Aliens 30th Anniversary Celebration
This year marks the 30th anniversary of James Cameron’s landmark sci-fi movie, ALIENS; a film that is widely considered not just one of the best films of the sci-fi genre, but often mentioned as one of the best films of the 1980's, and is also the film that brought Stan Winston's first Academy Award win for Best Visual Effects in 1986. Let's celebrate by revisiting ALIENS behind the scenes at Stan Winston Studio.
- By Balázs Földesi with selections from The Winston Effect: The Art and History of Stan Winston Studio by Jody Duncan
Stan Winston altered the design of the chest-burster only slightly, adding two tiny arms to give the creature a way to pull itself from the victim’s chest, and to maintain anatomical consistency with the adult warrior alien. A metal understructure in the chest-burster puppet made it strong enough to push through the chest appliance. The cable-operated puppet was worn on the arm of an operator and literally punched through the pre-scored, hollowed-out foam rubber chest appliance. During production of ALIEN, the crews had created a similar setup for the chest-burster scene, and had found that the most difficult part of the effect was getting the chest-burster puppet to break through the t-shirt actor John Hurt was wearing in the scene. Aware of the potential for problems, Stan Winston’s crew had pre-distressed six shirts to be worn by the female colonist who would be the victim of the chestburster. Indeed, all six had to be used before a suitable take was captured. The chestburster broke through the torso appliance easily, but it took repeated takes to get it to punch through the shirt, spurting blood exactly as James Cameron envisioned.
PREVIOUS FEATURED VIDEO: The chestburster mechanism
A second chest-burster puppet, for shots of the creature post-emergence, could be fitted with more extensive and delicate mechanisms since it didn’t have to endure the impact of pushing through the chest appliance and shirt fabric. “We gave the chest-burster the ability to do a little bit more than it had done in the original movie,” said Stan Winston. “In the original, you saw it pop out, look around, and then scurry away. In ours, it was fighting to get out of her body, and there was a much wider range of motion.” The puppet writhes violently when the troopers torch it with flame-throwers — a shot achieved by mounting the fully mechanized puppet within a full-body duplicate of its deceased victim.
Just as the chest-burster would be more fully actuated than it had been in the original film, the face-hugger would be equipped to perform much more dynamic movement. “In the first film,” said Jim Cameron, “the face-hugger — after its leap onto John Hurt’s face — appears simply as an inert form. In ALIENS, we changed that. Now it has the physical capability, should it miss on that first leap, to run around on its eight legs and leap again — which made for a really interesting sequence.”
PREVIOUS FEATURED VIDEO: Face-hugger gets animatronics
The aforementioned sequence takes place inside a medical lab, where two face-hugger specimens that have been released from containment attack Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the little girl Newt (Carrie Henn), the lone survivor from the colony. In addition to running around on their eight finger-like appendages in the scene, the face-huggers would use their tails as grabbing and constricting devices. “Our face-huggers ran around all over the place in that scene,” noted Stan Winston, “chasing and fighting Sigourney Weaver, jumping on things, scurrying across the floor. Our face-huggers were fully articulated, whereas the face-hugger in ALIEN wasn’t articulated at all.”
FEATURED VIDEO: Facehuggers attack Ripley and Newt, behind-the-scenes courtesy 20th Century Fox
The original ALIEN had featured a single creature, realized as a man-in-a-suit, which Ridley Scott filmed carefully in shadow, at odd angles, and covered in slime — all to disguise its basic human form. “You never really saw the entire alien until the very last shot of it in the movie,” noted Stan Winston, “when he is blown out of the air lock. Until that point, he was in shadows, in weird positions, only his head was in frame — and all of those filming techniques, meant to disguise the fact that this was a guy in a suit, were partly why the film worked as well as it did. When you did finally see the whole thing at the end of the movie, you went away kind of wishing you’d never seen that shot. It was disappointing. But there wasn’t much they could do, given the restrictions of the suit.”
FEATURED VIDEO: Alien Warriors, behind-the-scenes courtesy 20th Century Fox
THE ALIEN QUEEN
In developing the ALIENS screenplay, James Cameron recognized that the story would lack punch if it featured only those alien organisms introduced in the first film. He needed a trump card, an element of surprise in his movie’s third act. That surprise took the form of a giant alien queen, an ‘über-alien’ that, in addition to serving as the ultimate adversary, completed the alien reproduction cycle, never fully explained in ALIEN.
Jim Cameron had rendered a drawing of the queen, and had also conceived a radical approach to puppeteering her, which would involve hanging the creature from an overhead crane and stationing two stunt men inside the mid-section to operate the puppet’s four arms. Other key functions would be controlled through external rods, wires and hydraulics. “When Jim first came to me with this idea of putting two guys inside a giant alien queen suit,” Winston admitted, “I thought, ‘This man is out of his mind.’ Nothing like that had been done before. But in the next moment, I realized that if he had imagined it, we could probably do it.” James Cameron drew a final alien queen, which he and Winston then scaled up in profile and front views to determine measurements that would accommodate two full-grown men. On paper, the idea seemed sound. To test the concept in three dimensions and in full size, Stan Winston and his crew built what they called the ‘garbage bag queen’, which was literally a foam-core mockup, ‘skinned’ in trash bags and suspended from a crane in the studio parking lot.
PREVIOUS FEATURED VIDEO: Alien Queen "Garbage bag test"
The next step was to sculpt a quarter-scale queen maquette as a means of finessing the design prior to building it in full scale. Winston divided the sculpting chores among his core crewmembers: John Rosengrant on the body, Alec Gillis and Willie Whitten on the legs, Greg Figiel on the arms, Brian Penikas and Shawn McEnroe on the tail, and Shane Mahan on the head.
PREVIOUS FEATURED VIDEO: Sculpting the Alien Queen head
FEATURED VIDEO: Full story about the Alien Queen courtesy 20th Century Fox
QUEEN ATTACKS BISHOP
The full-size queen’s biggest action scenes are those after she rips herself away from her ovipositor to chase after Ripley and Newt, who are picked up by the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) in a drop-ship, and returned to the mothership, Sulaco. The queen stows away onboard, impaling Bishop with her tail.
FEATURED VIDEO: Alien Queen attacks Bishop behind-the-scenes courtesy 20th Century Fox
ALIENS was a learning experience on many levels. Professionally, Stan Winston had succeeded in building the largest, most complex puppet ever made for a film, and the project led him to form his biggest and most diverse crew. Personally, he had gained the experience that only comes from living abroad. “Because we were going to be there so long, my family came with me,” Winston said. “My kids went to the American school in London. It was a great experience for all of us, even though it was a very tough shoot. It was very rewarding.” The pride that Winston and his crew felt for their work on ALIENS remains to this day, and the enthusiasm for the work of these pioneers has grown. In a 2007 interview, Shane Mahan said, “Stan and Richard Landon and I went to see a screening of ALIENS just last year. We were there to do this question-and-answer session afterwards, along with Gale Hurd and Lance Henriksen. Before the movie screened, I was pretty worried about how our work would hold up twenty years later. I hadn’t seen it projected on a big screen since 1986, so I just didn’t know how it would look. But I was astounded by how well all the physical creature stuff held up. It looked very real. The queen looked great. It floored me to see how much we’d been able to get in-camera, live-action.”
At San Diego Comic Con 2016 the ALIENS team reunited to celebrate the 30th anniversary of ALIENS together:
MORE ALIENS BEHIND-THE-SCENES FROM STAN WINSTON SCHOOL:
- ALIENS - Sculpting the Alien Queen Head with Shane Mahan
- ALIENS - Chestburster Behind-the-Scenes with Director/FX Designer Stephen Norrington
- ALIENS - Building Full-Size Alien Queen Puppet
- The REAL Alien Queen: Sigourney Weaver
- ALIENS - The Making of a Xenomorph Drone
- ALIENS - Alien Queen Attacks Bishop!
- FOR ALL MAKEUP ARTISTS AND LAB TECHNICIANS: Life-Casting
- FOR OUR MAKEUP ARTISTS: Makeup Effects
- FOR ALL MONSTER MAKERS: Eyes, Teeth & Nails
- FOR OUR PAINTERS: Painting
- FOR OUR FABRICATORS: Fabrication
- FOR SCULPTORS: Sculpture
- FOR OUR DESIGNERS: Design
- FOR OUR MOLD-MAKERS: Moldmaking
- FOR OUR MODEL MAKERS: Model-Making
- FOR OUR MECHANICS: Mechanics
- FOR OUR ELECTRICIANS: Electronics
- FOR OUR LAB TECHNICIANS: Lab Work
- FOR OUR FILMMAKERS: Filmmaking
- FOR OUR FINISHERS: Hair Work