'Alien' Creature Design Duo Takes Us Inside Their 20-Plus Years of Xenomorph-ing

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
The Xenomorph in ‘Alien 3’ (Photo: Everett)

Prior to Ridley Scott‘s Alien prequels — Prometheus in 2012 and now Alien: Covenant — each Alien movie had a strikingly different directorial vision. Scott’s 1979 classic was a “haunted house in space”; James Cameron‘s 1986 Alienswas a full-on war movie; David Fincher went dark and moody in 1992’s Alien 3 (which just celebrated its 25th anniversary on May 22); five years later, Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s Alien: Resurrection shifted to a lightly comic clone saga. Finally, two poorly received Alien vs. Predator films embraced some of the spirit of 1950s monster movies.

Beyond the Xenomorph itself, one constant in all these varied takes on Alien was the work of special effects designers Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. The two met while working on Cameron’s Aliens under the tutelage of F/X master Stan Winston. In 1988, Gillis and Woodruff Jr. founded their own effects house, Amalgamated Dynamics. When Alien 3 went into pre-production in 1992, Winston had schedule conflicts and recommended his former apprentices. That recommendation resulted in a nearly two-decade working relationship between the Alien franchise and Amalgamated Dynamics, with Gillis and Woodruff working on every Alien film through 2007’s Alien vs. Predator: Requiem — and perhaps more, had Neill Blomkamp made his proposed alternate-timeline sequel to Aliens. “We did work on it,” Gillis confirms to Yahoo Movies. “But there’s nothing we can really say about that, nor do we know the latest news.”

At the time the pair spoke with Yahoo Movies, they had yet to see Alien: Covenant, and acknowledged somewhat mixed feelings about it. “I’ve been purposely trying not to evaluate the effects, because I know I’m going to have that let-down feeling of, ‘Oh, we didn’t get to work on it,” says Woodruff Jr. Adds Gillis: “I enjoyed Prometheus, and thought it looked great.” But the duo had plenty to say about their extensive history with the Xenomorph. In this expansive conversation, they reveal how, while making Alien 3, they had to turn down a once in a lifetime offer from Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who did the classic creature design for Alien, and how Alien: Resurrection brought the (creepy) sexy back. (For more Alien creature goodness, check out the Amalgamated Dynamics YouTube page, which has a number of behind the scenes videos.)

Amalgamated Dynamics co-founders Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. in L.A. in 2015 (Photo: Amy Graves/WireImage)

I have to admit that Alien 3 flummoxed me when I first saw it 25 years ago. But I’ve revisited it several times since then, and come away from each viewing finding more to love. Despite whatever was going on behind the scenes, the film itself has some terrific sequences and interesting thematic concerns.

Tom Woodruff Jr.: I totally agree with that. We feel really fortunate to have been there for David Fincher’s first feature. Everything he was fighting through just to make sure his vision was being accomplished. He said, “I will grab this production kicking and screaming to the finish.”

Alec Gillis: There are three filmmakers we’ve worked with from the beginnings of their careers that are all very similar in their level of confidence right out of the gate: David Fincher, James Cameron, and Neill Blomkamp.

You had both worked on Aliens under Stan Winston. Were you excited to tackle Alien 3 by yourselves?

Woodruff Jr.: We were pretty cocky too, by the way! [Laughs]

Gillis: We joke when we say we were cocky. I think we felt we deserved it because we had a good amount of experience, and a lot of confidence from working on films with Stan like The Terminator, Invaders from Mars, and The Monster Squad. We were so ready to take on the mantle of doing H.R. Giger right, making him proud as an artist. We didn’t want to put our egos in front of it. I remember on Aliens when Cameron decided not to put the domes on the Aliens — that didn’t sit well with me. We wanted to go back to the dome, and get more of the qualities we saw in Giger’s paintings than perhaps the work in Aliens had. We also wanted to elevate the suit in terms of mobility and durability. So we were very excited. When I look back, I don’t know who the hell would have hired us, but I’m glad they did.

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley and an out-of-frame Woodruff as the Alien in ‘Alien 3’ (Photo: Everett)

Giger did some early concept work on Alien 3 before parting ways with the production. Did you speak with him directly at all, and was the parting amicable?

Woodruff Jr.: Where we parted, it was amicable. I think where the real hotbed happened was 20th Century Fox. They basically cut ties to Giger. This is a painful story to relate: Giger called us and said, “I did this sculpture of an Alien. It’s in my basement, and too big to take out. I don’t have the money to mold it. Can you guys come to Switzerland to see this sculpture I made?” And Fox told us we had to say no. Can you imagine? If we’d been a little cockier we would have jumped on a plane!

Gillis: There was some disconnection and confusion on the Giger side. We only spoke to him two or three times during the whole production. There was a point where Fincher looked at everything he had sent and said, “Okay, I think we’ve got enough.” And it was after that that Giger called us [about the statue], and we were sort of taken aback. We thought they had closed it up and that Giger was off the show, but Giger never realized he was off the show. After the movie came out, there was a hatchet job article in a [special-effects] magazine, so I think that might have inflamed him a little bit. From our point of view, it was too bad because we considered Giger an absolute genius who revolutionized creature effects forever. It was a shame that he felt he was being disrespected. [Giger died in 2014.]

The Xenomorph in Alien 3 is more feral than previous versions of the character because it has dog DNA. How did that design evolve?

Woodruff Jr.: Back in those days, the design aspect was purely creative, and never political. The day we got the job, we each went home and started sketching basic designs and faxed them to Fincher. Compared to today where every aspect is so closely monitored in a micro-managing way. Every image has to be carefully groomed by a team of businesspeople, but not the artists that live and breathe creature effects. For us, it’s become very frustrating.

Gillis: One of the successes of the creature design in Alien 3 is that we were working directly with David Fincher. We’d have meetings with him, and he would say things like, “I want it to be as powerful as a freight train and have Michelle Pfeiffer‘s lips.” And the female lips thing was very much existing in Giger’s world. Giger was exploring things that he felt David would be interested in. There was one head he designed that had valves like a saxophone, and he imagined the Alien running his hands along the length of the head creating unearthly, horrific music. That’s a crazy idea and an interesting idea, but for the studio it was a little too out there. So those kinds of ideas fell by the wayside. For us, we’ll go in with a blank slate and interview the director: “What are you looking for? How can we support you to tell the story?”

Watch a behind-the-scenes video of an early test of the Alien 3 creature suit:

There’s very funny footage on one of the behind-the-scenes documentaries included on the Alien Quadrilogy box set showing you guys putting an Alien costume on a dog to film certain sequences. Does any of that footage survive in the film?

Gillis: That was an idea that Fincher had, and we loved taking chances. Why not? Make a dog suit and put a dog in it. That’s the beauty of special effects; you might discover something really unexpectedly cool or you might end up with hilarious video 25 years later. It’s a win-win.

Woodruff Jr.: I have to be honest: To this day, I think it’s kind of cool. If it had been liberally painted with more deep, dark shadows and some creepy sounds had been added, I think there’s something there that makes my heart beat faster.

Gillis: I’m sure he’s passed away by now, so I’m going to blame the dog! [Laughs] He just did not perform. Once we put him in the latex costume, he locked up! He stood there, and did not move.

Woodruff Jr.: On set they kept blasting these nitrogen tanks to make the smoke, so it was very loud. I remember that every time the dog would start his trajectory, they’d blow those tanks and the dog would jerk, and his rear end would speed up faster than his front end. It looked like he was running sideways! That took away the scary aspect of the Alien, too.

Ripley’s death dive in ‘Alien 3’ (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

The movie ends with Ripley sacrificing herself just as the Alien inside her bursts free. As fans of the franchise, it must have been fun to execute your own “chestburster” sequence, even if it was under tragic circumstances.

Woodruff Jr.: It’s iconic, right? We’re the ones who got to kill Ripley, and kill her with a chestburster. It was very hands-on practical puppeteering: Fincher built the set horizontally on the floor, and the back wall was the lead mold she was falling into. Sigourney [Weaver] was on a dolly sitting up, but the camera was turned to make it appear she was falling backwards. And we had a rig for the chestburster under her shirt.

Gillis: That’s a different kind of chestburster moment. It’s the poetic end of the film, and it’s self-sacrifice, so it happens in a different emotional context than any other chestburster we’d seen. An additional challenge was this wasn’t a person lying on a table or having their back to a wall. It’s Ripley, in her tank top in mid-air. So we had to come up with a low-release effect. It was in a couple of stages: He had a compressed chestburster, and we’d yank a fine line, spray blood at the same time and also inflate it as it went. It was kind of like a snake in a can trick.

Watch behind-the-scenes video of the ‘Alien 3’ chestburster sequence:

What was the mood on set the day you filmed Ripley’s death? And were you surprised the film would have such a dark ending when you signed on?

Woodruff Jr.: When we started working on the movie, we had to create the dead body of Newt for an autopsy scene. So we always said to ourselves, “It starts off with a dead girl and goes downhill from there!” [Laughs] It wasn’t a shock that the film was as dark as it was. I remember at the cast and crew screening that the final scene hit me as a very emotional end. She knows what’s going to happen, and when the chestburster comes out, she grabs it and holds it so it can’t get away. There’s something very symbiotic [about that image]: the mother holding her young tight, even as they’re both going to be killed. I thought that was a nice emotional note for Sigourney and Fincher to hit.

Gillis: I remember there being some concern when we found out that the ending of Terminator 2 involved Arnold [Schwarzenegger] sinking into a vat of molten metal in self-sacrifice. We were in production when that movie was coming out. I think it was Fincher who just said, “Screw it. It’s right for this movie.” We did have a little joke about making the Alien Queen give a thumbs up on her way down with Ripley. Like, “It’s been a good ride.” [Laughs]

Tom, you wore the Xenomorph suit on set to act opposite Sigourney Weaver. What was it like to perform as the Alien?

Woodruff Jr.: I hadn’t done a lot of suit work before then, so this was a big deal for me because it was a full-bodied creature, and there was only one creature. The body suit itself was perfect: I could move in any direction. We also had the animatronic head that got in the way of breathing and vision a little bit. I concentrated a lot on body movement, because the guy in the suit has to give the kind of performance you expect from the creature. My favorite story is halfway through the movie, Sigourney came over to me between shots and wanted to talk about what the Alien was thinking and where it was going. And she told me, “You’re not just the stuntman — you’re the actor in this thing.” That went a long way toward making me see the role less in a mechanical way, and more in an acting way.

The half human/half Xenomorph Newborn from ‘Alien: Resurrection’ (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

Alien: Resurrection is celebrating its 20th anniversary in November, and that film occupies an even more controversial space in Alien canon than Alien 3. It’s probably not the strongest film of the series from a story perspective, but there is some fascinating imagery in it. It feels very rooted in European graphic novels.

Gillis: We knew what Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s body of work was, so we knew he was going to bring a more European sensibility to it. I always thought Fox was very creative in their choice of directors, and what made him different was his whimsical side. He embraced absurdism and whimsy rather than a hardcore sci-fi approach. You could see he was excited to be in Hollywood, and had a great appreciation for everything we did. The Newborn would not have been what it was if it hadn’t been for him. He wanted the eyes, the male/female gender combo, the human/alien combo, and the young/old combo. It was a lot of stuff to pack into one creature, but once again, why not?

Woodruff Jr.: I like the chestburster that comes up the throat. We built a long interior throat, and put a slot in the bottom of it so we could put a chestburster puppet through it and drive it up toward the camera.

Gillis: And leave it to a French director to get back to the sexuality of the franchise! [Laughs] The original Alien is a weird sex movie, basically, while both Aliens and Alien 3 are more about parental issues like motherhood. So Jeunet did bring back a sexual component, like the makeout scene with the Newborn. There we were with a 1500-lb. hydraulic creature, and Sigourney Weaver is embracing it and caressing it. It was a little bit scary, because it could have knocked Sigourney out if something happened and it head-butted her. It had a gliding tongue we could control, and there were several takes where we got it right in Sigourney’s mouth. There was also an articulated erection that we built [for the Newborn]. It sort of disengaged from the vaginal canal and came out. I think [former Fox executive] Tom Rothman was the one who said, “We’re not having a f—ing boner in an Alien movie!” And later on, Jean-Pierre confessed: “Even for me, it was too much.” [Laughs] But he went for it. He stayed true to the themes [of the franchise] and was as garish as Paul Verhoeven would have been.

The Alien and the Predator meet in ‘Alien vs. Predator’ (Photo: Everett)

Your final experience in the Alien universe to date was with the two Alien vs. Predator films, which play kind of like ’50s monster movies. Those also feature a more classic Xenomorph design than the later sequels. Was that an intentional choice on your part?

Gillis: The directors of each of these movies come in with their own likes and dislikes. The Strauss brothers, who directed Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, for example, love Aliens, so they didn’t want domes on the Xenomorph heads. In terms of design, the parameters [of the budget] also demanded that we re-use certain molds we had done in the past. So the Resurrection molds got used for the Alien warriors in both Alien vs. Predator movies. For Requiem, we did get a chance to re-do the heads and necks to get the biomechanical look back. Jeunet really loved sepia tones and wanted it to look like a cockroach. By the time of the Alien vs. Predator movies, we were trying to move it back more toward Aliens or Alien.

Woodruff Jr.: The difference between horror movies and monster movies is that monster movies are centered around the monster character. So the difference between, say, Frankenstein and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is just as huge as the difference between Alien and Alien vs. Predator. We know who the monster is and where it came from, so it just becomes about the fun of exploring the monster world. I don’t think it lessens the value in any way. Ever since I was a kid, there’s an aspect of monster movies that’s just a fun release of action and adventure, with cool creatures to watch on screen.

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