Alien Meets Jurassic Park
The Relic (1997), set within Chicago’s Natural History Museum, allowed Stan Winston Studio to return to the relative safety and comfort of interior sets and soundstages. Described by some as ‘Alien Meets Jurassic Park’, the horror/thriller, directed by Peter Hyams, involves an anthropologist who consumes a virus during a ritual ceremony in South America and transforms into a genetically mutated creature, Kothoga, which stalks the Chicago museum in search of victims.
Making a mythological beast
Creating a creature that had not been seen before was a great challenge for the studio. Based on the sketchy description in the original novel by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, lead concept artist Mark "Crash" McCreery made a number of Kothoga designs and director Peter Hyams chose his favorite one. The final design had a spider-like head and a fifteen-foot-long body that was an amalgam of a lion, an alligator, and a horse, detailed with reptilian scales and tufts of hair down the spine.
Pictured above: Mark "Crash" McCreery's final concept artwork of Kothoga.
Within the show’s brief five month preproduction period, the Stan Winston Studio built three Kothoga suits and a radio-controlled head, all designed to hide the human anatomy of the performer inside. A particularly complex body cast of stunt performer Vincent Hammond was used as the base to create the full-scale Kothoga sculpture.
Pictured above: Mark "Crash" McCreery builds the full-size "Kothoga" sculpting armature around suit performer Vincent Hammond's body cast.
Pictured above: Sculpting Kothoga at Stan Winson Studio. Clockwise from left - Christopher Swift, David Grasso, Ian Stevenson, David Monzingo, & Crash McCreery.
Pictured above: Christopher Swift and Mark "Crash" McCreery add details to the full-size Kothoga sculpture. Because of the limited preproduction time, water-based clay was used for creating the sculpture.
The finished sculpture was molded in foam latex to create the three suits: two hero suits and a stunt suit. Yak hair was punched manually onto the head, mandible, and back parts. Fangs and mandibles were cast separately in rigid foam and then skinned in polyurethane resin. Arms and legs featured mechanical extensions, engineered by mechanical designer Kirk Skodis.
Pictured above: The 6-foot tall, 15-foot long Kothoga sculpture ready for molding.
Kothoga’s neck, head, and facial movements were controlled by animatronic systems, devised by mechanical designers Rich Haugen and Al Sousa. The mechanical structure of the creature's neck that featured servo-powered mechanisms was built in aluminum to make the structure lighter for the suit performer. Most of the mechanisms were radio-controlled while the tail was manually driven by wire pulls. Three puppeteers operated the animatronic neck and head (including eyes and jaw), two puppeteers performed the tail, and two puppeteers controlled the moving claws on the arms.
Pictured above: Installed mechanical neck and head. The abdomen could inflate and deflate through a bladder system to simulate breathing.
Pictured above: Ian Stevenson attaches "Kothoga's" massive polyurethane mandibles.
Pictured above: Richard Davison paints Kothoga's fangs.
Pictured above: A completed Kothoga suit, designed and created by the artists and technical wizards of Stan Winston Studio.
The Challenges of Suit Performance
The creature’s quadruped physiology required arm and leg extensions, manipulated by stunt performers Vincent Hammond and Brian Steele (aka CreatureBoy). Due to the awkward position of the actors in the suits, they had to be attached to harnesses from above to give them appropriate support. Vincent and Brian trained for three months with animal behaviorist John Alexander to learn how to execute basic moves inside the suit.
Pictured above: Brian Steele, one of two "Kothoga" suit performers, rehearses during a test fitting at Stan Winston Studio.
In his debut as supervisor, Christopher Swift ran The Relic project on-set, facing daily challenges due to the non-anthropomorphic Kothoga design. “It was very difficult to make this wonderful design Crash had come up with work as a real character,” Chris Swift said. “It was very hard to configure a human being into a suit that in no way accommodated sticking a human being inside it. And it was really difficult for the performers. They were in a bad position, putting all their weight on arm extensions and back leg extensions, which was very uncomfortable. To deal with it, Vincent would start reciting from The Prophet when he was in there — which sounded pretty funny coming from this horrible monster!”
Pictured above: Another "Kothoga" test fitting at the studio, with additional elements (and weight) added.
Mark "Crash" McCreery felt the weight of responsibility when Chris Swift and the puppeteering crews returned from the shoot every day, exhausted by the Herculean efforts required to get a performance out of the Kothoga suit. “I felt bad when the guys came back from the set talking about how miserable it was to work with this character,” Crash admitted. “I had tried to give Peter Hyams something very different; but, ultimately, I designed something without considering the actor inside it. It was a real lesson in how careful I had to be when I was executing a design. If you’re telling people to follow a drawing, that drawing had better be right, and it had better work mechanically and practically. I learned a lot on The Relic — I just wish I’d learned it without people suffering!”
- Blog assembled by Balázs Földesi with selections from The Winston Effect: The Art and History of Stan Winston Studio by Jody Duncan
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