Aliens: The Set Photography

A 30th anniversary, behind-the-scenes look at the making of James Cameron’s classic feature film Aliens

In a classic moment from Aliens, the facehugger attacks Ripley, wrapping its tail around her throat. Cameron wanted the creature to be able to do exactly as he wanted, so two working props were built.

“Aliens: The Set Photography” delivers both nostalgia and a plethora of insightful, high-quality images shot during the making of the film. The book release coincides with the film’s 30th anniversary, recently celebrated at Comic-Con with a panel that included Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn and writer/director James Cameron. Cameron, working with then-wife/producer Gale Anne Hurd, made the most of their $17 million budget, ultimately delivering an adrenalized sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien that felt more like a $40 million blockbuster on the big screen. (When Cameron couldn’t afford a laser needed for one scene, Hurd had him pay for it out of pocket.)

It wasn’t all roses during the Pinewood Studios-based production, however, with Cameron dismissing his original male lead (James Remar) and first choice for cinematographer (Dick Pope, BSC) early on in the filmmaking process. The rest of Cameron’s ensemble gelled wonderfully, as recalled by actress Carrie Henn (who plays child Newt) in an introductory recollection for the book.

“The Marines used to run around Pinewood Studios in formation and practice running together,” she recalls. “I used to want to join in. I had my Cabbage Patch Kid, who was my pride and joy, so I’d run along behind them with my Cabbage Patch Kid under my arm because I didn’t have a gun. They let me join in some things, so they definitely had that camaraderie.”

A 30th anniversary, behind-the-scenes look at the making of James Cameron’s classic feature film Aliens
Carrie Henn with Sigourney Weaver between takes. Carrie Henn: “Sigourney was carrying me around, as well as those two big guns; having a child the same age as I was, I feel horrible for Sigourney having to carry me around so much!”

Cameron went out of his way to look after the young actress in the performer’s only big-screen role. He kept Henn at ease during the shoot, aware that she was starring in a role that could easily become terrifying for a girl of her age. Yet even the alien menacing her character in those dark watery set pieces didn’t wind up frightening the young actress. “The stuntman in the alien suit and I would sit on the pipes between takes, drinking tea and practicing our swim kicks,” she reveals.

Book author Simon Ward reports how replacement cinematographer Adrian Biddle, BSC, utilized ARRIFLEX 35mm cameras with Canon lenses throughout the shoot, also dropping tidbits on how the hues on the soldiers’ fatigues were designed to work specifically with predominantly blue lighting (a Cameron trademark). We also discover that Vasquez’s Smart Gun was built from a Steadicam rig festooned with Kawasaki motorcycle parts, but such matters have been covered more extensively in other Aliens documents, including the exhaustive supplements available on LaserDisc, DVD and Blu-ray.

The book’s success lies in it presentation of strong and compelling images. The film’s story is represented in photos presented over the pages in chronological order, as well as a fascinating “behind-the-scenes” section that reveals detailed stills of the film’s many miniatures, mostly designed by conceptual artists Syd Mead and Ron Cobb, along with significant input from Cameron himself.

A 30th anniversary, behind-the-scenes look at the making of James Cameron’s classic feature film Aliens

Visual effects artist Rick Lazzarini and future film director Stephen Norrington calibrate the animatronic facehugger. Of the two working puppets, one could be pulled along the floor, its legs moving via a gear mechanism to simulate scuttling.

Many images presented in the book strongly reflect Cobb’s assertion that parts of the Alien universe derive from the still-fresh memories of the Vietnam War. Indeed, Cameron had written the original screenplay for Rambo: First Blood Part II (later modified severely by Sylvester Stallone) prior to embarking on Aliens, and his iconic Ripley character certainly seems to be suffering from what one would consider to be post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that also plagued many soldiers returning from Vietnam (as evidenced in HDVP’s coverage this issue on the breaking Cinemax series Quarry).

While Star Wars and Alien brought scavenged hardware and a used future look to space movies on a scale that first adopters Silent Running and Dark Star could scarcely have imagined, Aliens manages to top all those films in this respect. Shipping pallets, display stands for batteries and even a repurposed airport towing tractor that was converted into a rugged APC for Cameron’s Marines are all examples of incredible visual ingenuity on the part of the filmmakers.

A 30th anniversary, behind-the-scenes look at the making of James Cameron’s classic feature film Aliens
To achieve the slime effect on the aliens, copious amounts of K-Y Jelly were used. Pictured here are members of Stan Winston’s crew, including Graham High (bottom, left) and Lindsay McGowan (bottom, right).

This is all displayed in detail throughout Aliens: The Set Photography, a loving paean to one of the best-remembered science-fiction thrillers of the last century, so go grab the book. As the film’s Sgt. Apone once exhorted to his troops: “Get on the ready line, Marines!”

“Aliens: The Set Photography” by Simon Ward is published by Titan Books ($39.95). Available at bookstores and online retailers everywhere.