The critical success of Alien made its sequel, Aliens, possible. Lawsuits and a lack of enthusiasm from 20th Century Fox, however, meant it would take years to develop the details.
Because of his success with The Terminator in 1984, James Cameron was hired to write a script for the sequel. He wrote a 42-page treatment in three days, based upon David Giler and Walter Hill’s idea of “Ripley and soldiers.” After some difficulties, and a script expansion to ninety pages, Cameron was given a budget of $18.5 million. Principal photography for Aliens began in September of 1985. Filming would be done at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, very near London. Cameron had some difficulty with the British film-industry’s traditions, which interrupted production for up to an hour every weekday. As he was a very hands-on director, and would often change things, himself. This caused friction between himself and the unionized team. Dick Bush, cinematographer, and Derek Cracknell, first assistant director, would both be replaced for ignoring Cameron’s directorial wishes.
Special effects development began in May of 1985. John Richardson supervised a forty-person team at Stan Winston Studio, a company owned by special effects makeup creator, Stanley Winston. To his credit, Winston worked on the Terminator series, the first three Jurassic Park films, the first two Predator films, Edward Scissorhands, and Iron Man. He is credited with four Academy Award wins.
Syd Mead, a conceptual artist who worked on 2010: the Year We Make Contact, was also hired. Ron Cobb also returned to Aliens because of his work on the original. Mead designed the film’s ship, the Sulaco. Cobb designed the dropship, the armored personnel carrier (APC), and exteriors of the colony and vehicles.
Some simple special effects involved mirrors to made the sets look larger and the APC was a concealed pushback tug for a Boeing 747. A pushback is a specialized vehicle used to push aircraft away from their parking positions. Its size made it perfect for its use on set.
The set was around eighty feet long and laid out in a diagonal pattern across the stage. The colony was a scale miniature, except for the entrances used by the actors. It was meant to resemble a western frontier town. Beer crates, construction items, and broken filming equipment made up some of the materials used to create it. Many buildings were added via forced perspective because additional structures could not be put onto the actual set. The alien nest was made while the set was cleaned for asbestos. Fiberglass, clay, and vacuum-formed castings were made for the alien hive.
At the time of filming, H.R. Giger was working on Poltergeist II: The Other Side and, according to production, could not work outside his contractual obligations. Stanley Winston came onto the movie and worked with Cameron on designs. They remained faithful to Giger’s vision of the creatures. Not wanting them to be just people in costumes, he elongated the arms and put them at irregular angles to make them appear more inhuman. Dancers and stuntmen played the creatures, all occupying the twelve alien costumes. Those aliens which died were puppets detonated by remote.
The smaller “facehuggers” were given much more articulation than in Alien. This articulation allowed the tail to move in a sharper, more whip-like way. Nine operators manipulated the tail, tongue, and legs of the creatures. A control wire along the floor was used for the scenes where the creatures ran. Two “chestburster” puppets were used, both having arms. Latex-foam chest pieces were made for the creatures to burst through.
For the queen, Cameron wanted it to be “hideous and beautiful at the same time.” The larger creature was given longer arms with smaller, secondary ones underneath. Winston redesigned the legs, giving them an inhuman, double joint. A frame, large enough to hold two people, was made and covered in polyurethane foam. The final form of the queen was fourteen feet tall and comprised of polyurethane foam, which was suspended from a crane. The two people inside controlled the arms while the legs were manipulated with rods and wires. Another person controlled the whipping action of the tail. For the head, a combination of small servomotors and hydraulics were operated by up to four people. Lighting, steam, slime, and smoke concealed this effect.
Although computer technology had advanced, the head needed to be sculpted by hand. Shane Mahan, a special effects creator, creature designer, and puppeteer took several weeks to finish the sculpture. Mahan’s worked on The Terminator and would also work on the first and second Predator movies, among others.
In order to achieve the effect of Bishop being impaled by the queen, a chestplate was constructed for the actor. A rubber segment of the tail flattened against it was also attached. The tail was pulled forward with a wire while the actor was levered forward. In addition, a dummy of the character was created with a spring-loaded mechanism, created by John Richardson, which split when the queen attacked.
Because of the inherent danger in dealing with an animatronic entity, the battle between Ripley and the queen was choreographed. Instead of engaging, there were moments when the camera moved in a way that simulated faster movement. For the chase scene, wires and rods used to move the queen had to be hidden. They could not be removed in post production. As in other films, the problem was solved by using miniatures and go motion, a process in which motion blur is added to make it more realistic.
Aliens enjoyed critical acclaim and made enough money at the box office to make an Alien 3 a realistic possibility. The overall shift in focus and the possibility of repeating the first two films made David Giler, Walter Hill, and Gordon Carroll leery of being involved. The reduction of Ripley’s role was also a major concern but actress, Sigourney Weaver agreed to do the movie, anyway. 20th Century Fox financed the development of the story and William Gibson, cyberpunk author, wrote the script.
Due to a Writer’s Guild of America strike, and other problems, Gibson left the project and his script was adapted into a comic series. The audiobook version of the screenplay was released in May of 2019 as part of Alien‘s 40th anniversary.
Screenwriter Eric Red, and writer, David Twohy were also brought on to write scripts. Hill took Twohy’s script and made changes which would involve Ripley more. Writer, John Fasano expanded the script after Twohy left the project. Even without a finished script, filming began in January of 1991 at Pinewood Studios.
This production would be without Stanley Winston, as he was unavailable. He did recommend Amalgamated Dynamics, an effects company owned by Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis. The practical effects team started developing models of the alien and victims of the Sulaco attack. Because the capability for such a thing existed, a post-production team was brought on to handle the compositing and CGI. This included the cracking alien head, and removing airborne debris and shadows cast by the rod and wire puppets.
Returning to the world of Alien, H.R. Giger revised the creature. This new version included longer, thinner legs, a sharp alien tongue, and the removal of the spinier portions of the spine. Faxes of these new designs allowed Cornelius de Fries to recreate them out of plasticine. A full-scale puppet of the alien would be built in the Bunraku style.
Bunraku is a form of traditional Japanese puppet theatre where the puppet is made from a simple skeletal structure attached to the head grip. The grip is then pushed into an opening in the puppet’s shoulder. The arms, legs, and hips are carved from bamboo and tied to the rest of the body with heavy ropes. Because there is no solid torso, a wider range of movement for the puppet is possible.
For Alien 3, the Bunraku puppet was an in-camera effect. However, because of the limitations of chemical compositing and the ability to remove the puppeteers, the Bunraku puppet can only be seen in the Assembly Cut.
Woodruff Jr. and a rod puppet filmed against bluescreen, then composited into the scenes are the sources for the alien in this film. An animation technique wherein animators work frame by frame to remove or alter film footage, called rotoscoping, was used to remove the rods. Animatronics moved the head and mouth.
Stop-motion for Alien 3 was deemed “too unrealistic.”
Advances in motion picture effects meant using compositing systems like LaserDisc, allowing takes to be overlaid onto the background plate much quicker than matte painting. Moving motion control cameras made it possible for teams of puppeteers to work their puppet on sparse sets in three dimensional spaces, rather than restricted spaces designed for the puppet. This freedom of motion opened up new possibilities when working with models and puppets. Miniatures were still be used. Their scale and details were improving, getting better and better.
Alien 3 debuted at number two at the box office in 1992. It grossed over $23.1 million on Memorial Day, alone. On an international scale, it grossed over $150 million. In spite of this, the movie was considered to be a “disappointment” in North America, even though it did better than the original theatrical run of Alien. 20th Century Fox later said Alien 3 was the highest-grossing of the franchise.
With a budget of $70 million, Alien Resurrection featured special effects by Pitof, a French visual effects supervisor and director, and Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated. This film had far more violence and a kind of dark comedic tone to it. ADI made changes to the creatures, including giving them pointed tails, making their heads more dome-like, and elongating the faces. These sharper features gave them a more menacing look and hard camera angles accentuated the differences. A strange human/Alien hybrid was also included with far more facial expressions than the typical xenomorphs. It was supposed to be capable of more depth, according to director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The animatronic hybrid required nine puppeteers. Whether it achieved its goal, only the audience of the film can say.
Alien Resurrection had difficulty finding a space to shoot as Titanic, Starship Troopers, and The Lost World: Jurassic Park were happening alongside it. Because of this, the film was the first in the franchise to be filmed outside England.
Blue Skies Studios was brought on to create the first CGI alien creatures to appear on film. This was done in lieu of puppets or actors in suits because they wanted to have full-body shots and Jeunet thought this approach would be better.
In contrast, all of the ships in the film were miniatures. Nigel Phelps designed the original USM Auriga but the design was “too vertical” for the opening shot. The ship was redesigned.
For a few years, Alien: Resurrection would be the last audiences would see of the Alien universe.