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Hail to the Queen

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

With the release of Aliens in 1986, and the roller coaster follow-up to Alien, many enthusiasts, model makers, and collectors have taken to building, sculpting, painting, casting and creating their own version of the horrific titular character from the first film in the franchise. It’s unique design, from Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, provided audiences with a look that was most assuredly, just that: Alien. No one had seen a monster quite like this before. The “Xenomorph,” or “Alien Warrior” as it’s commonly referred to, spent the movie dispatching members of the hapless crew of a commercial starship, save one: Warrant Officer, Lt. Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver).

After successfully defeating the Alien creature in the first film, Ripley is left to drift in hypersleep for 57 years until discovered by a deep-space salvage crew in the blockbuster sequel, Aliens.Fresh from his success with 1984′s The Terminator, and having just completed a draft of the military heavy Rambo screenplay (note the Vietnam allegory in Aliens of a self perceived advanced, high-tech military unit going up against a much less technological, but much more resourceful enemy), writer and director James Cameron knew he needed a few new surprises to give the audience the thrill-ride it was expecting. And deliver he did. When researching ways to logically extend the narrative of the first film, Cameron conceived a story that mixed several of his favorite elements: the “working man” in space, a fascination with human colonization of other worlds, and placed at its core a maternal theme that serves as the spine for the film.

On the planetoid LV-426, Ripley finds a lone survivor, Rebecca “Newt” Jordan (Carrie Henn) – the only other human who’s experienced the same horrors she has – and the only other human to have survived an encounter with the Aliens (Newt also serves as a witness in convincing the others Ripley has been telling the truth about her initial encounter with the Alien all along). Having lost her own daughter in the 57 years she’s been away from Earth, Ripley soon becomes a surrogate mom to Newt. During a daring rescue, Ripley and Newt finally discover the source of the facehugger-bearing eggs scattered amongst the colony’s complex: the Alien Queen – another “mom” protecting her children.


In issue #27 of Cinefex, Stan Winston had this to say Cameron and the genesis of the Queen’s design: “Right from the start, Jim had a concept of the Alien Queen in the back of his head. In fact, when we first began talking about the project he showed me the beautiful rendering he had done of it which I liked immediately.”

 Reknowned behind-the-scenes film writer Don Shay said the Queen looked “somewhat like a cross between a praying mantis and a Tyrannosaurus Rex, Cameron’s concept was both fresh and visually dramatic, and yet still a clear and logical extrapolation from the basic Warrior design originated by H.R. Giger.

On his design, Cameron said, “Although Giger wasn’t directly involved, his ghost sort of hovered about. I must say, though, that I feel a sense of authorship when it comes to the Queen. Somebody once described it as an anorexic dinosaur, which I suppose is inevitable even though that’s not what I had in mind. In fact, I wanted specifically not to suggest a dinosaur concept – at least overtly – because that would have been a little too commonplace and boring. For me, the Queen is really a blend of what Giger does with what I wanted to do, which was to create something that was big and powerful and terrifying and fast and very female – hideous and beautiful at the same time, like a black widow spider.” (quotes from Don Shay interview, Cinefex).

In Aliens, the Queen was an extremely clever tool for Cameron to use, as she enabled him to add yet another, new unseen layer to the mythology established in Alien – and expand on it in the scariest of ways.

And scare she did. Who can forget the look on Lt. Ripley’s face as she discovers the Queen for the first time (notice Cameron shot her reaction first, then revealed the Queen) – and then her pumping grenade after grenade into the Queen’s Egg Sac. And in what was one of the most memorable sequences in the film, Bishop meeting his fate.

Stan Winston Studio, now Legacy Effects, created visual effects for film and television for more than 30 years. Their work comprises an impressive portfolio including Predator, Jurassic Park, Terminator, Interview with the Vampire, and many others. See more from Legacy Effects.

In Cinefex #27, Don Shay wrote: “Cameron recognized that certain of the scenes he had written would be impossible to achieve with a fourteen-foot mechanical artifact. Something smaller and more manageable would be required. Two options were readily apparent – a stop motion puppet or a rod and cable actuated one.”

Cameron added: “As a director, I find it tough to deal with stop motion. I was very happy with what was done on The Terminator, but by that point in the story we were dealing with a mechanical device and I didn’t feel the look of stop motion violated anything we had already done. I was a little more worried about it with Aliens. The scenes involving the Alien Queen were very important, and what we were trying to do was create a real and believable character. Plus, when we started to analyze the types of shots we were doing we realized that most of would require fairly quick action – turns and spins and rapid strides – the sorts of moves that in stop-motion would cause so much displacement per frame that the arms and legs would end up strobing. There are things you just can’t do in any other way, though, so originally the plan was to have a rod-puppet version and a stop motion version. But eventually it got down to budget and it became a choice of either one or the other. Given that, the rod and cable actuated puppet seemed more appealing for a number of reasons. One was that I had never worked with that kind of thing before and I wanted to fool around with it and see what could be done. Also I just had a feeling that with a lot of the floor effects that we’d be using – smoke and steam and that sort of thing – we’d have more flexibility with puppets we could shoot ‘live’ on a miniature set.”

The film’s effects were so captivating, the Academy took notice (yes, THAT Academy ), and honored Winston and his crew’s work on Aliens with their very first Academy Award for Visual Effects.

Part of the appeal of Aliens for many fans was, and still is, the believability of the “perfect, pure, organisms” the Alien creatures themselves have turned out to be. This was a key element in selling the audience that this universe was very real. As scary as it is to imagine, could creatures like this even possibly exist? Probably not (at least we hope), but nevertheless, fans of the films have had their share of fun and enjoyment in extrapolating as much “real world” information from the Alien universe that they can. On his website, anchorpointessays.com, Mike Lynch has gone to spellbinding lengths to gives us the genesis and history of the Aliens Queen:

“Physical Attributes: The Xenomorph Queen is approximately four and one half meters tall, possesses an extremely powerful tail that is equal in length to the Xenomorph’s height, a cranial crown that is flattened (in comparison to the adult Xenomorph) and extends approximately two meters beyond the back of the head, and possesses a second set of arms (giving the Xenomorph a total of six limbs) that are approximately one third the length of the primary arms.”

 ”The Head: The Queen’s head is strikingly different than that of the adult. At first appearance it is wider, longer and flatter than the Soldier, but a closer investigation shows that the head, itself, is actually not much different in shape than the Soldier. The Queen’s head resides inside a large cranial crown that covers and extends well beyond the back and sides of the head. The head is held within the crown during idle times or dormancy. The Queen’s head will extend from under the cranium when awakened – very much like a turtle. The reason for keeping the head retracted inside the cranial crown is not clear. It may be to keep the head protected, but considering the general lack of mobility, the Queen has once fully developed this idea doesn’t make much sense: if the Queen is not mobile, then there is no need to keep the head protected as she is unlikely to encounter danger.”

“The crown is approximately two meters in length (roughly the same size as an adult soldier). As with her minions, the size of the cranial crown seems to indicate that there is a biological need for such a large structure. The most prominent theory is that due to the Queen’s lack of mobility communicating with her hive-mates would become difficult in a large hive. With an enlarged cranial crown she is able to emit and receive pheromone signatures and high level sound throughout the hive. Thus making it easier to communicate with her brood. The theory of telepathy was once again applied to the enlarged cranial crown of the Queen, but the fact that this crown only houses a head that would take up approximately one third of the overall crown would tend to suggest that the Queen’s brain may not be much larger than the average adult Alien’s. This is not to discredit this theory entirely, for it has been assumed that the crown is filled with nerves geared toward the detection of incoming chemical and sound based information — these nerves could conceivably be used in telepathic reception. Though in the case of telepathy the nerves would need to be far more complex, which would suggest the necessity for a larger crown.”

Excerpt from “Aliens: The Anchorpoint Essays”, by Mike Lynch.


Stan Winston of Stan Winston Studios was responsible for the film’s creature effects, and constructed the original 1/4 scale rod puppet along with Winston Supervisor John Rosengrant, and their team of FX professionals.Seated next to Stan Winston on a plane ride, Aliens director James Cameron helped design the now famous Predator Hunter creature seen in all three films.Stan Winston won the 1986 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for his work on Aliens.Lydecker (Acheron Colony Administrator) is an FX technique describing wire effects.[AVP SPOILER]Aliens actors Lance Henricksen (“Bishop”) and Bill Paxton (“Hudson”) have both played characters who suffer the ultimate Sci-Fi screen death hat trick of: death by Alien, death by Predator AND, death by Terminator.Aliens actors Michael Biehn (“Hicks”) and Bill Paxton (“Hudson”) have shared screen time in five films: Tombstone, The Terminator, Navy Seals, The Lords of Discipline, and of course, Aliens.

The Smartgunner team of Mark Rolston (“Drake”) Jenette Goldstein (“Vasquez”) have shared time in six Hollywood projects, Lethal Weapon 2, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “24,” “Alias,” “E.R.,” and Aliens.

The role of Lt. Ellen Ripley was originally planned for Meryl Streep.

The mechanism used to make the face-huggers scuttle about in the Med lab came from one of the “flying piranhas” in one of Cameron’s earlier movies, Piranha II: The Spawning (1981). It took nine people on Stan Winston’s team to make the facehugger work: one person for each leg, and one for the tail.

One of the Facehugger builders on Aliens was Stephen Norrington, who went on to direct Blade and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.

In Aliens, Michael Biehn’s character Hicks gets bitten on the hand by Newt (Carrie Henn). This happens to him in every James Cameron movie he’s in: The Abyss, and The Terminator.

Both the Nostromo and the Sulaco have perpetual motion devices on the tables of their cafeterias.

The names Gorman, Hudson, Hicks and Frost were taken from the book, “A Bridge Too Far” by Cornelius Ryan (he also wrote “The Longest Day”).

Aliens gave the planetoid from the first film a more formal nomenclature, “LV-426,” and its name, “Acheron.” In Greek mythology, Acheron is the river of woe and pain, in the underworld land of the damned.

Alien director Ridley Scott’s original casting choice for the actor to play Captain Dallas was Harrison Ford, who had just finished playing Han Solo in Star Wars. Although Ford was not cast, he went on to star in Scott’s next film, Blade Runner.

Thanks to Mike Lynch of (Aliens: The Anchorpoint Essays) for his excerpt above. 

About the Writer: Screenwriter and producer Willie Goldman began his career at NBC Burbank, where he worked on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Later with Greg Kinnear, and Hang Time. He then moved on to Warner Bros. Television, where he worked on the Emmy-winning drama E.R. for seven seasons. Willie also wrote an adaptation of the acclaimed James Crumley novel The Last Good Kiss. When his younger brother was born, Willie Goldman couldn’t pronounce “Jeffrey”  – it came out “Duff,” and the name stuck. In 2006 Willie became the co-creator and coexecutive producer of Duff Goldman’s Food Network show, Ace of Cakes.

When not writing, Willie serves as webmaster of Alienscollection.com, a website dedicated to Aliens and Predator collectibles – and firmly believes that somewhere out there, Newt and Hicks are still alive.


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