Revisiting Cinefex (27): Aliens

Cinefex-27The human star of Aliens might be Sigourney Weaver, but it’s her extraterrestrial adversary – the ferocious alien queen – that features on the front cover of Cinefex #27, No surprise, then, that this issue is devoted entirely to the Oscar-winning visual effects of James Cameron’s 1986 blockbuster. The cover shot shows Stan Winston’s remarkable full-size queen (although the quarter-scale rod-puppet created for the film’s climactic showdown is such a good match it’s often hard to tell the difference). The back cover carries a wide shot of the Colonial Marines dropship navigating its way through the interior of the doomed atmosphere processor. The single article spans this issue’s 68 pages.

  • Aliens (article by Don Shay)

Leafing through Cinefex #27 prior to reading it, I was struck by just how jam-packed it is with content. ‘This isn’t just an article,’ I thought. ‘It’s practically a whole book.’ A few rough calculations revealed that, sure enough, Don Shay’s Aliens ‘article’ boasts a count of nearly 40,000 words. That’s well on the way to being a short novel, by golly – and at least the equal of a glossy ‘Making of’ book. Roughly two-thirds of the text is made up of direct quotes from the various VFX artists and filmmakers who worked on the movie. Further proof that if it’s first-hand reporting you want – and plenty of it – Cinefex has it in spades.

Aliens

Shay wades in with a concise account of how relative new-boy James Cameron came to both write and direct the follow-up to one of the most acclaimed science fiction films of all time: Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece Alien. ‘All they said was, “Ripley and soldiers,’ says Cameron, referring to his initial meeting with executive producers Walter Hill and David Giler. Cameron talks us through the sequence of treatments, scripts and negotiations which ultimately led to his getting the gig, after which we move right along to the preproduction of a film described by its director as ‘a design-fest.’

rc27aIndeed, it’s design that dominates the early part of the article, with input from concept designers Syd Mead (Blade Runner, Tron) and Ron Cobb (Star Wars, Alien), and of course from Cameron himself, a man who can give most professional artists a good run for their money. Each artist took a different approach, with Mead applying his characteristic futurist’s logic and rigour to the task of designing the Sulaco spacecraft, and Cobb viewing his concepts for the colony environments as ‘a kind of stylized fantasy on technology – almost satirical in a way.’

Given the production’s high-profile status – and Cameron’s growing reputation following the success of The Terminator – it’s interesting that he decided not to place the visual effects with ILM or Boss Film (which must surely have been an option). ‘Since I like to get directly involved in everything,’ he says, ‘[we thought] that might not be the best way to go.’ Instead, he set up an effects team to run in parallel with the main unit at England’s Pinewood Studios. The men in charge of this operation were Bob and Dennis Skotak, then with L.A. Effects Group.

The Skotak brothers contribute a great deal to the article, explaining how Cameron’s commitment to in-camera techniques suited their own working methods, and breaking down in detail their many ingenious solutions to difficult challenges. Fans of old-school techniques will enjoy their descriptions of rear projection, hanging miniatures, Lydecker rigs and beam splitters. We’re also reminded constantly of Cameron’s famous attention to detail: ‘He’s a specific director – very specific,’ says Bob Skotak. ‘You’d get this Polaroid and he’d say, “That’s exactly the kind of rust spot I want.’

The article continues through every aspect of the film’s technical production: set construction, weapon and creature development, and the various hiccups caused by both the replacement of actor James Remar by Michael Biehn (as Hicks) and the late arrival on set of Sigourney Weaver, whose previous film Half Moon Street had overrun. It’s this contextualisation that gives a good Cinefex article (and this is one of the best) that essential extra depth.

But the real reason we’re here is to devour all those juicy VFX details, isn’t it?

On that score, Shay doesn’t disappoint. We learn not only how to convert a Boeing 747 towing vehicle into a Colonial Marines APC, but also how to construct a sixth-scale replica you’d be hard-pushed to tell from its full-scale counterpart. We learn how to make facehuggers squirm, run, jump and, when necessary, how to ‘make up a bunch of dummies … throw them and blow them up.’ There’s a tremendous account of the power-loader’s design and construction (again in both full-scale and miniature forms). There are the alien warriors, reimagined versions of H.R Giger’s original monster created by attaching minimal sculptural pieces to black lycra body-suits, allowing nimble performers to develop ‘movements that were sporadic and odd and strange’.

And then there’s the queen.

In the movie, actor Lance Henriksen, playing the android character, Bishop, delivers a line in anticipation of the alien queen’s appearance: ‘It must be something we haven’t seen yet,’ he says. Cameron surely wrote the line as a personal statement of intent because, for the average moviegoer, that’s exactly what that bitch was.

Stan Winston confirms that, ‘Right from the start, Jim had a concept of the alien queen in the back of his head.’ What’s more, Cameron’s design ‘came complete with a proposal for how it might be rendered as a full-size mechanical artifact … [with] two stuntmen back-to-back inside the slender torso area.’ From the late, great Winston we get a sackful of insight into the giant creature’s construction: the initial proof-of-concept tests, the mammoth task of sculpting her various body parts, the innovative hydraulics that were the precursor to Winston’s dinosaur control systems for Jurassic Park, the cable-operated facial expressions.

If you’re wondering how tough it was for Doug Beswick to realise the gigantic queen as a quarter-scale rod puppet, the answer is ‘really tough’. Beswick and his team had to fit no less that forty-nine control cables through the queen’s tiny three-inch thorax. ‘We kept trying to talk Jim into … fattening her up a bit,’ says mechanical systems designer Phil Notaro. ‘And he’d say, “But that’s the design.” … In the end, the alien queen turned out exactly as Jim had planned it in the first place.’

Exactly as Jim had planned it in the first place. In one form or another, those words appear on practically every page of this issue of Cinefex. Talking about the development of the full-scale power loader, special effects supervisor John Richardson sums up Cameron’s controlling influence: ‘A lot of directors would have said, “I want it to look like a walking forklift,” and let it go at that. Jim would say, “I want it to look like a walking forklift and those little bolts up there have to be this shape.”‘

Shay’s article concludes with some closing remarks from Cameron, including an observation about getting the biggest bang for your bucks. He explains that having a bigger VFX budget doesn’t necessarily improve the finished result – interesting for a director who’s since developed a reputation for producing mega-budget, envelope-pushing event movies. ‘The extra money just allows you to polish,’ he says.

In these days of high polish and ultra-realism, you might think Cameron’s remarks are quaint. But they’re not. Compare them to comments made by Christopher Nolan in the very latest Cinefex (issue #131).

  • Cameron (talking about Aliens in 1986): ‘Sometimes the difference between a shot that costs twice as much and one that didn’t is pretty negligible.’
  • Nolan (talking about The Dark Knight Rises in 2012): ‘There have been times when the quick temp we got Double Negative to slap together overnight … was better in some ways than the final shot.’

Visual effects techniques may develop with time but, when you’re dealing with smart, story-focused directors playing at the top of their game, nothing changes so much as it stays the same.

The pictures

I usually set myself the challenge of picking a favourite picture from each Cinefex article I review. In this case – as often happens – there are far too many to choose from. Do I pick the wonderful concept art of Mead, Cobb and Cameron himself? Or the fabulous Skotak miniatures? How about the countless behind-the-scenes photos of Stan Winston’s team at work on the alien queen and her warriors?

I guess the picture I like most of all shows the original foam-core-and-trash-bag prototype of the full-size alien queen dangling from a crane in a parking lot. Despite its crude construction, the mock-up has extraordinary poise and presence. Put it on a dark, smoke-filled stage and you could almost imagine it appearing in the movie.

Given Cameron’s reluctance to put too much gloss on the visual effects, I’m almost surprised it didn’t.

I can’t talk about Aliens without recalling my own experience of seeing the movie on one of London’s biggest cinema screens on its first release, way back in 1986. As a huge fan of Alien, I’d been sceptical about whether the sequel would work – for one thing, I’d decided the whole guns-and-gung-ho soldiers angle wasn’t really my thing. I sat comfortable but cool for the first couple of reels, until one single visual effects shot lit a fire under me that hasn’t gone out since.

If you’re as big a fan of Aliens as I am, you know the shot well. It’s the climax of the crisp build-up on board the Sulaco that shows the Colonial Marines preparing to land on the planet LV-426. It’s the up-angle looking at the belly of the Sulaco as the dropship plummets towards the planet. Just as the dropship nears the camera, and you think Cameron’s going to cut, he doesn’t. He tracks and pans with the dropship as it swoops past, revealing the planet beyond, and then accelerates with it as it plunges into the atmosphere.

It’s a giddy, audacious shot featuring the kind of dynamic camera move that’s so easy to achieve in this digital age (and yes, rest assured that in Cinefex #27 visual effects supervisor Brian Johnson tells us exactly how it took a one hundred-foot motion control rig to achieve it back then). More importantly for me, it’s the moment I finally realised that James Cameron knew exactly what he was doing with this damn movie and that, if I just sat back and let him do his job, he’d have plenty more surprises and delights in store.

Which, of course, he did.

(The second time I saw Aliens (just a week or two later – I couldn’t get enough of it), I took the woman who would later become my wife. It was our first date together at the movies. Hardly romantic, I know. But then at least she knew what she was letting herself in for.)

Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.

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