10 Clever Camera Tricks in “Aliens”

In 1983, up-and-coming director James Cameron was hired to script a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 hit Alien. He had to pause halfway through to shoot The Terminator, but the subsequent success of that movie, along with the eventually completed Aliens screenplay, so impressed the powers that be at Fox that they greenlit the film with the relatively inexperienced 31-year-old at the helm.

Although the sequel was awarded a budget of $18.5 million – $7.5 million more than Scott’s original – that was still tight given the much more expansive and ambitious nature of Cameron’s script. Consequently, the director and his team had to come up with some clever tricks to put their vision on celluloid.

 

1. Mirror Image

When contact is lost with the Hadley’s Hope colony on LV-426, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is hired as a sort of alien-consultant to a team of crack marines. The hypersleep capsules from which the team emerge on reaching the planet were expensive to build. Production designer Peter Lamont’s solution was to make just half of them, and place a mirror at the end of the set to double them up.

 

2. Small Screens

Wide shots of Hadley’s Hope were accomplished with fifth-scale miniatures by Robert and Dennis Skotak of 4-Ward Productions. Although impressive, sprawling across two Pinewood stages, the models didn’t always convince. To help, the crew often downgraded the images by showing them on TV monitors, complete with analogue glitching, or by shooting through practical smoke and rain.

 

3. Big Screens

The filmmakers opted for rear projection to show views out of cockpit windscreens and colony windows. This worked out cheaper than blue-screen composites, and allowed for dirt and condensation on the glass, which would have been impossible to key optically. Rear projection was also employed for the crash of the dropship – the marines’ getaway vehicle – permitting camera dynamics that again were not possible with compositing technology of the time.

 

4. Back to Front

A highlight of Aliens is the terrifying scene in which Ripley and her young charge Newt (Carrie Henn) are trapped in a room with two facehuggers, deliberately set loose by sinister Company man Carter Burke (Paul Reiser). These nightmarish spider-hands were primarily puppets trailing cables to their operators. To portray them leaping onto a chair and then towards camera, a floppy facehugger was placed in its final position and then tugged to the floor with a fishing wire. The film was reversed to create the illusion of a jump.

 

5. Upside Down

Like Scott before him, Cameron was careful to obfuscate the man-in-a-suit nature of the alien drones wherever possible. One technique he used was to film the creatures crawling on the floor, with the camera upside-down so that they appeared to be hanging from the ceiling. This is seen when Michael Biehn’s Hicks peeks through the false ceiling to find out how the motion-tracked aliens can be “inside the room”.

 

6. Flash Frames

All hell (represented by stark red emergency lighting) breaks loose when the aliens drop through the false ceiling. To punch up the visual impact of the movie’s futuristic weapons, strobelights were aimed at the trigger-happy marines. Taking this effect even further, editor Ray Lovejoy spliced individual frames of white leader film into the shots. As a result, the negative cutter remarked that Aliens‘ 12th reel had more cuts than any complete movie he’d ever worked on.

 

7. Cotton Cloud

With most of the marines slaughtered, Ripley heads to the atmospheric processing plant to rescue Newt from the alien nest. Aided by the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) they escape just before the plant’s nuclear reactor explodes. The ensuing mushroom cloud is a miniature sculpture made of cotton wool and fibreglass, illuminated by an internal lightbulb!

 

8. Hole in the floor

Returning to the orbiting Sulaco, Ripley and friends are ambushed by the stowaway queen, who rips Bishop in half. A pre-split, spring-loaded dummy of Henriksen was constructed for that moment, and was followed by the simple trick of concealing the actor’s legs beneath a hole in the floor. As in the first movie, android blood was represented by milk. This gradually soured as the filming progressed, much to Henriksen’s chagrin as the script required him to be coated in the stuff and even to spit it out of his mouth.

 

9. Big Battle

The alien queen was constructed and operated by Stan Winston Studios as a full-scale puppet. Two puppeteers were concealed inside, while others moved the legs with rods or controlled the crane from which the body hung. The iconic power loader was similar, with a body builder concealed inside and a counter-weighted support rig. This being before the advent of digital wire removal, all the cables and rods had to be obfuscated with smoke and shifting shadows, though they can still be seen on frame grabs like this one. (The queen is one of my Ten Greatest Movie Puppets of All Time.)

 

10. Little Battle

For wide shots of the final fight, both the queen and the power loader were duplicated as quarter scale puppets. Controlled from beneath the miniature set via rods and cables, the puppets could perform big movements, like falling into the airlock, which would have been very difficult with the full-size props. (When the airlock door opens, the starfield beyond is a black sheet with Christmas lights on it!) The two scales cut seamlessly together and produce a thrilling finale to this classic film.

For more on the visual effects of James Cameron movies, see my rundown of the top five low-tech effects in Hollywood films (featuring Titanic) and a breakdown of the submarine chase in The Abyss.

10 Clever Camera Tricks in “Aliens”

Looking Back: “Daemos Rising”

Who is that handsome young chap?Last month saw the re-release of Reeltime Pictures‘ Daemos Rising, an unofficial Doctor Who spin-off film I photographed way back in 2003. It’s lovely to know that the film is popular enough for a high street release after so much time, and watching it again brought back many memories. Let the sharing of these memories commence…

2003 was Doctor Who’s 40th anniversary year, but the show had been off the air for over a decade and many fans, myself included, thought it would never return. In September I was weeks away from the start of principal photography on my second (and last) no-budget feature, Soul Searcher, but I was delighted to take a break from the stresses of self-producing to DP a tribute to the show I’d grown up with. “You won’t hear anything more from me now for a week,” I announced on my Soul Searcher blog on September 16th, “for I shall be ensconced in a cottage in a woodland area of Dorset (or possibly Devon – they’re easily confused), shooting a Doctor Who spin-off film for Reeltime Pictures. As you do.”

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 14.59.00The location was in fact in Devon: the home of Ian Richardson, who has since sadly passed away. (Ian had an illustrious stage and screen career, including the lead role in the original UK version of House of Cards.) Although Ian’s involvement would be limited to a voiceover, his son Miles Richardson played the role of Douglas Cavendish, an ex-UNIT operative troubled by a time-travelling ghost, a creepy moving statue and of course the Daemons. For those non-Whoovers amongst you, the Daemons are a devilish alien race featured in a classic Third Doctor serial. Reaching its tentacles deep into the expanded Who-niverse, Daemos Rising was also a sequel to a prior Reeltime production, Downtime, and was tied in to a spin-off book series.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 15.16.32It was Miles who recommended me to director Keith Barnfather, having worked with me earlier that year on a feature called Blood Relative. Miles was joined on screen by his wife Beverley Cressman, playing Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s daughter Kate. Rounding out the cast of three, as the aforementioned spectre, was Andrew Wisher, whose father Michael was the very first (and arguably best) actor to portray Dalek creator Davros.

The shoot didn’t start well. On the journey down to Devon, the prop shaft (bit that connects the engine to the wheels) dropped out of our rental van on the M5! Luis, the driver miraculously got us onto the hard shoulder while we still had some momentum, and the DVD extras include footage of us recovering as we awaited the RAC.

But this brush with death aside, I remember the shoot as a very happy one. It was a small team, just the three actors, Keith, his partner Anastasia, writer David J. Howe and his wife Rosie, and Luis on sound. We all stayed at the cottage, which was lovely, and enjoyed many a home-cooked meal and showbiz yarn. Miles and Andrew even gave an impromptu rendition of Billy Joel’s a cappella classic The Longest Time at one point.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 14.57.17

It was the era of Mini-DV, so I was shooting on my Canon XL1-S in glorious 576i. (I remember the damp playing havoc with the DV tapes when we shot the third act in a cave system called Kent’s Cavern.) I also supplied the lighting package, which consisted of 2 x 800W Arrilites, 2 x 1000W Arrilites and a vintage 5K Mole Richardson fresnel. The latter required a local electrician to wire us a 32A socket into Ian’s fusebox! Back then I used only hard light because I didn’t know any better, and it gave everything a distinctive noir style.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 15.15.26 (2)Speaking of a distinctive style, Daemos Rising is a significant milestone in my career because it was the first time I ever used smoke. The script called for spooky mist in several scenes, so Keith bought a Magnum 550 and we ended up using it on all the night exteriors. He kindly gifted me the machine at the end of the shoot, and needless to say I never looked back. Many a cast and crew may think of their poor lungs and rue the day that Keith Barnfather gave Neil Oseman his first smoke machine!

While the day interior lighting looks rough to me now, I think many of the night scenes still look pretty good 13 years on. Although my lamps were all tungsten, and the XL1 didn’t allow me to dial in a white balance, I would point the camera at something red and force the camera to white-balance on that, turning everything a nice James Cameron cyan.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 15.01.20Just days after we wrapped, the BBC announced that Doctor Who would return in 2005. I fear the new generation of kids who now form the core of Who’s avid audience might find Daemos Rising a little slow and talky, but for fans of the classic series there is lots to enjoy. The tone and storyline are very Who, and there are several easter eggs scattered throughout the film. And some aspects of Daemos Rising fit the new series’ continuity too, including the Brigadier’s daughter Kate — now played by Jemma Redgrave – and UNIT’s Black Archive.

The re-release provides the opportunity to watch Daemos Rising in the aspect ratio we originally intended, 16:9 (the original DVD having been masked only to 14:9) and also offers the option of 5.1 surround sound. It’s available now from Amazon and high street retailers.

Looking Back: “Daemos Rising”