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”

Lighting I Like: “12 Monkeys”

The latest episode of Lighting I Like is out, analysing how the “Splinter Chamber” set is lit in time travel thriller 12 Monkeys. This adaptation of the Terry Gilliam movie can be seen on Netflix in the UK.

I found out lots about the lighting of this scene from this article on the American Society of Cinematographers website. It didn’t mention the source inside the time machine though, but my guess is that it’s a Panibeam 70, as used in the Cine Reflect Lighting System.

New episodes of Lighting I Like are released at 8pm BST every Wednesday. Next week I’ll look at two scenes from PreacherClick here to see the playlist of all Lighting I Like episodes.

Lighting I Like: “12 Monkeys”

5 Rebuffed Complaints About a Female Doctor Who

Reaction to Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the new Doctor pretty much broke the internet last month. While the majority appear to be in favour, a significant minority reacted with hostility.

At first glance, the haters did seem to have a reasonable point. The Doctor is a man, has always been a man, so it’s weird to regenerate them into a woman. After all, there are constants across every regeneration, different as it may be to its predecessors. For example, the Doctor always has a British accent. If the Doctor ever gained an American twang, there would be outrage; the Doctors’ Britishness is a fixed point of their ever-changing character. Is it so unreasonable for their gender to be another fixed point, something to anchor their character and reassure viewers that despite the new actor, this is still the Doctor you know and love?

But as soon as you start to think about it, this argument collapses completely. After all, Doctor Who‘s 54-year history is littered with contradictions and continuity errors. The majority of the episodes produced under Steven Moffatt were full of plot-holes, so to suggest that there is anything fixed, immutable and logical about the show is utterly ridiculous. It’s pure fantasy. Fantasy – that’s a key word that I’ll return to later.

Let’s consider some of the most common negative reactions that appeared online…

 

1. “It’s Not Doctor Who any more.”

People said that in 1966 when the Doctor first regenerated. They said it when he was exiled to Earth in the 70s. They said it when it got campy in the 80s. They said it when the American TV movie was made in 1996. They said it when Russell T. Davies resurrected the show in 2005. They said it when Tennant left in 2010. And now they’re saying it again.

Change, evolution, moving with the times – these are the reasons that Doctor Who is the longest-running sci-fi show on the planet. The world has changed enormously since William Hartnell first flickered onto the screen with his magic blue (grey) box. It’s the show’s ability to develop in step with the real world  that makes it a continued success. These changes are visible in the ever-improving VFX, the topical themes of the stories, the shifts in tone under new showrunners, and crucially through Who‘s groundbreaking concept of regeneration.

Doctor Who is change.

 

2. “We have lost an important male role model.”

I saw a post from a man who was angry and upset to lose what he saw as a crucial role model in his life. His argument was that male heroes are usually more physical and violent, whereas the Doctor’s more intelligent approach made him great for encouraging men into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) careers. Peter Davison, the fifth Doctor, expressed a similar concern.

But it is women who are under-represented in STEM industries, not men. And if you’re looking for other intelligent male role models, how about super-brainy Sherlock? Or engineering genius Tony “Iron Man” Stark? Or most of the Star Trek captains and science officers? Even if you reject every other film and TV show’s male heroes as not intellectual enough, you still have the other twelve Doctors. Can’t we let 50% of the population have one female Doctor in there to look up to?

 

3. “It’s a cynical move.”

It’s no secret that Doctor Who‘s ratings have been steadily declining in recent years, so some people have come to the conclusion that incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall cast a woman purely to generate controversy and draw attention to the show.

Undoubtedly Chibnall would have seen the press and social media interest as a bonus to casting a woman, but it can’t have been the sole or primary motivator. Chibnall is first and foremost a writer, and no writer would ever cast a lead actor to bring their character to life if they didn’t believe absolutely that that actor was right for the part. The first woman in the role is bound to attract a greater degree of scrutiny and criticism than another man when her episodes start screening, so if the show is to have a hope of impressing the critics then the Doctor has to be an excellent actor with an impeccable track record. And Whittaker is definitely that.

This move is far from cynical. It’s bold, refreshing and relevant, and for this fan at least it gives me more excitement about the next season than I have felt for some time.

 

4. “It’s political correctness gone mad.”

Political correctness has become a dirty phrase, but all it really means is being careful not to offend oppressed or minority groups unnecessarily. So to say that Whittaker’s casting is political correctness gone mad is to suggest that it’s placating people who have no valid complaint of oppression or under-representation.

Let me say it again: twelve of the thirteen Doctors are men. (Thirteen of fourteen if you count the War Doctor.) Only one is a woman. That’s less than 10%, compared with 50% of the population being female. That is the very definition of under-representation. And let’s not forget that Whittaker’s casting was announced after the men’s Wimbledon final, not the women’s, because we still live in a world where women, and all the things women do, are considered less important than their male counterparts.

Casting a female Doctor is not “political correctness gone mad”. It’s taking a small step towards correcting a huge imbalance.

 

5. “I won’t be watching any more.”

I suspect the men who wrote comments like this did not stop to consider the more limited choices their mothers, daughters and sisters have in this matter. If women threw their toys out of the pram every time a TV show or film came along with a male lead, they wouldn’t get much else done. Women have got used to watching stories led by the other gender; we men must learn to do the same.

To the people who still say, “but the Doctor is a man,” and suggest that casting female leads in new shows would be better than swapping the gender of an established character, you may be right. And when 50% of all big franchises have female leads there will be no need to do this kind of thing, but until then, it’s necessary. Until then, us men whining that we’ve lost something in this situation is like a millionaire crying because they dropped a penny down the drain.

 

Finally, let’s return to that keyword, fantasy. Because I think the most significant things about Whittaker’s casting are the kids in the playgrounds who will grow up with choice. The girls won’t always have to play the kidnapped princesses, or the love interests, or the companions, while the boys get the roles with agency; they can play Rey, or Wonder Woman, or the Doctor. That can only be beneficial to the future of our society.

5 Rebuffed Complaints About a Female Doctor Who