The Surprising Origins Of Iconic Movie Alien Designs

Tom Butler - do not use
·Senior UK Writer

Every movie alien begins with a simple description in the script before the visual effects team is tasked with bringing it to life. Beyond the words however, movie monster makers often draw inspiration from unexpected places.

Whether it be from real-life people, obscure pieces of art, or simply just mother nature herself, it seems many of your favourite extra terrestrials are not as original as you first thought.

‘Alien’ - Xenomorph

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The original script for Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece described the xenomorph as a “six-foot monstrosity… ghastly beyond imagination, squamous, covered with tentacles… like an over-sized bird [with] razor-sharp tentacles”.

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For the 1979 film, screenwriter Dan O’Bannon suggested Swiss surrealist HR Giger as a potential monster designer, having just worked with him on Jodorowsky’s failed ‘Dune’ adaptation. Ridley Scott fell in love with Giger’s ‘Necronom IV’ print and immediately brought him on board to design his ‘Alien’ inspired by that design.

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‘Predator’ - Predator

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The first Predator costume was very different to the one we know and love today. With a long neck, dog-like head and backward-bending legs, it looked more insect-like than the burly beast we know today, but it was ditched following technical problems on-set. The film halted shooting while Stan Winston took over the design process.

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He took inspiration from a painting of a Rastafarian warrior that hung in Joel Silver’s office, and following James Cameron’s suggestion that he always wanted to see “something with mandibles”, we got the current design.

‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ - ET

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Steven Spielberg wanted to subvert audiences expectations of what an extra-terrestrial could like like with his 1982 coming-of-age film, asking for a look “so anatomically different that the audience would never be able to think that there was a person in a suit with a zipper up the back” from visual effects guru Carlo Rambaldi.

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His facial design was said to have been inspired by photos of Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Carl Sandburg, while the long-necked design was taken from a painting by Ramboldi, called ‘Women of the Delta’. His waddling booty? That’s pure Donald Duck.

‘Independence Day’ - the aliens

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The invading creatures of Roland Emmerich’s 1996 disaster film are revealed through the course of the film to be frail bug-eyed aliens that wore huge intimidating exoskeletons.

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Above: 'Independence Day’ exoskeleton design by Patrick Tatapoulos

This was due to the indecisive director who was unable to decide between the two designs presented to him by visual effects creator Patrick Tatapolulos. Instead of opting for one design, he chose both, hiding the smaller of the two inside the other.

‘District 9’ - Prawns

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For the aliens of his Apartheid allegory, Neill Blomkampp wanted something “gross and unpleasant”, and early designs were very much that. They included genitalia-like aspects on their faces and black, bug-like eyes but in the end they softened the designs to something a bit more fragile and relatable with mammalian eyes to allow for human-like emotions to show.

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Above: Original prawn designs by Weta’s David Meng

“They had to be human-esque because our psychology doesn’t allow us to really empathize with something unless it has a face and an anthropomorphic shape,” explained the South African director.

‘Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back’ - Yoda

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Early designs for the Jedi master show a blue-skinned gnome-like creature and the filmmakers even toyed with the idea of using a monkey in a costume to capture the performance.

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In the end, make up artist Stuart Freeborn (above, having a touch up from director Irvin Kershner) based the design on a mix between his own face and Albert Einstein’s.

‘Cloverfield’ - Clover

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Abrams wanted to create a new mythological beast for America to rival Japan’s own Godzilla, so artist Neville Page set about designing the 25-story-tall “Clover” that would devastate Manhattan, and terrify a gang of camera-wielding hipsters.

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Above: Hasbro’s Cloverfield toy

Page says he wanted the creature, which is actually a newborn, to be suffering from “separation anxiety”, comparing it to a rampaging elephant. They added white to the monster’s eyes in order to make it look like a “spooked horse” in close ups.

'Tremors’ - the Graboids

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Writer SS Wilson says the monsters of Kevin Bacon horror comedy ‘Tremors’, known as Graboids, appeared much as they were written in the script. He stipulated something streamlined with deadly flower-like mouths. The spikes on the sides of the creatures were added after the designers read that earthworms travelled through soil by bracing themselves with tiny stiff hairs all along its body.

'Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi’ - Jabba the Hutt

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Infamous gangster Jabba The Hutt was initially visualised by George Lucas as a furry creature, much like a Wookiee, Between the first 'Star Wars’ film and the third, his design evolved into the slug-like monstrosity we know today. One early design had him as a Fu Manchu-like human, another as a giant snail, so Lucas went for something in between.

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Visual effects creator Phil Tippett says the final body design was based on annelid worms, while the head was more snake-like. The final piece of inspiration came from an early Michelin Man design by French cartoonist O'Galop.

Image credit: 20th Century Fox/HR Giger/Stan Winston School/Universal/Press Assocation/Disney/Patrick Tatapoulos/Tristar/Weta/Paramount/Rex