A30: ALIEN 30 pt 5



After effectively serving his apprenticeship working under Derek Meddings on Thunderbirds (1965 – 66), young model-maker Roger Dicken got his first movie-job at MGM Studios working on a little thing called 2001 (produced from 1966-8), creating the Moon terrain out of plaster. From there he went on to helm the special effects on films like The Blood Beast Terror (1967), Witchfinder General (1968) and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1969), where he enjoyed the chance of working with the stop-motion technique he grew-up admiring, by creating the dinosaurs for American animator Jim Danforth to bring to life. The duo were Oscar-Nominated for their work ... but lost to Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) a film Robert Stevenson directed for Disney, some four years before making One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing. But we’ll get back to that later.

When producer John Dark contacted Dicken to design the beasties for The Land That Time Forgot (1974), and later, Warlords of Atlantis (1978), he was given freedom to create whatever he liked. John Dark said: “Here’s the script, don’t take any notice of the description of the monsters, just come up with something nasty.” Which is exactly what he did. This experience, therefore, stands in marked contrast to Dicken’s next, and arguably most celebrated job - building the Face Hugger and Chest Burster from Alien. But let’s hear it in his own words:

“As these things always do, it began with a phone call. I think it must have been the producer Ivor Powell, but you’ll forgive me for not being sure, its been a while. I was asked, originally, to concoct the big beast as well as the two small beasts, but there was so much argument and mind-changing over the big one that I eventually had to tell them that I just wasn’t interested; and I stuck to the two small forms - The Face Hugger and The Chest Burster. This was before Giger came aboard.”

Having read a lot about the film, and spoken to some of the people involved, I get the distinct impression that Alien was a fairly messy production, what with staff-changes and lots of people not being able to make up their minds about things ...

"Well I’m glad you said that. I’ll tell you, there has been so much tosh written about that film. Let it be known that I have a reputation of being a difficult individual to work with, but this is mostly because of misunderstandings and interference. I consider myself to be a creative special effects man, not a fizz-bang man. Often, you will find in films that someone like me has been engaged to make these creatures, and, like me, they work outside the studio and take their box of tricks in when its done.

“Now, lets say, for example, the guys who have been working on model submarines, have already been shooting in the studio for a number of weeks, and making a big fuss. Then, the monster man arrives, and, consequently, interest on the set shifts to the new guy. Well, this isn’t always accepted with the best grace by those who were there first.

And so, in a strained environment, you still have a job to do. Especially as, at the end of the day, however brilliant the submarine effects are, the kids are paying to see the monsters. The scenes the audience remembers aren’t the beautiful shots of the submarine or the spaceship or whatever that takes the hero into danger, they remember the moment when the monster pops up!

“Now, on Alien, I was working away in my own studio, creating the Chest Burster according to the agreed designs, when I got a call from someone at Fox. They were concerned that my model would not be strong enough to break through John Hurt’s false chest. So, the main special effects team requested a simple solid cast of the head. I said it wasn’t necessary, but they insisted that it was better to be safe than sorry. Of course, I knew why this had really come about. There was a real anticipation of the whole Chest Burst scene, and some people just didn’t want to be left out of it.

“Now, next time I spoke to the studio, it turned out they’d had an expensive hydraulic ram made up, with the rigid Burster fitted on the end of an arm which pumped up and down. It would all seem very impressive to the producers. Well, I thought it was a stupid and needless waste of money, but, since I had this reputation of being a difficult individual, I decided to say nothing.

“So, the day of the shoot came and I arrived with my creature, to see them hacking away at John Hurts false fibreglass chest, with a hacksaw, in order to get it to fit comfortably. This didn’t inspire much confidence.

“Next, the hydraulic contraption is wheeled in, with the solid Burster and several blood tubes attached. This is then positioned beneath the chest cavity. The cavity is packed with the usual offal that films employ in such scenes, and I just stood back and watched.

“The set was ready, Ridley Scott assembled the actors, called out “Action”, John became suitably unhinged, the others reacted accordingly and, at Ridley’s signal, the button was pushed to activate the hydraulic ram. Well, it banged up and down repetitively, the blood squirting everywhere, but failed to rip through the t-shirt.

“John Hurt had to be extricated from the mess and the whole set had to be cleaned up. Poor Veronica Cartwright had to change costumes because she’d been sprayed with blood. All for a second take. Johnny Hurt was dragged back, draped in more blood and guts, with a second t-shirt positioned over the chest - but this time they’d lacerated it with razor blades. If I’d have been handling that side of it, I’d have weakened it chemically over a week or so, to make sure it was ready to be disintegrated.

“So, there was a helluva lot of time wasted. I wonder how much it cost Fox in delays? Anyway, the cast and crew are assembled, and this time the head bust through and continued to jack-hammer up and down until Ridley said “Cut”. Then the contraption was removed, I positioned myself under the table, and thrust-up my hand-held, articulated creature, suitably bloodied up, and animated it through the next shot - which is what the world finally got to see.

“Now, clearly, the hydraulic contraption was a waste of time and money because, if the t-shirt had to be lacerated to get it through, then I may as well have used my model, as originally planned. If they had wanted the sequence to carry on, without cutting, then my creature would have burst through and carried on moving, breathing, looking about. As it was, they had to cut within seconds.

“The reason these things happen is what you call The Fear Factor in the hierarchy. The big boys have got so much at stake, they’re terrified of it going wrong, so they throw even more money at it to cover themselves. In this case the money went on a hydraulic gadget that simply didn’t work. So, what was the point? There is no point!

“As far as I’m aware, the reason they hired me is because I had a track record in making creatures for films, its not as if this was my first time off. But they elected to second guess me. It wasn’t conducive to good feeling.”

It seems quite unusual for one man to take a monster through from the paper design stage right through to animating it on set.

“Hm, I suppose. Of course, originally, Giger’s design for the Chest Burster looked more like a turkey; a horrendous, demented turkey. So, I faithfully reproduced that turkey model for them, then took it in to Ridley and the gang. I wasn’t particularly happy with it, but I’d accepted the job, and that’s what they wanted. Well, they took one look at it and decided they didn’t like it either, that they needed something else.

“So began an epic period of nonsense, where they tried out anything and everything. I remember one day I drove in and found that they had acrobats rolling around on the table ... in bags. They were toying with the idea of shooting the chest burst sequence full-sized, in an attempt to get some weird, revolting, writhing ... thing. And whilst this was going on, there were countless meetings about the look of the big beast, literally to decide what size of man should be in the suit. And so it went on and on and on.

“Anyway, one day, I was chatting to Ridley, and I told him that I was getting heartily sick of so many people chipping their penn’orth in, and getting nowhere. I just told him: “You tell me what you want, and I’ll go away and do it”. So, he put together a very rough thumbnail sketch of what he felt it should look like, a sort-of snake-like thing, with the elongated head they had decided that the big alien would have.

“I went away and created this thing, adding all the texture and the detail myself. Ridley and the others would come out to Maidenhead, to my studio, from time to time, to sanction the thing, but, other than that, I was left alone. One time, he suggested: We’ll have no eyes on it. I said: Yeah, I’ll go with that. I took the eyes away, and that was pretty much it. And then, eventually, Giger drew his fully-rendered version of the same thing. But originally it had been a turkey - a fanged, veined, bald turkey!”

So, do you do your own paper drawings to get the ball rolling?

“I am literally useless with a pencil. I can’t do storyboards or designs or anything like that, so I work up three-dimensional models, in Plasticine. I’ve never been in an art school in my life, it’s just an ability I was born with. I’m a very fast modeler, so I just get stuck in and create these things on an armature, very, very quickly - just to get the basic form. Then, once the form is sanctioned, I go to town in putting on the detail. That’s when the natural creativity takes over and I think Oh, this’ll look good, or That’ll look good and pretty much improvise as I’m going along.

“I don’t need to sketch these things, I wouldn’t want to sit there sketching, I want to get my sleeves rolled up and get stuck in because then the image comes straight out of my head and straight into the Plasticine.

“For example, after I read the part of the script that describes the Egg Chamber, I made a little Plasticine egg, about three inches tall, with an orifice at the top and sort-of-roots at the bottom. I took it in and gave it to them as a suggestion. Well, Giger must have liked it because he drew it up and then they used his drawings as the blue-prints for the full-sized models.”

I suppose, in a creative endeavour like this, everybody has to just throw ideas into the pot.

“True, true, and that works fine if you come away from a production a happy man, and any rewards that are due to you have come to you. But, in this case, I was not a happy man. With all the to-ing and fro-ing it actually took me longer to produce those two small creatures than it did to put together all the monsters from The Land That Time Forgot.

“Okay, the productions were on two totally different scales, and you can’t compare them side-by-side; but, in terms of job-satisfaction, I had a great deal more pleasure building all those creatures, than tinkering endlessly with the two on Alien.”

Take me through the Roger Dicken process of constructing a model, then ...

“Well, as with 99% of model makers, I start with a Plasticine sculpture - some people use clay - then a plaster cast is taken, probably in a number of pieces, it’s not usually one whole cast. Then, whatever you decide to use for the construction of your beast, whether it be urethane or latex or rigid fibreglass, whatever, is poured into the mould and, once dry, is extricated then fabricated up over the metal armature.

“Now, that said, every job I’ve done has been different. The Chest-Burster was an articulated, flexible, metal armature with a urethane-resin torso, and miniature pistons incorporated into it, for the jaws, the gills and the tiny little arms. All of this was mounted on a pistol-grip, which I held, leaving my fingers free to move the body about.

“As you can imagine, it was difficult to pack all that inside such a little creature, and, as such, the technique I used to build it was the most appropriate for all the workings which needed to go inside, and what the creature was then required to do.”

And the same process was applied to the Face Hugger?

“Exactly. That started life as a sketch which came up from the design department, I don’t know who did it [most probably H.R. Giger, who worked extensively on the design of the Face Hugger]. It basically showed a head, with the thing in place and the tail wrapped around the neck. Now, I thought those skinny little fingers were far too delicate for something that had evolved such an extreme level of self-preservation. I felt its fingers should have been spinier and thicker, but that was what they wanted, so, I went away and set-to, created the full-size model, and put my own detail on it.

“Then, as with the Chest Burster, it was laid over an articulated armature. The tail just had a wire running through it, so you could thrash it about, or pull it tighter around John Hurt’s throat. There were air-bladders to make it breathe, and pistons which could move all the legs. The armature had one removable leg at the front, for the sequence when they cut that leg open, which took a number of takes to get the acid just right.

“And thereby hangs another tale: As part of my work on that sequence, I put together, as a demo model, a mock-metal girder which, when you poured a chemical on it, would melt away, but still look like it was metal all the way through. I think I showed it to Ivor Powell, but, at the end of the day, I didn’t take it any further because they’d decided to use the old stand-by of polystyrene and cellulose thinners, which just looks like white polystyrene once you burn past the surface.

“You see, some people have a different approach to their work than I do. Some of us get down to doing the work, some of us spend time arranging deals. I got into the business because I was a fan, but more and more I found myself working with people who were in the business because their parents had been.

“I have to tell you that I was known in some circles as The Renegade Effects Man, and, to be honest, I like the title. I would work by myself, go in, cause a bit of a cuffuffle, not necessarily agree with everybody, do the job and go.

“I think the difference is, at heart, I’m still a big fan of movies. I’m a collector, an artist and a fan; and that simple fact marks the difference between myself and my contemporaries. In all the time I worked in the film industry, I only met one person I was in tune with - Jim Danforth. We worked together at Bray Studios for a year, had great fun and I consider the guy to be a genius. Unfortunately, he never had the breaks in life he needed, and has never received the recognition.

“After Alien, I went out to Hollywood for a few years and I found that they had a real passion for movies. They’d sit during their lunch-breaks and pass round ideas. But, over here … I’ll give you an example of the British approach: a director came to see me at Maidenhead, I’ll name no names, and we were discussing some effects for a film he was planning. He actually sat there and told me: “Of course, my strength is: I’ve never done one of these films before!” Well, how can you argue with that?”

“And that was probably the last nail in the coffin of Roger Dicken’s film career. I decided I didn’t need it any more, I could do other things, so I did. Now, I have a nice pad in 40 acres of Welsh countryside, and sit here reading the papers, and watching all the hassles, all the fighting over the big projects and the big budgets, and I’m glad I’m out of it.

“One final thing, you might like to know about: I built a full-size Stegosaurus dinosaur for the Windsor Safari Park, he used to stand outside the reptile house. But that’s all changed now and I dunno what’s happened to him. A couple of years ago, I rang them up, because I wanted to buy him back to put in my garden, but they had no idea where he'd gone. The mysterious vanishing dinosaur!”

So, if you should stumble across a full-size Stegosaurus in your travels, you might care to let it know, a well-earned retirement awaits it, in the valleys.

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