Alien: Covenant made heavy use of practical makeup effects, prosthetics and creatures during the filming process. Two creature shops, Creatures Inc. Ltd and Odd Studio combined to make those effects possible, led by creature design supervisor Conor O’Sullivan and creature effects supervisor Adam Johansen.
In this visual behind the scenes look at the practical effects work in the film, Johansen, one of the founders of Odd Studio, breaks down some of the major creature effects, including for the Neomorphs, the Xenormorph, the face huggers and body bursters, various dummies, and the alien lifeforms in David’s lab.
Ridley was always referencing flayed waxworks as reference for the Xenomorph; exposed ribs and flayed skin, muscles, and incredibly thin proportions, impossibly thin proportions, but keeping the scale at around nine foot, so still quite big for the Xeno.
Ridley is very practical and he does love shooting everything in camera. I believe it’s part of his process. He also does rough edits on the go. It was quite an intense set to be on because Ridley shoots very quickly and you have to be flexible and confident in what you’ve built as shots/angels will often change . You can’t go onto a set like Alien: Covenant with Ridley and have anything made to be shot one way because Ridley doesn’t work that way. You know, he’ll change it up so you just have to be flexible. Conor did explain this to me at lengths before filming began.
For the suit Xenomorph head, there was a servo-driven RC jaw that head mechanic Greg McKee took care of and designed. For the suit, the head/neck movement was directly driven by Andrew’s own head and neck movements. A slave driven neck mechanism that allowed natural, flowing head movements/turns when he walked.
On this project we really experimented and embraced 3D printing. We had a lot of designs ZBrush modelled. However, most creatures did begin as clay sculptures. The Xenomorph head started as a sculpt that Bradley Simms did. Once Ridley liked that, we took a bunch of photos and scanned it and then Colin Shulver cleaned that up in ZBrush. Then we broke it down like a model kit, so the inner skull, jaw etc all went off and got printed. Some of the prints were used directly but most of them were moulded and then cast out in super light-weight resin. The carapace for instance was clear gel coat and fibreglass resin. The body was sculpted by Dominic Hailstone and myself. The ribcage was cast in urethanes. We went to foam latex for the arms, neoprene, lycra and things like that for the inner fabrications. And we had some silicon elements on the face, too.
During the shoot, the scariest white-knuckle kind of shots involved Andrew Crawford running in the full scale suit. There’s a really long platform that the Xenomorph is seen running down amongst all the dead engineers. Andrew, who is a dancer actually, is about 6” 4’, slim build with a fantastic sense of movement. He’d never done anything like this before, and here he is in this suit with very limited vision, weight restrictions on his head, on these carbon fiber blades, running down an angle. So I’d be there right before the shot holding him. And he’s got one of our hero heads on the top of his own head. So he runs down this platform onto gravel, like big rocky gravel, and it was scary! The whole crew were holding their breath during the takes. I was very concerned about Andrew and concerned about the suit. But he did it, he pulled it off.
One of the suits we produced, which was worn by Andrew Crawford, was a Bunraku style puppet/suit combo. It was built so that parts of Andrew’s body were exposed. His face and his eyes are looking out of the ribcage and on top of that was a huge neck/head extension, which is all animatronic. He operated the arms, which are painfully thin, externally, and he was also on stilts. So, standing he was about nine foot. He had basic animatronic movements, overseen by head mech Greg McKee, including the mouth and head. Head fabricator Marea Fowler did a fantastic job overseeing the fabrication with the help of Aline Joyce, Shannon Riggs and Elisa Heimann on this and the other xeno and neo suits.
We had an absolutely amazing crew and everyone on it worked above and beyond what was asked of them. It was so important to everyone involved, not just the creature department but every department and crew member. It would be an understatement to say all of us in the creature department are massive fans of Alien, Giger and Ridley-and that world. Personally, Alien was one of the reasons I became obsessed with creatures and creature effects as a child!
Goran Kleut was one of the suit performers, he played the Xenomorph and the Neomorph. For the Neomorph, we created a foam latex suit which moved very well with Goran, thanks to some beautiful foams run by Steve Katz, foam shop supervisor and assisted by Gavin Kyle.
For the Neomorph, we were using goblin shark reference from Ridley and a Carlos Huante design. The goblin shark has a jaw that sort of comes out and dislocates, and so we built an animatronic puppet close-up head which could do that. And it has this tiny little arsehole of a mouth, that was the reference. It was incredibly tight and pretty gross to look at. It could expand and dislocate to these snapping jaws. So a puppet head was built, and some beautifully translucent, full-scale heads were painted by Damian Martin and Julian Ledger.
For the chest burster, we built a beautiful little rod puppet. At full extension, it stood maybe a foot and a half. It was painfully thin, but it was a rod puppet and we cast it out of incredibly translucent silicon which Conor was experimenting with. It was beautifully cast by Rob Trenton and Suzi Battersby. The armature is made out of polished aluminium which was sanded and sculpted to look like bones. It’s a beautiful, elegant little piece really and that took about six of us to operate. The chestburster was sculpted by Dominic Hailstone.
I was sculpting/designing the adult Neomorph head. Fellow sculptor and artist Colin Shulver was designing the body in Zbrush and Conor was Photoshopping images of my adult Neo head and Colin’s body to bring it altogether. We eventually got something that Ridley was like, ‘That’s horrible, I love it!’
The mouth burster was the first shot/effect we had as the creature department. And it was on location in Milford Sound in New Zealand at the beginning of principal photography. It was basically a big sack coming out of a mouth. And so for that particular scene we built a full animatronic puppet painted by Damian, a likeness puppet, we had prosthetics on the actor, and then the neomorph baby puppet itself. So that had everything going on. The location was this like, you know reeds and tidal water, it was at night, freezing, lots of insects eating you alive. There was so much blood, so much goo, so much chaos, four cameras and crew standing around us and four of us puppeteering this slippery little Neomorph.
This dummy was made for James Franco’s death scene. A lot of characters die in some horrible deaths, and so depending on how that happens, we built appropriate puppets for those scenes. The armatures and mechs for these puppets were built by Thomas Van Koeverden, Graham Riddell and Paul Trefrey. There’d be decapitations, there’d be back of heads being split open, characters being burnt alive. And all the puppets were animatronic and fully articulated and armatured puppets. The body’s were run in silicone by Suzi Battersby and Tristan Lucas. We had a great finishing crew doing all the hair punching, beautiful paint work, eyes, everything like that. Kala Andrews, Alice Baueris, Emily James, Jess Reedy, Kitty Latham, Nikola Davis, Rachel Coenen and Joe Garcia. Those guys were always REALLY under the pump.
The back burster is a Neomorph. For this, we built a full dummy, a writhing animatronic puppet. We also had a contortionist stunt guy who was throwing himself around. Lesley Vanderwalt, hair and make up designer, along with her team did a fantastic job on Ben Rigby’s look, with Rachelle O’Donnell on set covering him in thick sweat after every take. We had prosthetics on Ben Rigby’s back and also the stunt double’s back, sculpted by Colin Ware, and you can really see the displacement of the spine and the ribcage pushing through, like there’s something hideous happening underneath the surface, and then convulsions and shuddering begin. What you see at the start are the spikes of the Neomorph pushing through his back. We had a close-up of spikes coming out of the back and for that we had another silicon, resuseable silicone tear. I’ve never been on a set with so much blood. It was insane. So we had a little puppet which was the birthing one. We had another puppet which we called the terrier, the size of a small chimpanzee or small monkey. It hatches and then heads off to the other cast slightly bigger. It was a big rod puppet and Conor and I were trying to operate this thing on a set that was covered in blood. Art department had these vinyl blood splat mats. So there was all this blood and slime and these vinyl matts, which made for the slipperiest surface I’ve ever been on. It was almost impossible to stand on them without slipping over and every take Ridley’s like, ‘Run, run, run’ with the neomorph puppet. And legs are going everywhere, it was just mental, absolutely mental. After every take a team of people were just going through and mopping up blood for re-setting. It was like litres and litres and litres of blood just being sprayed everywhere. Lots of fun. But brutal.
I had watched Alien repeatedly many, many times throughout my life but I watched it through different eyes once we had landed this job, and I was like, I don’t know how this can be done any better. Ultimately, we did make some minor changes to it. The fingers are slightly different, there are no humanoid nails on it, but essentially they’re the same. This was sculpted by Colin Shulver and Andy Hunt. Painted by Emily James.
We had in excess of a hundred mummified Engineers, which were Pompeii-esque, and they all had to be eight feet tall, so they’re these huge bodies. They were built in a model kit kind of way. They started as ZBrush designs. And then we broke them down so that the arms and torso and head and legs were split up, and we got those CNC cut out of poly, and then they were re-textured and sculpted, moulded and cast. The mould dept was headed up by Gordon Hobkirk. As mentioned, from those moulds, urethane biscuit foam copies were made and then they were constructed in a way that we could torture them and make them all look individual. There was an engineer crew, not only producing and constructing all these mummified corpses, but making each one different and unique. The construction and on set supervision of the mummy’s were overseen by Courtney Hudson and Adriana Narai, assisted by Kes Harrison, Jerry Washington and Zebulan Tildon. The whole engineer mummy team did a brilliant job.
These were 3D printed, originally modeled in Zbrush by Dominic Hailstone. Rob Trenton also did a classic sort of Giger artwork of the split egg with the face hugger in it.
David’s lab contains a whole bunch of creatures and critters, all of which are experiments he has done. We had a fair bit of freedom here. I did a Neomorph / Xenomorph hybrid, for example.
Almost everyone got to contribute to the lab in some way, as a creature department, as rubber monster geeks – it was a fantastic set, designed by production designer Chris Seagers and also populated with brilliant artwork from artists Dane Hallet and Matt Hatton. It was shot at the end of the shoot and it was something that, as sort of a reward I guess, we wanted everyone in our department to try and do their own little piece that we could get in there.
This is the flayed engineer in a Michelangelo’s David pose. Damian Martin headed up that one and was assisted by Ramie Moussa.