.....A new feature on this site now:  When I find websites that I think'll interest you ... I'll tell you about them.  It's what Web 2.0 is all about, after all: sharing.

So, as we are approaching its tenth anniversary ... I thought I'd point you to this wonderful collection of sketches, design-sheets and original art for The Iron Giant.

It was, arguably, the last great (American) 2D animated feature.  It had a heart and a beauty that Disney lost and Dreamworks never really had.  It deftly interwove historical references, science fiction motifs and, of course, Ted Hughes' allegorical 1968 novella The Iron Man into a film which remains a delight to behold.

It would be lovely to see it on the big screen again ... let's hope the tenth anniversary gives Warners the excuse it needs to milk some more big-screen coin out of the movie.

Anyway, the website has been put together by David Zart, based in Ohio, who is basically just an Iron Giant nut (and I mean that in a good way).  He has spent the last ten years collecting a vast library of art-work associated with the film, which he has generously gathered together in his website. 

There are hundreds of images to drool over, from rough sketches to finished paintings to character sheets ... if you love peeking behind The Curtain, if you love The Iron Giant, if you love great film art ... you'll love what Mr Zart has to show you.

Pay a visit to:

the ultimate iron giant 
... but don't forget to come back here after : )


Back in the summer of 1994, I found myself standing on a litter-strewn pavement, KFC and Burger King wrappers swirling around my ankles as I stared at an unimposing doorway just off Piccadilly Circus. Beyond the doorway I could see a long narrow flight of stairs and, as I stood there, in the way and being constantly jostled by the shoulders of passing Londoners, I was undecided about descending those stairs to sample the pleasures which awaited at the bottom.

I was, of course, standing outside central London’s largest amusement complex The Trocadero, gazing at the entrance of ‘Alien War’, which had taken over its basement. ‘Alien War’ was the live role-playing ‘experience’ which tailored the briefly fashionable ‘Laser Quest’ games of the mid-nineties into an authorised ‘Alien’-themed ride. Well, as I was to learn, it was more of a run than a ride!

The brainchild of ‘Alien’ movie-memorabilia collector John Gorman, and Gary Gillies, ‘Alien War’ began as an elaborate way for them to show off Gorman’s collection of original props in their home town of Glasgow. Essentially, the idea was to get away from the traditional way of presenting such treasures – on stands or in glass cases, by allowing the viewer to see the props in use as Marines fought off Aliens whilst running through gloomy, smoke-filled corridors.

During 1992, ‘Alien War Glasgow’ scared the kilts off more than 100,000 Scots in just six months, and attracted the attention of broadcasters and print journalists from all around the world. It also caught the eye of American venture capitalists who brought with them the possibility of opening a more elaborate, more expensive ‘Alien War’ in the heart of London.

So, there I was. Gazing at the stairs. What the hell.

At the bottom of the stairs, a sign welcomed me to Weyland Yutani Base 166 and a left turn took me into the arrival/departure lounge. Appropriately, off duty marines lounged about, cradling their rifles and sharing a smoke (yes, I know they were actors earning a living whilst waiting for their first big West-End break, but suspension of disbelief is half the battle with these things, so bear with me) whilst a small group of punters (whose multi-coloured clothes and shopping-bags didn’t really fit-in with the drab distempered walls and standard-issue fatigues of the players) gathered in front of the memorabilia stall, debating whether to buy this t-shirt or that base-ball cap.

At the ticket-office, I shelled out my £8.00, which I felt was steep, even by London standards, and joined the group by the stall.

Obviously deciding that we now had a quorum, the Marines split up, some went through a door marked ‘Base 166’, one came over to us, introduced himself and asked us to follow him on a guided tour of the scientific facilities of the Base.

Inside, we gathered in an ante-chamber, in almost pitch-dark, and our guide explained that live Aliens were being held captive inside, and we would have to be aware not to touch anything as we were escorted through to see them. He then excused himself and went back the way we had come.

So, there we stood, eight of us, in the dark, waiting. The girls giggled, the lads began to mutter about being bored. Then alarms started to go off – was it a real fire-alarm, or part of the game? A garbled tannoy message told us that the Aliens had escaped; ahh, part of the game then.

We heard more sirens, more messages, even the occasional burst of gunfire. And there we stood, wondering if this was it, just standing in the dark and listening while the fun was going on around us. Had they forgotten us?

We had all, quite naturally, been watching the door our guide had gone out, waiting for him to come back. Everyone jumped about a foot into the air when a hidden door behind us burst open and a Marine hurled himself through it, turning his pulse rifle to blast the darkness behind him. He yelled at us to follow him, and we were off, haring down low, dark corridors, dimly lit from behind metal grilles.

We had to hide behind corners, run across exposed areas in groups of two, or wait at the back whilst our Marine went into the next room first. Once, just as he told us it was safe to proceed, the lights blinked out and he was lost amid screams and sporadic flashes of gunfire. At that point we were on our own again – in the dark, coughing on the dry ice and being deafened by the howls of the Aliens and the screams of their victims.

Another Marine, this one a Vasquez-alike, appeared out of a side corridor and took charge of us. She led all nine of us into a tight elevator, which, of course, fused and plunged us into darkness once more. The hammering on the walls told us that the Aliens were close, then a panel was torn away and one of our number was grabbed and dragged screaming away.

Lots more corridors and flights of stairs later, we burst out en masse into the departure lounge, to the surprise and amusement of the next group gathered before the t-shirts and brochures. Looking back, the door was closed and Vasquez had disappeared.

A certain amount of embarrassed coughing and demeanour-adjusting took place, and then off we wandered, back into the world dull, dreary, wind-swept world. As I emerged back into the throng on the streets, all urgently going nowhere fast, I checked my watch. I’d been in there all of ten minutes, including the waiting around in the initial ante-chamber. Eight quid for ten minutes. Hmm.

Upon reflection, I decided that the sets and props had been so convincing, the effects so impressive, and the performances of the Marines so emphatic, that I had enjoyed myself immensely, and that the money had been well spent. But, unlike many people I have spoken to about it, I also decided that it wasn’t the greatest value for money I’d ever encountered and, as such, once was enough. The Trocadero ‘ride’ closed in 1996 after flood damage and never re-opened.

An altered version of ‘Alien War’, cunningly re-dubbed ‘Alien Wars’, with all of the Fox-copyright material carefully reworked or removed, has been running this year at Liverpool’s Spaceport centre. I don’t know how it compares to the original but I know it costs £9.50 a head for adults which, oddly, seems quite reasonable now. What a difference fifteen years makes.

A30: ALIENS pt 3

In the second half of my exclusive interview with Brian Johnson, who worked on the special effects of both Alien and Aliens, we find out how he became involved, at the last minute, with Cameron’s sequel, and how his work came within a whisker of winning him another Oscar.

We were just discussing how, on Alien, you were involved throughout the production in virtually every department - in other words, you were very flexible.

“Yeah, well, I was always trained in lateral thinking. My mentor was a chap called Leslie Bowie, who won an Oscar for his work on Superman [1979]; well, before that, he used to do all the Hammer pictures, so he was always doing pictures with no money. He always taught me that, instead of charging straight at a problem, step back and look at it and see if there’s a way round it that’s easier, less labour-intensive and therefore cheaper.

“There’s a sequence in Dragonslayer [which Brian worked on in 1981], where the character Hodge is walking through the forest with a huge pack on his back, whilst the apprentice character has an egg magically hovering above his hand. Well, there were huge discussions about how that was going to be done, and the director had written notes suggesting ‘blue-screen this and blue-screen that’ [basically meaning - add the effect on later]. But we did it live, in the forest.

“What I did was put an air-bottle inside the apprentice’s pack and ran a pipe down his arm to a jet between his third and fourth fingers. I punched a little hole in the egg, blew all the contents out so it was really light, and we just balanced it on a column of air.

“As for the pack, when that lifts off Hodge’s back, we used wires. We had out-of-balance electric motors attached to the wires, which made the wires vibrate, and we tuned them by radio control until they were vibrating so fast that they seemed to disappear.”

Wire removal, live on set! I know that Cameron was quite keen to do the effects in Aliens live on set too.

“Yeah, we used an awful lot of rear-projection, particularly inside the Atmosphere Processor when its burning up, and outside when the drop-ship crashes. Okay, so you can tell that the background is a rear-projection, but the shots are cut so quickly, you can get away with it. Plus the fact, Jim was using long lenses with short depth-of-field, so the background was very often out-of-focus anyway, and it looked right that way. Add to that the amount of smoke and rain that filled the air and it all worked out really well.

“Jim knew how it would look when finished. That was the magic of working with him, he was on top of all that, he knew it would work and he knew how it would look.”

Sounds quite similar to Scott.

“Absolutely, and both Cameron and Scott worked themselves to a frazzle. You have to give them a hundred percent because they’re giving a hundred and eighty percent.

“And the incredible thing about Cameron is, because he’s been a production designer and a special-effects supervisor, you can’t pull the wool over his eyes. If you give him what he wants then he’s over the moon, if you don’t give him what he wants, the shit hits the fan and he goes out there and does it himself. He knows how to do practically everything associated with a film.

“What you have to remember is: If you say to Cameron, ‘Look, I really don’t think I can do this this way, but I can do it that way!’ He’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, he won’t say ‘You’ve got to do it this way!!’ But, after you’ve said what you can do, if you don’t then do it ... look out.”

He has a reputation of being a real tyrant.

“No, he’s a very charming man, actually. When he’s under pressure, he can be tough, but most of the time, I really liked him. You’ve heard the stories about the crew wearing t-shirts saying ‘You can’t scare me, I’ve worked with Cameron’, well, the truth is, he’s an incredibly generous man.

“I was up for an Oscar for the work I did on Aliens, but I had my nomination squashed by Twentieth Century Fox. I’d shot most of the model-shots during live-action shooting, and over-saw all the post-production stuff, and because of that Cameron asked for my name to be put on the nomination list. But, at that time, the Academy were only accepting four names per nomination and, because I’d started work last, my name came fifth.

“Jim Cameron stood up, at the Academy nominations committee meeting, and argued on my behalf, for three-quarters of an hour, that my name should be on as I’d done more work than some of those who’s names came before mine. He said it was a complete injustice. But Fox had the say, and because of regulations, they would have had to pay a penalty of about a hundred and eighty thousand dollars to remove an undeserving name and replace it with mine, so that was it.

“Well, I understand that’s how it works; but Jim and Gale didn’t accept it. They had a special Academy Nomination prize made for me by Tiffany’s, which they presented to me as a consolation prize. I thought that was really sweet of them.”

So, let’s backtrack - how come you started last on Aliens?

“Gale Anne Hurd contacted me very early on and asked if I wanted to effectively reprising my role on the first film. I said I would, I went over to see her, I met Jim, we talked, we got on, but eventually they decided to go with a company called LA Effects, who had these wonderful motion-control cameras, and were associated with the Skotak model-making brothers who Jim had worked with before. Fair enough. I said: ‘Maybe next time then’, and thought no more about it.

“Some time later, I was at a visual effects union meeting and heard some things which rather disturbed me. They were talking about this company LA Effects wanting to bring over these motion control camera systems. Well, when I found out just what they were bringing over, I realised that we already had it all here. But, I didn’t want it to sound like sour grapes, so I said nothing.

“Just to explain - a motion control system is a camera controlled by a computer through a series of motors or stepper-drivers. It is capable of moving past a model in exactly the same way, at exactly the same speed, time and time and time again. Also you can pull focus while the camera is moving, and get that spot on every time too. Also, when you shoot a model, the model is actually moving too, so you get a little motion blur on it, which stops it looking so much like a plastic kit. Its an elaborate but very effective way of shooting models.

“Anyway, the Aliens production got under way, LA Effects came over with their two Navy Range Mitchell High-Speed cameras which, it turned out, weren’t fitted for motion control at all. Very soon, the only thing keeping the movie going was the work of Bob and Denny Skotak, but it was obvious that the motion-control side just wasn’t going to happen.

“Eventually, Jim cried ‘enough is enough’ and I got a call asking me to come to the studio - like immediately - and they explained the whole situation to me. They knew that it is difficult to take over somebody else’s work, but asked if I could. I liked Jim and Gale, we got on well, so I said ‘Yeah, what the hell’.

“We eventually shot all of the motion-control shots at my studio in Bourne End, which was then called Arkadon, about twelve miles from Pinewood. Jim left me alone for all that, we would take the rushes in, in the morning, and show him, and he’d either say: ‘Great, that’s in the movie’ or: ‘Can we do this instead?’ He didn’t even come out to see me shooting, he trusted me, which I took as a great compliment.

“I was soon involved in the whole Power-Loader/Queen-Alien fight, which was mostly shot in miniature, with Jim himself animating the Queen puppet. There she was, suspended on black strings, with him dancing her around, and doing it really well, I might add.

“We had some of the actors - not least Sigourney - hanging around for weeks after shooting finished, providing close-ups and fill-in shots. I have a couple of photographs on my landing, upstairs, that she signed with the comment: ‘When are we ever gonna get away from the Queen?’

“Then, finally, we just had the shots of the Sulaco and some of the drop-ship shots to finish off; again, shot at my studio at Bourne End. Bob and Denny Skotak actually ended up working at my studio full-time, because they liked working together as a two-man unit, and were accustomed to doing everything themselves. Pinewood wasn’t a good environment for them, because there had to be stand-by this and stand-by that. At my place, they could work all night if they wanted to, which usually they did!”

So the drop-ship was done with this motion-control system.

“Not necessarily. Some of the drop-ship stuff was on good-old fashioned wires. That shot where the ship lands, the APC roars out of its belly, and it takes off again, it was a simple wire shot - Thunderbirds style. We had these very fine misting sprays to create the rain, and that helped cover up the wires.

“Simple techniques like that can work if they’re on and off screen quickly, and Jim knew pretty well how long each shot was going to be. We had made some ‘animatics’ before-hand, a sort-of thumb-nail version of the film, shot with a video camera, using stick models and moving them around to get the pace and timing of each sequence ... that shot’s five seconds, that one’s three, this one’s just one and a half!

So what happens to all these models when they’re finished with.

“Oh, all sorts of things. A lot get destroyed. For Aliens, they found that, when they needed to use the Narcissus life-boat again, not only could they not find the original model, even the blue-prints had been lost, so they had to build their Narcissus from photographs of the original.

“I know that with Return of the Jedi (1983), for example, a lot of the x-wings from the attack on the Death Star were given to staff-members as trophies. I’ve got one. In those shots were they had masses and masses of ships, they used the commercial plastic kits, made them up, gave them the ILM treatment, then they were stuck up on motion control rigs, used and given out.

“I’ve got a slug tooth too!”

A slug tooth?

“Yeah, you know in Empire, in the asteroid belt, there’s this big slug-thing hiding inside the asteroid and they have that shot of the jaws closing just as the Millennium Falcon flies out - well, I’ve got one of those teeth!”

You’re still a fan, aren’t you!

“Well, why not. It’s fun. Of course, I’ve got all the crew jackets too! My worst thing is that I don’t take photographs when I’m working. I suppose I should do really; some people do take a lot of photographs, and get themselves a lot of publicity because of it. Don Shay of ‘Cinefex’ always used to phone me and ask if I had any photos of, say, behind the scenes on Aliens, and I’d have to tell him ‘No’. ‘Oh, Jesus, Brian.’ ‘Well, actually, Don, I was quite busy, y’know.’

A30: ALIENS pt 2


How do you create a sequel to one of the biggest and most distinctive movies of the seventies? Well, if you’re James Cameron, the rule is generally that you improve, adapt and overcome!

This was true of the plot, the action scenes and, inevitably, the look of Aliens. As previously discussed, when Cameron came to make the film in 1986, he needed everything done yesterday, in order to keep to his tight schedule and tighter budget. This may explain why he elected not to involve Swiss alien-maestro H.R. Giger, whose methods, although extraordinarily effective, were more than a little time-consuming.
But the fact remained that, unlike its predecessor, Aliens would need several creatures, and the costumes would need to be more flexible and sturdier than that originally constructed by Herr Giger. Cameron gave the task of re-inventing the wheel to his Terminator collaborator, Stan Winston.

With only four months preparation time, Winston needed persuading, but Cameron, a man unaccustomed to being said nay, explained it thusly: “Anyone who’s been through the process of creating a creature effect … knows that, to make one, takes six months, and to make two takes six months and a couple of extra days … there’s an economy of scale there.”

Inevitably, given the different designer and the different requirements, alterations were made to the basic look of the alien. Giger’s original design called for the skull to have a ridged, bony look, with a smooth, transparent carapace placed over the ridges to hint at the biology going on below the armour. Scott found that this looked confusing in his low-lit environment, so the transparent cowl became a dark one, hiding the sculpted work beneath.

Cameron and Winston decided to go back to the transparent idea, and set sculptor Tom Woodruff the task of recreating the ribbed skull. Cameron took a look at the end result and decided “Hey, this looks much more interesting the way it is!” Consequently, they knocked the cowl on the head, and decided that their film would feature a slightly different genus of alien – a slightly mutated one. This useful explanation is also useful in explaining to the fans why the aliens here are much smaller than Giger’s, and why they have fewer fingers. Giger’s alien had six long fingers which were seemingly bonded together, Winston decided to take a step away from the human hand, by giving his aliens three long digits armed with wicked talons. The actors in the suits could wear these hands like gloves, and move the fingers about, making them more life-like than the original’s.

In the years immediately before Cameron jump-started the digital revolution (with the computer-generated ‘water-snake’ from The Abyss, 1988 and then, of course, with the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2, 1990), he and Winston found themselves presented with an insurmountable obstacle. The closing moments of Alien had betrayed the creature for what it was – a man in a gloriously elaborate suit.

By the time production would get underway on Alien 3 in 1991, this problem of recognition would be swept away by having a computer-generated beastie throwing poses no mere human, however double-jointed, would be capable of. Back in 1986, Cameron and Winston had no alternative to the man-in-a-suit method, so they chose to disguise it with snappy editing and a few tricks of the light: “What Jim wanted,” Explains Winston, “Were movements that were sporadic and odd and strange, so that even though they were men in suits, they didn’t move like men in suits … hanging from ceilings, jumping from wall to wall, doing insect-like moves and so on. The alien in the first film could never have done these things because it was a full rubber suit and was very difficult to move around in.”

By the nature of the script Cameron had written, the alien warriors wouldn’t be seen on the screen for as long, or as closely, as Giger’s had, so a few short-cuts could be contemplated, such as sticking rubber details on a basic black body-stocking, rather than employing Giger’s method of layer wires pipes and bones over a full-length rubber suit. “ … When you see them in the film and they’re all wet and slimy, you can’t tell the difference at all between ours and the original!”
It then fell to the stunt-men and dancers in the suits to ‘sell’ the alien. “I think it’s a mistake a lot of make-up and prosthetics people make,” Cameron explains, “ … they lavish all their attention on the sculptural detail, the surface texture of the suit, and they fail to realise that people need very few pixels of information to recognise a human figure, and much of that information comes from the way we walk. “(Therefore, it was important) to give them this weird dynamic, an unhuman kind of motion so that, basically, you’re just being bombarded with so much imagery that you just have to give up and say ‘Okay, fine, they’re aliens, they’re not men in suits’!”

Rather than casting for sheer size, as Alien had with the seven-footer Bolaji Badejo, Cameron cast athletes and dancers as his energetic aliens, and he hired far fewer than you’d expect. Even though the film traded on the image that it contained an army of aliens – Cameron had a cunning way of keeping his budget (and Stan Winston’s headaches) down to a manageable level: “You never see more than six (aliens) in one scene at one time; it’s only editorially that you believe you’re seeing more than that. They just keep coming at you from different angles – those same six guys. Roger Corman [Cameron’s mentor] once said he filmed the fall of the Roman Empire with five extras and a bush … that was the principle!”

For facial close-ups, several articulated alien heads and upper torsos were created, capable of pulling back lips and extending tongues. These puppets were built slightly larger than the body-stocking suits, making the creatures apparently stand eight feet tall, and providing them with a torso far too narrow to contain an actor. This was all part of the illusion. Ultimately, fifteen alien warrior suits were made, supplemented by ten puppets.

Of course, the aliens themselves weren’t the only things that Winston and his team had four months to put together – there was the small matter of the chest-burster and the face-hugger.
The first alien you see ‘in the wild’, is in the form of a chest-burster. This was copied exactly from Roger Dicken’s model in the first film, and, as with the first chest-burst, they took the trouble to build two beasties. One very simple but very tough model rammed out of its hapless victim’s chest, then a second model took over, which had more machinery inside to allow its vestigial arms to work, as well as its jaws. This second model was, interestingly, built in Britain by special effects artist Steven Norrington, who went on to become a director himself with the impressive vampire-flick Blade (1998) and the almost universally reviled League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003).

Ironically, as with the first film, after time, effort and money had gone into building a better beast, it was the T-shirt it had to tear through which held things up. They went through half a dozen of them before they finally got the blood-splattered shot they were looking for. After this, they fitted the model burster to a full-size replica of it’s dead host’s body, and torched the whole lot. Norrington’s model burster did them proud, writhing and thrashing beneath a curtain of flame in a manner which must have seemed most satisfactory after a day of fighting with, of all things, a T-shirt.

This scene, as with the whole Atmosphere Processor sequence, was shot away from the film’s base at Pinewood Studio, and over at the disused electric power-station at Acton. Because it was the only sustained sequence in the film which didn’t require Sigourney Weaver, it was shot first, to give her time to finish shooting the now forgotten Michael Caine co-starrer Half Moon Street over at Elstree Studios. As this hadn’t been the planned order of events, it gave Cameron’s crew a particular headache because, not only did they need the chest-burster, not only would the alien warriors make their debut earlier than anticipated, their was also the small matter of set dressing.

When the Space Marines enter the Processor, they find that the aliens have set-to and turned it into a ‘hive’, building their tell-tale biomechanical sculptures around the superstructure of the plant. This was production designer Peter Lamont’s responsibility. He oversaw the sculpting of huge clay sections, from each of which, dozens of molds were taken. Ultimately, hundreds of pre-fab wall-mountings were cast.

Having sprayed the metal-work of the power-plant silver to, ironically, make it look more industrial; the set-dressers got to work installing the castings as a mosaic, hanging and painting them in such a way that, in the film, no one would notice that so much of the wall bore a striking resemblance to so much more of it. Lamont remembers: “We began on the lower floor and were still working on the upper floor when production began. As Jim came up, shooting, we were gradually retreating.”

As the Acton Power Station was no longer in use, the Aliens crew could leave things as they were. Consequently, three years later, when the next visitors, the set dressers for Batman (1989), arrived to refit the place as Gotham City, they found the Atmosphere Processor of LV426 still standing. Lamont’s team may have built swiftly, but they built sturdily!
Next the action moved to Pinewood proper, where the first alien effects needed would be the bottled face-huggers in the science lab. Mostly these were simple rubber models, painted white and underlit to look dead but still spooky. One hugger was required to react to company-man Burke’s face pressed up against the glass.

The script called for face-huggers that could scuttle, climb and lunge, all of which, Winston’s team had succeeded in making possible. The problem this first creature presented was how to make it operate under-water and in a see-through tube. Finally, Ray Lovell of Winston’s Creature Effects Crew came up with a design that featured a spring-loaded tail which worked off a pull-cable, rather like a child’s spinning top.

Curiously, this wasn’t the only time that children’s toys provided the solution to face-hugger problems. During the attack on Newt and Ripley, the crawling face-hugger which works its way across a table-top towards Newt, needed legs that moved. After much experimentation, Cameron himself struck on the idea of copying a simple pull-toy. Have the hugger on a wire, pull the wire, which is attached to rotating gears; attach the ‘shoulders’ of the legs to the gears and, bingo, instant scuttle.

Because Cameron’s huggers were required to do far more than sit on someone’s face, a small amount of adaptation went into Dicken’s original design – making the knuckles sturdier and adding fingernails – but nothing that would be noticed in the cut and thrust of the film.
The ‘star’ face-hugger was to be the one which Ripley and Hicks tussle with. This was the one that required the most work, as they would have to make it do the most things at once. It needed to breathe, writhe, flail its legs, lash its tongue around and thrash its tail. Two teams worked on it, firstly in the States, then Norrington and others took up the challenge upon Winston’s arrival in England. Ultimately, it took nine puppeteers to operate it by remote control.
Other, simpler huggers were fabricated for quick edits – one had magnetic legs so it could cling to the wall, another was a simple rubber shell used for leaping shots, whilst a third was designed with scuttling legs but which ran off a battery so the Marines could throw it across the room, and it still be moving when it landed.

The next, and largest, task Winston’s team undertook, was the creation of an all-new alien, based indirectly on Giger’s designs, but unprecedented by anything in the first film: The Alien Queen. Cameron (not uncharacteristically) took a very hands-on approach to the design of this, and his original pencil sketches were reproduced by Winston’s team with frightening accuracy, much to the director’s delight: “For me, the Queen is really a blend of what Giger does with what I wanted to do, which was to create something that was big and powerful and terrifying and fast and very female – hideous and beautiful at the same time, like a black widow spider.”

Obviously, were he to make the film today, he would have the Queen rendered digitally, but, back in the good ole 1980s, he set his sights on having her built for real, full-size, fourteen feet from top-knot to toe-nails. The trunk of the body would be required to contain two operators, who would, between them, work the beast’s four arms. Once the size of this was ascertained, everything else was built to the same scale.

Cameron had adopted a method of using his home video camera to record rough ‘videoboards’ of the special effects sequences, so that the different effects crews could get an early idea of the film Cameron intended to make. He was happy to use a model kit on a stick for the drop ship, a rubber glove for the face hugger and, for the alien queen, a full-size construction of timber, cardboard and bin-liners. This served to help him frame shots and work-out editing options, whilst giving the operators some hands-on experience of what was expected of them later in the shoot.

So complicated would the full-size Queen prove to be, the sculpture had to be put together by no fewer the seven sculptors, each working separately on a different part, one each per leg, one for the body, one for the head, etc. Of course, one complete model wasn’t enough; the arms, for example, came fitted with a variety of different hands for use in different shots – ones with moveable fingers which the men in her chest could operate, soft foam ones which would flap about when the arm moved, or sturdier, thicker ones for the battle sequence. Similarly, two separate sets of legs were fabricated, one of which could be articulated for walking shots.
Then there was the small matter of how the monster would stand up. To allow the camera to shoot the Queen from every possible angle, two separate methods of support were employed: She could either be hung by wires from an over-head crane, or attached to the same crane, underneath, by a rigid bracket. A hydraulic pivot allowed the body to turn left and right, controlled by a simple steering wheel at the other end of the crane arm. Further independent motor systems allowed the body to tilt forward and backwards, and to move the head around – each of these systems had a separate operator.

The final, and, by-far, the most complicated sequence for Winston’s team, was the final battle between the Power Loader and the Queen. Although it used a substantial amount of post-production special-effects, this sequence first needed a week of live-action shooting – with Sigourney Weaver, the Power Loader, half of Bishop, the Queen, and an army of operators. As John Richardson recalls: “For the scenes where we had the Alien Queen and the power loader working together, the whole stage was full of special effects people pulling wires and pushing levers. It was quite a sight.”

The miniature cut-aways for the same scene were hardly less labour-intensive. Early-on, Cameron had decided against using stop-motion animation for these scenes, and had opted for puppetry: “As a director, I find it tough to deal with stop-motion and the scenes involving the alien queen were very important, and what we were trying to do was create a real and believable character. The rod-and-cable-actuated puppet seemed more appealing for a number of reasons. One was that I had never worked with that kind of thing before and I wanted to fool around with it and see what could be done. Also, I just had a feeling that with a lot of the floor effects we’d be using – smoke and steam and that sort of thing – we’d have more flexibility with puppets we could shoot ‘live’ on a miniature set.”

Phil Notaro, who had worked on developing the puppets over in the States, came over as lead operator and got his first sight of the miniature cargo-hold set. The puppeteers would be under the floor of the set, manipulating the Queen and the Power Loader with rods reaching up through the floor, which presented problems since the set had been built without his input: “It was a beautiful job – but basically it was not very accommodating to our needs. It was a lot of pipes and wood and things, all nailed down very securely into place. Since we were going to be operating the puppets from below the floor, we had to cut big slots in the set and then cosmetically disguise them. So to get our slots where we needed them, there was a lot of sawing and cutting and spray-painting that had to be done.”

Each shot had to look good from two different camera positions (Cameron was always careful to make sure he had as much coverage as possible), then a third camera system had to be set up, so that the puppeteers underground could have video-feeds of what they were doing upstairs. More monitors had to be positioned in the rafters, so the operators up-top, who were holding the miniatures upright on wires, could also see what was going on.

For even the simplest of movements, Notaro’s team consisted of : “Two guys supporting the queen from above, two others walking her from below and five cable operators for the other functions” Oh, and one director who insisted in bashing the puppet’s head against a door to demonstrate just how violent he wanted the fight to be. It is not surprising, under such circumstances, that the crew only managed to successfully complete one shot per day. Their miniature cutaways therefore took three times as long to finish as the live-action footage which comprises the majority of the sequence.

As one final example of how rigorous life on a Jim Cameron set can be, we need only look at the sad and sorry tale of the miniature Power Loader. It had given sterling service in the film’s one-and-only stop-motion scene, by providing a little background activity when, early on, Ripley shows Apone and Hicks that she knows how to use it. Then it put up with a three-week battering from the Queen, before meeting its inelegant end in the cargo-hold’s airlock. As Notaro remembers it, although they used a simple foam stunt-Queen for the fall: “We only had one power-loader, so we had to use the articulated one … The puppets actually dropped about five feet – and, as they fell, the power-loader would wiggle and then crash at the bottom … We did about eight takes on it, and each time it crashed into pieces. We’d then have to superglue it back together and do it again.”

The final ignominy came when the doors were opened. The miniature cargo-hold was removed from the main cargo-hold set, and hung from the rafters, some twenty-five above the ground. A blanket, decorated with stars, was hung beneath this, to indicate the depths of space, and to catch the two models when they tumbled out. “Fortunately we got it first take … the power-loader hit the edge of the starfield blanket, went through, struck the concrete floor beneath and shattered into a million pieces. At that point there was nothing to do with it but put it in a box.” And Cameron’s eulogy for this stalwart trooper who had silently suffered so much in the name of his film? “That’s it! Well, at least we don’t have to do that again!” Fair chokes you up, doesn’t it!

Quotes come from:

‘ALIEN: THE SPECIAL EFFECTS’ Written by Don Shay and Bill Norton. Published by Titan Books, 1997.

Interview with Cameron by David Castell from ‘JAMES CAMERON – A DIRECTOR AND HIS WORK’ an independent television profile produced by Special Treats, 1986.

Interview with Cameron by Don Shay as part of the supplementary material from the ‘ALIENS: THE SPECIAL EDITION’ Laser Disc, released by Fox Video, 1991.

A30: ALIENS pt 1


And while we're on the subject ... although it is the thirtieth anniversary of the first film in the ever-expanding Alien franchise ... I would be failing in my appreciation of the film if we didn't look in similar depth at its sequel which is, of course, so much more than just a sequel.


In the constant film-buff debate over whether there are any really good sequels, everyone seems to agree that Godfather Part 2 was a masterpiece. After that, everyone (including the cast) agrees that Speed 2 stank big-time. In between are hundreds of movies which divide film-goers and film-critics alike.

In an attempt to find a good sequel, some people point to Mad Max 2. There are those, of course, who owe their allegiance to Terminator 2. Some even mutter quietly about Spiderman 2 and X-Men 2. The film which seems to generate the least argument, is the one which dared to be different - it made the radical move of losing the ‘2’.

Aliens was the film which propelled director James Cameron on to the Hollywood ‘A’ list. It opened the way for him to reintroduce Hollywood to a scale of movie-making unseen since DeMille hung up his riding crop. Within five years of completing Aliens, Cameron had made the first movie ever made almost entirely under water (The Abyss) and the first to cost more than $100 million ( the afore-mentioned Terminator 2), within ten years he had almost tripled that cost in making the film which would very quickly become the first ever to earn over a billion dollars (you know, that one with the boat ... oh, what’s it called again ...?). Now, of course, Cameron is teetering on the brink of releasing Avatar a film which he’s been working on at least since he became self-styled King of the World eleven years ago, which has reputedly cost even more money than Titanic and which, if the hype is to be believed at all, will change the way audiences think about 3D and the whole cinema-going experience.

And to think, he began his career as a man with a reputation for getting great things done quickly and cheaply!

After studying Physics at University, James Cameron found himself wandering into a career in films. Starting with art direction and special effects work (on Battle Beyond the Stars, 1980, and Escape From New York, 1981, respectively), he earned his directing stripes working with Roger Corman. As such, he followed in the footsteps of Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, even Martin Scorsese and, most famously, the great Francis Ford Coppola, who all (among many others) graduated from that same ‘school’.

Cameron’s directorial debut was the somewhat ignominious sequel to Joe Dante’s 1978 quickie Piranha. Piranha 2 - Flying Killers (1981) is not even considered by its director to be a good sequel, and is a film he prefers not to be reminded of. Instead, his fans like to think of his career beginning with the 1984 sf revelation The Terminator, which propelled both Cameron and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn in to varying intensities of lime-light.

Even before Terminator was in the can, Cameron was approached by Brandywine Productions, the owners of the first Alien film. They had been impressed by the script of The Terminator and wanted to talk to him about writing a possible Alien sequel. He provided them with a treatment - a sort-of detailed synopsis rather than a full script - and an ultimatum that they could only have it if he got to direct it. Well, they loved it, and so, even before his first film was shot, he was hired to make his second.

Of course, in his spare time, he was also writing the script to First Blood 2: Rambo, which hardly bears mention, save that it did introduce Cameron to the whole Marines-at-war-in-an-unfamiliar-environment idea.

Fairly obviously, a Cameron Alien film would be different from a Ridley Scott one, since their motives and working practices at the time were so very different. As Cameron says in an interview in ‘Film Review’ magazine in 1986:

“[Scott] had the luxury (I’m sure it was by choice) of a very simple, very straightforward story and could spend a tremendous amount of energy himself and through his designers and camera people adding baroque detail to it ... With Aliens, we were telling a lot more story ... there was more action. To create Scott’s style of visual involvement in every scene would have made the film absolutely unmanageable.”

The only pointer producers Walter Hill and David Giler gave to Cameron was at the very beginning when they simply told him: “Ripley and soldiers ... [Because] there’s a whole list of science fiction writing going back to the ’20s that explores the idea of the military in space, but it hadn’t really been done on film.” We've already discussed at length how the original Alien follows in the tradition of Old Dark House thriller movies, well, Aliens very clearly owes a bigger debt to films like Guns of the Navarone and The Dirty Dozen!

It says something for the popular influence of Aliens that, two decades on, big budget science-fiction films commonly feature the adventures of the military in space. Starship Troopers (based on Robert A Heinlein’s 1959 novel of the same name) being the prime example. But Aliens has also had a massive influence over a medium which can hardly have been said to have even existed when the film came out: Video Games. Would there be any Starcraft or Halo series without Aliens? Surely not. As for Gears of War, well, the comparisons are too numerous to count.

Although Brandywine had been content to sit and wait for Cameron to finish Terminator; once this was out of the way they furnished him with a crippling schedule. Pre-production began in May, with the cameras set to roll in September. Because he had no time for mistakes, Cameron hired the best designers - people who were capable of getting things right first time.

For the slick, cutting-edge design of the military cruiser ‘Sulaco’, the obvious choice was self-styled ‘visual futurist’ Syd Mead, the man who gave the distinctive look to Blade Runner (1981), Tron (1982) and 2010 (1984). Cameron also brought back veteran of the first Alien, Ron Cobb, who had virtually single-handedly created the look of the interiors of The Nostromo, it was therefore fitting that he should create the look of the Acheron Colony buildings, since they were also manufactured by Weyland Yutani, the company known previously only as ‘The Company’.

Cobb told ‘Cinefex’ magazine that his approach to the film was to see it as less of a science fiction film and more as “ ... a grand takeoff of Vietnam, with all those odd echoings of Apocalypse Now ... Its more like a contemporary war film. From the vehicles to the weapons to the patches on their uniforms, its more a reflection of Vietnam than it is the future.”

Cameron seems to have agreed, as he employed a similar philosophy when it came to designing the film’s celebrated (and much-emulated) weaponry. He felt that the best (and possibly cheapest) way to produce believable fire-arms was to scavenge bits from real weapons.

So, for the chunky M41 Pulse Rifle, take a Thompson submachine gun and add the pump-action from a SPAS 12. For the heavier M56 Smart Gun they took a Spandau MG42 machine gun and daringly attached it to a floating harness called a Steadicam. This is a standard (but very expensive) piece of movie camera kit. It effectively allows the camera-man’s body to become a tripod; he can move - even run - yet the camera stays perfectly level, making any shot a smooth glide. In the film, it allowed one soldier to carry a massive weapon with a vast supply of ammunition. Apparently, thanks to this idea, the film can count among its fans weapons designers from around the world, who saw real potential in this cunning idea.

Having come through the art-department at Roger Corman’s studio, Cameron was loath to leave his designers alone, as he had plenty of ideas of his own. For example, in the ‘Film Review’ interview, he explains how his vision for The Sulaco and the Acheron camp would be communicated to his designers - he wanted everything to look convincingly lived-in: “This is a sort of mental exercise I go through: If this place really existed and I could go there, how would I shoot it? And then I work backwards from that. It influences the design of the set and how it will be photographed.” This possibly also explains how, when preparing to shoot Titanic ten years later, he felt the need to jump into a submarine and visit the actual wreck before beginning pre-production.

For reasons of economy (as well as continuity with the first film) the decision was made to shoot Aliens in England, so Cameron and his wife/producer Gale Anne Hurd moved their office to Pinewood studios in July, and pre-production began in earnest.

Because the decision had been made to add special effects through live rear-projection (particularly for those scenes involving those UD4L ‘Cheyenne’ Utility Drop-Ships) rather than the more common (but more-expensive) method of matting effects in afterwards; many of the models had to be built and filmed before principal photography began.

The two men given the unenviable task of turning Cobb, Mead and Cameron’s blue-prints into one-sixth scale models, almost over-night, were the American brothers Bob and Dennis Skotak, who worked very closely with technical supervisor Pat McClung, who told ‘Cinefex’: “Not only did Jim need most of our models for the process plates [the rear-projections], but there was also lots of video material needed for monitors inside the drop-ship and the armoured personnel carrier.”

Some of the most exacting work went into fabricating an eighty-feet long model of the Acheron Colony and shanty town. The main entrance was built full-size, for the scene where the Marines alight from their M577 APC and break-in, but everything else you see is that giant model.

Following Cobb’s designs and Cameron’s wishes, the Colony buildings were to have a real run-down, ramshackle look. Bob Skotak became accustomed to Cameron bombarding him with Polaroid’s of fixtures such as rusty doors, with instructions to make the Colony’s doors look just like that. “Lots of times, rather than paint in the rust, we’d go after the real thing. At the studio there was a big dump by the 007 stage where virtually everything was burned ... So there we’d be, on a Sunday afternoon rooting around for choice bits of sixth-scale junk, finding all this neat stuff like tin cans and cables and metal sheets that were rusted out - anything that could conceivably fit into our set - and then hauling it all back to the stage in buckets.”

Of course, it is the nature of the movie-business that all this ingenuity and hard-work would go unnoticed by the film’s initial audience because the scenes shot in the Colony as a bustling, active habitat, were cut-out, and remained unseen until the ‘Special Edition’ was released years alter.

One of the last models to be built - because it wouldn’t be needed until post-production - was the ‘Conestoga’ Class Troop Carrier USS Sulaco. The design of this was Syd Mead’s baby. However, he couldn’t sit back and wait, because the set-designers would need to know what the exterior looked like, if they were to design a cryogenic-locker-room, a galley and, most significantly, cargo and drop-ship hangers, to go inside it.

Within three days of Cameron passing him the script, Mead was at work. He is a master of making form fit function, and, in this case, he had to put together a ship which was both maneuverable, heavily armoured, and capable of carrying, if necessary, a huge pay-load of drop-ships and soldiers. Also, as Private Hudson memorably informs us, the Sulaco is capable of nuking a planet from orbit.

All of these factors had to be considered. As did the fact that the design would then have to fabricated as a model and photographed as if in motion. Drawing his inspiration in part from designs of existing aircraft carriers (in-keeping with Cobb and Cameron’s technique of redesigning present technology for the future), Mead eventually came up with a very linear, very compact form.

Cameron’s script had described it as a mountain of steel bristling with metal spires. Mead’s interpretation of this is fronted by a bristling array of blade-like antenna followed by a form which he described in ‘Cinefex’ in delightfully inexpert terms: “ ... it had to look very elaborate, it had to look gigantic and it had to have this highly articulated finished appearance to it. And a lot of ins and outs so it would not look like a solid object covered in detail - you could see through different parts and in and around suspended pods and things.”

It is interesting that, when you see pictures of them next to each other, you realise that, possibly subconsciously, the design Cameron accepted for the Sulaco, looks not dissimilar to the design he himself came up with for the Marines’ standard-issue pulse-rifle. So, in a way, you can see the soldiers as highly-trained bullets fired out of a gigantic gun. And if that isn’t a metaphor for Cameron’s vision of our armed forces, I’m a face-hugger’s uncle!

Next, I’ll look at the demands the aliens themselves made on the production staff, as well as taking a close-up at some of those scenes you may not have seen.

Quotes come from:

‘ALIEN: THE SPECIAL EFFECTS’ Written by Don Shay and Bill Norton. Published by Titan Books, 1997.

Interview with Cameron by David Castell from ‘JAMES CAMERON – A DIRECTOR AND HIS WORK’ an independent television profile produced by Special Treats, 1986.

Interview with Cameron by Don Shay as part of the supplementary material from the ‘ALIENS: THE SPECIAL EDITION’ DVD, originally released by Fox Video, 1991.


A30: ALIEN 30 pt 5



After effectively serving his apprenticeship working under Derek Meddings on Thunderbirds (1965 – 66), young model-maker Roger Dicken got his first movie-job at MGM Studios working on a little thing called 2001 (produced from 1966-8), creating the Moon terrain out of plaster. From there he went on to helm the special effects on films like The Blood Beast Terror (1967), Witchfinder General (1968) and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1969), where he enjoyed the chance of working with the stop-motion technique he grew-up admiring, by creating the dinosaurs for American animator Jim Danforth to bring to life. The duo were Oscar-Nominated for their work ... but lost to Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) a film Robert Stevenson directed for Disney, some four years before making One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing. But we’ll get back to that later.

When producer John Dark contacted Dicken to design the beasties for The Land That Time Forgot (1974), and later, Warlords of Atlantis (1978), he was given freedom to create whatever he liked. John Dark said: “Here’s the script, don’t take any notice of the description of the monsters, just come up with something nasty.” Which is exactly what he did. This experience, therefore, stands in marked contrast to Dicken’s next, and arguably most celebrated job - building the Face Hugger and Chest Burster from Alien. But let’s hear it in his own words:

“As these things always do, it began with a phone call. I think it must have been the producer Ivor Powell, but you’ll forgive me for not being sure, its been a while. I was asked, originally, to concoct the big beast as well as the two small beasts, but there was so much argument and mind-changing over the big one that I eventually had to tell them that I just wasn’t interested; and I stuck to the two small forms - The Face Hugger and The Chest Burster. This was before Giger came aboard.”

Having read a lot about the film, and spoken to some of the people involved, I get the distinct impression that Alien was a fairly messy production, what with staff-changes and lots of people not being able to make up their minds about things ...

"Well I’m glad you said that. I’ll tell you, there has been so much tosh written about that film. Let it be known that I have a reputation of being a difficult individual to work with, but this is mostly because of misunderstandings and interference. I consider myself to be a creative special effects man, not a fizz-bang man. Often, you will find in films that someone like me has been engaged to make these creatures, and, like me, they work outside the studio and take their box of tricks in when its done.

“Now, lets say, for example, the guys who have been working on model submarines, have already been shooting in the studio for a number of weeks, and making a big fuss. Then, the monster man arrives, and, consequently, interest on the set shifts to the new guy. Well, this isn’t always accepted with the best grace by those who were there first.

And so, in a strained environment, you still have a job to do. Especially as, at the end of the day, however brilliant the submarine effects are, the kids are paying to see the monsters. The scenes the audience remembers aren’t the beautiful shots of the submarine or the spaceship or whatever that takes the hero into danger, they remember the moment when the monster pops up!

“Now, on Alien, I was working away in my own studio, creating the Chest Burster according to the agreed designs, when I got a call from someone at Fox. They were concerned that my model would not be strong enough to break through John Hurt’s false chest. So, the main special effects team requested a simple solid cast of the head. I said it wasn’t necessary, but they insisted that it was better to be safe than sorry. Of course, I knew why this had really come about. There was a real anticipation of the whole Chest Burst scene, and some people just didn’t want to be left out of it.

“Now, next time I spoke to the studio, it turned out they’d had an expensive hydraulic ram made up, with the rigid Burster fitted on the end of an arm which pumped up and down. It would all seem very impressive to the producers. Well, I thought it was a stupid and needless waste of money, but, since I had this reputation of being a difficult individual, I decided to say nothing.

“So, the day of the shoot came and I arrived with my creature, to see them hacking away at John Hurts false fibreglass chest, with a hacksaw, in order to get it to fit comfortably. This didn’t inspire much confidence.

“Next, the hydraulic contraption is wheeled in, with the solid Burster and several blood tubes attached. This is then positioned beneath the chest cavity. The cavity is packed with the usual offal that films employ in such scenes, and I just stood back and watched.

“The set was ready, Ridley Scott assembled the actors, called out “Action”, John became suitably unhinged, the others reacted accordingly and, at Ridley’s signal, the button was pushed to activate the hydraulic ram. Well, it banged up and down repetitively, the blood squirting everywhere, but failed to rip through the t-shirt.

“John Hurt had to be extricated from the mess and the whole set had to be cleaned up. Poor Veronica Cartwright had to change costumes because she’d been sprayed with blood. All for a second take. Johnny Hurt was dragged back, draped in more blood and guts, with a second t-shirt positioned over the chest - but this time they’d lacerated it with razor blades. If I’d have been handling that side of it, I’d have weakened it chemically over a week or so, to make sure it was ready to be disintegrated.

“So, there was a helluva lot of time wasted. I wonder how much it cost Fox in delays? Anyway, the cast and crew are assembled, and this time the head bust through and continued to jack-hammer up and down until Ridley said “Cut”. Then the contraption was removed, I positioned myself under the table, and thrust-up my hand-held, articulated creature, suitably bloodied up, and animated it through the next shot - which is what the world finally got to see.

“Now, clearly, the hydraulic contraption was a waste of time and money because, if the t-shirt had to be lacerated to get it through, then I may as well have used my model, as originally planned. If they had wanted the sequence to carry on, without cutting, then my creature would have burst through and carried on moving, breathing, looking about. As it was, they had to cut within seconds.

“The reason these things happen is what you call The Fear Factor in the hierarchy. The big boys have got so much at stake, they’re terrified of it going wrong, so they throw even more money at it to cover themselves. In this case the money went on a hydraulic gadget that simply didn’t work. So, what was the point? There is no point!

“As far as I’m aware, the reason they hired me is because I had a track record in making creatures for films, its not as if this was my first time off. But they elected to second guess me. It wasn’t conducive to good feeling.”

It seems quite unusual for one man to take a monster through from the paper design stage right through to animating it on set.

“Hm, I suppose. Of course, originally, Giger’s design for the Chest Burster looked more like a turkey; a horrendous, demented turkey. So, I faithfully reproduced that turkey model for them, then took it in to Ridley and the gang. I wasn’t particularly happy with it, but I’d accepted the job, and that’s what they wanted. Well, they took one look at it and decided they didn’t like it either, that they needed something else.

“So began an epic period of nonsense, where they tried out anything and everything. I remember one day I drove in and found that they had acrobats rolling around on the table ... in bags. They were toying with the idea of shooting the chest burst sequence full-sized, in an attempt to get some weird, revolting, writhing ... thing. And whilst this was going on, there were countless meetings about the look of the big beast, literally to decide what size of man should be in the suit. And so it went on and on and on.

“Anyway, one day, I was chatting to Ridley, and I told him that I was getting heartily sick of so many people chipping their penn’orth in, and getting nowhere. I just told him: “You tell me what you want, and I’ll go away and do it”. So, he put together a very rough thumbnail sketch of what he felt it should look like, a sort-of snake-like thing, with the elongated head they had decided that the big alien would have.

“I went away and created this thing, adding all the texture and the detail myself. Ridley and the others would come out to Maidenhead, to my studio, from time to time, to sanction the thing, but, other than that, I was left alone. One time, he suggested: We’ll have no eyes on it. I said: Yeah, I’ll go with that. I took the eyes away, and that was pretty much it. And then, eventually, Giger drew his fully-rendered version of the same thing. But originally it had been a turkey - a fanged, veined, bald turkey!”

So, do you do your own paper drawings to get the ball rolling?

“I am literally useless with a pencil. I can’t do storyboards or designs or anything like that, so I work up three-dimensional models, in Plasticine. I’ve never been in an art school in my life, it’s just an ability I was born with. I’m a very fast modeler, so I just get stuck in and create these things on an armature, very, very quickly - just to get the basic form. Then, once the form is sanctioned, I go to town in putting on the detail. That’s when the natural creativity takes over and I think Oh, this’ll look good, or That’ll look good and pretty much improvise as I’m going along.

“I don’t need to sketch these things, I wouldn’t want to sit there sketching, I want to get my sleeves rolled up and get stuck in because then the image comes straight out of my head and straight into the Plasticine.

“For example, after I read the part of the script that describes the Egg Chamber, I made a little Plasticine egg, about three inches tall, with an orifice at the top and sort-of-roots at the bottom. I took it in and gave it to them as a suggestion. Well, Giger must have liked it because he drew it up and then they used his drawings as the blue-prints for the full-sized models.”

I suppose, in a creative endeavour like this, everybody has to just throw ideas into the pot.

“True, true, and that works fine if you come away from a production a happy man, and any rewards that are due to you have come to you. But, in this case, I was not a happy man. With all the to-ing and fro-ing it actually took me longer to produce those two small creatures than it did to put together all the monsters from The Land That Time Forgot.

“Okay, the productions were on two totally different scales, and you can’t compare them side-by-side; but, in terms of job-satisfaction, I had a great deal more pleasure building all those creatures, than tinkering endlessly with the two on Alien.”

Take me through the Roger Dicken process of constructing a model, then ...

“Well, as with 99% of model makers, I start with a Plasticine sculpture - some people use clay - then a plaster cast is taken, probably in a number of pieces, it’s not usually one whole cast. Then, whatever you decide to use for the construction of your beast, whether it be urethane or latex or rigid fibreglass, whatever, is poured into the mould and, once dry, is extricated then fabricated up over the metal armature.

“Now, that said, every job I’ve done has been different. The Chest-Burster was an articulated, flexible, metal armature with a urethane-resin torso, and miniature pistons incorporated into it, for the jaws, the gills and the tiny little arms. All of this was mounted on a pistol-grip, which I held, leaving my fingers free to move the body about.

“As you can imagine, it was difficult to pack all that inside such a little creature, and, as such, the technique I used to build it was the most appropriate for all the workings which needed to go inside, and what the creature was then required to do.”

And the same process was applied to the Face Hugger?

“Exactly. That started life as a sketch which came up from the design department, I don’t know who did it [most probably H.R. Giger, who worked extensively on the design of the Face Hugger]. It basically showed a head, with the thing in place and the tail wrapped around the neck. Now, I thought those skinny little fingers were far too delicate for something that had evolved such an extreme level of self-preservation. I felt its fingers should have been spinier and thicker, but that was what they wanted, so, I went away and set-to, created the full-size model, and put my own detail on it.

“Then, as with the Chest Burster, it was laid over an articulated armature. The tail just had a wire running through it, so you could thrash it about, or pull it tighter around John Hurt’s throat. There were air-bladders to make it breathe, and pistons which could move all the legs. The armature had one removable leg at the front, for the sequence when they cut that leg open, which took a number of takes to get the acid just right.

“And thereby hangs another tale: As part of my work on that sequence, I put together, as a demo model, a mock-metal girder which, when you poured a chemical on it, would melt away, but still look like it was metal all the way through. I think I showed it to Ivor Powell, but, at the end of the day, I didn’t take it any further because they’d decided to use the old stand-by of polystyrene and cellulose thinners, which just looks like white polystyrene once you burn past the surface.

“You see, some people have a different approach to their work than I do. Some of us get down to doing the work, some of us spend time arranging deals. I got into the business because I was a fan, but more and more I found myself working with people who were in the business because their parents had been.

“I have to tell you that I was known in some circles as The Renegade Effects Man, and, to be honest, I like the title. I would work by myself, go in, cause a bit of a cuffuffle, not necessarily agree with everybody, do the job and go.

“I think the difference is, at heart, I’m still a big fan of movies. I’m a collector, an artist and a fan; and that simple fact marks the difference between myself and my contemporaries. In all the time I worked in the film industry, I only met one person I was in tune with - Jim Danforth. We worked together at Bray Studios for a year, had great fun and I consider the guy to be a genius. Unfortunately, he never had the breaks in life he needed, and has never received the recognition.

“After Alien, I went out to Hollywood for a few years and I found that they had a real passion for movies. They’d sit during their lunch-breaks and pass round ideas. But, over here … I’ll give you an example of the British approach: a director came to see me at Maidenhead, I’ll name no names, and we were discussing some effects for a film he was planning. He actually sat there and told me: “Of course, my strength is: I’ve never done one of these films before!” Well, how can you argue with that?”

“And that was probably the last nail in the coffin of Roger Dicken’s film career. I decided I didn’t need it any more, I could do other things, so I did. Now, I have a nice pad in 40 acres of Welsh countryside, and sit here reading the papers, and watching all the hassles, all the fighting over the big projects and the big budgets, and I’m glad I’m out of it.

“One final thing, you might like to know about: I built a full-size Stegosaurus dinosaur for the Windsor Safari Park, he used to stand outside the reptile house. But that’s all changed now and I dunno what’s happened to him. A couple of years ago, I rang them up, because I wanted to buy him back to put in my garden, but they had no idea where he'd gone. The mysterious vanishing dinosaur!”

So, if you should stumble across a full-size Stegosaurus in your travels, you might care to let it know, a well-earned retirement awaits it, in the valleys.

A30: ALIEN 30 pt 4


When I spoke to Brian Johnson, it was only four hours after the finish of the 1998 Oscar Ceremony – the year of Titanic. It transpired that we had both stayed up all night and watched it, so neither of us were as sharp as we might have been.

For Johnson, of course, The Oscars have a more personal resonance, because he is on the committee that selects the nominees for the Best Special Effects category. He earned this particular distinction because he is himself a multiple Oscar-winner in that category, and the first such award he picked up was for Alien.

After discussing Jim ‘King of the World’ Cameron’s over-night success with his little low-budget film about a ship going down, we got down to business. I began by asking Brian how he became involved as Special Effects Supervisor on Alien, and to explain quite what that job entailed ...

“Right. Well, I’d just finished Space 1999 (1975 – 7) and a pilot movie called Into Infinity (1975), both with Gerry Anderson. Space must have been seen over in the States by Peter Beale of Twentieth Century Fox, who contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in getting involved in this thing called Alien. This was before Ridley came on board, it was still going to be a Walter Hill film. I went for a meeting, talked to Walter, his fellow producer David Giler and Dan O’Bannon, and we hit it off straight away, so I got the job.

“As to what a ‘Special Effects Supervisor’ actually does: you have over-all charge of everything that goes on in terms of visual effects in the movie, in conjunction with the director.

“Your first job is to work on the script, breaking it down into effects sequences and deciding what needs to be done. You talk to the director and the scriptwriter about what they feel should be where, and work through it that way.

“This was going along quite well, when I got a phone call from Fox telling me that Hill had quit - which meant we were back to square one. Fortunately, Ridley was a whole different ball-game. Very refreshing. He had been a production designer, and was a storyboard artist, so he sat down and sketched all these ideas he had, and we worked together on the designs supplied by Ron Cobb and Chris Foss and the rest.

“The Nostromo started off as a tiny scale model, which I showed Ridley, because two-dimensional drawings give you no idea how a model will look under lighting. Ridley wasn’t happy, he said ‘let’s add this’, and ‘change that’. Then we set about building the full-size model and, because Ridley is always changing things, we found ourselves extending it and extending it, and so it went on. We started it in pre-production and finished it off in post.”

Ron Cobb credits you with co-designing the Nostromo with him, Chris Foss and Ridley.

“Did he? Oh, bless his heart.”

He said that he and Foss couldn’t decide where to stop, they just kept on changing things, then you came along, told them their time was up, took away there designs, and made sense of them all!

“Well, that’s basically what I did.”

Given that the ship was going to be seen in some very long, very slow fly-bys, it had to stand up to close scrutiny. The model was festooned with details, which conjures the image of you and your team sticking hundreds of bits of Airfix kits on a big model, until its completely covered.



“ ‘Widgits’, they’re called ‘widgits’. So the verb is actually ‘widgiting’. Each film has its own style of widgitery; but it all goes back to 2001 (1968) and a guy called Harry Lang.

“Lang was a German-born NASA artist who, in conjunction with Tony Masters, Production Designer on 2001, set the feel for how all those little bits of plastic would go together. Doug Trumbull and I got involved in a lot of the modeling, based on Harry Lang’s style, with all these thin overlapping plates at weird angles, rectangles glued together to build up sub-structures, layer upon layer.”

So he is largely responsible for the ways spaceships in films looked for the next thirty years?

“Yeah, to a degree. Lang is quite an individual designer, an interesting man.” Anyway - back to ‘Alien’ - it is true that I put Cobb and Foss’s designs into three dimensions, so I suppose I had an influence, in that respect.”

I gather Ridley likes to operate his own cameras, even on effects shots?

“Well, he didn’t on Alien, because he was so busy elsewhere, but he had tremendous input, of course. By that point I was actually working on two pictures at once, as I was also involved in the pre-production of The Empire Strikes Back.

“Lucasfilm had done a deal with Fox [who were distributing box Alien and Empire] where I could work on Alien until Empire started. Now, as it was, the start of Empire got put back a bit, but the completion of Alien was pushed back a lot, so we finished shooting at Shepperton, everything was struck and we moved to Bray, where all the sets were rebuilt, one by one. Then, over a six month period, Ridley practically shot the film again. It wasn’t just a little bit of re-shooting, it was serious amounts of add-ons and alterations.

“Meanwhile, we had two special effects stages there, and we were cracking on with all the model stuff. The decision was made that, because we only had a very few exterior shots, we weren’t going to go to the vast expense of motion control. It just wasn’t required - we had to make the exterior look as attractive as possible, but there were no moving parts, and no complicated maneuvers to film, it was just drifting through space in a very measured manner.”

Did you get to pick your own team?

“Oh yeah, I have a different team for every picture. If a film requires a certain area of expertise, say we have a lot of aviation effects, then I’d pick a team of guys whose engineering skills are aviation oriented; whatever suits the movie.”

So you weren’t just shooting models

“Nope, I was all over the place. I had a crew on the floor, Philip Knowles, Dave Watkins, Nicky Allder. As supervisor, you can’t stick your head in one hole and leave it there for the whole movie, you’ve got to be everywhere or else you miss things. If you’re not directly connected to what’s going on, you can step back and see things that the floor crew working on it maybe can’t see, ’cos they’re too close.

“But you still have to be flexible. Initially it was to be Jon Finch, not John Hurt, who would play Kane. When he had to leave through illness, and the producers were hunting for a last-minute replacement, we had to shut down for two weeks - and Ridley took the opportunity to do some rethinking. He’d never been entirely happy with the set of the command module, so had the roof brought down four feet, so it was right on our heads. Because that way it fitted the 2.35 to 1 ratio of the cinema screen far better than the way it was.

“I also have to commit to a project long before any of the designs are ready for the screen, in order to get the thing under way. In other words, I look at the script and arrange people and resources for what’s needed and when.

“Take The Chest Burster, for example. With a big, complicated sequence like that, I had to decide very early on whether it would be shot second unit, or main unit, and how we would plan it. Some of the earliest decisions you make are - what’s going to be a model, what’s going to be blue screen, what’s going to be in-camera - because they all have to be planned for in different ways.

“Almost the very first pre-production meeting we had, long before the cast and crew were involved, I’d already decided that we would have to do it by splitting the top of the kitchen table and putting the actor’s body through, then building a rig over the table to simulate the actor’s body. We made a life-cast of Jon Finch, then again for John Hurt, so we could build a chest cavity that a device could burst out of, which would be pneumatic or hydraulic or something - I didn’t know yet - but it would ram this thing through the t-shirt, releasing bags and bags of blood. Mint-flavoured blood, as it turned out!

“Then, of course, there was the abattoir offal, which we needed bags of, every day. One of my chaps, David, would go down to the abattoir in the morning, to pick up a fresh batch, which we would douse in bleach to sterilise it, then pick out the pieces we needed for the set.”

And I bet, as he was carrying a bin-liner full of giblets back to work, David was repeatedly trying to remind himself about the glamour of working in the film business.

“Yeah. Although, it was David who found the lining of the pig’s stomach, that thin, lacy layer of fat that we put in the alien eggs. In that film, if it looks organic, it probably is.
image shows Brian Johnson on the Alien sound stage "widgitting" The Narcissus.

A30: ALIEN 30 pt 3


When Walter Hill had been warming up the director’s chair on Alien, he had nixed D’OB’s idea of importing some obscure Swiss artist to design the aliens. When Hill left, O’Bannon took note of his replacement’s fine-art background and slipped Ridley Scott a copy of Hans Rudi Giger’s book ‘Necronomicon’.

Giger himself describes the events that led him to world-wide recognition: “In 1976 I had completed two paintings, ‘Necronom IV’ and ‘Necronom V’, in which two long-headed creatures appeared ... In his search for a credible Alien creature [Scott] came across these two paintings and decided on them for the full grown Alien, using the words ‘That’s it!’”

Far from supplying just a few sketches then taking the money, Giger came over to England, set up in a corner of a soundstage at Shepperton and began building the prototype alien with his own bare hands.

For his part, Scott found himself captivated by a photograph of a gargantuan Nubian athlete towering over the diminutive German film director Leni Riefenstahl, and that swung the casting decision for him. So, the seven foot African actor, Bolaji Badejo, discovered drinking quietly in a pub near Shepperton, was hired to play the monster.

As is usually the case with any actor who is to wear a prosthetic suit - a mould was made of his entire body, from which a plaster cast was made, which was then mounted on a stand in Giger’s studio. The artist then set about turning his drawings into three dimensional reality, with clay and bones, an air-conditioning duct, bones, screws, condoms and bones.

“He wanted clay, basic sculpting materials and he also wanted bones.” O’Bannon recalls, “As many bones as they could lay their hands on. They ended up buying veterinary supplies, medical supplies, and the little sculpting studio turned into a bone yard. They got him a rhinoceros skull.”
His characteristic ‘biomechanical’ style of mixing cross-beams with ribs, pipes with entrails and pistons with penises was the perfect choice to compose not just the title star, but everything that was truly alien about the film - the planet, the derelict spaceship and, of course, its fossilised occupant. Giger put his air-brush to use, painting knotted and disturbing landscapes - then fashioning miniature models out of more bones, bits of motors, pipes and wires, all blended together with vast quantities of Plasticine. Persistence of vision insists that we see the human in his designs, and therefore we are drawn ever-further in to them. It is a style as seductive as it is repellent.

Model maker Peter Voysey had the unenviable task of interpreting Giger’s paintings of the vaguely pelvic alien derelict into a twelve-foot wide model space-ship. Then he had to put together the huge, full-size ‘space jockey’, the fossilised alien the astronauts find inside the derelict. These models were then painted and detailed by Giger himself.

For his distinctive role in creating the special effects for Alien, Giger shared in the 1979 Academy Award for Best Special Effects. It is a shame that his relationship with Fox, and the Alien series, has subsequently deteriorated:

Although not involved in the sequel, Aliens (1986), he was credited for ‘Original Alien Design’. For Alien 3 (1992) he came back; however, his experience on that film left him far from satisfied: “I was cheated out of the Oscar nomination received by that film because 20th Century Fox gave me the credit ‘Original Alien Design’ again, instead of ‘Alien 3 Creature Design’ as was my rightful title in accordance to my contract.”

In an open letter issued in response to the fourth film Alien:Resurrection (1997), which doesn’t mention his name in its credits at all, Giger points out that: “The creatures in Alien:Resurrection are even closer to my original Alien designs than the ones which appear in Aliens and Alien 3 ... The designs and my credit have been stolen from me, since I alone have designed the Alien. So why does not Fox give me the credit I rightfully earned?”

I very much doubt if Fox is in too much of a hurry to open up its copyrighted properties (like the Alien series) to public domain. Consequently, it wants credit (or, preferably, cash) where it is due. Seems a shame it isn’t prepared to allow all those who work with it the same privilege.

It is therefore only fitting to leave the last word on the matter to Herr Giger himself: “As for those responsible for this conspiracy: All I can wish them is an Alien breeding inside their chests, which might just remind them that the ‘Alien Father’ is H.R. Giger.”

All H.R. Giger quotes come from his open letter, written originally to Twentieth Century Fox on November 13th 1997, a copy of which Herr Giger kindly made available to the author.
The illustration Necronom IV is © HR Giger.
Find out more about Giger's work at his website: http://www.hrgiger.com

A30: ALIEN 30 pt 2

Welcome to part two of my shameless re-hash of articles wot I wrote ten years ago. They’re here to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the film’s release for Halloween 1979.


Dan O’Bannon began his part-time endeavour of writing the script which would become Alien in 1972. It was during the particularly creative period of his life which saw Dark Star (1974) hammered into shape (a film he not only wrote, but also starred in - as the hapless ‘Pinback’ - under the direction of his then-college-colleague John Carpenter).

The Alien idea bore certain resemblances to Dark Star in that it featured a claustrophobic environment and various feckless characters grumbling about their little in life. All very seventies.

By 1976, O’Bannon was homeless, sleeping on the couch of his writing partner Ron Shussett, and together they were working on a soon-to-be-scuppered version of Frank Herbert’s Dune (This went through several more hands – including Ridley Scott’s - before eventually making its way down the rocky road to our cinema screens with David Lynch writing and directing).

It was Shussett who suggested combining the old half-finished script about a battered industrial space-ship, with a story O’Bannon had written called ‘Gremlins’. This had nothing to do with the Joe Dante film of the same name - it was about a world war two B-17 bomber infested by mysterious midget mischief-makers. Put the two ideas together and you have an industrial space-ship infested by aliens.

“My belongings were in storage,” D’OB told ‘Fantastic Films’ magazine, “But I carted out of storage that desk and that filing cabinet and that chair, and stuck it all in Ron’s front room so I could work.” In such inauspicious surroundings, he set about writing a script which he intended to direct as a low-budget companion-piece to Dark Star.

Shussett insisted on trying out the big studios first. To their mutual amazement Walter Hill’s company ‘Brandywine’ snapped the script up and sold it to Fox, on condition that Hill direct. Within months, O’Bannon had money to burn, but his aspirations to direct had gone up in smoke. “It was interesting because [the money] came just in time to pay my medical expenses ... I came down with a very bad stomach ailment in 1977. I was sick a great deal of that year.” It has been suggested that this complaint provided the inspiration for the chest-burster scene in the film.

Salve to his wounded ego over not directing, was being hired to oversee the design of the film. DO’B brought his long-time friend Ron Cobb on board. Primarily a fine artist who paid the bills by publishing cartoons in magazines, Ron Cobb’s only significant film credits up to Alien, were designing the titular craft in Dark Star, and providing a few last-minute additions to the fauna of Mos Eisley’s Cantina in Star Wars (1977).

Both of these jobs had come from his friendship with DO’B, so it was only natural that he should come aboard to help design Alien. He found himself working, all-but solo, on the Nostromo - then still known as ‘The Snark’, but about to be given its first re-dub to ‘Leviathan’. Cobb asked for his friend Chris Foss to be included - whose outlandishly coloured, abstract space-ship designs had been gracing sf book covers throughout the seventies. They worked together, bouncing ideas off each other. However, it was the functional, industrial look of Cobb’s designs which , eventually, survived into the finished film.

When Walter Hill decided not to take up the directorial reins, preferring to go with the urban western The Driver (1978), the good ship Nostromo was left without a captain. One Director’s Guild strike and several months later, the script having been waved in front of all the usual suspects (including a young up-and-comer called Spielberg, who was just finishing off a very different alien film of his own - Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977) a list of available directors was presented to the desperate producers. Showing laudable discrimination, they pick the first name on the list, and so it was that Brit Ridley Scott came aboard, bringing with him a very particular vision.

Under his guidance, the Nostromo became a 800-foot-long tug pulling a two-mile long refinery. Cobb, Foss and a team of other designers were competing with each other for months, trying to come up with something that they were happy with. Finally, principal photography with the actors was over, post-production was in full swing, and they still had nothing for the exteriors of the ship.

Cobb confessed to ‘Fantastic Films’ magazine that his team could have gone on designing and redesigning forever: “ ... then Brian Johnson came in, and he was going to build a model. He made up their minds for them. He just took my drawings and went right out to Bray Studios and built it.”

In ‘The Book of Alien’, Cobb explains his way of working: “I’m sort of a frustrated engineer ... So, in working on a film, I like to take this challenge and design a spaceship as though it were absolutely real, right down to the fuel tolerances, the centres of gravity, the way the engines function, radiation shielding, whatever.”

So intensive is his attention to detail, one of his (unused) blue-print designs for the Nostromo refers to its ‘Yutani T7A NLS stellar drive’ engines. Utter gibberish, of course, being named after Cobb’s oriental neighbour, but it does provide one of the rare hints to the identity of the mysterious ‘Company’ which operated the Nostromo. Only in Cameron’s sequel, Aliens (1986), would they be identified on screen as the fiendish ‘Wayland-Yutani’!

As to the interiors, Cobb had his finger-prints on every room and foot of corridor. The octagonal doorways were his, the wall decorations, even the light fittings. His designs, honed in consultation with Scott, were brought to full-size life by Production Designer Michael Seymour and Art Directors Roger Christian and Les Dilley.

As for the Nostromo’s bridge, when Scott asked for ‘the military look’, without being too specific, Christian simply set to work with a team of set-dressers and mountains of scrap piping, tubes and switches ... hundreds and hundreds of switches, all with little lights behind them. Then Brian Johnson came along, worked out where all the crew were going to sit, and set about making the dials and switches on their bits of the bridge actually work.

Celebrated French comic-book artist, Jean Giraud (aka ‘Moebius’) worked on the film for hardly more than a long weekend, yet one of the few designs he contributed - for the surface suit - survived virtually intact into production - fish-bowl helmet, cricket-pad leggings, head-mounted search-light and all!

As Michael Seymour put it in ‘The Book of Alien’: “I responded to Moebius’ drawings with the thought that they looked like medieval Japanese armour, John Mollo took that idea and developed it in an incredible way. I mean, they’re space suits, but they’re also very Gothic, with very rich surface texture.”

Much, it must be noted, like the film itself!

Certain quotes come from:

‘The Very Best of Fantastic Films’, published in the U.S. in February 1981 by ‘Blake Publishing’. From the articles: ‘Alien Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’ by Ed Sunden II; and ‘Ron Cobb’ by E.G. Sunden II.

Whilst others originate in:

‘The Book of Alien’ by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross. Published in the U.K. by ‘Star Books’ in 1979.