Sci-Fi Entertainment, December 1997
|This is the first cover-story I was ever assigned. I don't remember the exact details, but some last-minute emergency had me writing this in about a week, with very little sleep. I wrote the whole thing with the first three movies playing over and over again on the VCR next to my computer, until I had whole chunks of dialogue memorised. I think it helped.|
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Don't get me wrong. It was a great job for a fourteen-year-old, coming with a late-shift bonus and a cool, spooky ride home on the all-night bus. Not a bad way to spend a summer.
Still and all, I'm glad that people don't point at me as I walk down the street today and say, "Look, there goes that guy who painted all those conveyors! Remember that?"
Sigourney Weaver got her first break in her early thirties, in 1979's Alien, playing the heroine Ripley. It was just two years after Harrison Ford got his first major break, also in his early thirties, as Star Wars' Han Solo.
Everyone knows what happened with Star Wars. The largely unknown cast scored huge dollars and worldwide insta-fame, their likenesses went on to grace action figures and mugs and light-sabers and blasters. Their faces were made into plastic Hallowe'en masks. They made more movies in the series into the 'eighties, and, for the most part, built careers away from the franchise at the same time.
Ford has expressed a total disinterest in returning to his role as Han Solo -- apparently, the actor feels the same way as I do about being known forever for your first success.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes in 1893, pushed him off a cliff. He had other things to write; he'd been doing Holmes for over 15 years.
Public pressure was brought to bear, great wads of money were waved in Doyle's face.
Sherlock Holmes came back to life. He told Watson that he'd faked his own death and hid. Doyle went on to write Holmes stories for some thirty more miserable years.
The first three Alien movies (Alien, 1979; Aliens, 1986; Alien 3, 1992) had virtually the same apocalyptic ending: death, death and more death; a huge firestorm; and some more death. Alien 3's ending -- in which Weaver's Ripley finally dies along with everyone else -- didn't so much diverge from this formula as extend it to its logical conclusion. The trilogy was done.
That's what I thought, anyway.
Eighteen years after the original Alien, The Resurrection is upon us (US release date: 26 November, 1997; UK: 2 January, 1998).
"I didn't want Ripley to become a joke," insists Weaver. "To present her in the way we knew her from the previous films did not interest me. But I missed Ripley and I'm glad to come back to her -- with the chance to give her a whole new persona and a whole new life."
The British Crown knighted Doyle shortly after he brought Holmes back to life. Fox is paying Weaver a reported $11,000,000 to bring back Ripley.
The big question is: how?
Well, it's a secret. I can tell you this much, though: Ripley really did get incinerated at the end of Alien 3. She really did die. It even says so in the bootleg script circulating on the Internet: "You've come up against this thing before, right?" a terrified smuggler asks Ripley as they cower away from an alien drone.
"Yes," she answers.
"So what did you do?"
The dialog is characteristic of the new, reborn Ripley. Where before she ran and hid and defeated the Bug Eyed Monsters through trickery, the new Ripley is an ass-kicking Terminator; fearlessly charging into the grinning maw of danger and wrestling the aliens to the ground. Not bad, given that Weaver is going on fifty.
Her lines have changed, too. No more does she ask terrified questions of the authorities, nor does she have to beg supercilious captains for permission to kill off the bugs. The new Ripley is possessed of superhuman calm and a dry, almost robotic sense of irony. Her calm head prevails as others panic.
And panic they do. A supporting cast of big name actors shores up Weaver: Winona Ryder (Heathers, Beetlejuice, Bram Stoker's Dracula) as the perky smuggler Annalee Call; Brad Dourif (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Wild Palms) as the driven scientist Dr. Gediman; Ron Perlman (Island of Dr. Moreau) as the thuggish, grab-assing smuggler Johner; Michael Wincott (Strange Days, The Crow) as the smuggler captain Elgyn; Dan Hedaya (Ransom) as General Perez, leader of the secret cabal that unleashes the alien for part four; Dominique Pinon (Delicatessen) as the crippled smuggler-mechanic; and J.E. Freeman (Patriot Games, Wild at Heart) as the villainous Dr. Wren, the obligatory foolish scientist who wishes to harness the aliens' biology for science.
The story takes place some 200 years after the end of Alien 3. A mysteriously alive -- and cranky -- Ripley is languishing on a space-borne genetics lab, ping-ponging between terrorizing the scientists and staring catatonically into space. Enter the crew of the Betty, a pack of rockin' space smugglers in colorful Gen-X motley. They're there to resupply the scientists, but much wackiness ensues when Ryder takes an unscheduled hike into the lab, where she is confronted by -- you guessed it, Aliens.
Alien brought H.R. Giger to the world's attention. The Swiss surrealist painter/sculptor/designer was responsible for the dark, organic, faintly sexual look-and-feel of the franchise. His trademark designs were toned down for the American market, especially the overtly vaginal eggs. Giger's work has often met with resistance from the US: San Francisco punk legends The Dead Kennedys faced expensive legal battles on obscenity charges when they enclosed a lithograph of his with their album Frankenchrist.
Alien Resurrection promises to deliver a much wetter, darker, creepier look than US audiences are accustomed to. This is in large part due to the European production team brought on board for part four. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the acclaimed director of City of Lost Children and Delicatessen was talked into doing alien by the Fox studio executives, despite his frequently stated position that he never wanted to work on an American film.
But Jeunet's longstanding interest in the Alien franchise, as well as positive meetings with Ryder and Weaver, convinced him to do the film.
Jeunet directs Ryder as a polar opposite of Weaver. While they both have murder in their hearts, Ryder's Annabelle Call is wild, with whites showing all the way around her pupils, in contrast to Weaver's non-nonsense deadpan. Says Jeunet, "Winona is an actress who works directly from primal instinct. She comes on the set completely relaxed, and when we say roll, she is a force of concentration, focused on the immediate scene; no rehearsals are required. This instinctual way of working is a rare quality usually only found in children. The most interesting part of her performance is that although the character has lethal intentions, she didn't play her as cold. She was the Anti-Terminator."
Indeed, Ryder seems poised to take over for Weaver as the center of the Alien franchise. At 26, she's almost the same age Weaver was when she did the first movie. It will be interesting to watch how this progresses in subsequent films -- and chances are, there will be subsequent films; the last page of the script may as well have "To Be Continued" stamped on it.
Ryder herself was reportedly enthusiastic to join the Alien family. "I was nine or ten when I went to see the first Alien. I'd never seen a woman as the hero. I wanted to be Ripley. It made a huge impact on me. I had to do the film."
The eroticism of Giger is somewhat recaptured in Resurrection, especially in a scene where Ripley is carried away by a group of drones, and as she looks up at the rhythmically rocking body of her captor, reaches out to caress it.
Jeunet brought several old friends with him to the project in addition to Delicatessen's Ron Perlman and Dominique Pinon, including cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven) and editor Herve Schneid (Europa). They come along with overseas production techniques that lend the whole production a darker, more mature feel. Principal among these are the chiaroscuro lighting and a Technicolor process called ENR. The latter involves adding silver to the processing solutions, and results in a greatly increased photographic contrast. The result is that the darks become much richer and more saturated, especially blacks. This is a process that was used earlier by Khondji in Seven and Evita.
"Nostromo," the ship from the first film, is the title of a Joseph Conrad novel. The Sulaco in Aliens likewise comes from Conrad. The literary heritage goes on: science-fiction legend A.E. Van Vogt sued the studio for plagiarizing his "Voyage of the Space Beagle" in Alien, settling out of court for an undisclosed sum. Cyberpunk God William Gibson was commissioned to produce a script for Alien 3 -- sadly, it was never shot.
Alien Resurrection, the first film Jeunet ever shot that he didn't write himself, comes to us from the keyboard of Joss Whedon, an eclectic screenwriter with some interesting credits: the innovative and touching Toy Story; the tightly plotted Speed (with Graham Yost); the mindless action thriller Twister and the grossly overbudget flop Waterworld.
Far from being intimidated by the prospect of writing another volume in what many consider to be holy canon, Whedon was totally pumped. "Being asked to do an Alien movie is like being offered the Grail. I happen to be one of those diehard Alien fans. I grew up on them. Being a fan helps because I was one of those guys sitting on my couch, saying, 'they should let me write an Alien movie.' And they did! I had the opportunity to really sit down and think, how do I satisfy myself as a fan? That helps me keep my eye on the ball, in terms of keeping the action exciting and inserting unexpected plot-twists, playing off what we know about the aliens and what we can expect from them."
Though the Alien movies are successful by any measure, they can't come close to the kind of money made by the Star Wars trilogy.
Sources: Internet Movie Database, The Merril Collection of Fantasy, Science Fiction and Speculation, Cinefex. With thanks to Michael Lennick.
The twentieth anniversary re-issues of the Star Wars properties sounded a death-knell for model- and animatronic-based special effects. Up till then, the films had been cited as incontrovertible proof that a skilled model-maker could build creatures and effects that were every bit as breathtaking as their computer-rendered rivals. But when Jabba the Hutt got up and walked across the screen in all his digital glory, sculptors everywhere shuddered.
The Alien franchise has finally entered the virtual realm. Alien Resurrection marks the first time at a fully rendered alien has stalked its prey on-screen.
But the producers haven't forgotten their roots. Still on-board for Resurrection is Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc., the partnership of Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. Gillis and Woodruff were responsible for the creature effects in Aliens and Alien 3, as well as effects in Michael, Starship Troopers, Mortal Kombat, Jumanji, and Terminator, and are currently working on My Favorite Martian and the feature film adaptation of The X-Files.
Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) has touched even their craft, freeing them to leave guy wires, support rigs and cables in the shot, later to be digitally masked. When used in conjunction with animatronics, it enables full-body shots of creatures running and jumping and other things that are difficult to achieve with bulky robots.
Traditional monster-craft has improved over the years, too. The original Queen Alien, built in 1985, was full of short, overcrowded puppeteers, with only one hydraulic function. Today's highly sophisticated robots come with dozens of hydraulics (over thirty in one alien head!), radio-control, and a host of other mechanical improvements.
Skin materials have some a long way, too. Silicone has had a major advancement. Silicone started coming into play in the mid-1980s as a mold-making material. People liked it because it wasn't as toxic as the traditional urethanes. They would squish it around in their hands and think, 'How can we make skin out of this?' The problem was that it was opaque and you couldn't paint it. In response to some of Amalgamated Dynamics' experimentation, companies like Silicone, Inc .started to reformulate, and eventually, for Death Becomes Her, they cracked the nut on painting silicones, getting paint to stick to it: they paint with acrylic paints and seal it with a silicone caulking and clean it thoroughly with solvents. The silicone manufacturers responded by making their product a little less greasy, and started developing silicone paints.
Says Gillis, "I do believe that even with a tool as powerful as a computer, there's just something in a photographed image, especially when you get into slimy wet drippy things, that is very satisfying."
And for the cast, acting to a puppet has a reality that acting to thin air can never match. Ron Perlman (Johner), says "Sometimes your imagination is very fertile, and sometimes it ain't, and that's what 'Take Two' is all about. But it sort of makes for a problematic acting exercise, and you just try to build up as much of a visual story in your mind that will feed you emotionally."
Gillis isn't too worried about being supplanted by CGI. "It depends on your taste, but luckily the industry is enough to accommodate all of us. We get directors who come to us and specifically say, I want animatronics, because I don't want that cartoony, computer look.
"Sometimes directors say, 'Really, can you do a lip-synching head in animatronics? I thought it had to be CGI?" Really, though lip-synching heads were done in animatronics long before CGI was on the scene."
The term animatronics reflects this physical, visceral art-form's heritage. Coming from the old days of Walt Disney Imagineering, Audio-Animatronics was the term coined by Disney to describe the robots built for Disneyland's attractions. In these groundbreaking exhibits, the innovation wasn't gadget-driven; it was in the painstaking attention to detail that made traditional, oft-seen effects appear novel. A perfect example is the ghostly banquet scene in 1967's Haunted Mansion: the effect of dozens of dancing, whirling ghosts is achieved through an old carny trick known as Pepper's Ghost, where a hidden model is reflected in a polished sheet of glass.
For Alien Resurrection, Gillis and Woodruff worked with a team of over thirty skilled artists to create six alien suits, a humongous new alien that no one is allowed to talk about (though one can find information on it readily enough if one searches the Web for "Alien" and "Offspring"), an articulated "torso-puppet," and four "stunt-aliens."
Also produced for the movie were a series of servo- and cable-operated alien heads that were completely submersible, for an underwater sequence shot at Twentieth Century Fox's Stage 16. The enormous hangar housed a mammoth pool, the second-largest in Hollywood, measuring 117' by 50', over 13' deep, and holding 548,000 gallons of water. The sunken set --- which took over six days to fill -- housed the flooded kitchen of the science-station, through which the characters had to swim in order to escape. Actors were prepared with a two-week rescue diving course prior to filming, and, for the most part, were required to perform their own underwater stunts.
The movie very nearly got shot without a Queen Alien. After Alien 3, the original Alien props were scattered, sold to (and sometimes stolen by) collectors and souvenir-hunters. When Gillis and Woodruff arrived on the scene, the Queen's irreplaceable head was nowhere to be found. Eventually, one of the heads was located in the private collection of archivist Bob Burns. Jim Cameron -- the director of Alien 3 had had the foresight give it to him. Gillis and Woodruff took possession of the head, remechanized it, refurbished it, and sculpted a new body. The studio extended their deadline, and the Queen was on the set.
The creation of a new alien begins with a body-cast of Tom Woodruff, who, in addition to producing creatures, also performs in them. Afterwards, the casting is sculpted over in clay. A negative mold is taken, and injected with foam-rubber, with a Spandex unitard in the center. The foam-rubber piece is seamed and patched, then painted, and assembled in multiple pieces: the head and neck; the torso and arms; the legs; the tail, and hands and feet. Each time a new alien is created, the artists improve on it a little, cleaning up infelicities of earlier models, evolving the creature towards a purer aesthetic of terror.
The alien is a much-studied creature. In the first film, Dan O'Bannon created a creature with a life-cycle similar to some insects, in particular the tse-tse fly. That insectile biology has carried forward with the anatomy of the Queen and the mysterious Offspring, in detail obsessive enough to satisfy an entomologist.
It's the fulfillment of a life-long dream for Gillis, who has been obsessed with movie monsters since childhood. The moment when he realized that he could make monsters himself came while reading a magazine: "I remember when I was 13, I picked up a magazine and said, Oh, jeez, look, all my favorite monsters: Talos form Jason and the Argonauts, the Cyclops from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, the giant crab from Mysterious Island, and I realized that it was an interview with one guy. I looked at that, and I thought, Wow, one person created all of these creatures. It hit me that one person could do all this stuff, be a visual effects artist and sculptor and know about movement and performance,"
That one person was Ray Harryhausen, an early pioneer of stop-motion techniques and model-building.
Gillis has gone on to surpass his idol, building creatures more fantastic than anything dreamed of in the heyday of the giant-creature film. At the same time, he can never lay claim to the one-man-show fame that Harryhausen receives.
"I gravitated towards the business because I liked the thought that by the time I was dead, some kid could open a book and say, look, there's Alec Gillis's work.
"But I became something different. This is an era of corporate special effects. It's more of a team effort nowadays, because there's such a demand and the movies are so big and so complicated that one person really can't do it all."
For those working towards their own monster creations, he offers this advice: "Learn traditional skills: learn sculpture, learn drawing, learn how to design. With the explosion of digital technology, we have people who know how to work on computers but not how to design in a believable way. What you end up with is things that aren't as satisfying as they could be. Even if you plan to become a computer artist, sculpture and drawing are very important.
"You need more grounding with a science-fiction creature, you need to tie it into some kind of reality; whether you're saying it's an insect-based thing or a mammal or a reptile, or if you're being bold, as with Alien, and creating something that's not any of these things. In a horror film you can get away with more; you can write it off to the supernatural."
And, most importantly, he adds, "Build characters with depth and motivation and philosophy."
Gillis is enthusiastic about Resurrection. "Number four was one of the most completely perfect experiences in a movie. Initially we thought we wouldn't have enough time, but the Studio was good enough to give us the time we needed. It was refreshing to work with a European team. We have high expectations for this film, and I hope the audience sees how much work went into it."