How the creature in Alien inspired a generation of SFX artists

Award-winning practical effects artist Mike Kelt pays tribute to HR Giger and Carlo Rambaldi’s iconic monster.

Words

Mike Kelt

The original Xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s Alien is perhaps the most iconic creation in Creature SFX. Neither a humanoid-like design, nor a fur-covered man in a suit, it captured the imaginations of audiences and filmmakers at the time like nothing before it. The approach was all-encompassing and followed the life cycle of the alien, which was in itself innovative, with each stage leaving the audience guessing, as well as nervously anticipating.

Here was a film that embraced the idea of the unknown and cut shots so quickly that the audience had hardly landed back in their seats before the shock was over, and thus kept the suspense going through what is a fairly thin script. This was greatly aided by the dark sets and even darker lighting.

The ‘Egg’ stage has a slow, intense build up and when it first opens the reaction is one of revulsion at the simple organic shapes and textures – the wet, translucent, pulsating embryo sold the realism of the shot in a way that had not been done before, and the fast cutting leaves you wondering what has just happened. For once the physical model was not laughable, as was often the case previously in film or television.

The ‘Facehugger’ was unpleasantly innovative as well as beautifully built, with its slithering strangulating tail and gripping spider-cum-crab legs. Its design plays on the fear of arachnids without actually being one, while the fear of choking is all too obvious. The autopsy scene is particularly convincing and believable, as fleshy bits are prodded and examined. It showed what could be done to a physical SFX industry about to be overrun with digital VFX, but that didn’t know it yet. Simply, it set the benchmark that others would follow.

The chest explosion, which comes completely out of the blue, shocked everyone including the cast, who were apparently kept in the dark in order get a good reaction. The actual creature, although again beautifully built and suitably covered in slime, and perhaps scary at the time, is almost comical on later inspection; its movement hardly threatening, with its Muppet-like scamper across the operating table. But the creature itself felt real. Again, the build quality was something for the rest of the SFX industry to aspire to.

Finally, the full-grown Xenomorph, which seemed to have an amazingly fast growth cycle. The design was truly new, combining an organic feel with a mechanical bony edge. HR Giger, the designer, had played with similar forms before in his fantastical illustrations and furniture design, not to mention the Nostromo space craft’s look, but with Carlo Rambaldi’s build the head in particular became a mysterious threatening semi mechanical monster – part costume, part prosthetic, part animatronic. It was in many ways the starter gun being fired in the area of animatronic SFX, and with the way it was shot it took on a truly scary nuance.

The use of water and slime left its mark on the industry too, and thereafter slime became an important component of many horror creatures. The head being long and elongated, with its telescopic jaws and no eyes, coupled with the quick editing and the creature’s dark, damp, slimy appearance, leaves you wondering exactly what it is you’re looking at. The ‘less is more’ approach was never better proved.

Unfortunately, at the end of the film it is revealed as just another man in a suit, as the monster is ejected via the airlock, holding on too humanistically to the door frame, before dangling at the end of a tether in full view. But up until that moment, the creature works incredibly well, and it undoubtedly inspired a generation of filmmakers and SFX artists.

Mike Kelt is the CEO and co-founder of Artem, an award-winning physical special effects company whose recent projects include Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting and Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender. For more info visit artem.com

Published 9 May 2017

Tags: HR Giger SFX VFX

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