HR Giger and the making of Alien

Feature Ryan Lambie 15 May 2014 - 05:00

We pay tribute to the work of the late artist HR Giger, and follow the making of his masterpiece of design, the Alien...

It’s the summer of 1978, and the UK’s Shepperton Studios simmers in the heat. Secreted away in his own personal workshop, a Swiss artist works feverishly on his paintings and sculptures, either fashioning strange shapes from gigantic blocks of styrofoam or spraying them with his airbrush.

This is 38-year-old HR Giger, and he cuts an unusual figure. His shock of black hair is slicked back away from his pale forehead. He refuses to take his leather jacket off despite the searing heat. On a bench sits row after row of human and animal bones - skulls, femurs, vertebrae - plus a weird assortment of ribbed hoses, wires and mechanical parts taken from old Rolls Royce motorcars. Quietly, obsessively, Giger is building his Alien.

The story of Alien had really begun three years earlier, on the production of Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune. A legendarily ambitious project which roped in artists from all over Europe - among them Chris Foss, Jean Giraud, and HR Giger - it was perhaps doomed to fail from the start. The legendary surrealist Salvador Dali had agreed to appear in the movie for an exorbitant fee. Jodorowsky had never read Frank Herbert’s source novel. The script was the thickness of a telephone directory.

It was here that Dan O’Bannon, who’d made Dark Star with John Carpenter in 1974, first encountered Giger's work. The artist’s airbrushed paintings were like photographs beamed back from another world. In actual fact, they were reproductions of the mysterious things roiling around in Giger’s subconscious.

“About fifteen years ago," Giger explained in 1978, I had a diary, “a dream book. I had been having the same dreams again and again, and they were nightmares. They were horrifying. But I found that when I made drawings about them, the dreams went away. I felt much better. It was sort of self-psychiatry.” 

Within the space of a few months, Jodorowsky’s Dune project fell apart, leaving its artists and filmmakers to float back to their respective countries. O’Bannon, depressed and broke, wound up on the couch of Ronald Shusett, a young producer then in the throes of adapting Philip K Dick’s short story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale - a project which would one day become Total Recall.

As O’Bannon recovered from the disappointment of Dune, old story ideas began to resurface in his mind. He began working again on a script called Memory, and began collaborating with Ronald Shusett on its ideas. The story gradually evolved into a script first called Starbeast, and then called Alien. Like his earlier Dark Star, Alien would feature an encounter with a xenomorph on a space ship, but this time, he wanted it to be far, far scarier. Subconsciously, O’Bannon may have still been influenced by Giger’s imagery - something he later admitted on the set of Alien in 1978.

“I hadn’t been able to get Hans Ruedi Giger off my mind since I left France,” O’Bannon said. “His paintings had a profound effect on me. I had never seen anything so horrible and yet quite so beautiful in my life. And so I ended up writing a script about a Giger monster.”

Necronom IV

Giger’s impact on the direction of Alien cannot be underestimated. Whether O’Bannon would have come up with the concept for the film without having seen Giger’s work years earlier is debatable, but at the very least, it was Giger’s paintings that ultimately gave the creature lurking in O’Bannon’s head a physical form.

Through a series of fortunate events, the Alien script wound up in the hands of producers at Brandywine - a company owned by David Giler and Walter Hill, who would later extensively rewrite the script - mere weeks before it was due to become a low-budget film at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. This sent what was originally envisioned as a low-budget B-movie into A-picture territory, which led to a new problem: its title monster had to look convincing. Several other artists had a crack at designing the screenplay’s xenomorph. None were particularly successful.

As documented in Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross' The Book Of Alien, the creature was variously imagined as a giant octopus, a small, goblin-like creature (one was sketched by concept artist Ron Cobb), and what was once described as a 'Christmas turkey', all pink skin and ungainly limbs.

By this time, however, a collection of HR Giger’s paintings had been published under the title Necronomicon. It was this book that O’Bannon handed over to director Ridley Scott, recently appointed by Brandywine following the indie success of his low-budget debut, The Duellists. The book was opened on a specific painting called Necronom IV. It depicted in profile a grotesque creature, insectoid yet also mechanical. Its elongated head described the shape of a phallus. In fact, its entire body appeared to be made either of reproductive organs, or of teeth capable of snapping off the genitals of its prey.

Scott, an artist of considerable skill himself, knew he had an image of supreme power in his hands. “Well," Scott said to O’Bannon; “either my problems are over or they’ve just begun...”

The call of Cthulhu

Hans Ruedi Giger was born in Chur, Switzerland in 1940. He was a shy, awkward youth, and often seemed lost in his own private world. He was obsessed with the darkness of the cellar in his parents' house, and while other children were playing sports, the young Giger was often in his back garden, constructing ghost trains.

A talented draftsman, Giger initially trained to be an architect and industrial designer, before he began to draw and paint the after-images from his dreams, first with inks and oils, and later with an airbrush. The art became the by product of his therapy, gradually emerging in front of him as he sprayed the imagery into life.

“When I begin with the airbrush it’s like a cloud, you know, a cloud that retains more and more substance,” Giger once said. “It grows and suddenly I can see the eye or the nose or something, and then it transforms into a head, and in the end there is a creature.”

It was in this way that Giger painted Necronom IV in 1976 - the image which, very soon, would become one of the most pivotal in the history of science fiction cinema.

Giger was profoundly influenced by the work of the surrealist movement, which swept Europe in the 20s and 30s - the fingerprints of such artists as Salvador Dali and Max Ernst can be seen in his paintings, as well as later artists such as Ernst Fuchs and Francis Bacon. But Giger’s influences also ranged further, from the eerie work of symbolist painter and fellow countryman Arnold Böcklin (Giger even painted a homage to Böcklin's most famous work, The Isle Of The Dead, in 1977) to the seductive curves of art nouveau. 

"Sometimes people come and see my paintings," said Giger, "and they only see horrible, terrible things. I tell them to look again, and they may see that I always have two elements in my paintings - the horrible things and the nice things. I mean, I like elegance, I like art nouveau; a stretched line or a curve. These things are very much in the foreground of my work."

The artist also prized the writing of Howard Philips Lovecraft, a master of weird tales who created the Cthulhu Mythos - an uncaring universe where humankind was created by uncaring beings who were both gods and monsters. There’s the same cosmic chill in Giger’s work, and the artist seemed to give tangible form to the slippery, seemingly indescribable creatures which slithered through Lovecraft’s stories. The title of Giger’s book - Necronomicon - was taken from a mythical book in Lovecraft’s weird tales.

The throes of production

Whether they openly spoke about it or not, O’Bannon and Giger appeared to share a common influence in Lovecraft. The Alien script, even in its early drafts, bore faint traces of Lovecraft’s novella At The Mountains Of Madness. A member of the Alien production crew even commented that, with his intense eyes and reclusive, eccentric demeanour, Giger vaguely resembled a character from a HP Lovecraft tale ("I don't think he dares take off those clothes," an anonymous crewmember confided, "because if he did you'd see that underneath he's not human").

In both the art world - who looked on paintings created with an airbrush with sniffy suspicion - and on the set of Alien, Giger remained something of an outsider.

In his corner of Shepperton Studios, Giger single-mindedly worked his black magic. Using his assorted bones, bits of old machinery, Giger painstakingly designed and built what would become the Alien costume: like a vampire, its silhouette was seductive and deadly. He also designed and built the eggs from which the alien, in its fledgling facehugger form, would soon spring, as well as the surface of the planet LV-426, with its horseshoe-shaped ship - dubbed 'the derelict' - its dank, ribbed interior, and its pilot (the 'space jockey'), apparently growing out of its own seat of command.

Giger would sometimes grow frustrated at the restraints of both time and budget. He wanted to build separate set-pieces for the corridor which led into the space jockey’s chamber, and even painted detailed plans for what it should look like. To save money, Ridley Scott took a piece of flooring from a different set, had it turned to a different angle, and used that instead.

"This solution upsets me greatly, like all changes to my designs that have to be made for lack of money," the artist wrote in his book, Giger's Alien. "Not so much as a matter of prestige, but because I think it will look cheap."

Production on Alien may have been fraught, but Giger and Scott appeared to have a similar outlook: both were exacting in their craft, and both had a single, clear vision of what they wanted to do.

"I have seen how important it is to have a director who is so versatile that he can step in as top man in any field," Giger wrote. "Only then can you hope for quality."

As early as December 1978, it was clear that 20th Century Fox had something more than just another B-movie on its hands. An assembly cut of Alien, shown with certain scenes missing and most of the sound effects still incomplete, was presented to a test audience, and their response was, to use an appropriately Giger-esque word, visceral. They jumped, they screamed, they spilled beer on themselves.

Even Giger, exhausted and frustrated though he was by the production of Alien, knew that he was in the midst of something special. In a diary entry dated the 6th September 1978, he wrote the following:

"My idealism has slowly ebbed away, and I've begun to count the days before the final take [...] But one thing I know for certain: Alien will be an extraordinary film, possibly a classic among horror science fiction films."

The Alien unleashed

Released on the 25th May 1979 - Fox boss Alan Ladd Jr’s ‘lucky day’ - Alien quickly became the benchmark for sci-fi horror movies, just as HR Giger had predicted. It owed debt to many genre films which came before it, among them It! The Terror From Beyond Space and Mario Bava’s Planet Of The Vampires. But thanks to a confluence of intersecting talents, expertly brought together under the sure hand of Ridley Scott, Alien transcended all expectations of what a genre could be. It was visually daring, psychologically incisive, and as scary as hell.

Most of all, Alien owed a debt of gratitude to HR Giger, who moulded the Alien from his own nightmares, like Frankenstein creating his monster. In his diaries, Giger documented a difficult and tiring process in the making of Alien, from repeated late nights working on the final details of a set before shooting the next day, to arguments over his contract - the artist's employment was even terminated at one point, before he was reinstated a few days later.

Giger deservedly won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 1980 - a just reward for his hard work and singular vision. The Alien franchise continued, spawning three sequels, two Alien Vs Predator spin-offs, and the 2012 prequel Prometheus. Giger's involvement in them varied from the minimal to the non-existent.

After Alien, Giger never immersed himself in movie design to quite the same extent again, but he was involved in the production of such films as Poltergeist II, Species and Batman Forever (his unique design for the Batmobile was sadly never used).

Beyond movies, Giger's art continued to infiltrate our collective unconscious, and today, there's scarcely an artist or designer working who isn't influenced or at least aware of his extraordinary paintings and sculptures. Traces of his visual style can be seen in videogames, comic books and movies can still be readily seen - the look of planet Krypton in 2013's Man Of Steel many of the hallmarks of Giger's biomechanical aesthetic.

Giger's death on the 12th May 2014 robbed the world of one of its most unique artists, but his body of work continues to exert its hypnotic sway. Even 35 years later, Giger's Alien still lurks in the shadows of our imagination, waiting to pounce.

See also: The Train - the Ridley Scott-HR Giger movie that never was

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