Features and Columns · Movies

Blood, Sweat and Latex: ‘Aliens’ Pulls Me Back In

By  · Published on August 22nd, 2011

by Shannon Shea

Doug Beswick’s career, like many creature makers, began with a love and practice of Stop Motion Animation. My understanding is that he met Rick Baker when they both worked at Cascade Studios (most famous for doing the claymation for the series Gumby & Pokey) and later had joined Rick’s crew as a mechanical, animatronics designer. I don’t know the details of how and why Doug decided to open his own shop, but his facility was in a small, industrial park, north east of the San Fernando Valley in Sunland.

Prior to my arrival, Doug had gained some notoriety with a couple of projects. The first was Terminator in which, Beswick had built and animated the endoskeleton miniature for the few full body shots of the robot walking. The second was a Disney live action film entitled My Science Project. For that film, Rick and Doug had teamed up to build an impressive, miniature, mechanical Tyrannosaurus Rex puppet. It is interesting to see how logical progressions occur (albeit rarely) in Hollywood. Doug had built a sophisticated, miniature, mechanical puppet that looked phenomenal on film, AND he had prior experience working for James Cameron. The result: Doug was hired to build the miniature mechanical puppets for Aliens. See how that worked?

I had received my call from Tony Gardener, with whom I had worked at Stan Winston’s on Aliens (recall that Tony had sculpted the new “Chest Burster” for the film). He needed some additional assistance with the art side of the project that he was supervising for Doug. When I arrived, I was surprised that of the people working there, I didn’t know Doug, his wife, Vicky, or Phil Notaro, who was another mechanic (or so I thought, I’ll get back to Phil, later). Obviously, I knew Tony, but I also knew Brian Penikas (from Stan Winston’s) and miniature maker, James Belohovek, a fellow CalArts alumni and good friend. The job would require that we build fully functional Queen Alien and Power Loader puppets for the climatic fight.

Much as my experience on From Beyond, this crew had been working for weeks, and I was being called in primarily to help with the molding and casting of pieces for the assembly of the puppets. I was familiar with the design of the Queen, because I had seen the Stan Winston crew sculpt and mold the maquette. The molds were now at Doug’s and were being utilized for the final puppet. However, other than seeing Cameron’s illustration of Ripley fighting the Queen, I hadn’t seen much of the Power Loader. Belohovek had been furnished tons of detailed photographs from production of the full-scale power loader built by physical effects man, John Richardson and his crew in England.

Belohovek had to figure out the scale of the puppet based on the pre-existing Queen maquette and then generate a template from which to work by in order to start building the pieces.

In addition, there was another puppet that needed to be manufactured and that was a miniature Sigourney Weaver that would ride in the Power Loader. When I was at Stan’s I recalled a miniature figure of Sigourney being sculpted by Stuart Land. The mold of that figure was at Doug’s shop as well. Tony Gardner changed aspects of the sculpture and I ran pieces in flesh toned translucent hot melt vinyl (the same stuff that squishy, fishing lure worms are made of) over a mechanical armature.

I jumped right in with Brian Penikas, molding new pieces as they were sculpted or fabricated, and then casting them. For most of the Power Loader pieces, we used a hard, plastic urethane commonly referred to as “feather-cast.” This urethane contained a high amount of lightweight filler to offset the density of the plastic. Once the pieces were cast they were turned over to Doug who mounted them to the mechanism he was building and truly that is where my senses were overloaded!

Until I met Doug and Phil, I had never seen small, sophisticated mechanical parts in person. Sure, the animatronics that Dave Nelson and team had built for Invaders From Mars were impressive. The facial mechanics of the Martian Supreme Intelligence were far superior to anything I had seen up to that point. What was happening at Doug Beswick’s was equally incredible but on a different scale!

If you looked at the design of the Queen it had some anatomical anomalies that if approached traditionally would have compromised the over all look of the character. For instance, the Queen’s larger, side, arms didn’t have a traditional elbow but instead were sculpted with a curved transition from the upper to lower arm. Instead of just making an elbow joint with one point of movement at the middle of the curve, Phil engineered a double elbow joint so that the arm would move in a graceful curve. Okay, it wasn’t rocket science, however it was a combination of experience and a respect and responsibility to the final creature that made Doug and Phil go the extra mile to make sure that the mechanical movements would work in concert with the cosmetic design.

It wasn’t unusual for Phil to call me from across the shop to demonstrate something he had built and every time he did, I would just get giddy. Among my favorites (besides the double elbow) were the fingers on the larger arms (those fingers were about 1/8th inch thick and Phil had mechanized them!), the front part of the head that moved independently from the head carapace, and finally the insane little pneumatic “tongue” that would shoot out of the mouth. To say I was continually impressed with what Phil and Doug were doing mechanically would be an understatement.

The only part of the Queen that I had any hand in creating was the signature clear teeth. There were two silicone block molds (just thick blocks of silicone without a rigid mother mold): one of the upper teeth and “skull” and one of the lower teeth and jaw. The idea was that the entire piece would be run clear and then the opaque parts painted in later.

You might imagine how miniscule the teeth at that scale were and running them in clear dental acrylic was a challenge. Not having a pressure pot (which is how I would run them if I had to do it now), Tony suggested that I use centrifugal force to get the viscous material into the tips of the teeth. I tied a rope to a bucket and after I had injected the dental acrylic into the molds, would then swing the bucket around overhead. Even using this technique, I only managed to cast two pieces from each mold that were useable.

After all of that effort, while I was cleaning the seam with a motor tool, I managed to drop one of the upper pieces onto the hard concrete floor! What made matters worse was that it was the BETTER of the two castings to be used in the hero puppet and I had just broken them! I called Tony and Doug over to see the damage I had done. As I started to prep the mold and the bucket for another casting attempt, Tony pulled me aside and told me that none of the teeth had been broken and the crack was along the gums; he was going to attempt to repair it. Luckily, it went together so cleanly that the break was almost imperceptible.

In a way, that incident was to foretell the fate of the miniature Power Loader.

A year or so later, someone told me that when they had finished shooting the fight between the Queen and Power Loader puppets, they had to get the shot of the Power Loader falling off into space out of the air lock. To do this a group of people held a big, black piece of fabric that the miniature Power Loader was dropped into from a considerable height. The story goes that one of the people holding the fabric had panicked thinking that they were about to be clocked in the head by the falling miniature and had let go of the fabric and ducked. The Power Loader hit the ground where it disintegrated into a mass of broken pieces.

I also heard a rumor that for years, Cameron kept all of those pieces in a clear, acrylic box on his desk in his office. If you ever get the chance to visit Jim in his office ask him to see it; I’d love to see a photo.

…And Last Time on Blood, Sweat and Latex…: “A Brief Stint on ‘From Beyond’”

Shannon Shea, a native New Orleanian educated at The California Institute of the Arts, has enjoyed a 27-year tenure designing, constructing, and performing animatronic creatures and characters for Motion Pictures and Television. He has had the pleasure of contributing to such diverse films as Predator, Dances With Wolves, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Spy Kids, The Chronicles of Narnia, Drag Me To Hell and 2012’s Men In Black 3.

Not limited to the confines of Motion Pictures, he paints (having been shown in New York, North Carolina, and Los Angeles), sculpts, writes and authors a new blog about his motion picture experiences called Monster History 101. Recently, he was tapped by the Stan Winston School of Character Design to be one of their instructors for a lecture series entitled Garage Monsters. When not participating on Hollywood projects, he enjoys producing, writing, and directing his own short films including Hotel Superman, Blind Passion, and his current Internet project Phantom Harbor. Shannon lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tracy, an Operatic Soprano and their daughter, Molly, who attends the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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