ALIENS & INVADERS FROM MARS take over Stan Winston Studio
Upon joining the Aliens production, Stan Winston expanded his studio crew to forty to accommodate the show’s many creature effects, and those for an overlapping project, Invaders From Mars, the 1986 remake of William Cameron Menzies’ 1953 film, directed by Tobe Hooper, which he had committed to previously. The movie concerns the invasion of a town by aliens who take over the minds of townspeople and the boy who tries to stop them.
Making the Martians
Stan Winston Studio was tasked with designing both the invader drones and a Supreme Being. “Invaders From Mars came up while we were still doing early prep for Aliens,” SWS-veteran & Legacy Effects co-founder Shane Mahan said. “I think Jim Cameron was annoyed that we took Invaders From Mars because it pulled some focus away from his show — but Aliens hadn’t fully kicked in yet, and so we had to do it. And I was glad about it because I’d been a big fan of the original film.”
Pictured above: Stan Winston’s Martian "drone" design for Invaders from Mars.
Inspired by the alien queen concept for Aliens, Stan Winston was eager to explore other ways in which putting two performers in a suit could disguise the human anatomy underlying a creature design. “I wanted to create an alien invader that didn’t look like a guy in a suit,” said Stan Winston. “So I came up with this idea of putting a little person on the back of a big guy who would stand and walk backward."
Pictured above: In a proof-of-concept test, suit actress Debbie Carrington sits in a backpack harness rig mounted to the lead performer's back.
Stan Winston’s intention was to hide the ‘man-in-a-suit’ approach by positioning two performers inside the drone: a little person who would face forward and manipulate the face with her legs and arms, and a large stunt performer who would walk backward — creating a nonhuman leg joint — for ambulatory shots.
Pictured above: SWS crew members, wearing "drone" mechanical frames, practice backward walking.
"That gave the character a backward bend to its leg, like a dog, as well as little hands from the little person that came out from the front. The little person’s feet would also open and close the mouth of the suit head. That gave us a very interesting, non-human silhouette. Because of the budget of this film, the drone had to be a guy in a suit; but I did everything I could so that it wouldn’t look like a guy in a suit” said Stan Winston.
One of the obstacles in making the concept work was the size of the invader drones. “These things were big,” said Alec Gillis, “and to make them in foam latex would have required a bigger oven than anybody had. So, instead, we had to come up with ways of injecting polyfoam into big fiberglass molds. Rick Lazzarini came up with what he called the ‘octo-injector’, which was a big five-gallon bucket that had multiple hoses coming out of it. Six of us would sit around with one-gallon buckets and mix up the polyfoam, then dump it into this thing, cap the lid, and shoot compressed air into it, which allowed us to inject polyfoam into the multiple points all around the mold. We got our skins out and they were good enough to be patched together. It was a very big and bold thing to do, though. Stan was never one to take the safest route. He would always say, ‘There’s got to be a way.’ And then we’d brainstorm. Every idea was heard. Every idea was discussed. It was invigorating.”
Pictured above: Alec Gillis paints Shane Mahan's invader drone design maquette.
Pictured above: Shane Mahan and John Rosengrant sculpt the full-size drone in water-based clay, using a miniature as a structural guide.
Not so invigorating was the noxious gas emanating from the polyfoam drone creatures. “We were in a small room,” Howard Berger recalled, “running giant pieces, with little ventilation. And on our lunch breaks, we’d lie right on top of these big bodies we were making, because they were soft and cushy — but they were also secreting cyanide gas. So we’d be lying there, going, ‘I don’t feel so good…’ It was from making all of this stuff out of urethanes. And we knew it was toxic stuff. We’d say, ‘Hey, look, gas is coming out of the polyfoam!’ So we knew, and we did take some precautions — but we were young and stupid.”
Pictured above: Testing a drone suit at Stan Winston Studio.
Pictured above: Stan Winston and crew help a performer suit up for a drone test.
Pictured above: Stan Winston with two drones on the set of Invaders From Mars. Only two alien drone suits were made for the movie. The clever editing and the use of a fully sculpted and painted but non-mechanized lighting stand-in drone created the illusion of multiple alien drones on the ship.
Pictured above: An "insert rig" is prepared for the scene where a drone eats Mrs. McKeltch.
Pictured above: When the drone eats Mrs. McKeltch, Steve Lambert stood in for actress Louise Fletcher. SWS mechanic Dave Nelson helped pull him into the drone's giant mouth.
Pictured above: Director Tobe Hooper with one of the Martian drones on the set of Invaders From Mars.
The Supreme Being
For the Supreme Being, conceived as a giant brain on legs, Stan Winston’s crew built a puppet featuring a lizard-like tail and an animatronic face.
Pictured above: Stan Winston’s designs for the Martian "Supreme Being."
Richard Landon and Dave Nelson built layers of bladders inside the puppet to simulate a breathing motion. Winston's crew worked every weekend for weeks to finish up the work on Invaders From Mars before leaving for the Aliens shoot.
Pictured above: Tom Woodruff, Jr. prepares the Supreme Being face sculpture for molding.
Pictured above: Stan Winston sculpts a screaming face for the Supreme Being, added later in production.
“Stan was right there with us,” Howard Berger said, “doing whatever had to be done — brushing up urethane or painting. I remember Stan’s son, Matt Winston, would also come in to help when he wasn’t in school. He was a teenager at the time and a great kid. Stan would say: ‘Put him to work! He’ll do whatever you need him to do.’ And, of course, we always made him do all the slop work. But he never complained. He was a real pro, even as a kid. Obviously, he’d learned a work ethic from his dad."
Pictured above: SWS crew members work on the Supreme Being. From left to right: Everett Burrell, Alec Gillis, and Rick Lazzarini.
Pictured above: Stan Winston adds final paint detail to the Supreme Being on the set of Invaders From Mars.
"We finally finished everything and put it on a big truck to go down to San Pedro where they were shooting," said Berger. "It was just chaos trying to get all of this work done in time, and to get everybody into these crazy, two-person suits.”
Pictured above: The completed Supreme Being puppet on the set of Invaders from Mars
Pictured above: A close-up of the Supreme Being on the set of Invaders From Mars.
For more behind-the-scenes stories, check out Stan Winston School of Character Arts instructor Shannon Shea's memories of Invaders From Mars in his "First Person Monster Blog" here: Martian Madness
- By Balázs Földesi with selections from The Winston Effect: The Art and History of Stan Winston Studio by Jody Duncan
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