A little over seven years after the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien arrived in theaters, James Cameron brought out the big guns (literally) with his action-oriented sequel Aliens, which dominated over the summer of 1986 as it held the number one spot on the box office charts for four weeks straight.
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Carrie Henn, Jenette Goldstein, Mark Rolston, and William Hope, Aliens follows Ellen Ripley, the sole (human) survivor of the events of Scott’s original film, and a rag-tag crew of Colonial Marines back to the planet LV-426 where Ripley and her crew first encountered the deadly alien species after a terraforming colony located there mysteriously goes dark.
The complete antithesis of Scott’s Alien, Cameron’s sequel was a raucous action/sci-fi mash-up that took everything that made the original movie so great and then kicked it up to 12. Not only did production require dozens of Xenomorph suits and facehuggers, but special effects legend Stan Winston and his crew were also tasked with creating the 14-foot-tall Alien Queen that required a handful of puppeteers, as well as a massive amount of ingenuity to pull off the impressive creature realistically.
Tom Woodruff Jr., a special effects legend in his own right who was working in Winston’s shop at the time, reflected on the project, saying, “It was a good amount of time for us between working on The Terminator and Aliens for James- we had a few more films that came in before Aliens like The Vindicator and Invaders (from Mars) that we worked on first. But I remember when Aliens came in, we only had a couple of months to work on it, so we were definitely feeling the pinch but, all in all, we still had a decent schedule to get all the works done.”
“I also remember that we were griping and joking with Stan because at the same time we were doing Aliens, Rick (Baker) was over working on Harry (and the Hendersons) and they gave him something like nine months for that show where we had only something like six for Aliens (laughs). Of course we got it all done and sometimes I think it’s better when your schedule pushes you like that- I thrive on that kind of energy because it forces you to keep moving and working instead. There’s no time to second-guess anything and that’s something I enjoy when I’m on a deadline.”
“And the thing is that, whether you’re working on Aliens or any other show, there’s never enough time. You could have six weeks, six months or a year and it’s never going to be enough time to get everything exactly perfect. That’s when you have to get creative,” added Woodruff.
Woodruff also discussed how his team tackled one of Aliens’ biggest effects, which was also one of the more ambitious effects to come out of Stan Winston Studios at the time. “What’s funny is that I think one of the last movies I saw in theaters before I started working in special effects was Ridley’s Alien, which may have been one of the last real creature movies of that era of film- although they did start to make a return a few years later on in the 1980’s. I had never worked on a film with this kind of scope before either, but we just found a way to make everything work- including the now-famous “Garbage Bag Queen.” It was such a magical effect too because there were so many details to it and components that we had to take into consideration to make sure she worked right.”
“We all love monsters and we all love seeing them in theaters, but sometimes the more you see of the creature can ruin the overall effect and that’s why the work we did in Aliens still holds up,” explained Woodruff Jr. “What was so effective about Aliens was how James and Adrian (Biddle) shot everything. It was kind of a game-changer when it came to creature movies because they focused more on the presence and movement of these creatures, which I think makes them just that much more terrifying onscreen. There were these short reveals, but that was really it to Aliens and that approach worked great for the film.”
Another special effects master, Howard Berger, was also part of Stan’s team during production during Aliens and talked about his involvement with the project. “I was working in the molds department on Aliens, so I was busy with creating those. I was also part of the team that were responsible for the harness system inside the Garbage Bag Queen that had the two people inside of it, working together to puppeteer it. I was more of a general shop guy on Aliens and I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t know shit about anything (laughs). I remember we were all saying to each other when the job came in, “A sequel to Alien? It’s been forever, who wants to see that?” so that shows how much we knew (laughs).”
“We weren’t privy to all the details on Aliens when we were working on it, so we’d just keep working on all these effects, pack them up and ship them off to the UK. I remember one night having to work until like 3 AM to get all of these facehuggers ready with Rick (Lazzarini) so we could get them out the door ASAP, but we had no idea why they needed so many of them. There was a lot of pandemonium that came with working on Aliens, but it was awesome,” added Berger.
Check out the extraordinary behind-the-scenes photo gallery for Aliens below, which was provided by the Stan Winston School of Character Arts and be sure to check back here all weekend for more of Daily Dead’s Stan Winston Week celebration, including a tribute to the man himself from those who knew him best. In case you missed it, don't forget to check out the earlier installments of our Stan Winston Week celebration:
To learn more about the Stan Winston School of Character Arts, visit:
Aliens Behind-the-Scenes Photo Gallery:
"Winston points out details in the alien maquette to director Jim Cameron as John Rosengrant and Shane Mahan look on."
"Caldow models the ripped in half torso built by SWS. For the final shot, SWS crews attached the severed torso prosthetic to the chest area of Henriksen, whose lower body was positioned under an elevated set."
"Shane Mahan puts the finishing touches on the alien queen’s teeth."
"A deceased face-hugger puppet, dressed with real chicken skin and livers."
"Cameron had a bold concept for making the alien queen as a full scale practical creature. The final proof of concept test, stunt performers puppeteered ski-pole arm extensions from inside a crane suspended “garbage bag queen” a foam mockup covered in black trash bags. The term “garbage bag test” has since become synonymous with proof of concept at Stan Winston Studio."
"To allow greater performer mobility for the alien warrior suits- required by the extremely dynamic and acrobatic moves Cameron choreographed for his aliens- SWS built the warrior suits by attaching lightweight poly foam pieces to black leotards."
"Steve Norrington checks the placement of the Queen Alien's upper arm on one of three Queen bodies made for the movie. This body was meant to be seen from above so it has no lower legs or underside to the torso. This is also earlier in the production schedule and still has the blue/brown paint job that was later softened to a deeper tone (of the same colors) closer to filming."
"Alien warrior suit."
"The shot of the alien queen impaling Bishop with her tail employed an “arrow-through-the-head” concept, Henriksen fitted with a prosthetic chest piece and tail tip. Stan Winston sets the gag as Jim Cameron and camera crew prepare to shoot."