April 26 has been designated Alien Day. The date is a reference to the moon on which Aliens is set LV-426... 4/26... April 26. Get it?
Aliens remains as fresh as it was back in 1986. So how did James Cameron and his team make those iconic creatures, including the Alien Queen? We spoke to the film’s creature effects co-ordinator John Rosengrant to find out.
“That job was massive,” laughs John Rosengrant, remembering his year-long work on Aliens at the Stan Winston Studio in Los Angeles and the UK’s Pinewood Studios.
“Sometimes I work with these young directors and they’re like, ‘is that [alien] CG and this one live?’ It’s like, no dude that’s all real. There’s no loafing on a James Cameron movie, that’s for sure.”
The Alien Queen
“Jim [Cameron] had this concept that it was basically a crane that’s going to move up and down and we’ll build a creature around it and then we’ll have the guys inside dealing with the arms,” says Rosengrant, who has worked on everything from Predator to Terminator to actually being inside a velociraptor in Jurassic Park.
“Each one would do a little centre arm and they would do a big arm. It was pretty avant-garde thinking how to make this thing happen. Having the guys propelling and moving those arms around and have four limbs on this creature. People just didn’t know how the hell it was done. Nobody was thinking it was two guys back-to-back inside a suit.”
The ‘Garbage Bag Test’
“Originally it was going to be a test of the fibreglass plate with the guys inside and then we started mocking up the whole thing and we covered it up with black garbage bags,” remembers Rosengrant. “We tested that out in the parking lot behind Stan’s shop with Jim shooting it and once we saw that could work, we were off to the races.
“We sculpted up a miniature version which was ¼-scale. I did the body. Even at quarter scale it’s huge. That maquette was going to serve as double duty – once we moulded it, those things were turned over to [the visual effects unit] to make a stop-motion puppet for the end of the movie so we could do some full body [shots].
The new chestburster
An Alien movie wouldn’t be complete without a chestburster sequence and it was down to creature effects artist Stephen Norrington (who would go on to direct Blade) to build it.
“This was a more articulated puppet [than in the original film],’ says Rosengrant. “I think it moved really nice and smooth and its jaw responded well, so it fights its way out of the body. I think he made the core out of dental acrylic. Back then we were much more limited on the products we could use.”
KY Jelly = Alien drool
“For whatever reason, the formula we were using [for the drool] would turn white and crunchy on us,” says Rosengrant. “We switched to KY Jelly and that was the ticket. That and Ultra-Slime, which is a movie product you can buy.
“We were always ordering up KY Jelly and it was being shipped in by the case from the United States. We’d go down to the local Boots and ask for everything off the shelf – you’d get some strange looks.”
The Alien Warriors
“[Cameron] definitely wanted to honour the design from the first one, with some changes to make it a slightly different species,” reveals Rosengrant.
“We made the suits quite different from the first movie. They sent [the suit from the original] over to us in a crate. We looked through their stuff and it was much older technology.
We needed the aliens, the way Jim was going to shoot them, to be very mobile so we ended up making almost like relief pieces of the suits and they were attached to spandex. Jim said he would never shoot them in a way you could see how that’s how they were designed. They’d be very mobile and at times on wires, doing things that a regular guy couldn’t do.
We made some nine-foot-tall puppet ones that got run over by an APC or shot up and exploded. And then there was an animatronic puppet which is when it gets its hands in the door and starts prying them open. I remember staying up for 36 hours straight doing that.”
For more about the making of Aliens and how Stan Winston Studio created many of Hollywood’s most iconic creatures, visit Stan Winston School of Character Arts: www.stanwinstonschool.com
Image credits: Stan Winston School © 2016 SWS, 20th Century Fox, Rex_Shutterstock