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COWBOYS AND ALIENS

Designing The Creatures
Even with the most sophisticated computer-generated imagery available to them, the filmmakers' thoughts returned to the seminal alien-invasion movies with which they'd grown up. Moviemaking technology has advanced rapidly in the 34 years since Spielberg brought his creatures to the screen in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the choices for contemporary filmmakers have expanded exponentially.

Favreau wondered if some of the subconscious dimensions of the genre have been lost in the process. "There's a certain timelessness in the way Close Encounters comes across,” he says, "a certain unknown quality to the aliens. We're borrowing a lot from classic depictions of aliens, and you see them through the eyes of our lead characters…you get glimpses of them. Think Predator, think Alien: that's the view of aliens we have. They're dangerous, clearly, they have much higher technology, yet there's a very primal brutality to them.”

The team's desire to create suspense and horror extended to both the creation and reveal of the film's antagonists. "You want to play the same games that you had to before there was CG,” says the director, "to use fear, darkness and imagination when you reveal the alien, to allow it to unfold in a way that has some elegance.”

Once again, he harkened back to the films of his youth for inspiration. "We were going for the look and feel and tone of the pre-CG films like Close Encounters, Predator, Alien. Those films played with the mind; those were movies where there was an interplay between audience and filmmaker, and that's just part of telling a good campfire monster story.”

Says Favreau of his inspiration: "It's been amazing to pick Steven Spielberg's brain and say, ‘How do you use today's technology to present the imagery and the feeling that I felt so strongly when I saw Close Encounters?' There's this ineffable supernatural force that appears. And as great as the special effects are in Jurassic Park, I think about that cup of water on the dashboard. It's how you tease the event, how you build to it when that dinosaur is stepping and you just see the water shaking. So, the first time we encounter the aliens, it's in the parameters of nighttime in this old Southwest town and there's about to be a scuffle. You have our lead characters, and then slowly on the horizon the lights come. Before they know it, aliens are upon them, blowing the town up and snatching people.”

To design and build the aliens, the production turned to award-winning Stan Winston Studio principal and alum SHANE MAHAN and his company, Legacy Effects. In less than two weeks, his team had drawn up 60 designs for the filmmakers.

In addition to creating an heir to some of Mahan's other cinematic aliens, whether the Queen Alien or the Predator, his team looked to create a creature that was unique in both design and mechanics. "It's not just something you haven't seen before,” explains Mahan, "but you're also trying to build something that's mechanically innovative and something people can't figure out.”

Their alien—part insect, part amphibian, part sea creature—was distinctly different from its predecessors. Rather than creating a suit simply for someone to wear, Mahan created a set of complex multifunctional rigs with interchangeable parts. The result was a towering eight-foot monster with a remote-controlled head, a fully articulated face and horribly malformed arms that protrude from its torso during some of its more disturbing encounters with humans. "It's one of the most technically sophisticated organic pieces that we've done in a long time,” says Mahan.

When our heroes seek shelter from the rainy night in the upside-down riverboat that's mysteriously landed in the desert, Emmett is led by his curiosity to wander about. He meanders through the increasingly foreboding space, hears something and freezes, and then all at once, he is face-to-face with an alien. Its horrible head dips down until he and the creature are looking at each other at eye level.

Of the design, Mahan recalls: "Steven said that the alien's face had to have personality, recognizable eyes, mouth and brow—something that people could relate to.” Built into the multichannel remote-controlled head are some surprises. "In terms of creature design, you have to keep the audience's attention; you have to build in many reveals.” At first, the alien is curious, searching Emmett's face, examining him the way you might an insect you've come across. But then, in an instant, it transforms. Its eyes protrude, and it opens its mouth to reveal hideous rows of spiny teeth and oozing goo.

As Mahan explains, there are many advantages to having physical creatures to work with rather than relying solely on ones that are added through CGI. "There's a psychological benefit to seeing something that's actually been photographed. It's dripping, it's doing weird things. People are really reacting to it, and you can sense that intimacy. That helps lend credence to the digital work that happens later.”

Jumping in to supplement the work of the special visual effects team was Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic. Under the supervision of award-winning visual effects supervisor ROGER GUYETT, this group handled the lion's share of visual effects and animation for the project. Top-notch teams at The Embassy Visual Effects, Ghost FX, Fuel VFX, The Garage VFX and Shade FX created additional VFX on Cowboys & Aliens. New Deal Studios and Kerner Optical crafted models and miniatures and contributed special effects for the production.

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