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Building ALIENS Full-Size Alien Queen Puppet

Building ALIENS Full-Size Alien Queen Puppet

A NEW ALIEN FOR "ALIENS"

By Jody Duncan

Excerpted from THE WINSTON EFFECT THE ART AND HISTORY OF STAN WINSTON STUDIO

In developing the ALIENS screenplay, James Cameron had recognized that the story would lack punch if it featured only those alien organisms introduced in the first film. In ALIEN, “they’ve seen the eggs,” Cameron said, “they’ve seen the parasite that emerges from the eggs, they’ve seen the embryo laid by that parasite emerge from a host person, and they’ve seen the embryo grow up into a supposedly adult form. But that adult form — one of them, anyway — couldn’t possibly have laid the thousand or so eggs that filled the inside of the derelict ship. At least that was my theory. So working from that image — acres and acres of these quite large eggs — I began to focus on the idea of a hierarchical hive structure where the central figure is a giant queen whose role it is to further the species.”

Pictured above: A James Cameron rendering of ALIENS' Alien Queen

PUSHING THE LIMITS OF PUPPETRY

Whereas Cameron had relied on stop-motion animation for wide ambulatory shots of his full-body endoskeleton in THE TERMINATOR, he intended to shoot his queen alien live and full- size, interacting with the actors as much as possible. “Jim had seen what we could do with puppets on Terminator,” Stan Winston observed, “and so it made perfect sense that he thought of puppeteering techniques when he needed a way to realize the alien queen. But, even so, it was a huge leap of faith to believe that we could build a fourteen-foot-tall, acting puppet.”

Cameron 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.”

Pictured above: James Cameron demonstrates how two puppeteers will fit inside the Alien Queen puppet.

Picture above: The Alien Queen maquette with the "puppeteers" embedded into her torso.

THE GARBAGE BAG TEST

For a Stan Winston Studio proof-of-concept test, stunt performers puppeteered ski-pole arm extensions from inside a crane-suspended ‘garbage bag queen’ in the studio parking lot, a simple foam mockup covered in black trash bags. "Just to see if this concept worked,” Winston said, “and it did. Once we knew that the concept worked, all we had to do was figure out how we were going to build it for real.

Pictured above: Stuntmen in position to puppeteer the arms for the Garbage Bag Test.

Pictured above: Stan Winston Studio crew prepare to hoist the foam queen for the performance test.

Pictured above: James Cameron films Stan and crew putting the Garbage Bag Queen through her paces.

THE QUEEN GOES TO ENGLAND

After sculpting maquettes for the queen, Stan's ALIENS crew moved to England, where they joined forces with Stan's British Alien FX crew and began construction on the alien queen, exactly replicating the quarter-scale maquette that had been sculpted at Stan Winston Studio. “We actually built the full-size queen in England by eye,” said 25-year Stan Winston Studio supervisor and co-founder of Legacy Effects, Shane Mahan. “We didn’t have the technology that we do now, where you can just scan a maquette and have it milled out of foam in scaled-up pieces that are perfectly in proportion. In those days, we’d do mathematical blow-ups, just using our eyes and basic math. It was very hands-on, very painstaking. It was just good old-fashioned draftsmanship.”

Pictured above: Shane Mahan sculpts the full-size Alien Queen head.

Pictured above: Stan Winston (left) checks the sculpting progress on a full-size Alien Queen leg.

Pictured above: John Rosengrant sculpts the full-size Alien Queen body.

Pictured above: Shane Mahan prepares the underside of the Alien Queen head for molding.

THE QUEEN COMES TOGETHER

Once sculpted in full-size, molded, cast in a lightweight polyfoam and painted, the alien queen puppet was supported by a variety of rigs, depending on the shot, the required action and the camera angles. In some cases, crews hung it by wires from a crane arm. In others, it was supported from below, mounted to a rigid bracket hidden within the bony vertebrae of the queen’s back. 

Pictured above: John Rosengrant puts finishing touches on the Alien Queen torso.

Pictured above: Lindsay Macgowan paints the Alien Queen tail.

Pictured above: The head, torso and tail are assembled for the first time by the Stan Winston crew.

A BIG PUPPET NEEDS BIG POWER

A series of power steering units controlled the hydraulically actuated gross body pivots, left and right, forward and back tilts, and up-and-down neck movement. These queen body mechanisms were Stan Winston’s introduction to hydraulics. “We’d never used hydraulics technology before." Winston said, "The reason we had to use hydraulics for the queen was just because of the size of it. It took a lot of muscle to move that body around.” The stunt men would control all four arms, as well as the side-to-side movement of the tail, actuated by exerting pressure on a footplate within the queen’s hips. Up/down movement was hydraulically operated, while the tip of the tail was moved more simply, via attached wires.

THE QUEEN'S HEAD

Two queen heads were built, one that was made of tougher, more durable materials so that it could withstand abuse, and a second more fragile, lightweight version. Each was articulated with hydraulics and cable controls for the finer functions such as jaw action and snarling lips. The hero queen head had more functionality, including a tongue mechanism and head-tilt capability.

Pictured above: The unpainted "hero" animatronic Alien Queen head.

Pictured above: The completed "hero" animatronic Alien Queen head.

"WE'LL MAKE THE QUEEN, YOU MAKE HER MOVE."

As the Winston crew built the full-size queen, special effects supervisor John Richardson — a veteran of the James Bond film series and many other high-profile projects — concentrated his efforts on how to support the massive puppet on the stage. “I recall Stan saying to John, ‘We’ll make the queen, and you make her move,’” Shane Mahan said. “That was a big question we all had, how we were going to support and move this big machine, without all the rigging being seen by the camera. John Richardson committed a lot of his brain matter to solving that problem. Fortunately, he is very clever about that sort of thing. He couldn’t really build the support crane until we got there, though, and had the full-size queen built. He and Stan needed to see the queen, to feel the weight of it, to see how it would be operated, exactly, before they could solve the support problem.”

Pictured above: The completed Alien Queen body on set. Notice her head in the background.

CREATING AN ORGANIC PERFORMANCE

The alien queen required up to eight operators, all coordinating their efforts to create an organic performance that seemed to come from a single mind. The conductor of that puppeteering orchestra was Stan Winston. “Stan taught all of us to think of puppeteering a performance as music,” veteran Stan Winston Studio mechanical designer, Richard Landon, commented.

Pictured above: Stan Winston, Shane Mahan & John Rosengrant adjust the Alien Queen between takes.

Pictured above: The Alien Queen comes to life on the set of ALIENS.

Pictured above: The full-size Alien Queen puppet in all her royal glory.

DIRECTING THE QUEEN ON SET

“Stan explains it as a situation in which world-class musicians are suddenly handed instruments that they’ve never seen before — which is analogous to our work, because we never build our puppets exactly the same way twice." Landon added, "Puppeteers are often stepping up to work controls they didn’t build themselves; but they have to become virtuosos on those new ‘instruments’ in a very short period of time. And that’s where Stan comes in. He understands how the puppet works, for one thing. He understands the cables and the motors inside. He always says, ‘I’m not a technical person, and I don’t understand this stuff’ — but he’s hiding a gem. He understands it. He gets it, totally. Even more important, though, he understands performance, and he understands what is needed from a character to tell the story. He is an excellent director of characters.”

-Jody Duncan

Excerpted from THE WINSTON EFFECT: THE ART AND HISTORY OF STAN WINSTON STUDIO

 

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