Vintage Interview with Ron Cobb

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This interview, conducted by Dennis Fischer, is reproduced here as printed in Monsterland Magazine’s The Aliens Story (1988) by James Van Hise.

How did you become involved with Alien?

That was a long process. I’m bad at dates and time durations. Sometime after the first attempt to film Dune collapsed in Paris, about 1977 and Dan [O'Bannon] came back, downhearted and starving for a while, he eventually put together a screenplay with Ron Shusett of Alien, and they were making the rounds with it. While they were finishing up, they came to me and asked me to do a series of paintings to help sell it, so I knocked off a bunch of rather small paintings. Dan found some money somewhere and paid for my time and such, and again I was rather grateful to help Dan out because he had always been involved with some projects I could get excited about. So it was mainly the fact that I liked Dan and I liked Ron and I liked the project.

I did this series of paintings based strictly on Dan’s first script, and they went though a variety of adventures, and ended up selling it to Brandywine and Gordon Carroll and eventually 20th Century Fox.  When Brandywine decided to go on a search for a director, and eventually set their sights on a production day, Dan convinced them they should use me to do preliminary design along with Chris Foss from England and hopefully a few other people.

Initially Chris Foss and I worked here at Fox for about seven months in a little office they found for us. We were just cranking out nondescript designs -interiors, exteriors, spaceships, et cetera- carrying some of my early painting ideas into more elaborate versions with input from trial directors along the way, such as Walter Hill. They were elaborate, but they weren’t too practical. It was fine being paid just to sit there and design and design. Finally they settled on Ridley Scott and things began to get underway.

They realised that, yes, indeed, they were going to London. There was talk about it, but we were never sure. Ridley decided he liked the preliminary stuff I’d done. Chris Foss had to go back to London before us, but he was eventually taken on the film again for a while. Ridley Scott liked my work and wanted me to come to London because there was a chance I was going to be kicked off at that point. The producer, who was really calling the shots, wasn’t really sure about my work. He couldn’t always relate to it. He wasn’t sure I had the right approach. I never got the impression they were impressed. Dan always liked what I was doing and he was always puzzled about the producer’s reactions.

It was Ridley Scott who saved the day and got me to London. Naturally they had to stat all over again, design the film over again, only this time with an English production designer and a couple of art directors and a lot f other people. So I was on the periphery again, kind of having to prove myself.

As the additional six months passed in London, they gave me more and more to design. I ended up making more and more of a contribution to the film. So I was really quite satisfied that I had had an opportunity to do a lot of very, very basic designing on the film. I was looking for experience. It was a good team, and the other designer that Dan wanted to get on the film was H.R. Giger from Switzerland who [Dan] tried to get brought out here. But he wasn’t able to. Of course, in London they got him.

Giger ended up being very intellectual in designing the alien culture, the monster itself, and things. Eventually he built the monster. He asked that they build it as he designed it, so he insisted on doing ti himself. It is rather spectacular.

I, along with the production designer, the art director and assorted draftsmen, did the Earth technology. I designed quite a bit of it myself, including almost total design on a number of major sets. It was a great experience. And when all the designing was done, at the time the basic designing of the sets was completed, they were well into about a third of the shooting. I saw about a third of the shooting, then I took off for a little vacation around France, around Europe.

Dan’s original idea was that I would design all of the Earth technology, Chris Foss would design all of the alien technology, and Giger would design the monster, That’s what he wanted. As it turned out, I had a lot of influence in the design of the Earth technology, but I wasn’t the sole designer. There were a lot of people working on it. So it is a patchwork of many, many contributions, and they don’t always fit.

Ridley Scott had very, very strong ideas about all of it, which was sometimes good and sometimes confusing. Not everything fit together as well as it could if it had been designed by one person.

As it turned out, Giger designed, as well as the monster, most of the alien technology, so it all kind of fits together. If there’s one design concept which will dominate the film, it will be Giger’s. He was responsible almost solely for the look of most of the alien technology, the creature and everything.

Cobb and Giger in 1978, likely lunching at, where Giger was staying during the production.

Cobb and Giger lunching in 1978.

Could you relate any of these problems in filming Alien?

I saw that there were a lot of disappointments, a lot of misunderstandings. There was a lack of direction in the design of the film. I expected a lot of this to happen. it was a big production. There was a lot of money involved. There were a lot of people involved, so I knew that it wouldn’t be a hard, tight concept. I knew that they would stray away from Dan’s script, so I wasn’t as disappointed about it as Dan was.

It’s a shame. I think they should have stuck closer to the original concept. They should have given some of the designers a little more freedom. And so there are a lot of things that were very annoying. But it was the first time a lot of these people had made a film of this type. They weren’t aware of the sensitivities that certain people like Dan and I might have about certain inconsistencies. All in all it proceeded well enough in my point of view.

There is no point in getting into specific personalities. There were just misunderstandings and a lack of clarity.

I think that the real problems were in Dan’s sphere, because of what they did with the rewriting. It’s terrible, sloppy revisions, some of them pointless. It was very difficult for Dan to tighten the thing back up to keep it consistent and have it make sense. I was more concerned with certain inconsistent looks and elements of believability being retained. Sometimes I couldn’t make my point and other times I couldn’t because they wouldn’t understand them. I just couldn’t communicate certain ideas. I didn’t have enough power. Dan had more power than I did, so it was frustrating.

The final film is not the film that Dan and I would have made, or Dan, Giger, and I or Ron Shusett. It’s not exactly that film, but it is close enough to Dan and Ron’s. They stayed there and fought for it inch by inch, day by day to keep it from going too far from the original concept.

There is a good look to it and a number of spectacular ideas that survive. A few were innovated by the staff that were really quite good. Perhaps we didn’t recognise how good they were at the time, but there were some good new ideas.

Do you recall any humorous incidents during the filming?

One of the things Dan insisted on was that there be a cat on board. So there’s a mascot. A kitty roams around the ship. Of course, working with animals on a spaceship set creates ridiculous problems.

I had to design a cat box, a pressurised cat box, which eventually they decided was too elaborate. There were elements to get this cat through all the scenes. They had a scene where we wanted to shoot the last surviving crew member desperately looking for the cat to rescue. To take it off the ship because she has to leave because they are going to blow the whole ship up. She’s looking for the cat. So they had to have a scene where the cat was sleeping in a control seat, and she comes in crawling and finally sees it and startles the cat by touching a button. The seat jumps a little and the cat runs off. She has to grab it, put it into this little box, and run out.

The whole thing, of course, was to get this cat to sleep in this little chair. I went out there one day ad saw this ludicrous situation. Here is the entire crew of this huge spaceship set, the control room, the lights, the camera, the dolly, the director, the assistant director, an the make-up people and all the actors, and the assorted little cat cages that they had full of cats for different takes. Once the cat got startled, they had to use a different cat, so they all looked alike. We’re all sitting around very tense, waiting. Everybody is being very quiet while someone is trying to get this cat to go to sleep on this control seat. Finally the assistant director, with this very loud megaphone -the public address system was shot- says, ‘Stand by! The cat’s lying down, the cat’s lying down. Stand by!’

Everybody’s getting ready, and finally he says, ‘What? It’s asleep! It’s asleep!’ and everybody says, ‘Go!’ and everyone comes out and does the scene. They shoot, ‘Here kitty, kitty. Here kitty kitty,’ going along until they startle the cat. Then they have to do it all over again.

They have to get this other cat, and they have to be calm, and wait for this cat to go to sleep. It was amazing, just amazing, because the whole deck of the spaceship was filled.

Ron's cat box.

Ron’s cat box.

The control rooms and aid stations and landing gear were 30 feet high – the immense landing legs on the surface of the planet. They used children in spacesuits, much like they did in Destination Moon, to make the ship look even larger. Those poor little kids were fainting in those spacesuits because it was so hot. They filled this whole stage full of fog, which is just kind of an oil solution on an element and is just ghastly, horribly hot. The kids were walking around in heavy suits, little red faces dying inside. By and large it was kind of desperate and grim.

I’ve always had a very realistic idea of what was involved in making a film, so it didn’t bother me a great deal. It was just a lot of hard work, a lot of disappointments, But it was very exciting to see something you drew the plans for being built – these immense sets and huge set pieces. To be able to stand and walk through them is always something I’ve wanted to do. I must say, I do enjoy learning. I do enjoy making a mistake and realising how to do it right the next time. There was a lot of that.

It was a tremendous accumulation of knowledge. This and that. Now I see how to do it! How to use materials and how to fit lights in.

I actually designed a number of the sets in a very, very complete way. I supervised the dressings of them and everything. I hope that in the future I will have more power and certainly more confidence and ability. There were a lot fo thins I hadn’t known. It was a great experience for me.

It was not enjoyable for Dan, but I hope to do it again. I hope to work with Dan again, of course, in some future project.

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Interview with Dan O’Bannon

This interview, conducted by Dennis Fischer, is reproduced here as printed in Monsterland Magazine’s The Aliens Story (1988) by James Van Hise.

How did Dark Star come to be?

As a University of Southern California film project in 1970. John Carpenter and I were at that time both in the film school there at SC. He approached me because he said he was going to do a science fiction film as a student project, and he asked me if I’d like to be involved in it, and I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to.’ And I got very heavily involved in it, so much so that it kind of got out of hand, really. What he originally envisioned as a 20-minute black-and-white film ended up as a 50-minute colour film, and it took just about two years to shoot it and get it done at USC. Just about the time we were finishing up editing on it, with what had been a very long and exciting and difficult road -just when we thought we were finished- we were approached by a friend of ours named Jonathan Kaplan, who subsequently produced most of John Carpenter’s movies. He was also in film school then and had a somewhat wealthy family, and he said that he would put in some additional money if we would expand it to feature length.

So then we all had to butt our heads together, and decided it meant we had to pad it. We feared we had a great student film we might end up making into a mediocre feature film by padding it and putting it onto the marketplace against professional products. But the decision finally came down to a choice between a great student film which would impress all the film schools, or a somewhat mediocre film that would be in theaters. So we opted for the feature.

I think it was the right decision because it did do more for us than it could have as a short. At that pint we launched into what amounted to another year-and-a-half of very hard work, expanding it to feature length. At the end of that time we discovered to our great disappointment that it was not as easy as we expected to sell a film in Hollywood, so we went though another fitful period of trying to find distribution. By the time the feature finally hit the theaters, four-and-a-half years had passed since the film was conceived, and that was in the spring of 1975 when Bryanston Pictures released it.

O'Bannon as his character Pinback on the set of Dark Star.

O’Bannon as his character Pinback on the set of Dark Star.

Was Star Wars the next film you worked on?

The first thing I did was turn down Dykstra’s job. That was back in ’75 when Gary Kurtz called me on the telephone and asked if I wanted to work on special effects. I had never met Kurtz. I didn’t know him or anything about him, but I certainly would have taken the job except he told me one week after I had been offered the opportunity to direct all of the special effects on Dune. I told him about that commitment, I told him about the salary and everything else, and I asked him, ‘Can you meet or better that?’ He said, ‘No, I can’t.’ So I did Dune and worked on it for six months, then it collapsed.

Then a year after the first phone call, Kurtz called me again and said, ‘Well, Star Wars is just about finished, but we still need some people to do special effects work, to do clean-up. Are you interested?’ Since that time I was absolutely flat-broke, I was very interested. So I went to work on Star Wars for a few months doing computer graphics.

Just about anywhere in the film where they cut to a screen and there’s some activity on it, some animation on it which looks computer generated, it was probably done by John Wash and Jay Teitzell under my supervision. Most of it was not done by real computers, it was simulated.

I got to work with a real computer and that was a lot of fun. Now isn’t it funny how fate works? I could have been involved to a very great extent on Star Wars except that I turned it down for another project that never went through. I did a lot of work for Star Wars; I worked pretty hard for several months. We spent a lot of money on computer graphics, and boy, when I saw the finished film, I had to admit that you could cut out everything I did out of that film and it would have still been the same film. It was so full of beautiful things that the computer graphics that we did were just .001 percent.

How did you become involved with 20th Century Fox’s Alien?

When Dune fell through, I ended up back in L.A. flat broke, without an apartment, without a car, with all my belongings in storage. I didn’t know what to do. I moved in on a friend’s sofa. His name is Ronny Shusett, and he had also had a string of very bad breaks. We decided to do something together.

I was more desperate than he was because I had to get off of his sofa, so we wrote a script called Alien. That script, from the moment I typed ‘The End’ proceeded to take on a life of its own. Everybody in town wanted it, We just couldn’t believe it. Everything had fallen through for us. Nothing had ever worked. It had always gone so badly we said, ‘Well, yeah, they’re all yelling about it, and they all want it, but it ain’t gonna work ’cause it never does. It’s just a lot of baloney.’

It just kept going and going and we made a deal with Brandywine Productions, and made a deal with 20th Century Fox, and they started pouring money into it, hiring people, and we kept saying, ‘Nah, it ain’t gonna happen.’ Then we got cheques -they paid us cheques- and we looked at each other and said, ‘It’s happening.’ Step by step we kept saying, ‘Nah, it will fall through by the next step, they always do,’ but it never did. It just kept expanding and expanding and growing.

We sat down on a few occasions, Ronny and I, and we said, ‘Let’s see why this went so well and everything else went so badly when this isn’t even our favourite script.’ We said, ‘Well, we caught this science fiction boom just right… our script was on the market just a month after Star Wars was released,’ and we looked at other reasons like that. But when it came right down to it, we could never explain why that script went out so far so fast by comparison with so many other things we have done. It’s a mystery – one of this things that happen in life.

By accident, by itself, by mysterious forces of God, it happened.

Dan O'Bannon with Ron Shusett.

Dan with Ron Shusett.

Because Alien is a Gothic, which the film industry understands?

You have to understand that after Dark Star, when that film was completed, when I saw the film up there on the screen as compared to what I had intended to make. Then I saw the reactions of the industry and the public to that film. It burned certain lessons into my head like a branding iron. Just right into my brain.

One lesson was not to make an episodic film; have a tight plot. Another lesson was do not make a comedy because nobody laughed. When I sat down to write Alien, Alien was very similar to Dark Star in many ways. It was just, ‘Well, I can’t make them laugh, maybe I can make them scream.’ Obviously, it worked. Applying those lessons did produce something that appealed more directly to people. I mean, there are reasons, right? There are all kinds of individual little reasons. Yeah, it’s a fine script, that’s another reason, right? But then the world is an injustice and we’ve written fine scripts that were better and more commercial and just didn’t go anywhere.

This was a good script. It caught the science fiction market, and it was a combination of science fiction and horror, and nobody else had it out at that time. We figured those were the reasons. But then in that case, why didn’t script X, Y and Z do just as well? It just happened. It was luck.

You also acquired a fine group of actors including Tom Skerritt.

It was fun talking with those guys because the thing I’ve been working towards all these years is being a director. I’ve had practice at all of the things a director does except working with actors. I’ve done all the special effects. I’ve rolled the film through the camera. I’ve edited. I’ve lit sets. You know, everything. You might say my muscle is well-exercised in all aspects of the film except that of directing actors because I haven’t been allowed to get near them for years. There was always someone else directing. To counteract that, I’ve tried to spend all my time talking to actors and watching the directing working with them.

This was a wonderful opportunity to have Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton and John Hurt -a lot of excellent people- in there.I hung around as much as possible and talked as much as I could get away with, and watched them being directed.

I’ll never forget one incident. One thing I’ve always been concerned about is the general belief in town -I think that Hitchcock stated it- that actors are idiots. They are impossible to work with. Generally they are the one thing that everyone wishes they could do without on a movie. I remember I was called in just before they were getting ready to shoot because the actors were busy reading through a scene. They called me in because they had objections about the dialogue. I went in, and they said, ‘Aw, I can’t say this line,’ or ‘I can’t say that line.’ I sat down with them with a script and all the different actors pointed out all the different lines they had trouble with and what they thought should be done about it. And I agreed with every last thing they said. I thought these people are not fools, they are right. It was a very good experience to be able to see those guys work.

Did they film your original script without too many changes?

Well, David Giler, who is one of the producers, sat down and just kept rewriting it all. Just kept rewriting and rewriting it, and rewriting it, until there was very little resemblance to the original screenplay. I wasn’t allowed to participate in that because he didn’t want me to. He was producer.

Then two weeks before we started shooting, he left for mysterious reasons. He left the production. The main producer, Gordon Carroll, and the director called me in and there were two week of frantic mutual work between all of us trying to put the script into shape. By the time we got done, it was maybe 80 percent of what the original draft was. What we got on the screen was actually very close to the original draft.

What connection did you have with the design of the film?

Originally, I sat down before they had a director, and they said, ‘Design the film.’ So I hired Ron Cobb immediately and I asked him to bring Chris Foss from London. To my surprise, they did. They brought him over here. And I asked him to get H.R. Giger from Switzerland, and so they had Cobb and Foss over here and they designed a tremendous amount of the picture. Fox didn’t want to hire Giger, which was the hardest fight.

Originally, there were three cultures -the Earth culture and two alien cultures- and along the way one of the two alien cultures had been completely eliminated from the script. It was too much of a committee movie. Everybody was involved in the making of this. Evry last executive in Fox; every last person had two cents in. So we have these two cultures now, just two.

[Ron Cobb] did a lot. He designed practically all of the hardware. They used him the way you would use a dirty old wrench. Whenever they couldn’t figure out how to design something, they said, ‘Here Cobb, you design it.’ Since they could not figure out how to design most of the things in the movie, he ended up designing most of the things. Yet he was never regarded as being in charge of that.

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James Cameron Responds to Aliens Critics

Prophetic...

Prophetic…

Before the advent of the internet film fans, returning from the cinema, were quick to pick up their quills pens and send off their exclamations to their favourite dedicated sci-fi magazines. James Cameron’s Aliens, being no exception, was equally lauded and criticised in the letters pages, which were published in Starlog #116 in March 1987.

Strangely enough, amused readers later found Cameron responding to their praise and queries, but largely their criticisms and a few assumptions. His responses were published as a feature in #125.

Cameron’s essay is widely available online, but I’ve decided to add it to Strange Shapes for completions sake. I have also included the letters to which Cameron is replying.

Starlog #116: Fan Responses
(click to enlarge)

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 Starlog #125: James Cameron’s Answers

On another battlefront, not so long ago, Starlog received a fascinating letter from James Cameron , the filmmaker behind Aliens. He was, in fact, responding to reader letters from the previous Starlogs. We’re publishing his remarks in full with spiffy illustrations by that famed Gang of One, Hugo-winning cartoonist Phil Foglio. Spiffy? Sorry, Phil. I’m running out of adjectives.
~ Starlog #125, editorial liner notes.

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Alien Ads from Yesteryear

Remember the halcyon days before the internet, when magazines like Starlog and Cinefantastique held the monopoly on movie news, trivia, rumours and interviews? Well, I don’t quite recall, having been born in 1988, but I’m more than certain that leagues of Alien fans do remember, and quite fondly too.

If you were looking for film collectibles and merchandise pre-eBay then the aforementioned magazines were a port of call. Advertisements offered everything from Ghostbusters jumpsuits, Star Trek model kits, movie posters, video tapes, soundtracks, novelisations and advertisements for film festivals and conventions.

Oh, there was also some Alien memorabilia too…

starlog oct 1980 facehugger

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starlog July 1979

starlog oct 79 figure

In 1986, perhaps in anticipation of Aliens, another Alien figurine was being advertised in the papers. This time he had a few friends:

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Here are a few more that were graciously sent along to me by Willie Goldman:

First, there’s an ad for Alien’s first televised appearance. Remember, parental discretion is advised:

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More caps (lovingly modelled by Brett), plus pins and badges with designs that you can glimpse in the film. The badges were designed by Ron Cobb and John Mollo and you can read about what some of them represent in Dressing the Future.

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And finally, an assortment of Alien paraphernalia including the novelisation, the art book, kids games, soundtrack and more:

alienad

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Did You Know…

Collating...

Collating…

Full-length articles haven’t been forthcoming lately, but my excuse is, I hope, solid enough. It’s my last semester of university and I’m aiming to cinch my first-class honours. In addition to that, I’ve been slowly stewing over an article that I’ve been researching for almost two years now. I promise that once it’s finished you will learn something new and exclusive to Strange Shapes. I’m very excited about it… but these lips are sealed for the moment.

But I don’t want to leave my visitors hanging, so as a form of compensation I thought I would write a list of ‘did you know?’ facts and trivia about the series that hopefully even the long-term and well-read fan will find illuminating.

I will update this article with more tidbits whenever they come to mind, since at this moment my brain is being occupied by Arthurian knights and gumshoe Marlowe types. In the meantime if you’re interested in Anglo-Saxon literature or 19th century Romantic poets or even articles on Rainer Maria Rilke then you could always drop by my sporadically updated blog Conversazione. No? Then let’s proceed with Alien

  • One director who was approached to helm Alien? Steven Spielberg. “I first met Spielberg when I was working on Alien,” revealed concept artist Ron Cobb, “at one point Spielberg was considered as a possible director for the original Alien. It was just a brief thing, he could never work out his schedule to do it, but he was interested.”
    More on Cobb’s monumental contribution to Alien in: Space Truckin’ – The Nostromo.
  • Rewriting Ripley (originally ‘Roby’) as a woman wasn’t all too taxing for producers Walter Hill and David Giler: “We really just had the secretary change ‘he’ to ‘she’.”
    Check out Roby to Ripley for the story on the whole process.
  • We all know that Giler and Hill rewrote Dan O’Bannon’s Alien script, but the story is not as simple as that. The producers firstly altered the story so the Space Jockey was a human pilot, the Alien was already a Company bioweapon, and the egg silo was an off-world government construct known as ‘The Cylinder’. In this iteration of the story the Nostromo crew were lured to the planetoid to serve as fodder for the Company’s new weapon, with Ash standing in as an overseer. O’Bannon and Ron Shusett watched the story spiral further away from the original concept and complained to Ridley. Hill and Giler, apparently begrudgingly, rewrote the script accordingly.
    More in: Writing Alien and The Derelict/Pyramid/Silo.
  • Nope – in the final film the Company did not know about the Alien being on the planetoid. “This particular corporation didn’t have a preconceived notion that an alien would be found on this mission,” explained Ridley, “much less the particular alien that is brought onto the ship. The idea of bringing it back alive would not have been on the minds of the corporate executives when they first received the alien transmission. They just had high expectations when they ordered the Nostromo to investigate – it was purely out of curiosity.”
    Why else did you think they didn’t follow up on the Alien between the first two movies? Confused? Don’t be, it’s simple. See The Android and Space, 2122 – 2179 for clarification.
  • Speaking of androids, there’s cause to believe that Ash was originally written as a human, until David Giler made a joke about his head falling off. He was almost a Martian too, if Ridley had gotten his way…
    Back to The Android.
  • Giler and Hill also flirted with the idea of having the Nostromo crew summon Genghis Khan and Jack the Ripper to fight the Alien.
    More in: Sandals in Space.
  • Ridley Scott originally envisioned the Alien as being a female.“I wanted a very feminine creature,” he said. “The idea of associating danger and sexual desire, to have a creature that was at once desirable and lethal, and that was exciting.” It was up to associate producer Ivor Powell to try and cast a woman suitable for the role, a job that he found quite embarrassing:  “I remember one of the tallest models, and quite a well known model of the time, was this woman called Verushka, and she came in, and well literally there she was in a little pair of knickers … I had to photograph and take Polaroids of all these women in various states of undress, you know, for the Alien.”
    Much more about the Alien’s design and casting in The Eighth Passenger.
  • Bolaji Badejo didn’t play the Alien in two of its most gruesome appearances. Christopher Lee stuntman Eddie Powell played the creature as it swooped on Brett and snatched Dallas. Badejo found the harness for Brett’s scene too restricting and the vents were too small for him to fit into.
    More in The Eighth Passenger, and check out Bolaji Badejo’s only interview too.
  • Harry Dean Stanton passed on the opportunity to work with Stanley Kubrick due to commitments with Alien. “He wanted me to work with him once, but I was in London doing Alien,” Stanton explained. “He was doing The Shining with Jack [Nicholson], and he wanted me to play the bartender.” The role of Lloyd the bartender went to Joe Turkel, who was later cast as Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner due to his phantasmagoric performance in Kubrick’s movie.
    More in: The Engineers.
  • Meanwhile, Yaphet Kotto, afraid of being typecast in sci-fi movies after Alien, turned down the role of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back. “I was having lunch with Veronica Cartwright, and [Irvin Kershner] came over and asked me if I wanted to do the part, and I said no. He asked why, and I said, ‘Because they’ll kill me off. I’ll have trouble finding work after that.’ I said, ‘I’ve got something I want to do called Brubaker in Ohio. That’s where I’m going after the movie is over.’ I knew I had to get back down to Earth.”
    More in: The Engineers.
  • “I wanted [the Alien] to be insect-like. Like an ant. Because if you examine an ant under a microscope they’re kind of elegant, and I wanted him to be very elegant and dangerous.”
    Is that James Cameron talking about his sequel? Nope, it’s Ridley Scott on the original creature.
    More on the Alien and its insect influences in, well: The Insect Influence.
  • Some preliminary ideas for an Alien 2 included the original creature following Ripley back to Earth; a new expedition being besieged by numerous Aliens (and a Space Jockey) inside the derelict; the planetoid exploding and spreading its spore around the universe; and a prequel. There was also talk of a TV series…
    More in: Writing Aliens.
  • Alien is lauded as a classic today, but the critical reception at the time was lukewarm. Pauline Kael later wrote that “It would be very convincing to say that there’s no hope for movies – that audiences have been so corrupted by television and have become so jaded that all they want are noisy thrills and dumb jokes and images that move along in an undemanding way, so they can sit and react at the simplest motor level. And there’s plenty of evidence, such as the success of Alien.” 
    See: Bad Alien Reviews.
  • One reason I launched Strange Shapes was because of the repeated assertion on fan forums that the creators of Alien hated Aliens. Was it true? Absolutely not. Quite the reverse. Even Dan O’Bannon, who was infamously not shy about saying what was on his mind no matter how acidic the opinion, was supportive: “[Aliens was] a good answer to the problem, which is how to sequelise this. Plus, he was very wise not to try to handle it as a fear-evoking horror suspense tale like the first one. He was able to turn it to something he could work with to advantage. And you know, it was pretty good.”
    More in Alien Alumni on Aliens.
  • “I had a terrible drug problem, but I got through it,” admitted James Remar, the original Corporal Hicks. “I had a great career and personal life, and messed it up with a terrible drug habit.”
    Have a look at Remar in the role at: The Other Hicks.
  • When Michael Biehn first got a look at the Aliens script while The Terminator was in post-production he fancied himself in the role of… Hudson. “I had just done Hicks’ [heroic type] role in The Terminator,” he said in 1986, “and was looking for a role that took me over the top and out a little bit.”
    More in I Love The Corps!
  • Daniel Kash, who played Spunkmeyer, secured his role by offering James Cameron a gift. “Cameron said he really liked my coat, so I told him if he gave me the part, it was his. So, when he gave me the part I gave him the coat.”
    More in I Love The Corps!
  • Did you spot all of the spaceships in the brief exterior shot of Gateway Station? You might recognise something from Gerry Anderson’s Terrahawks.
    More on the orbiter in: Gateway Station.
  • The term ‘Xenomorph’ was originally coined by James Cameron for an unfilmed project called Mother. “In Mother,” Cameron explained in an affidavit (p. 20), “humans have plundered Earth and look to exploit another planet … Because the planet’s environment is dangerous to humans, a ‘xenomorph,’ my term for a genetically engineered alien creature, is created based on a local life form in order to serve the needs of the Company.” Essentially, ‘xenomorph’ was a proto-term for ‘avatar’.
    More about James Cameron’s Alien creatures: Biomechanoids.
  • Some aspects of the Alien Queen were also adapted from Mother, which featured “a female genetically engineered creature attempting to ensure the survival of its young.”
    More about the creation of the Alien Queen: Her Infernal Majesty.
  • The powerloader, as conceived in Xenogenesis, was a four-legged contraption. Cameron changed it into a bipedal machine after seeing the AT-ATs in The Empire Strikes Back. He hired Syd Mead to provide some preliminary designs. Ironically, the AT-AT was based on some of Mead’s work for US Steel. Cameron eventually designed the powerloader himself, settling on its forklift exoskeleton design.
    More about the powerloader: Powerloader.
  • The powerloader/Alien Queen fight is influenced by the climatic scene in Cameron’s short film Xenogenesis; but it was also spun out from Mother. Cameron explained that “In the final confrontation in Mother, a human in a ‘power suit’ (utility exoskeleton that is a sort of cross between a fork-lift and a robot) fights the alien creature that I called the ‘Skraath’ or ‘Skraith,’ a black six-limbed panther that I had previously created for another project called Labyrinth.” It’s obvious by now that Aliens and Avatar came form the same cloth, right?
    More about the powerloader in, yep: Powerloader.
  • William Gibson’s Alien III script is widely available online, but have you read about his rare second draft…?
    Have a gander in: Cold Wars: William Gibson’s Alien III.

Whet your appetite and I’ll catch you all when I can.

~ Valaquen

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Develop’s An Audience with – Alien Isolation

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On February 12 at the Ray Dolby Theatre in Soho (London), part of the team behind Alien: Isolation stood up before an assembly of fans to give them a behind the scenes look at Creative Assembly’s upcoming game. Our very own Valaquen was part of the public attending this lecture event organized by Develop Online.

And so just over a week ago I took the long, exhausting overnight journey from Scotland to London to have a peek at Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation – all courtesy of AVPGalaxy. Here’s my report at AVPG. Have a read and let us know what you think: fears, hopes, concern, relief or even your nonchalance!

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The Ampule Room

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PYRAMID – CORE CHAMBER
The vast central chamber of the pyramid. An immense space. Holloway walks in, his flashlight searching. Watts hurries after. The others follow, rovers tagging along.

A colossal structure stands in the center of the chamber, convoluted and strange. A mechanism. Chasms yawn in the floor all around it, their depths lost in darkness.
~ Alien: Engineers, by Jon Spaihts.

In the original script the ampule room did not appear. Instead the Magellan crew find the pyramid’s atmospheric processor. In his screenplay the chamber is more akin to a garden than the dark shrine that appears in the movie:

The core chamber brightens as the sun outside moves into alignment. The shaft of light perfectly centered.

A vast SIGH as if the pyramid itself is breathing.

A fat drop of water falls on Watts’s glove. She looks up in surprise. Another falls on her visor. And then it’s raining inside the pyramid. Water trickles into the chasms, inundating the mossy growths that cling to the walls.

Damon Lindelof’s Prometheus script removed the air processor and replaced the sequence with the ampule room. Notably, there is no giant head in the script (at least not in the version that leaked – there seems to be no ‘Ridleygrams’ of it either), though there is a wall of ampules, “rows and rows of them.” The room’s exposure to new air causes the ampules to ‘sweat’ as they do in the movie, but they also topple and pop open and shatter in the screenplay.

The room is described in Lindelof’s script as being “scaled for beings twice our size. It makes our heroes look like children.” The chamber also boasts “cathedral ceilings fifty feet above [them].” David shines a light on the roof, illuminating the Engineer artwork. “It’s a painting,” he says. “Not a painting,” Shaw objects, “it’s a fresco.” David wonders what the difference is. “Frescoes are in houses of worship,” she answers. Shaw’s reaction to the facility is laden with religious overtones in both scripts. Spaihts writes that “She holds her map unit as a pilgrim holds a bible: a guide in the darkness.”

“We can’t help but agree with her,” says the script, “this does feel somehow holy… like an alien Sistine Chapel.” For Holloway, the chamber evokes a very different feeling, that of “a laboratory” which houses “technology and equipment we have never seen before.”

Unfortunately, the crew’s entrance triggers the destruction of the Engineer art – “like the picture of Dorian Gray — exposure to the environment is literally dissolving it.”

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Before the film’s release it was stated that HR Giger had designed a set of frescoes for the film. Fans were understandably excited and subsequently confused when his artwork did not appear.

The exposure of the pyramid’s insect life to the mutagen is more dramatic in the script. “We see several small centipedes that came in from outside skittering away as the liquid washes over them.” These centipedes mutate into the Hammerpede creature. Worms replace the centipedes in the film.

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The monolithic head, once rumoured to be the pilot of the Juggernaut ship, seems to testify some sort of blank, terrible power. Whether it signifies a god, a particular Engineer, or the Engineer race as a whole, we don’t know. Before the film’s release the giant head was rumoured to pilot the ship, and was imagined by fans as being a living, bodiless and biomechanic intelligence – a sort of riff on the legless, sessile Space Jockey seen in Alien. In the film it instead silently looms over the ampules in a chamber described as both a vault and a chapel.

“The idea there is that it’s part of the culture of the Engineers,” said Arthur Max, not revealing too much, except to elaborate that the Engineers are “this race of interplanetary visitors who have given us upgrades –mentally and physically– over the millennium.”

The head is inscribed with glyphs on its front and sides. One idea thrown around production was to have the Engineers bearing facial tribal tattoos. The glyphs on the giant head resemble the alien language inscribed on the structure’s walls, doorways and on the deadly ampules.

Ethiopian statue of Benito Mussolini, and the Engineers' 'God-Head'. Testaments to power and worship. Mussolini was gunned down, hoisted to the girder of a garage, and his corpse pelted, shot, and spat on. As Percy Shelley wrote in his poem Ozymandias, great and terrible leaders die, and the monuments to their reign topple and crumble, left to gaze over a buried empire. The legacy of the Engineers has fared no better.

Ethiopian statue of Benito Mussolini, and the Engineers’ ‘God-Head’. Testaments to power and worship. Mussolini was gunned down, hoisted to the girder of a garage, and his corpse pelted, shot, and spat on. As Percy Shelley wrote in his poem Ozymandias, great and terrible leaders die, and the monuments to their reign topple and crumble, left to gaze over a buried empire. The legacy of the Engineers has fared no better.

The headquarters of Benito Mussolini and the Italian Fascist party, taken in Rome in 1930. The Engineer head monument is an allusion to worship and power, perhaps even fascistic power.

The headquarters of Benito Mussolini and the Italian Fascist party, taken in Rome in 1930. The Engineer head monument is an allusion to worship and power, perhaps even fascistic power.

A giant head featured in John Boorman's Zardoz (1974).

A giant head featured in John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974). Zardoz, a godly being, teaches that human procreation is an evil, since it results in the propagation of man. War is good, since it cleanses the world of men. There is no direct correlation between Prometheus and Zardoz, but these common elements are intriguing enough to merit a mention.

One of the chamber’s more interesting elements is the Alien mural that lies at the far end of the vault, behind the Engineer head.

“Another set that I worked on was known as the ‘Head Room.’ This was a ceremonial room that contained hundreds of ampules beneath a giant sculpture of an Engineer’s head. Julian Caldrow did an amazing job of working out all of the details for this environment and created the set drawings. The final set was built at full scale and was incredible to walk on. I also sculpted an altar area for this set that paid homage to Giger – it is a relief sculpture hanging from the wall and has the impression of an alien form with flowing structures surrounding it. There are a lot of easter eggs in this sculpture – including several hidden Giger motifs that were not used in the original film.”
~ Steven Messing, i09.com, 2012.

Holloway notices a small altar before the Alien mural. Atop this altar is a jade crystal – in the film’s trailers the crystal does not appear. Instead, a bowl like the one the Sacrificial Engineer drinks from in the film’s opening takes its place.

The mural’s significance is not revealed in Prometheus, but Steven Messing mused that “[The Engineers are] a lot about sacrifice, so in my mind there was an Engineer [in the past] who sacrificed himself to this virus and it created this horrific creature. This being, that was gonna eradicate planets, was like a parasite that would destroy the planet and then [the Engineers] could start over and rebirth it. And they kind of worshipped it and you see this relief sculpture where it’s almost a religious sculpture.”

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Ultramorph? Xenomorph? Proto-Alien?

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The box Alien

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Heavy Metal’s Alien: The Illustrated Story.

In Alien’s closing moments Ripley dashes through the Nostromo’s klaxxon-blaring corridors and almost barrels right into the monster’s path. We catch a glimpse of it before Ripley pulls back, denying us (and herself) a closer look. In Heavy Metal’s illustrated comic adaptation the scene plays out differently: Ripley turns the corner to find the Alien in a contorted sessile state. This ‘box’ gracefully unfolds and the creature leers after her.

“[Alien] came out in May of 1979,” said Walter Simonson, the comic’s artist, “and Heavy Metal, who were publishing it, wanted to get the comic, the graphic novel out with the movie … We were flown over to England, we were put up 2 or 3 nights … On Thursday, we saw a rough cut of the film that was about 2 and a half hours long.”

Simonson revealed that not only was the film considerably longer but that some scenes in the preview differed from the finale release. Brett’s death scene was different, and there was an extra small scene involving the Alien near the end: “There’s a scene towards the end of the book when Ripley is the last survivor, and she has the cat and is running towards the life boats, she runs around the corner of a corridor, and there’s a box sitting in the center of the corridor, and it’s clearly out of place, and she freezes and comes to a dead halt, looking at it, and after a moment, the box begins to shrug and move, and that great, spectacular Alien head comes up and it’s the Alien all folded up into this kind of organic box, and it’s between her and the lifeboat.”

“At least one of the guys I was with, who was watching this movie with us, thought it looked really cheesy,” he added. “I thought it looked really cool.”

Simonson saw the preview during December 1978 and started illustrating the comic in March the following year. Despite the three month gap, he had a firm picture of the film’s scenes in his head: “I was working on it at March at that point, and I’d seen the movie movie about 3 months earlier. Now, I don’t have a photographic memory, but I remembered a lot, I’d seen a lot of stuff, but I got to that point and I knew the scene.”

He also revealed the Twentieth Century Fox “was not concerned with what we did in the sense of getting us to include stuff or not include stuff … Going over the three script versions and the stuff I’d seen in the rough cuts, we just really tried to put out the best version of that story in the comic.”

At the time he was drawing the comic panels, Simonson was assured that the Alien box scene would be in the final release: “They were still editing the film at that point, so when I got to the point in the graphic novel where I had to put that page in or not put it in, because it would affect the placement of the left and right pages of the story, I asked and they said, ‘Right now, it’s in.’ I added it back in, pasted everything around it and then, lo and behold, the movie comes out and the scene isn’t there. Go figure.”

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Picture proof: This shot of the Alien is believed by some to be proof of the box Alien’s existence; they extrapolate from it that the production had perhaps filmed a prop in conjunction with Bolaji to achieve the desired effect. It’s not an entirely convincing argument, considering that the creature’s hunched and unfurling pose here was a running theme throughout many of Alien’s production and publicity photos (here and here.)

So was the scene filmed? No production photographs of it have emerged since the film’s release, it’s not featured in any of the scripts, Giger fails to mention it throughout his diary, it hasn’t appeared on the laserdisc, DVD or blu-ray extra features, there is no conceptual work, no storyboards, and an Alien box prop -if created- hasn’t been mentioned by anyone involved in the film. But – Dan O’Bannon has been quoted in Famous Monsters of Film Land magazine as saying, “Some scenes were shot of the Alien closeup, of it folded like a weird-looking box, but it was decided this would give us too graphic a look at the beastie, so snip! snip! snip!”

However this is not entirely conclusive – there is no mention of a specific prop or scene mirroring the comic book’s being described here; the Alien sitting folded like a box may simply be an imaginative interpretation of Bolaji’s performance (for example, this and this.) Bolaji may even have simply been sitting or crouching during the scene.

Some have also said that the box Alien was intended to foreshadow the creature hiding within the walls of the Narcissus, but this latter shot was improvised when the shuttle scenes were filmed at the very end of production:

“Originally, we thought the Alien would be hiding in the closet in the lifeboat [for the surprise ending]. But then Ridley said, ‘Can’t we beat that? Can’t it be somewhere she and the audience can’t see it, and it just emerges?’ So at the end of shooting every day, we changed the set around the monster. He’d lay in there and we’d rebuild the set over and over.”
~ Ron Shusett.

That trick alone caused considerable headaches for the crew: “Every time, it looked like Mad magazine,” said Shusett, “You could see [the Alien] was two feet away from her! The guy who played the monster would lay there for hours and hours and we’d shoot it and look at it the next day and say, ‘This is stupid; we’ll never disguise it.’”

If the production possessed and shot a compact prop of the Alien, then why not use it here? It certainly would have saved Bolaji Badejo (and the costume department) plenty of trouble: “Bursting out of that compartment wasn’t easy,” Bolaji told Cinefantastique. “I must’ve ripped the suit two or three times coming out, and each time I’d climb down, the tail would rip off! … Finally, I said, ‘No more!’ There was a lot of smoke, it was hard to breathe, and it was terribly hot.”

Alien Explorations host wmmvrrvrrmm asked Simonson about the box scene at the comic’s official Facebook page. Simonson replied: “Just to be clear, I have no idea how the scene was actually done. All I can say is that I thought the scene looked pretty neat, whereas a couple of media savvy folks I saw the rough cut with thought it was kind of cheesy. Or at least, that’s how I remember our reactions. I don’t remember thinking I was looking at some sort of inflatable. And given how some folks can fold themselves up in remarkable ways, I would lean towards the idea that either somebody was unfolding himself from within the box, or possibly, it was a mix of person and animatronic operation.”

With the information at hand (which may certainly be expanded on in future) it becomes fairly evident that an Alien box prop didn’t exist. If people recalled seeing it in an unreleased version of the film, we can only chalk it up to creative interpretation of Bolaji’s performance, which they had only seen on a singular occasion months before the memory was revisited. It could be a simple case of unintentional creative license. In fact, a stronger case can be made for there being a scene featuring an Alien cocoon aboard the Narcissus before the credits roll – not only did Giger mention such a scene, there is a storyboard for it as well (see Filming the Fourth Act.) However it’s extremely unlikely that the box and aforementioned cocoon footage exists given the lack of tangible evidence.

One last thing: it is interesting to note that Prometheus features the same sort of unfolding box trick with the mutant Fifield… a callback to an old excised scene from Alien, or coincidence?…

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AVPGalaxy forum discussion on the box Alien.

Alien Explorations article on the box.

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Strange Shapes/Monster Legacy interviews Tom Woodruff Jnr

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Tom Woodruff Jnr. is a former member of Stan Winston Studios who collaborated in the making of Aliens and The Terminator. In 1989 he co-founded his own special effects company with Alec Gillis – Amalgamated Dynamics. His special effects work includes Tremors, Starship Troopers, Evolution, as well as Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, and the two Alien vs. Predator films.

Tom has also portrayed a multitude of movie monsters, most famously the Alien creatures from the third, fourth and AvP movies.

Tom kindly agreed to an e-mail interview, and my friend Omega of Monster Legacy and I put our heads together to come up with some career-spanning questions for him.

Q: There’s a great photograph of you wearing the Alien suit from the second movie. Could you talk about how that came about and how (or if) your time in that suit factored into later decision making processes with Alien 3?

A: That was an after-hours thing that happened when the warrior suits were completed before filming started. Things get chaotic on set and long before digital cameras and cell phones, there wasn’t always a set photographer on hand to get beauty shots of the creatures before they get trashed during shooting. I suited up one night and we fired off a bunch of shots, without even the benefit of covering the suit in slime as intended for the film.

I was more interested in seeing how different body posing could disguise the shape of a man inside the suit than the intended on-screen finished look. But I wanted to be the man in the monster suit ever since I could remember watching monster movies on TV and after seeing some of the performances and physiques of some of the guys who ended up wearing the alien suits in Aliens, it motivated me to have a talk with Stan Winston that led to playing the Gill Man in Monster Squad in our very next film.

Q: The Alien in the third movie traded in many biomechanical details for a different aesthetic; you once said that you aimed for “an organic, sculptural feel.” Can you talk about what you tried to do to make this Alien look different from those that came before? (I believe you mentioned looking at Giger’s original paintings and drawings?)

A: I think people throw around the term “biomechanical” without really understanding what it means. It was a term manufactured to describe Giger’s amazing and fresh style of art. It was his theme in a lot of his work. What changed was the method in which it was achieved. During the build on Aliens, Fox provided us with many pieces of the original Alien creature suit and head. Within those pieces, you could actually see castings of mechanical bits; valves and plumbing pieces, some with catalogue numbers visible that had been etched into the pieces that were molded.

On Aliens, those pieces of the new suits evolved to be more organic and not just castings of off-the-shelf hardware. But the suits were still very broad in that they were sections glued to a spandex leotard with nothing more than slime-covered spandex to span the space between built-up sections.

On Alien 3, we took that to the next step and sculpted an entire body suit –not in an effort to make it look different– but to make it look more complete since the shooting style was going to be completely different and lighting would be revealing more of our single Alien than the hordes of the Cameron film. We relied heavily on images of Giger’s work from his own Necronomicon as the guide, seeking to replicate the organic life of that creature in more specific “Giger” detail than what was represented in the work of both Alien and Aliens.

Detail of the Alien's feet being painted by Gino Acevedo.

Detail of the Alien’s feet being painted by Yuri Everson.

Q: Michael Biehn relayed the story that during Alien 3’s production someone had spotted a bust of Hicks with the chest burst open. Was this ever planned to happen? (I assume the character’s head was pulverised due to Biehn’s objections to the scene.)

A: There was never a Hicks body with a chest burst open and it was never a story point in any of the material distributed to our crew. In the opening of Alien 3, we see the remains of Hicks with his head destroyed in the crash of the escape vehicle. That was done because we weren’t able to use Hicks’ likeness in the film.

Q: The corpses of Newt and Hicks were harrowingly realistic. Did pieces like these ever cause any sort of discomfort, or were you able to disassociate them from the actors and characters and see them purely as props?

A: Work like that becomes very clinical – artistic but clinical. It’s all about duplicating and creating recognizable features that sell the likeness. There is an element however in researching forensic photos in order to create a realism that was shocking although, over time, even that reaction becomes tempered.

Q: Everyone from Ridley Scott to Dan O’Bannon and James Cameron have said they were inspired by insects to create the life-cycles of their Aliens. In Alien Resurrection the ridged head of the Alien even resembles a cockroach shell – was this intentional? What did you look at when devising the Alien’s shape in the fourth movie?

A: It was never a pointed intention to duplicate a cockroach, but yes, the design element of the insect world is always prevalent in each design iteration. Changes brought about to the Alien from one film to the next have been at the design of the director, wanting to bring some new visual aspect to the creature. Part of our task had been to maintain what we could and make work for each new audience rather than reinvent the wheel.

Q: There was a rumour that ADI had pitched their own Alien 5 to Fox. If true, can you elaborate on your ideas?

A: If true, I would not elaborate.

Tom putting some touches on an Alien from James Cameron's sequel.

Tom putting some touches on an Alien from James Cameron’s sequel.

Q: ADI has made an enormous array of creatures, from Graboids, to Aliens, to man-eating plants in Jumanji. Is there a kind of creature you always wanted to bring to the screen, but never had the chance to?

A: Every 6-8 months there is a new rumour that a remake of The Creature From the Black Lagoon is starting up. That’s what my radar is tracking although I think today it would be a huge battle to get anyone to consider a practical animatronic and costume approach, which is ironic because that’s exactly what made the originals so satisfying. The problem is that movies like that succeeded because they were “B Movies” and not meant to change your emotional center but just be a great way to spend two hours in a theatre. Today the choice would be made to turn it into a $140 million epic that relied on showing too much of the creature who would be a CGI element.

Q: Could you talk about the design of the Shriekers from Tremors 2: Aftershocks? What were they inspired by?

A: Very much inspired by the Graboid itself. The idea was to reverse-engineer the original creatures to establish the Shriekers as an earlier developmental stage, hence the translucent beak for example, as if it was still cartilage in development like a baby’s skull. The growth pattern would eventually have them begin to pack on pounds and become so huge and lethargic that their legs (which were only intended to carry them to a new location where food and protection would be more plentiful) would atrophy and fall off. They would then create a growth of spines that would propel them underground.

Q: What were the design inputs when conceiving the alien mutations in The Thing, especially in relation to Rob Bottin’s original work? (Was there a ‘Bottin style’ you adhered to?)

A: We designed the Thing creatures and effects, working with the director and producers. We had a lot of latitude in envisioning the look of the new creatures with variations as directed from above during the design and build. The goal was never to try to copy any particular Bottin creature but definitely to speak “in the same language”. That might be a pretty narrow line to imagine but a lot of that language was created in how the creatures were performed – live on set with the actors and sharing that environment. When you read about the creative freedom that Bottin held the biggest obstruction was not “what” the creatures were but “how” they would be articulated. Luckily, no one else knew how to do it and there wasn’t a big digital paintbrush waiting in post to taint his vision.

Q: The Pilot creature deleted from The Thing was undoubtedly a very unique monster. Could you talk about the design itself? What inspired it?

A: No one thing inspired the Pilot Creature, only that we wanted to be sure it looked like its own, stand-alone lifeform and not something that was already infected by The Thing – that was a crucial story point. So to that end, [it was] designed with a very biological symmetry, very specific eyes, and hands and feet that looked like they were nimble and with enough dexterity to pilot the ship.

Q: In 2014, ADI celebrates 25 years of effects making. What are your fondest memories from your experiences?

A: Looking back at the early years from this point in time is very nostalgic. For the most part, the artists and techs we’ve worked with from the very beginning are still around. But it’s harder and harder to find the work and the budgets that support the art so those early days were filled with more achievements. Even though we’re technically more savvy and have a lot better materials to work with, there is more work in convincing someone it can be done practically and not just as a digital post effect. And it’s been great to be able to meet the masters whose work inspired me to do what I do; John Chambers, Ray Harryhausen, Stan Winston, Rick Baker – It’s been a great 25 years.

Suited up for Alien 3.

Suited up for Alien 3.

Many thanks to Mr. Woodruff and the kind staff at Amalgamated Dynamics Inc.
Additional thanks to the salubrious Space Sweeper and a tip of the hat to Omega.

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Powerloader

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“Ripley steps out, WEARING TWO TONS OF HARDENED STEEL. THE POWER LOADER. Like medieval armour with the power of a bulldozer.
~ Aliens script, by James Cameron, September 1985.

In James Cameron’s Xenogenesis the two protagonists, a man and a woman, are hounded by a gigantic robot. The woman manages to flee, but the other is forced over a precipice and hangs perilously over a chasm. The robot leans in to finish him, but a far-off wall panel is forced open, revealing the woman – now encased in a robotic vehicle and ready to do battle for her partner’s life.

The scene was transplanted directly into the climax of Aliens, with the two nameless protagonists replaced by Ripley and Newt. There is no chasm; instead Newt cowers under the Sulaco’s flooring. The Alien Queen takes the place of the robot, the design of which Cameron would recycle for the Hunter-Killer Tank in Terminator. And the woman’s robotic vehicle is replaced by one of the film’s most iconic inventions: a mechanised exo-suit called the ‘powerloader’.

“When I was young,” Cameron told astralgia.com when discussing Xenogenesis’ mechanical ‘outfit’, “my friends and I did this little film with $20,000 from the rich, Mormon dentists out in Orange County … The story we wanted took place on a colony starship bound for another planet with the last remnants of humanity on board frozen. I came up with a device I called ‘the Spider’ that was used to crawl around the outside of the ship to make repairs. It was a four-legged walking machine that used a tele-presence-type amplification: you put your feet in things, you grabbed onto these controls, and however you moved and walked, it duplicated your actions.”

When Cameron wrote Aliens he retooled it from one of his unmade scripts, Mother, and also brought over Xenogenesis’ mechanised vehicle, changing it from a four-legged contraption to a two-legged exo-suit: “A year and a half [after Xenogenesis], The Empire Strikes Back came out with these big walking machines in it. I felt vaguely ripped off, or scooped would be more accurate. So I changed ‘the Spider’ to more of an upright, forklift exoskeleton concept.”

“I don’t remember exactly the origin of the idea. It’s based on a design that I created a few years ago for another story that never got made [Xenogenesis]. That predated the ‘Transformer’ robots, at least as a fad in this country. I think that the exo-skeleton concept has been used in a lot of literary SF.”
~ James Cameron, Lofficier interview, 1986.

Funnily enough, the AT-AT design from Empire was inspired by Syd Mead, who Cameron would later briefly task to design the powerloader. Former ILM employee Joe Johnson told btlnews.com in 2010 that “The snow walkers were from a brochure by Syd Mead for US Steel of these walking trucks going through the snow – we turned them into walking tanks.”

Early design of the powerloader, perhaps imagined as a Marine battlesuit. By Syd Mead. Cameron seems to have revisited the design for Avatar.

Syd Mead’s early design of the powerloader. Cameron seems to have revisited the design for Avatar.

“I started designing it when they went to Pinewood. They constructed the test model with 2x2s and trash bags stuffed with newspapers to get the articulation down. The finished prop was so cumbersome, they had to have guys in black skin suits running it. It was not power operated, it was operated by manipulators out of shot.”
~ Syd Mead, Vulture.com. 2013.

Cameron decided to use the powerloader because he did not want Ripley to have the safe distance that a gun could give her when fighting the Queen. Instead she would have to physically tangle with her enemy in an atavistic display of motherly instinct. “I wanted to have the final confrontation with the Alien be a hand-to-hand fight,” Cameron said about the origin of the scene. “To be a very intense, personal thing, not done with guns, which are a remote way of killing. Also, guns carry a lot of other connotations as well. But to really go one on one with the creature was my goal. It made sense that Ripley could win if she could equalise the odds. So there had to be some way of amplifying her strength, in a way that was not a comic-bookish sort of concept, like taking a pill.”

“At a certain point, I was toying with the idea of having the Marines have battle suits,” he said, taking a page or two out of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. “But then I thought, ‘oh, no, you’re going to see that coming a mile away’. Anyway, how would Ripley know how to operate a battle suit? They wouldn’t be teaching her. It was really critical to the story that she emerge under pressure as the person who really takes control. They discredit her at the beginning; the last thing they’d do is hand her a gun and teach her how to use a battle suit.”

Cameron discarded the idea of using a battlesuit (a weapon) and stuck with the concept of a mechanoid forklift (a tool). But he still wanted to assure the audience that Ripley could operate it. Depicting the powerloader as a rather rudimentary device (at least in the world of Alien) enabled Ripley to use it with relative ease.

“She had had to support herself as a dockworker at Gateway Station [so] it was logical to assume that she might know how to handle a basic piece of cargo handling equipment,” said Cameron. “You had to set it up. You had to see her volunteer to help unload the ship and impress them all that she could do it. Otherwise you’d never believe that she could duke it out with the Alien Queen.”

Cameron's redesign of the powerloader, imagined as a mech-lifter.

Cameron’s redesign of the powerloader, imagined as a mech-lifter.

In Cameron’s original treatment the powerloader is revealed during the climax before it walks into the hanger to fight the Queen. The treatment describes a sequence of shots showing Ripley strap herself into the suit. We are then given a full shot of Ripley in the powerloader. Cameron omitted this in later scripts (but kept the cuts of her strapping in to something) to get the money shot we know from the film. The shots of her strapping in were kept in all of the subsequent drafts, but none of  it was ever shot (though many fans believed that the footage had in fact been filmed – it’s usually recounted in those ‘I saw a different version on TV as a kid’ stories).

“I was particularly proud of being involved in the sequence involving the Alien Queen and the powerloader,” said Special Effects technician Joss Williams, “because right from the  start of my involvement on the movie, we had pictures drawn by Jim -of which today you’d get computer generated images, but this was hand drawn by Jim- of the powerloader fighting the Alien Queen.” Turning Cameron’s painting into a reality would require not only full-scale models but miniatures as well.

Building the large powerloader was left to Special Effects Supervisor John Richardson. Richardson’s tenure on the film see-sawed from having near total control of his workshop, to suddenly working under Cameron’s peregrine-eyed supervision. The director would often check in and make amendments to the design, offering sketches to a bemused Richardson. “A lot of directors would have said, ‘I want it to look like a walking forklift,’ and let it go at that,” Richardson told Cinefex in 1986. “Jim would say, ‘I want it to look like a walking forklift and those little bolts up there have to be this shape.’”

“Jim is a very hands-on director,” Richardson explained further. “We were trying to cut just as many corners as we could just to get it ready in time, but Jim would suddenly get locked in on the shape of the screw head in the back corner of the heel of the boot. And we were just screaming to get the thing ready.”

The two would quarrel over the details, but they unanimously agreed that the outcome was the better for it. Richardson recalled that “I seem to remember once or twice on a Friday night, a bottle of champagne would turn up in the workshop with a little note from Jim saying, ‘Building powerloaders is thirsty work. Have one on me.’ And it sort of smoothed everything out until the Monday … They were good times.”

The delays with the large powerloader meant that delays with the miniature were inevitable, since the miniature was based directly on the larger model. “They were working on the full size one right up until the time they started shooting it,” said miniature designer Phil Notaro, who helped build the Queen and powerloader miniatures with Doug Beswick, “so I actually couldn’t finish the puppet until I got over there [to Pinewood studios] and saw it. ‘Aha! That’s what it looks like!’ … It was pretty tense for a while there, though, because we were halfway into our schedule and we hadn’t even started the powerloader yet.”

Powerloader on the hanger set.

Powerloader on the hanger set. Inset: the miniature model.

The final battle between Ripley and the Alien Queen was among the last scenes to be shot for the film. The full scale powerloader, weighing around 600lbs and fabricated out of aluminium, fibreglass and PVC plastic, was controlled from within by a stuntman (John Lees) who was obscured inside the machine – just like the Alien Queen puppet, which contained two stuntmen. “I remember the English visual effects guys thinking we were crazy,” said Cameron, “the way we wanted to do it. And I said, ‘No, it’s the gag where the dad lets the daughter walk on his feet.’”

The back of the prop was given hidden counterweights disguised as machine components. The mechanics inside the hands were crafted to be light enough so the whole thing wouldn’t fall face first into the ground (Weaver related that this happened many times in rehearsal). The wrists were radio controlled. The ‘pincers’ were operated by cables. Also like the Queen puppet, the powerloader was held up by a rig (expertly hidden by Cameron’s framing) for its entrance into the hanger bay. For other scenes it was supported by a pole up the spine or by a counterweighted crane.

Sigourney Weaver, by all accounts, was very professional when it came to being strapped inside the contraption or placed on the sidelines all day. Cameron had predicted that the effects-heavy scenes would require many takes, re-calibration, and luck to get right. Weaver, he reckoned, would be naturally bored and tired during such a complex process, but the opposite was true. “She was just wonderful about the whole thing,” Cameron said. “She was a complete pro and very tolerant when it came to standing around the set for hours doing the predicted take after take.” Weaver herself felt that the sequence was worth it. “I loved that,” she said. “That’s, I think, one of the favourite moments that people have: that battle, ‘get away from her, you bitch!’”

Cameron getting hands on.

Cameron getting hands on.

But Weaver did have to contend with one uncomfortable element during the shooting: the effects team’s sense of humour – a balloon was inserted into the powerloader, just behind Weaver’s buttocks. Whenever the camera rolled, the crew would pump air into the balloon through a pipe. Weaver ran through several explanations for the bulge at her backside, with some involving the stuntman, John Lees, concealed behind her. “She thought he was getting a boner all the time,” laughed Richardson. “She was going, ‘John, John? What are you doing, John?’ She couldn’t move because she was strapped in, and (John) didn’t know because he was nowhere to be seen [inside the loader].”

“It was very funny,” said Weaver, “because it lasted quite a long time, a couple of hours. I was thinking, ‘Well, this is interesting.’”

The scenes featuring the miniature loader and Queen were filmed after principal photography had ended. The powerloader miniature was moved around a small scale set by rods placed through the floor and the model’s feet. The arms were cable operated. The model was fitted with a small doll in the form of Ripley. For the scene earlier in the film where Ripley demonstrates her prowess with the loader for Hicks and Apone, we can see another powerloader being operated in the background – this was a miniature plate filmed much later; the pilot is in fact the Ripley doll redressed as a Marine.

The miniature powerloader’s final scene, tumbling out of the airlock, was literally its final scene: the model allegedly plummeted through the star field backdrop and smashed to pieces on the concrete. “We did about eight takes on it,” said Notaro, “and each time it crashed into pieces. We’d then have to superglue it back together and do it again.” On the ninth shot the miniature broke beyond repair. “It exploded,” recalled miniatures technical supervisor Pat McClung.

Cameron had worried that the scene with the powerloader would not be taken seriously by the audience if it was anything short of stellar – if the images in his head could be conjured and guided by an expert (and careful) hand, then he figured they would accept it. It would all hinge on the execution. “There are always certain things on every film that you’re nervous about,” he said. “You like the challenge. The challenge is, can I make the audience believe this? Then you’re nervous about it the whole time, which is good. The more nervous you are, the more you’re going to set it up and make it work.”

“It always stuck in my mind,” said Joss Williams, “and it still does today – the sequence when we actually shot it onstage at Pinewood of the powerloader that we built and seeing the Alien Queen that Stan Winston had built, fighting. And it was just what Jim had drawn some eighteen months, maybe two years, previously.”

“When the film opened,” explained Cameron, “I went to the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. When the spaceship door came up, and there was Sigourney in the powerloader, the audience went apeshit! That’s what it’s all about. It really taught me to not be afraid of the challenges, to find them, to seek them out because that’s where the magic is.”

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