ALIENS: THIS TIME IT’S MORE
How do you create a sequel to one of the biggest and most distinctive movies of the seventies? Well, if you’re James Cameron, the rule is generally that you improve, adapt and overcome!
How do you create a sequel to one of the biggest and most distinctive movies of the seventies? Well, if you’re James Cameron, the rule is generally that you improve, adapt and overcome!
This was true of the plot, the action scenes and, inevitably, the look of Aliens. As previously discussed, when Cameron came to make the film in 1986, he needed everything done yesterday, in order to keep to his tight schedule and tighter budget. This may explain why he elected not to involve Swiss alien-maestro H.R. Giger, whose methods, although extraordinarily effective, were more than a little time-consuming.
But the fact remained that, unlike its predecessor, Aliens would need several creatures, and the costumes would need to be more flexible and sturdier than that originally constructed by Herr Giger. Cameron gave the task of re-inventing the wheel to his Terminator collaborator, Stan Winston.
With only four months preparation time, Winston needed persuading, but Cameron, a man unaccustomed to being said nay, explained it thusly: “Anyone who’s been through the process of creating a creature effect … knows that, to make one, takes six months, and to make two takes six months and a couple of extra days … there’s an economy of scale there.”
Inevitably, given the different designer and the different requirements, alterations were made to the basic look of the alien. Giger’s original design called for the skull to have a ridged, bony look, with a smooth, transparent carapace placed over the ridges to hint at the biology going on below the armour. Scott found that this looked confusing in his low-lit environment, so the transparent cowl became a dark one, hiding the sculpted work beneath.
Cameron and Winston decided to go back to the transparent idea, and set sculptor Tom Woodruff the task of recreating the ribbed skull. Cameron took a look at the end result and decided “Hey, this looks much more interesting the way it is!” Consequently, they knocked the cowl on the head, and decided that their film would feature a slightly different genus of alien – a slightly mutated one. This useful explanation is also useful in explaining to the fans why the aliens here are much smaller than Giger’s, and why they have fewer fingers. Giger’s alien had six long fingers which were seemingly bonded together, Winston decided to take a step away from the human hand, by giving his aliens three long digits armed with wicked talons. The actors in the suits could wear these hands like gloves, and move the fingers about, making them more life-like than the original’s.
In the years immediately before Cameron jump-started the digital revolution (with the computer-generated ‘water-snake’ from The Abyss, 1988 and then, of course, with the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2, 1990), he and Winston found themselves presented with an insurmountable obstacle. The closing moments of Alien had betrayed the creature for what it was – a man in a gloriously elaborate suit.
By the time production would get underway on Alien 3 in 1991, this problem of recognition would be swept away by having a computer-generated beastie throwing poses no mere human, however double-jointed, would be capable of. Back in 1986, Cameron and Winston had no alternative to the man-in-a-suit method, so they chose to disguise it with snappy editing and a few tricks of the light: “What Jim wanted,” Explains Winston, “Were movements that were sporadic and odd and strange, so that even though they were men in suits, they didn’t move like men in suits … hanging from ceilings, jumping from wall to wall, doing insect-like moves and so on. The alien in the first film could never have done these things because it was a full rubber suit and was very difficult to move around in.”
By the nature of the script Cameron had written, the alien warriors wouldn’t be seen on the screen for as long, or as closely, as Giger’s had, so a few short-cuts could be contemplated, such as sticking rubber details on a basic black body-stocking, rather than employing Giger’s method of layer wires pipes and bones over a full-length rubber suit. “ … When you see them in the film and they’re all wet and slimy, you can’t tell the difference at all between ours and the original!”
It then fell to the stunt-men and dancers in the suits to ‘sell’ the alien. “I think it’s a mistake a lot of make-up and prosthetics people make,” Cameron explains, “ … they lavish all their attention on the sculptural detail, the surface texture of the suit, and they fail to realise that people need very few pixels of information to recognise a human figure, and much of that information comes from the way we walk. “(Therefore, it was important) to give them this weird dynamic, an unhuman kind of motion so that, basically, you’re just being bombarded with so much imagery that you just have to give up and say ‘Okay, fine, they’re aliens, they’re not men in suits’!”
Rather than casting for sheer size, as Alien had with the seven-footer Bolaji Badejo, Cameron cast athletes and dancers as his energetic aliens, and he hired far fewer than you’d expect. Even though the film traded on the image that it contained an army of aliens – Cameron had a cunning way of keeping his budget (and Stan Winston’s headaches) down to a manageable level: “You never see more than six (aliens) in one scene at one time; it’s only editorially that you believe you’re seeing more than that. They just keep coming at you from different angles – those same six guys. Roger Corman [Cameron’s mentor] once said he filmed the fall of the Roman Empire with five extras and a bush … that was the principle!”
For facial close-ups, several articulated alien heads and upper torsos were created, capable of pulling back lips and extending tongues. These puppets were built slightly larger than the body-stocking suits, making the creatures apparently stand eight feet tall, and providing them with a torso far too narrow to contain an actor. This was all part of the illusion. Ultimately, fifteen alien warrior suits were made, supplemented by ten puppets.
Of course, the aliens themselves weren’t the only things that Winston and his team had four months to put together – there was the small matter of the chest-burster and the face-hugger.
The first alien you see ‘in the wild’, is in the form of a chest-burster. This was copied exactly from Roger Dicken’s model in the first film, and, as with the first chest-burst, they took the trouble to build two beasties. One very simple but very tough model rammed out of its hapless victim’s chest, then a second model took over, which had more machinery inside to allow its vestigial arms to work, as well as its jaws. This second model was, interestingly, built in Britain by special effects artist Steven Norrington, who went on to become a director himself with the impressive vampire-flick Blade (1998) and the almost universally reviled League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003).
Ironically, as with the first film, after time, effort and money had gone into building a better beast, it was the T-shirt it had to tear through which held things up. They went through half a dozen of them before they finally got the blood-splattered shot they were looking for. After this, they fitted the model burster to a full-size replica of it’s dead host’s body, and torched the whole lot. Norrington’s model burster did them proud, writhing and thrashing beneath a curtain of flame in a manner which must have seemed most satisfactory after a day of fighting with, of all things, a T-shirt.
This scene, as with the whole Atmosphere Processor sequence, was shot away from the film’s base at Pinewood Studio, and over at the disused electric power-station at Acton. Because it was the only sustained sequence in the film which didn’t require Sigourney Weaver, it was shot first, to give her time to finish shooting the now forgotten Michael Caine co-starrer Half Moon Street over at Elstree Studios. As this hadn’t been the planned order of events, it gave Cameron’s crew a particular headache because, not only did they need the chest-burster, not only would the alien warriors make their debut earlier than anticipated, their was also the small matter of set dressing.
When the Space Marines enter the Processor, they find that the aliens have set-to and turned it into a ‘hive’, building their tell-tale biomechanical sculptures around the superstructure of the plant. This was production designer Peter Lamont’s responsibility. He oversaw the sculpting of huge clay sections, from each of which, dozens of molds were taken. Ultimately, hundreds of pre-fab wall-mountings were cast.
Having sprayed the metal-work of the power-plant silver to, ironically, make it look more industrial; the set-dressers got to work installing the castings as a mosaic, hanging and painting them in such a way that, in the film, no one would notice that so much of the wall bore a striking resemblance to so much more of it. Lamont remembers: “We began on the lower floor and were still working on the upper floor when production began. As Jim came up, shooting, we were gradually retreating.”
As the Acton Power Station was no longer in use, the Aliens crew could leave things as they were. Consequently, three years later, when the next visitors, the set dressers for Batman (1989), arrived to refit the place as Gotham City, they found the Atmosphere Processor of LV426 still standing. Lamont’s team may have built swiftly, but they built sturdily!
Next the action moved to Pinewood proper, where the first alien effects needed would be the bottled face-huggers in the science lab. Mostly these were simple rubber models, painted white and underlit to look dead but still spooky. One hugger was required to react to company-man Burke’s face pressed up against the glass.
The script called for face-huggers that could scuttle, climb and lunge, all of which, Winston’s team had succeeded in making possible. The problem this first creature presented was how to make it operate under-water and in a see-through tube. Finally, Ray Lovell of Winston’s Creature Effects Crew came up with a design that featured a spring-loaded tail which worked off a pull-cable, rather like a child’s spinning top.
Curiously, this wasn’t the only time that children’s toys provided the solution to face-hugger problems. During the attack on Newt and Ripley, the crawling face-hugger which works its way across a table-top towards Newt, needed legs that moved. After much experimentation, Cameron himself struck on the idea of copying a simple pull-toy. Have the hugger on a wire, pull the wire, which is attached to rotating gears; attach the ‘shoulders’ of the legs to the gears and, bingo, instant scuttle.
Because Cameron’s huggers were required to do far more than sit on someone’s face, a small amount of adaptation went into Dicken’s original design – making the knuckles sturdier and adding fingernails – but nothing that would be noticed in the cut and thrust of the film.
The ‘star’ face-hugger was to be the one which Ripley and Hicks tussle with. This was the one that required the most work, as they would have to make it do the most things at once. It needed to breathe, writhe, flail its legs, lash its tongue around and thrash its tail. Two teams worked on it, firstly in the States, then Norrington and others took up the challenge upon Winston’s arrival in England. Ultimately, it took nine puppeteers to operate it by remote control.
Other, simpler huggers were fabricated for quick edits – one had magnetic legs so it could cling to the wall, another was a simple rubber shell used for leaping shots, whilst a third was designed with scuttling legs but which ran off a battery so the Marines could throw it across the room, and it still be moving when it landed.
The next, and largest, task Winston’s team undertook, was the creation of an all-new alien, based indirectly on Giger’s designs, but unprecedented by anything in the first film: The Alien Queen. Cameron (not uncharacteristically) took a very hands-on approach to the design of this, and his original pencil sketches were reproduced by Winston’s team with frightening accuracy, much to the director’s delight: “For me, the Queen is really a blend of what Giger does with what I wanted to do, which was to create something that was big and powerful and terrifying and fast and very female – hideous and beautiful at the same time, like a black widow spider.”
Obviously, were he to make the film today, he would have the Queen rendered digitally, but, back in the good ole 1980s, he set his sights on having her built for real, full-size, fourteen feet from top-knot to toe-nails. The trunk of the body would be required to contain two operators, who would, between them, work the beast’s four arms. Once the size of this was ascertained, everything else was built to the same scale.
Cameron had adopted a method of using his home video camera to record rough ‘videoboards’ of the special effects sequences, so that the different effects crews could get an early idea of the film Cameron intended to make. He was happy to use a model kit on a stick for the drop ship, a rubber glove for the face hugger and, for the alien queen, a full-size construction of timber, cardboard and bin-liners. This served to help him frame shots and work-out editing options, whilst giving the operators some hands-on experience of what was expected of them later in the shoot.
So complicated would the full-size Queen prove to be, the sculpture had to be put together by no fewer the seven sculptors, each working separately on a different part, one each per leg, one for the body, one for the head, etc. Of course, one complete model wasn’t enough; the arms, for example, came fitted with a variety of different hands for use in different shots – ones with moveable fingers which the men in her chest could operate, soft foam ones which would flap about when the arm moved, or sturdier, thicker ones for the battle sequence. Similarly, two separate sets of legs were fabricated, one of which could be articulated for walking shots.
Then there was the small matter of how the monster would stand up. To allow the camera to shoot the Queen from every possible angle, two separate methods of support were employed: She could either be hung by wires from an over-head crane, or attached to the same crane, underneath, by a rigid bracket. A hydraulic pivot allowed the body to turn left and right, controlled by a simple steering wheel at the other end of the crane arm. Further independent motor systems allowed the body to tilt forward and backwards, and to move the head around – each of these systems had a separate operator.
The final, and, by-far, the most complicated sequence for Winston’s team, was the final battle between the Power Loader and the Queen. Although it used a substantial amount of post-production special-effects, this sequence first needed a week of live-action shooting – with Sigourney Weaver, the Power Loader, half of Bishop, the Queen, and an army of operators. As John Richardson recalls: “For the scenes where we had the Alien Queen and the power loader working together, the whole stage was full of special effects people pulling wires and pushing levers. It was quite a sight.”
The miniature cut-aways for the same scene were hardly less labour-intensive. Early-on, Cameron had decided against using stop-motion animation for these scenes, and had opted for puppetry: “As a director, I find it tough to deal with stop-motion and the scenes involving the alien queen were very important, and what we were trying to do was create a real and believable character. The rod-and-cable-actuated puppet seemed more appealing for a number of reasons. One was that I had never worked with that kind of thing before and I wanted to fool around with it and see what could be done. Also, I just had a feeling that with a lot of the floor effects we’d be using – smoke and steam and that sort of thing – we’d have more flexibility with puppets we could shoot ‘live’ on a miniature set.”
Phil Notaro, who had worked on developing the puppets over in the States, came over as lead operator and got his first sight of the miniature cargo-hold set. The puppeteers would be under the floor of the set, manipulating the Queen and the Power Loader with rods reaching up through the floor, which presented problems since the set had been built without his input: “It was a beautiful job – but basically it was not very accommodating to our needs. It was a lot of pipes and wood and things, all nailed down very securely into place. Since we were going to be operating the puppets from below the floor, we had to cut big slots in the set and then cosmetically disguise them. So to get our slots where we needed them, there was a lot of sawing and cutting and spray-painting that had to be done.”
Each shot had to look good from two different camera positions (Cameron was always careful to make sure he had as much coverage as possible), then a third camera system had to be set up, so that the puppeteers underground could have video-feeds of what they were doing upstairs. More monitors had to be positioned in the rafters, so the operators up-top, who were holding the miniatures upright on wires, could also see what was going on.
For even the simplest of movements, Notaro’s team consisted of : “Two guys supporting the queen from above, two others walking her from below and five cable operators for the other functions” Oh, and one director who insisted in bashing the puppet’s head against a door to demonstrate just how violent he wanted the fight to be. It is not surprising, under such circumstances, that the crew only managed to successfully complete one shot per day. Their miniature cutaways therefore took three times as long to finish as the live-action footage which comprises the majority of the sequence.
As one final example of how rigorous life on a Jim Cameron set can be, we need only look at the sad and sorry tale of the miniature Power Loader. It had given sterling service in the film’s one-and-only stop-motion scene, by providing a little background activity when, early on, Ripley shows Apone and Hicks that she knows how to use it. Then it put up with a three-week battering from the Queen, before meeting its inelegant end in the cargo-hold’s airlock. As Notaro remembers it, although they used a simple foam stunt-Queen for the fall: “We only had one power-loader, so we had to use the articulated one … The puppets actually dropped about five feet – and, as they fell, the power-loader would wiggle and then crash at the bottom … We did about eight takes on it, and each time it crashed into pieces. We’d then have to superglue it back together and do it again.”
The final ignominy came when the doors were opened. The miniature cargo-hold was removed from the main cargo-hold set, and hung from the rafters, some twenty-five above the ground. A blanket, decorated with stars, was hung beneath this, to indicate the depths of space, and to catch the two models when they tumbled out. “Fortunately we got it first take … the power-loader hit the edge of the starfield blanket, went through, struck the concrete floor beneath and shattered into a million pieces. At that point there was nothing to do with it but put it in a box.” And Cameron’s eulogy for this stalwart trooper who had silently suffered so much in the name of his film? “That’s it! Well, at least we don’t have to do that again!” Fair chokes you up, doesn’t it!
Quotes come from:
‘ALIEN: THE SPECIAL EFFECTS’ Written by Don Shay and Bill Norton. Published by Titan Books, 1997.
Interview with Cameron by David Castell from ‘JAMES CAMERON – A DIRECTOR AND HIS WORK’ an independent television profile produced by Special Treats, 1986.
Interview with Cameron by Don Shay as part of the supplementary material from the ‘ALIENS: THE SPECIAL EDITION’ Laser Disc, released by Fox Video, 1991.