While revisiting the bar to watch a temporary glowing Weyland-Yutani tattoo being applied, a small crowd began to gather around another table and this was probably the highlight of the event: A presentation by Conor O’Sullivan, Creatures Design Supervisor for ‘Alien: Covenant‘, along with having also worked on the earlier ‘Prometheus‘.
When special effect crews haul out mysterious boxes and proceed to open them, it’s like watching the Ark of the, well… Covenant promising to spill its heavenly secrets. In this case, a full-sized Alien head, followed by two very different puppets each representing more embryonic creatures.
Was all of this from the new film? Head, too?
Yes… Yes, it was.
We’d seen it in adverts, but here was the real thing. A prop used on set. Something like that always has a sense of history behind it. It’s something which has been personally involved in making a fresh batch of that special Hollywood magic we’ve all grown up with. Something which, regardless of how the end result will be received, has already secured its place in creating a cinematic experience.
Happy Alien Day!
While undeniably life-sized, it didn’t seem intended for animatronic articulation. The lips were pulled back in a permanent snarl and this made me suspect it was possibly intended for stunt work or long-distance shots. Regardless, the familiar tubing ran along the side and it was like seeing a hint of an old friend. The upper dome seems to slightly flare out at the front, though this isn’t obvious unless viewing it from directly ahead. An unusual new addition
An unusual new addition are a couple of small pipes (one on each side), which jut slightly away from the head and run alongside the mouth. Later on, it was posed with the inner jaws lunging out and they look very similar to those from the original films.
No hint of skull-like eye sockets were present on this one. In fact, the dome was completely opaque and nothing could be seen beneath it. Something else which made me wonder if it was not intended for close-ups (which more fragile ‘hero props’ are typically intended for).
As it later turned out, this particular head was originally designed for a very special purpose, indeed. Something I’ll come to later.
The two puppets were of similar size to one another. One in white having been clearly based on some of the unused ‘Prometheus’ concept art, while the other was dark and basically a very thin version of the adult Alien, except with more infantile and under-developed features.
A brief while after this, an official came over with a microphone and the talk began. O’Sullivan struck me as a very down-to-Earth kind of guy (as production crew for Scott’s projects often are). His craft began to emerge at a very early age, when he used to use bags of clay and balsa wood to create representations of Tutankhamun and other Egyptian relics, burying them in the ground. While he didn’t draw attention to the irony of working on Ridley Scott films which touch upon mythological themes of ancient gods, I found this interesting. He also mentioned, later on, that Scott has
While he didn’t draw attention to the irony of working on Ridley Scott films which touch upon mythological themes of ancient gods, I found this interesting. He also mentioned, later on, that Scott has a particular interest in Egyptian history (Osiris was specifically referenced), in regards to his vision for how the Engineers influenced early human history.
Initially, he was called in for work on ‘Prometheus‘ and, at that stage, Scott disbelieved the Engineers could be convincingly portrayed by anything other than CGI. O’Sullivan convinced him practical effects could believably take care of it and they went from there.
While on the topic of how developments like 3D printing have revolutionised effects and design work, a very telling quote came in the following manner:
“Ridley likes to see things for real. Even though this creature is so… Can’t fit into a human form, so, we can’t can’t really make it as a practical suit like they did in the old… The original film. It kind of has to be a… A, uh, a CG. Y’know, we’ve gotta’ go that way.”
This was the first suggestion that no practical suit may have existed to portray the entire creature (though this would seem to contradict what we’ve heard elsewhere about an actor performing in suit on the set of Alien: Covenant). As revealed to me after the presentation, there was actually a plan to create something much more radical… Something unable to be finished within the time available, but which Conor is eager to return to in future.
By the end of filming in July 2016, they knew exactly what the creature was going to look like (presumably, the exact details had not been settled on before then). 3D files were handed over to the visual effects department, who then used them for creation of 3D graphics.
His department was responsible for not just character deaths, but biological specimens located in what he termed the “museums” and, also, “the lab scene,” which seemed to relate to David 8’s personal anatomical workshop. He referred to these organisms as “remnants” of creatures native to the planet and, as a whole, stated that more blood was used than on any other film he had been involved in.
The team apparently “went crazy” with 3D printing, which Conor equated to extra manpower. Rather than replacing traditional techniques, wholesale, it allows for ideas to be physically realised much quicker than in the past, letting them experiment with creations which would have otherwise seemed too time-consuming or impossible.
Once Ridley Scott realised just how extensively they were using this technology, O’Sullivan’s job sheet suddenly “went three times bigger”, which indicates it must have inspired Scott’s creative process more than he anticipated.
On a project like this, given the absence of a truly faithful application of HR Giger’s aesthetics in ‘Prometheus‘, one has to wonder if a return has been made to that artistic path. I’m happy to report that Conor specifically mentioned Giger’s famous (and highly enlightening) book, detailing his experiences during the production of ‘Alien‘, was not only purchased when he was around 18/19 years old, but that he still proudly has it on display at home and considers the late Swiss artist’s work an immense inspiration.
He’s “not a nerd” about films, in general, but does see himself one for Giger, whose output he described as touching on “salty, caramelised ice cream.” Something which is sexy, scary, erotic, beautiful and terrifying.
Interestingly, the debates over aesthetics, which have erupted across the fandom since the release of ‘Prometheus‘, were simultaneously playing out in the offices of ‘Covenant‘. Out of the fifty or so people employed in the workshop, Conor observed that a generation was represented for each of the films, so far. All of whom not only had their own respective opinions about which styles to use, but also “had a fight about it, at some point.” Creative passions were running high!
Scott, however, was very adamant about what he wanted in the designs (something it took them a while to discover). When O’Sullivan came aboard, he remembered there being a box containing “hundreds of designs.” Some of which went back to well before ‘Prometheus‘ and even included some of Giger’s work for the original ‘Alien‘.
As he explained, what initially attracted Scott to wanting to use Giger’s artistic style was the famous ‘Necronom IV‘, which Conor described as a very organic version of what would eventually become the final design used in the film. For ‘Covenant‘, Ridley Scott was very specific about that same image and frequently referred back to it in meetings with the designers.
As you’ll soon discover, at least some aspects of that image were almost what we got for ‘Covenant‘.
Filming began in November of 2015, ending, as Conor recalls, in July of the following year. He mentioned that, ideally, six months of design time is desirable on a project like this and, here, the six months included actual filming (he made a rough total estimate of seven months). This made for a much tighter deadline than was hoped for.
However, O’Sullivan pointed out Scott’s method differs from some directors, in so far as he likes to use the process of filming, itself, to refine the creature design. The team would build practical sections of the Alien; parts of the face, head, tail and so on. He openly stated that the team already knew these would later be replaced by CGI out of necessity, due to the creature’s proportions. He described Scott’s methodology as using the filming process, itself, as a design tool and that, by having something physical on the set, it could be used to examine the relationship of lighting with the local environment. This data could then be used to benefit the realism of CGI applied later.
Conor went on to remark that, at one time, it was thought that CGI and practical effects were moving further and further apart, whereas now both specialities are being used to augment one another and create a true synergy.
Whether or not this will succeed as hoped, only time will tell, I suppose. It’s wise to remember that this was the aim for the prequel of ‘The Thing‘, which ultimately lacked the realistic tone of the original, due to largely replacing the practical work with CGI, rather than fusing with it. O’Sullivan, however, seemed convinced that what we’ll see in ‘Covenant’ will sufficiently convince us we’re looking at something real and organic.
Near the end of the presentation, he unintentionally revealed that one of the two embryonic designs was referred to as the chestburster – oops! Once it was over, he was happy to answer private questions in a more casual manner. Still broadcasting live, I did my best to gain some more enlightening details from the one person who surely had all the answers.
Admitting he probably shouldn’t have revealed what that strangely adorable little puppet really was, O’Sullivan retained a gracious sense of humour about it and smiled. But now that’s been revealed, I know what a lot of fans would instantly think when they see it… And here I was with an opportunity to correct the record before it’s even been played!
Because, once you see it, you honestly can’t help but notice the similarities with the dog-burster from ‘Alien 3‘. It’s essentially a small, fragile-looking version of the adult. What was especially neat, I thought, was the fact that some kind of internal skeletal structure can be seen through a translucent sheath over the top of it, since this reminded me of how Scott and Giger wanted the original Alien to ultimately look and were unable to.
So, was the dog-burster a deliberate influence? Are there some deliberately foreshadowing hints of ‘Alien 3‘?
Surprisingly, no. At least, not so far as Conor was aware. But whether unintentional or not, when you see it on screen, you’ll be struck by how very similar it looks to the third film’s ‘Bambi-burster’ design. A more bipedal version, for sure, but it’s there.
For both puppets, I was quite impressed by how individual fingers and toes had been sculpted into the designs. Both, it must be said, possessed tails, which seem to place them in a very different evolutionary category to the Deacon of ‘Prometheus‘. The more lumpy-looking design, interestingly, possesses a circular ring of teeth instead of jaws, making it look like the mouth of a vampiric lamprey fish. A refreshingly predatory addition to something which might otherwise verge on Newborn-looking awkwardness!
Being as this was the same guy who had a personal hand in realising the design of the Engineers in ‘Prometheus‘, I also had to ask if there had been any attempt, during that production, to model them as the elephantine creatures Giger originally intended. O’Sullivan informed me that, so far as he was aware, no, there had never been anything like that attempted. The concepts for the Engineers had always been of the bald-guy-in-suit variety.
One of my first questions, though, felt like something many of us would be curious about. After all, we know there are plans for further prequels. Were there any design proposals, which Scott initially didn’t authorise during this film, but wanted to keep around for use in another instalment?
Let’s just say Conor’s body language makes this a strong possibility for the future…!
I also asked if, as on the sets of productions such as ‘Jaws‘ and the original ‘Alien‘, whether certain constraints or deadlines had forced a compromise which actually made a resulting scene or feature better than intended. He couldn’t of a specific example for this film, but said there was always something like that for every production.
In an exceptionally enlightening reveal, it was also explained for us, on camera, that the head on display was originally constructed for a highly experimental, advanced puppeteering rig. Unfortunately, more time was needed to refine this than was available, but while some minor flaws still existed, Conor remembers it standing at an imposing nine feet tall and looking tremendously effective moving around in tests: The user walked on stilts and was puppeteering the arms.
He feels that this, if they can perfect it, has incredible potential and “definitely” wants to return to it. With only six weeks, it was impossible to get ready in time. Conor contrasted this against how the Engineers had already been designed and had five months to be built, whereas this system was radically new and needed additional time to be both designed and constructed.
If a further prequel does get off the ground, here’s hoping we get to see this ground-breaking new system in action! O’Sullivan’s enthusiasm for this development was genuinely infectious and, as a professional in the industry with such an impressive body of work already behind him, that really speaks volumes to how effective this rig must be.
In reference to the Engineers, Ridley Scott, Conor elaborated, has a particular fascination with Egyptian mythology and Conor specifically mentioned Osiris.
I asked just how extensive Scott’s involvement was with the new design. Was it a case of him being personally invested in every aspect or was it a more hands-off approach, letting the team to do as they pleased?
According to O’Sullivan, Scott “was all over it like a rash” and went on to explain that Bradley Simmons originally sculpted a version of the head which Scott loved, much closer to the design shown in ‘Necronom IV’. This was apparently very “designer-y, if you know what I mean, in that Giger-esque way. But Ridley wanted that and made it more real.” The end result was ultimately perceived as “a bit too Rococo,” which RS disliked and the team had to “strip it all back,” leaving us with the result we saw on display.
Does this mean a physical model of this alternative concept was not only made, but is in storage? Possibly to be unleashed in the future, even if in modified form?
O’Sullivan just nodded in response with knowing smile…
Whatever the world might soon think of ‘Covenant‘, should further Lovecraftian adventures be green-lit, it seems Giger’s original work could one day get the chance to be brought to life in the most terrifyingly authentic way possible.
A brief question-and-answer session with some of the cast from the upcoming film was scheduled, though technical difficulties prevented this from being on time. Allegedly, Katherine Waterston had got stuck in an elevator. Happens to everyone, I guess!