that size in some of the sets which is why we had the smaller version (foam latex suit) and an animatronic puppet from the waist up. On the 9ft suit, there was quite a bit of inertia from the head when he moved and the head at that scale (with some animatronic movements too) made it tricky at times for Andrew to balance on the carbon fibre blades. His arms puppeteered the alien’s arms too. Andrew did a wonderful job getting around in the suit, often walking over rugged terrain. A bit more rehearsal time for the full scale xenomorph team would’ve been good.
Monster Legacy: Looking at MPC’s digital Alien, its design is very different to the practical version — the shoulders and ribcage are thicker, the mouth has less tendons, the legs are now triplejointed, and other cosmetic modifications. So there seemed to be a phase during production where it was decided to modify the design further; what were the reasons behind the specific design changes?
Adam Johansen: The big change was the jointed legs. There were a couple of minor changes to other areas but it is very close to our final, practical xeno.
Monster Legacy: Let’s talk about the other Alien stages. The new chestburster has Sil-like translucency and moves like a spindly marionette. It also seems to harken back to ADI’s Bambi Burster for Alien3? Could you talk about the Alien: Covenant version of the Chestburster and the practical versions that were built?
Adam Johansen: It was based on a sketch by Ridley. It was a lovely rod puppet to make and it looked fantastic. Sculpted by Dominic Hailstone. The super-translucent silicone was cast by Rob Trenton and Suzi Battersby with a beautiful polished armature inside it made by Greg McKee. We have some great behind-the-scenes footage of the team puppeteering it in the studio which we will release one day.
Monster Legacy: Of all the new designs in the film, the Facehugger seems closest to the original
iteration with only a few cosmetic changes. Could you elaborate more on the design and
what practical models were built?
Adam Johansen: We built a walking animatronic facehugger, a soft version that was fired out of an egg, a poseable stunt version and a version that had spring loaded legs to ‘hug’ your face. The design was quite close to the original with a few changes, particularly in the fingers. The final hugger was sculpted by Colin Shulver and Andy Hunt, moulded by Gordon Hobkirk’s team and painted by Emily James. Greg McKee and Matt Ward meched the animatronic walking version and Wayne Starkey and Thomas Van Koeverden worked on the version that was fired out of the egg. Very fun, old school effects!
Monster Legacy: What can be said about the new Alien eggs you built? What about the Neomorph spore pods?
Adam Johansen: Designed by Dominic Hailstone and 3d printed before being moulded, re-textured and multiple copies made. A couple were cable controlled to open and one egg had a rig inside which spun a facehugger underneath a hot melt vinyl skin to show life. To me, it looks digitally untouched in the final film, it looked pretty cool on set when we had it running.
Monster Legacy: The Neomorph was definitely my favourite creature in the film. Could you talk about the creation of this monster at large? Carlos Huante designed it starting from his own unused Beluga Alien concepts for Prometheus. Was that always the idea from the get-go or did you explore different concepts for this character? How did the design progress and how was the anatomy of the jaw worked out?
Adam Johansen: The Neomorph was one of the trickiest creatures/characters I’ve ever worked on. Ridley had not been 100% sold on any of the previous designs of the Neomorph and as we begun pre production, we were still concepting and designing the Neomorph and the Xenormorph. For the adult Neomorph, I was working on the designs/sculpture of the adult head, Bradley Simmons was working on some early teenage versions of the heads, while Colin Shulver was doing some digital designs of the adult body and Conor was photoshopping elements and animated movements of its working jaw. Ridley heavily referenced the Goblin Shark for the jaw movement and also for the colouration and feel of the creature. He also referenced a Carlos Huante sketch as the basis of the Neomorph head shape. The face was hard to resolve, especially the closed mouth which was to be very anus-like. The colour scheme was designed by Damian Martin. We produced a foam latex suit for the adult worn by Goran D. Kleut (sculpted by Andy Hunt and Colin Shulver, foamed by Steve Katz, Gavin Kyle and Tristan Lucas and painted by Damian Martin and Julian Ledger) and a snapping jaw, animatronic head puppet of my adult Neomorph. The 2 baby/infant Neomorph puppets were sculpted by Rob Trenton, cast by Suzi Battersby, meched by Greg McKee
and James Paul and painted by Kala Harrison.
Monster Legacy: My favourite scene in the film is David’s brief confrontation with the Neomorph. As the monster approaches the android, it moves like a big mannequin or marionette. Looking at it I was reminded of those early Bolaji Badejo tests for the original film. What was the approach to the suit performance of the Neomorph?
Adam Johansen: Yes, slow, curious and measured movements in that scene which was a contrast to the frantic baby neomorph.
Monster Legacy: The ‘baby’ and ‘teen’ Neomorph seemed to be designed by ‘reverse-engineering’ the adult – making the proportions more baby-like or immature. Were those designs inspired by Huante’s unused ‘Babyhead’ concepts for Prometheus and/or Giger’s Alien3 chestburster designs?
Adam Johansen: As previously mentioned, a combination of Ridley’s favourite designs (old and new) were referenced for the neomorph (both adult and infant) but nothing definitive had been chosen when we began preproduction.
Monster Legacy: What were the changes applied to MPC’s digital Neomorphs? It appeared to have a smoother finish, as well as thinner proportions. There also seemed to be two distinct teen Neomorph head configurations, with one more ‘bulbous’ than the other?
Adam Johansen: Several stages of the Neomorph’s life cycle were designed by us and created practically. The final adult version is smoother, less detailed than our practical version.
Monster Legacy: Reading various test screening reactions online, it seems that the other Neomorph in
the film appeared towards the finale but was cut. There seemed to be various versions of how it died as well. What alternative scenes were done?
Adam Johansen: There was one big one scene in particular, let’s leave it at that!
Monster Legacy: The purpose of most of the effects you provided was to be on-set reference and then be replaced by the digital versions. Besides the more frantic/dynamic sequences, did you feel your practical creations could’ve done the job without digital replacement?
Adam Johansen: Yes I do.
Monster Legacy: How was your experience, overall, with the film and its production? Do you have
anything specific to say?
Adam Johansen: We had a wonderfully talented, hardworking and committed team of up to 45 in the creature department. It was a great collaboration between the Australian Odd Studio and English Creatures Inc Ltd. I enjoyed working alongside Conor and his team and met and made a lot of new friends and reunited with some old friends from the U.K. I hadn’t seen since my FARSACPE days. Personally, having the honour and responsibility of being Creature Effects Supervisor, on a Ridley Scott Alien film was a dream come true. My younger self would’ve lost his mind knowing the conversations, opportunities and experiences I had on Alien: Covenant. Along with working with George Miller on a Mad Max film and George Lucas on two Star Wars films, it will be very hard to top this experience.
Monster Legacy: About that! I loved your work on Mad Max. If the characters from that film were in Covenant, would they fare any better against David and the Aliens?
Adam Johansen: Haha, yeah, Furiosa would be tough to beat!
Special Thanks to Adam Johansen for this interview! Be sure to visit: