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Adaptive Organism

Having brought life to an Alien army and their 14-foot tall matriarch in Aliens, Stan Winston was initially sought out by Twentieth Century Fox to resume a role as Alien 3‘s creature designer due to his previous Oscar-winning work. Unfortunately for the production, the effects maestro was unavailable, with 1990-91 seeing him directing his second feature, A Gnome Named Gnorm, which he then followed with more Oscar-winning work, crafting the physical effects for the T-1000 on James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Instead of leaving the new Alien project hanging, Winston recommended two of his former protégés for the job, Tom Woodruff Jnr and Alec Gillis. The two had previously cut their teeth with Winston on The Terminator and Aliens and had recently left his employ to form their own monster shop, Amalgamated Dynamics Inc., or ADI. 

In their foreword to The Making of AVP, Woodruff and Gillis explained how they were approached: “In 1990, Gordon Carroll, one of the producers on the first two [Alien] pictures, called us to ask if we were interested in creating the effects for Alien 3. The plan was to return to Pinewood Studios outside of London and he wanted someone who knew the drill. By now, we had formed our own company, Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc.”

Of their split from Winston and their company’s formation, Gillis explained: “Tom and I had worked well together at Stan’s and both had similar interests in where we wanted to go as filmmakers, so it just seemed logical [to found an effects company together.]” Gillis added elsewhere: “It was good timing for us to leave, and we parted with Stan’s blessings. He’ll always be our mentor, and he sometimes recommends us for jobs.”

The Alien 3 creature design story didn’t begin with either Winston or ADI. In the early (and varied) scripting days, artists Stephen Ellis and Mike Worrall sketched the creature in a series of poses and contexts; from the Alien coiled in a foetal position, to the creature lurking under floorboards, crouching upon lintels, and snatching monks from the latrine. Their concepts, taking off from Vincent Ward’s script, were almost hypnagogic in style (Worrall’s website describes his art as being “dreamlike … often inspired by historical themes,” perfect for Ward’s vision) with the Alien taking on a variety of forms, including a centaur-Alien and an Alien-sheep with the impression of an anthropomorphic moon on its backside; all presumably born from the wooden world’s livestock.

Ward’s Alien was also chameleonic, able to blend into the wooden makeup of the film’s medieval orbiter. It also took on a Morphean quality, invading Ripley’s dreams to haunt her with visions of her deceased daughter, whose face was to protrude from its jaws. The creature became a psychic as well as physical stalker. “It’s almost like he’s playing with me,” Ripley says to her confidant, Brother John (a proto-Clemens character). “Maybe they have some sort of race memory. Maybe he knows what I did to his ‘mother’. That’s why he didn’t just kill me … He has to torment me.” These metaphysical leanings were discarded upon Ward’s eventual departure and the script’s many subsequent rewrites.

“Hypnos” themed Alien.

The Alien itself, in some of the early concept art, seems to have a mollusc-like exoskeleton, its thighs sporting flues and its tail curled spirally coiled like a gastropod shell, and it’s not hard to imagine that the dome may be nacre-lined and iridescent. In other pieces, the creature is more generic.

There is some brief musing on the nature of the Alien in the script that isn’t present in the films. Locked in a cell with an android named Andrew, Ripley and the machine conclude that the Alien may have been bred for interstellar warfare.

“Maybe they are from some sort of aggressive soldier race,” muses Andrew. “Warring parties drop the eggs on opposing planets-” “-and the Alien takes on the form of the creature that finds it,” interjects Ripley. Andrew’s speculation regarding the origin of the Alien was not explored within the films themselves, though the issue was later (somewhat) addressed in Prometheus.

A more bestial design. Note the elongated insectile arms and crowning dome.

During the Vincent Ward period co-producer Gordon Carroll extended an invitation to Giger to work on the film. Allegedly, Giger was not available at this time. Later, when newcomer David Fincher took over directorial duties, the production re-established contact and Fincher travelled to meet Giger at his home.

“While I was working on my idea for The Mystery of San Gottardo, Gordon Carroll contacted me about Alien 3,” Giger told International Tattoo Art magazine in 1995. “I told him that I was working on a new creature and could probably combine it.” However, the producers weren’t interested in Giger’s side projects and designs. “Gordon Carroll asked if I was interested. ‘Yes, why not?’ Then it was, ‘Do this, do that and that!’ Just like when I started Alien.”

Though no script for the new film was presented, he knew what he was to create: an aquatic facehugger, a new chestburster, and a four-legged interpretation of the Alien being. “I worked like crazy on it,” Giger told ImagiMovies magazine in 1994. The artist relished the chance to revisit and revise his Alien monster. “I had special ideas to make it more interesting,” he said. “I designed a new creature which was much more elegant and beastly compared to my original. It was a four-legged Alien, more like a feline – a panther or something. It had a kind of skin which was built up from other creatures, like a symbiosis … I made a very long tongue like a sword and the Alien’s mouth should look beautiful. With the monks this time there’s an erotic fascination, and when it kisses them, you only see the mouth close-up. Then the tongue comes and you only see blood running …”

Giger quickly set to work, re-drawing his original Alien design and ruthlessly cutting out and changing what he didn’t like about it: including the “stiff, useless hands,” a tail that is “too much [like a] crocodile’s,” the Alien’s “useless pipes … only given to give help to the long head,” and the “too short ribcage.” Giger also discussed the shortcomings of the original creature with Cinephage in 1992: “Nothing in Alien worked so we did not show much [of the creature]. And that’s the highlight of the film. The tail of the monster never worked Ridley wanted it to beat the air. It never worked. It was horrible (laughs). Nothing was what we wanted from the start. We wanted the monster to be translucent. Ultimately, it was a man dressed in a suit.”

In Giger’s redesign, the Alien’s back tubes are removed, the face features erotic lips, and the ribcage is extended, “like twisted steel”. The tail has also gained a sword-like protrusion, rather than a stinger. The words “sphinx” and “spider” are thrown in, suggesting the creature’s dual nature as something cunning but primal, elegant but frightening, regal but beastly. Transparency also seems to have made the list of improvements. “This time around it had to be more animal-like, more elegant,” explained Giger. “You shouldn’t get the feeling that it was a man wearing a suit. Basically, the head had to remain unaltered but the body had to change. David Fincher, the director, told me I would have total freedom.”

With Fincher tackling the production in England and Giger designing and sculpting the new Alien from his home with assistant sculptor Cornelius de Fries, Fincher and Giger communicated solely by fax. “I think the fax machine is a great invention,” Giger said of the communications between Fincher and himself. Giger had made himself “a prisoner” during the production of Alien, and suffered a great deal of anxiety due to the pressure. Being able to communicate via fax from the comfort of home apparently relieved him of a great deal of needless stress. “I hardly have to leave my house anymore! So after I go to bed at 6AM after having worked all night, I can transmit that night’s work from my bedroom.”

Working through July and August 1990, Giger had his redesigned Alien worked out within a few weeks, from paper sketch to a seven-foot-long bust, which he had sculpted with De Fries and had financed from his own pocket. He likewise sketched the aquatic facehugger, an image of an impregnated Ripley, the Bambi-burster, and provided drawings demonstrating his new Alien’s deadly athleticism.

“This looks great!” Fincher said in response to Giger’s work, their correspondence shared with ImagiMovies magazine. “Finally, we are all excited again. We want you to feel free to give your all … I am doing everything in my power to ensure you have control over your creation.”

Fincher also provided some creative feedback, his major contribution being the Alien’s new, thick lips: “We did give it Michelle Pfeiffer’s lips,” he said, “That’s what they’re based on. It always had these little thin lips, and I said to Giger, ‘let’s make it a woman when it comes right up to Ripley.’ So it has these big, luscious collagen lips.” This erotic moment was already conveyed in Ward’s script: “The Alien wraps his arms around Ripley,” it reads, “Thin lips pull back for a kiss.” The thickness of the lips were pared back for the film, but were still fuller than those of the original Alien.

Giger’s blueprints for his new Alien. The creature’s arms were to be adorned with small flues that would emit an unsettling hum that would signal the creature’s temperament. The detail on the head he called a “finger-brain” that would ripple like wheatstalk in the wind.

During their initial meeting, Fincher showed Giger some preliminary sketches of the Alien provided by ADI. “[Fincher showed me] some sketches made by people who would be responsible for the execution of the work,” Giger told ImagiMovies Magazine. “These looked rather like a bird. There was no similarity to the Alien, and they were far from my ideas.”

Giger himself telephoned ADI at the studio and the two entities found that they shared some similar plans for the Alien’s design, such as the removal of the pipes which adorn the Alien’s back. “[Giger] called to say that he hoped we’d get rid of the tailpipes,” said Gillis. “He’d just put them there to break up the human form of the suit and had never liked them. It was a very welcome coincidence.” However, it is clear that ADI considered themselves as the wardens of the creature’s design for the third film: “The Alien is Giger’s baby, and he was calling to find out what we planned. After that we stayed in contact and he faxed drawings and ideas that proved very helpful when we were deciding how the Alien was going to develop.” Clearly, ADI were under the impression that Giger was an accessory to the film’s creature design, rather than, as Giger himself had been led to believe, the hub on which it turned. Giger himself would later blame Fincher’s lack of transparency for the confusion. “When Woodruff and Gillis said they had their own ideas I was very upset. They said that they liked my work and might use some of my sketches, but they would make their own interpretation.”

When Giger offered his Alien bust to Twentieth Century Fox for the price of the mold and not for the actual time spent designing and constructing the creature, Fox rebuffed him, and they also declined film footage of the creature that Giger had shot and provided for reference. The production then severed all contact from Giger as Alien 3 went into shooting for a tumultuous year and ADI began work on crafting the Alien as intended for the film. “I invited all of them to visit me in Switzerland,” said Giger, “but I heard they didn’t want my input.” ADI themselves cited the infamously hectic production as being the reason for their declination.

Of the situation, Giger said, “David Fincher neglected to inform me that Woodruff and Gillis were also contracted to take care of the redesign of the Alien – I found out much later. I thought I had the job and that Woodruff and Gillis would work from my plans. On their side, they were convinced that it was their job and accepted my ‘suggestions’ with pleasure. They believed that all my effort was based on a huge love for the matter, because I worked hard even after my contract was over. Today, I am convinced that it was a game by Fincher to keep both sides happy and obtain the maximum for his movie … In the contract it states exactly how I should be credited … They break the contract because they’re saying in the movie that it’s only ‘original design by Giger’ and not Alien 3, so it looks like I didn’t work on it … Mr. Fincher never gave me any credit. That did not just happen; it was made to happen. I never heard from the man responsible, and I don’t know why he did it.”

Fincher himself explained, “We worked with [Giger] and used as much of his input and ideas as we could.” From there, Fincher goes on to describe his mission statement for the Alien and does not address Giger’s involvement: “More importantly, we thought: How can we make this thing scary again? On the second film they compromised on the actual mechanics of each of the creatures and made it more like a bunch of pissed off Jacques Cousteaus’. It worked because of the sheer scale and how little you saw of these fleeting glimpses in the strobes of the machine guns firing. We really wanted to do something that was more elegant and simple.”

Giger summarised the situation: “I wish Ridley Scott had come back. He had said to me, ‘If we ever do another, you’ll create a new monster.’ Working with him would have been wonderful – not a man with no experience. They told me that the Alien this time would be intelligent; it would be special. But, in the end, it was just a slimy creature.” To International Tattoo Art magazine, he said, “In the end they used many of my ideas, but what was finally in the movie was very much different from what I imagined Alien 3 to be.”

Though Giger and Fincher had set out to create a whole new Alien breed, the artist found the monster, bipedalism aside, to be far too familiar to the original film’s creature: “In a way, they went back to my designs for the original Alien, and that was disappointing.” Giger also said of the film, pre-release: “Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to the finished film. And don’t get me wrong, I do hope it will be a success.”

When it came to portraying the actual Alien, ADI already had a solution in mind. Tom Woodruff had watched the stuntmen on Aliens don and perform in the Alien suits, and recalled that he wasn’t impressed: “I remember … putting on one of the Alien suits and doing different body poses and positions for still shots, and looking at them later and thinking was an improvement over what I’d seen on set.” Post-Aliens, Woodruff got his first monster jobs playing Gillman in The Monster Squad, as well as playing the eponymous creature in Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead.

Alec Gillis: “Tom had a small list of credits for playing monsters we designed, and we went to the producers with the notion that it made the most sense for him to play the Alien. Tom had experience inside suits and we had a complete set of body molds that would allow us to start work immediately. The producers as well as the director, David Fincher, supported our notion.”

The Alien suits were made from foam latex and crafted to be skintight to hide wrinkles in the costuming. They were also absent zippers, which required Woodruff to spend up to ten hours inside the suit. Design-wise, the Alien’s domed carapace was restored, rather than the ridged head of the second movie. ADI also stripped the creature of its purely biomechanical texture. Giger’s original Alien was man-shaped but replete with metallic joints and muscles in a strange and frightening alchemy of teeth, claws and steel. ADI’s Alien is a sepia-toned mesh of bone and flesh. Though ADI’s original mold of the suit retained some biomechanic textures, most if not all of this detail was lost because of the film’s ruddy, muddy lighting.

Tom Woodruff explained ADI’s approach to the Alien design, and their interpretation of Giger’s aesthetic: “The Alien was so well known that there wasn’t a lot we could do with it except try to make it look even more alien than in the first two films. Most of our changes were stylistic, because we really wanted to go back to the original paintings and designs for Giger, which hadn’t been fully realized.” Elsewhere, Woodruff explained to Cinefex magazine: “We tried to give it an organic, sculptural feel and remain truer to his [Giger’s] concepts than even he had been. Some of the things he had done in the first film were completely serendipitous.”

Alec Gillis adds: “Even Alien wasn’t completely true to Giger’s vision. I don’t mean to be pompous, but his own suit wasn’t accurate to his paintings. Our goal was to sculpt Giger’s designs into repeating organic textures, almost like dear antlers. We also put more colour into the Alien, which was originally just black and sepia. Since the effects of Alien 3 wouldn’t have the spectacle of the last film, we wanted to make this creature into a believable organism.” Making the Alien “a believable organism” saw the creature being stripped of any overt biomechanical details, with knots of muscle, papulae and blistered skin making up the details between the creature’s bones.

Visual trickery, such as shooting from a low angle or having Woodruff stand on boxes, gave the illusion that the suited performer was in the range of seven-eight feet tall, in line with the previous creatures in the series.

Originally, the Alien was to be born from the body of an ox, but this idea had to be scrapped and re-shot when the filmed footage was deemed subpar. “The scene was written that there was a group of oxen towing the EEV on the shore of Fury 161,” explained visual effects producer Richard Edlund, “and a facehugger was going to impregnate one of the oxen. In the end however, David didn’t like the sequence we shot with the chestburster coming out of the Ox, and for a reason I’m not sure of, they changed the host to a rottweiler.”

Fincher explained, “It looked stupid. We put masonite filters on the lens and we still couldn’t shoot the thing so that it looked right. The ox stuff just never played. I wanted something faster and more predatory than an ox. As a result, the final Alien is not as elegant a creature as it was before, but it’s more vicious. The change to a dog broke everyone’s heart, because it had already been done before in The Thing, but it helped when we got to the big chase sequences at the end, because it gave us exciting POVs and explained the ravenous attack mode this thing was in … we wanted it to be fast and big and powerful and dumb.”

Though the new Alien was born from a non-human host, portraying the creature as a non-anthropomorphic being wouldn’t be possible with Woodruff alone, and so a rod puppet was devised to fill in for the more beastly long shots of the Alien’s attacks.

“From a practical standpoint,” said Woodruff, “the idea of putting a man in a rubber suit works because you get the coverage you need and you have something to work with on set; the actors have something to work with. We’re hoping that most of the time when you see the creature it’s gonna be the puppet, because it’s got things to it you can’t do with a man in a suit.”

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The rod puppet Alien and its compositing was handled by Boss Film in conjunction with ADI, who provided a mold for the 40inch puppet. Boss also handled the CG elements in the film, which included the creature’s shadows and a brief shot of its dome cracking. Laine Liska, an experienced stop motion animator, oversaw the puppetry of the Alien. With David Fincher overseeing the filming, the Alien’s actions were filmed in front of a blue screen in LA with a special motion control camera in a process called ‘mo-motion’, and later composited over existing footage shot back in England.

“We initially tried it with the body of the Alien on motion control, but it moved more like a bunny rabbit than an Alien,” explained Liska. “It really started working when we started doing everything by hand, including running the puppet along a ramp so it covered distance as it moved. Most of the time there were four of us working the puppet – one person on the front legs, another on the back legs, another operating the tail and me on the head and the torso. For the upside down shots of the Alien on the ceiling we had to have a person for each limb, so there were six of us clustered around this little puppet, all moving as fast as we could … He [Fincher] suggested a lot of different animals for us to copy. He wanted it to be very predatory, very cougar-like and at other times he wanted it to move more spidery, almost like an insect.”

Fincher said of the process: “We wanted the creature to walk on the ceilings and really sell the idea that this thing is a bug from outer space.”

“That was one of the challenges of the production: to come up with a technique of shooting the Alien. How would we shoot the Alien? How would we create the Alien in this movie? Nobody had ever seen the Alien running in the way he was running. He runs on the ceiling, on the side, all over the place. We had to develop a look. How does an Alien look when it runs? … It was a very difficult project to get the Alien to look menacing and terrifying in motion.”
~ Robert Edlund.

Despite the expert crafting of the model and convincing puppeteering, the compositing of the Alien was a disaster, and one of the most maligned special effects in the series. Appearing with a green outline and blurred details, the rod puppet fails to stand out as an impressive, living creature and instead serves as a distraction; a reminder that the creature is not real.

“I like the Alien head very much,” Giger said of the final design, “that was nicely done, but not the neck … The thing I don’t like really is when [the Alien] opened its mouth and the silly tongue comes out. I never liked this tongue. I always wanted to eliminate it, but Ridley Scott wanted it. It was okay in [Alien] because it [shot out]. But in the third it comes out slowly like false teeth.”

After a private screening of the film, Giger was aghast to see that he was not credited for having worked on the new design, and when the effects work and design were nominated for an Oscar award his name was likewise omitted. After some legal wrangling, Giger’s name was restored to the credits on home release.

In 2010, Tom Woodruff claimed that the third film represented his favourite experience working on the series: “I think my favourite was Alien 3 for a combination of reasons. That was an early film that Alec and I did on our own. On Aliens, the Cameron movie, we were part of Stan Winston’s team. Stan was amazing and inspiring to work with but with Alien 3 it was our own show. It was also the first time I wore the Alien costume. We really had a chance to work on screen a lot and work quite a bit with Sigourney in the scenes. Just being around David Fincher was a huge experience just to see that level of filmmaking from a guy that young. It was also a bit intimidating because David was way ahead of the curve and if anyone was going to find something that wasn’t working it would be him.”

Fincher himself made it clear that his experience making the film was hellish. In one of his milder quotes, he says, “We did what we had time to do, and we had a lot more interesting ideas that we would have liked to do … and we ran out of money. Unfortunately, when you have no prep time you spend a lot of money on stuff that never gets shot or does get shot and isn’t properly thought out. It [the production] never moved quite as quickly as I wanted it to.”

Finally, Fincher also claimed that Fox had tampered with his film’s colour and light scheme. “I could not get the screen to be black,” he recalled. “I couldn’t get the creature to come out of the shadows unseen.”

A “jaguar crossed with a freight train.”

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