Redesigning the Facehugger & Chestburster

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In some respects a lot of Aliens’ hard work had already been done for it. The various stages of the creature’s life-cycle had been worked 0ut, designed, and immortalised in the first film. All that remained for James Cameron and Stan Winston to do was, first, design the Alien Queen, and second, adapt Giger’s Alien to the rough n’ tumble approach of their high-octane action movie. With the Queen’s towering, spindly-limbed form committed to canvas by Cameron, and with Winston’s team piecing together the numerous Alien suits in their workshop,  the duo then turned to refitting the other stages of the Alien’s life-cycle: the facehugger and chestburster.

Stan Winston’s team acquired the original facehugger prop around which they modelled their own. They lengthed the tail and made some small adjustments to the fingers, adding nails to make them more akin to strange, spidery hands. The changes made to the designs wouldn’t too dramatic but, just like the Alien’s ribbed carapace, the revisions would reflect the artistic sensibilities of the original film’s artists. “We tried to be as true to the original film as we could,” Stan Winston said in The Official Aliens Movie Book, “without disallowing ourselves a little bit of artistic freedom to do things that we considered -if not improvements- something to keep your head above water so you’re not just doing what was done before.”

For example, when it came to redesigning the facehugger’s ‘belly’ and proboscis, Cameron elected to to do as Giger would do and aim for a sexual aesthetic, and so the facehugger’s underside was molded into the shape of a vagina. In the first film, the creature’s belly was an open segment of innards and muscle tissue and the proboscis only appeared in several frames.

“The bits of oysters and stuff inside [the original facehugger] looked great,” Cameron said on the 2003 commentary track, “but I did wanna see the disgusting thing that had been down the inside of Kane’s throat … You never see it in the movie, so I figured we’d gross everybody out.”

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“All of Giger’s designs have a really sexual undercurrent to them,” he continued, “and that’s what horrified people about the Alien as much as anything; it worked on a kind of Freudian subconscious level, and Ridley and Giger knew that and went for that. This film was never intended to be as much of a horror film as the first one, it was working on a different thematic level, but I still wanted to be true to some of those ideas, some of those design concepts.”

There were other aesthetic changes, like the skin tone – a sickly yellow in the first film, a flushed pink the second. A mechanical facehugger was constructed by Rick Lazzarini for the scenes within the MedBay. Here, two facehuggers attack Newt and Ripley, scurrying across the floor and springing through the air to attack their victims. The scurrying facehugger was, essentially, a wind-up toy with a mechanism designed by Cameron and further refined by Winston and his team. “It was a very clever mechanism,” said Alec Gillis in 2003, “it was like a pull-toy.” Other tricks, like shooting the facehugger and then playing the footage backwards, created the illusion of a leaping creature.

“In order to create the illusion of these two facehuggers that are now loose in this room,” said Winston, “we created a half-dozen forms of this particular creature so it could have a performance and become a character. We didn’t change the design, we extended the design [and] changed what it could do as an actor … it could crawl and it could reach and try to get at Newt, try to get at Ripley… it was running at you, running across the room, and it was virtually a pull-toy.”

Another facehugger was created for the dissection scene, which sees Bishop poring over the creature in a darkly studious manner. Shane Mahon built the facehugger prop, taking a leaf from the original film’s book and dressing it with chicken skins and other meats.

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“The chestburster in the original Alien was one of the most shocking and wonderful effects in film history,” Winston says in the 2003 making of documentary supplementing the Alien Quadrilogy. “We had to repeat it, but we had to do something a little different.”

The creature in the first movie was essentially a puppet fixed to the end of a rod, and was thrust from the body of John Hurt by Roger Dicken. That chestburster had been initially designed with arms attached, but they were cut out before the design was finalised. Still, you can see two little nubs protruding from its body, signifying where the arms would be.

“We had a copy of the original chestburster from the first film,” explained Tom Woodruff, “and the thing we were noticing  in the original sculpture was there was an indication there were to be little arms on the thing, and I wasn’t really aware of them in the film.”

Cameron asked that Winston’s team restore the arms to create the impression that once the creature had penetrated the chest cavity it could swiftly tear and drag itself out of the host’s body – as it memorably does in the first hive sequence, pulling itself from the “Cocooned Woman” portrayed by Barbara Coles.

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Two puppets were created for the scene. One was required to pop through the colonist’s foam latex chest and was given three mechanisms in its body which allowed it to twist and turn. The other was to flail and schreech and was given a greater range of limb, body and mouth movement. For its final shot the creature was loaded into a model of Coles before both were incinerated by the Marines, destroying the chestburster prop on camera.

Cameron also intended for his chestbursting sequence to be less gory than the first. “I figured, ‘Okay, the first film told you what could happen, we don’t have to revel in it.'” Since the original film had made history with its chestbuursting scene, Cameron felt no need to try and top it by being bloodier or by lingering on the host’s agony. “You don’t create fear with gore,” he explained, “you create disgust, a whole different emotion.” As such, the film rolls on from the chestbursting sequence directly into the awakening of the hive…

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1 Comment

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One response to “Redesigning the Facehugger & Chestburster

  1. Nessus

    Little bit of a correction: the facehugger in “Alien” had fingernails, and the redesign for “Aliens” removed the fingernails rather than adding them.

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