“I always like to have these big long heads for the monster,” HR Giger told Famous Monsters magazine in 1979, “because I worked as an industrial designer. Every object needs to have a function. So if it has a long head there’s space for a long tongue. And I also gave his tongue teeth. I thought it was very good as a filmic device.”
But to take full advantage of the Alien’s retractable jaws the production needed an experienced engineer to provide the appropriate mechanisms. They decided to contact Carlo Rambaldi, an artist, effects man and one-time student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, Italy, whose earlier credits included Oscar winning work on the 1976 King Kong remake, and also later Spielberg’s E.T.
“It became apparent that we’d need some quite sophisticated mechanisms for the Alien to make his face work,” Ridley Scott told Starlog magazine. “We brought in Carlo Rambaldi, just by the skin of our teeth.” Rambaldi’s tenure was to be short: he agreed to arrive in England in August, work for several weeks, and then leave for America to join the production of Arthur Hiller’s Nightwing. In his stead he would leave Carlo De Marchis, described by Ridley as a “marvellous guy,” to oversee the shooting of his cable operated head, and to repair or modify it if need be.
At the same time David Watling, who owned an effects firm on the Shepperton lot, was also tasked with building a mechanised Alien head, “for reasons of security,” according to Giger. Watling and his team, who had manufactured the R2-D2 units used in Star Wars, ambitiously set out to work on not only a radio operated Alien head but also a radio operated tail.
“Our brief was to articulate the head with the same movements as the one Rambaldi was making,” Watling told Cinefex magazine, “but by using a radio control system rather than cables. We therefore designed and built remote control devices which gave full proportional control to the lips and the position of the inner teeth mounted on the tongue. The main jaw and tongue were activated by air cylinders which in turn were controlled by radio valves operated by the air supply and a miniature battery pack mounted in the costume on the actor’s back.”
But when Giger visited him in late July he was not impressed by Watling’s work. “Unfortunately you still can’t tilt the tongue,” the artist wrote in his diary. “I asked him whether he could replace the old jaw with the new one I’d made. He exploded.” Watling’s proposed Alien tail impressed Giger even less. “The mechanics of the tail consist of a bunch of pressure tanks, relays, hoses, and wheels,” he wrote. “Who knows how they’ll manage to stow all that away. I think the mechanics are too complicated.”
“The tail,” Giger later said in an interview for Alien Evolution, “unfortunately wasn’t given to Rambaldi to do, but was left over to [Watling] … Every week there was a demonstration, every time he used bigger handles and levers and wanted this tail to move, and it went mmmm-puff, and then it collapsed and was torn, and [he] nearly burst into tears and then he put us off until a further demonstration. And that went on week after week and Gordon Carroll was in despair, and we thought, ‘Hey, that would be brilliant if Rambaldi would do that,’ and Rambaldi was there watching too and he said, ‘That will never work.’ Well it was simply much too heavy, it simply could not work, and Rambaldi said he would have made it with very lightweight elements and that kind of thing.”
Watling’s progress with the tail was intermittent (Giger wrote in mid-September that “I don’t believe I’m ever going to see it functioning”) and when he called Giger for another demonstration in October (only days before the final scenes with the actors were filmed) the results were rather pathetic. “It looked somewhat broken,” wrote Giger, “Like a big trampled worm that is painfully squirming.”
Watling’s tail was eventually abandoned. Giger told Cinefantastique that “a normal tail was used instead … animated with a system of wires which, hopefully, the spectator cannot see!”
Rambaldi himself had arrived in England on August 21st, 1978 (three days late), bringing with him his very own mechanical Alien head. “He brought us an ingenious machine of a head,” Giger wrote, with one reservation: “Too bad it resembles an ape. The way he changed the face and fashioned the lips make it look like an ape. So there are new problems. I just hope he can fit the face to our heads.”
“I used fibreglass for the skull and moving parts, and aluminium inside for support. The tongue, for example, was fibreglass mounted on general metal tracks and could extended about twenty centimetres, either slowly or very fast. Each moving part was connected to a special sheathed cable –like hand brakes on a bicycle, only more flexible– which ran out through a hole in the base of the head. Normally, each moving part would require only a single cable, but the sideways movement of the head and the mechanism for the tongue required two opposing cables, kind of like reins on a horse. So there were nine all together. The cables were seven meters long and connected to hand operated levers mounted on a wooden panel. By operating the levers in various combinations, a great many moves were possible.”
~ Carlo Rambaldi, Cinefex magazine, 1979.
The next week Giger began work on fixing the Alien’s face. “We at the car park studio are tinkering around like mad. Patty still hasn’t attached the lips. In the course of a conversation with her, we disassemble the face, which was badly executed anyway, and once again I had the lovely job of doing a job that everyone else was fed up with. But since it has to be finished by 8am tomorrow, I took it on. Since Rambaldi’s head will not be finished by tomorrow, they will have to use ours, the non-mechanised one, whether they like it or not.”
Clearly, Giger was still both perplexed and worried by Rambaldi’s alteration of the Alien. “There’s something ape-like to the Italian’s lip construction,” he writes again. “I have difficulties imagining how he will turn it into our ‘Alien III’ head. I’m sick and tired of his whole Alien business.”
There was also some underhanded competition between Watling and Rambaldi’s crew. “The [English] production manager, who is an ardent nationalist, finds these Italo-American products a thorn in the flesh,” Giger wrote. “He promises me all possible support in my work if I will boost the homemade product, the engineer’s Alien head that only half works, for use in the film. I won’t do anything of the sort. I’m only interested in quality, no matter where it comes from, and in the resemblance of the head to my own design; not in this internal nepotism.” In the same spirit, Giger later told Famous Monsters magazine that “so many films look alike” because they only utilised local studio crews. “But if you have a choice of talent from many places, it may be more difficult to get started but maybe the final product looks different and fresh.”
The Italians were likewise noting the poor work of the inhouse effects artists. “There was another head made from an English engineer,” Carlo De Marchis noted in a 2013 interview. “The problem was that when Ridley went to see that one, he said, ‘I am sorry but I can’t work with that.'”
But Rambaldi’s presence was not devoid of its own drama or difficulties. “What happened with Alien,” special effects supervisor Brian Johnson told originalprop.com, “is that Carlo Rambaldi turned up … he used to come onto the set, and he had a manager who was completely dressed in black, head to toe. Very sharp Italian suit, and Carlo would come on and Ridley would say something and the manager would translate back and forth. When you’re outside a meeting, and you caught Carlo speaking, he’d be saying, ‘We have to do this and that’… he was pretending he didn’t know English, so he could listen to what everybody else was saying. A lot of that going on as well. Politics. And of course lots of things got changed with Ridley, because the thing with Ridley is, he doesn’t like to keep going and pushing frontiers and things, and the mechanisms were all altered and such. It’s gotta be just right for someone like that.”
Rambaldi finished his head on August 31st, and quickly gave Giger a demonstration. The artist was especially pleased with the results. “They tried out all the movements of the lips and jaws. The highlight was how the tongue sprang out.” Rambaldi gave another demonstration for Ridley the next day, where Giger again noted that “the movements were very impressive,” but “unfortunately the ape-like aspect has not entirely disappeared.”
The next day was Rambaldi’s last on the set. “He’s driving to the airport at noon with his manager Dean, to go to Los Angeles.” As agreed, Rambaldi left Carlo De Marchis to oversee the heads. De Marchis himself kept one of the mechanised tongues as a souvenir. It had broken when Bolaji Badejo turned his head sharply just as De Marchis released the mechanism. He created a new tongue (“like a pneumatic pistol”) to replace the one he took.
Giger spent the next few days modifying and painting both Rambaldi and Watling’s heads. The Alien’s first day before the lens was due, on Monday the 4th September, and Giger was evidently worried: “Tomorrow, I’m going to be standing on the set again like an ass.” Typically, there were problems with its first scene, though not with the props or mechanics, but rather one of the actors. “The cat that has to play along didn’t really want to,” Giger wrote. Shooting was postponed until the next day, and the crew took the opportunity to busy themselves with the heads. Watling’s head was finally due to be finished just in time for shooting, “So tomorrow we will have two mechanised, one non-mechanised, and one half-mechanised head.”
The Alien finally went before the camera on September 5th. The scene: the Nostromo leg room, with Brett searching for Jonesy and his subsequent death. The four heads were ordered, but only three turned up, since Watling was still having trouble with his. Still, Giger was displeased with the craftsmanship on the props that arrived. “[They] all look pretty shitty,” he opined. “They were badly sanded and glued with rubber cement.”
The scene was filmed over the duration of the next few days; the dripping water and oil took its toil on the Alien suit’s paint job, and the stunt wires tore the tubes from its shoulders, but Scott hid the flaws by shooting almost exclusively in close-up. For the shots of the Alien’s head, the crew put Rambaldi’s head to use. Watling’s team could not complain: even two days after the deadline theirs was yet to be finished.
Still, there were problems with Rambaldi’s contraption: the Alien’s slime was gluing up the mechanics. Despite this, the rushes for the scene left an indelible impression on Giger, who called it “particularly overwhelming.” Bolstered by these results, he went on to claim, “It will be the best monster of all time. Being its creator, I’ll probably become well-known for it.” Typically, there were later complaints when De Marchis again modified Rambaldi’s head. “Now it looks like a fish in profile,” groaned Giger.
Despite Watling’s lacklustre results with the tail, he still managed to get his remotely operated head finished. But in a further streak of bad luck, his prop was never put before a camera. “We never used it,” explained Ivor Powell, “because there was no call to use it. Most of the shooting was finally done pretty close up, and therefore the cable system of Rambaldi’s was much more practical. Remote control just isn’t as subtle as a hand-operated mechanism. If we’d wanted a lot of long shots, though -with freedom from the cables- the Watling head would have been very useful.”
Ridley, on the other hand, was far too pleased with Rambaldi’s head to relegate the creature to long shots: “[Rambaldi] designed the mechanics of the head, made the lips work, made the jaws function. Normally you can’t stand to have the camera take a close look at things like this, but it was so good I just did a huge close up on it.” Giger likewise told Starlog that, “I think it works wonderfully.”
Rambaldi, despite being honoured for his contributions to Alien with an Academy Award for Visual Effects (shared with Giger, Brian Johnson, et al) was somewhat critical of Ridley’s directorial choices. “They use all the movements,” he explained, “but the head cuts are so quick, and the action is framed so predominantly in extreme closeup, that frequently it’s impossible to tell what you are seeing! In my opinion, I gave the director one hundred possibilities, and he used but twenty.”