Keeping it Real – The Effects of AVP: Requiem (2008)
This was a sidebar interview for a larger feature on Aliens Versus Predator 2: Requiem, from Death Ray 10. I find special effects techniques really interesting (although back in the day I did get very bored of explaining that SFX wasn’t a magazine about, um, sfx), even when the film isn’t much cop…
The monster masters behind AVP-R’s gallery of extraterrestrial nasties talk physical versus digital, and the problem of short tall men.
Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem is all about the creatures, obviously. Two iconic aliens belting each other about the chops, a big draw for fans being the brand new “predalien”, an alien warrior that gestated in the body of a predator, that, like all aliens, has taken on some of its host’s characteristics. As you might expect, it’s bigger, faster and stronger than a puny human-spawned xenomorph, with a chocking great tail.
A conscious decision was made on the part of the film’s production crew to stick almost exclusively with physical effects. Enter Amalgamated Dynamics Inc., a traditional effects shop run by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis. These guys do everything, including perform as monsters. With a string of awards to their names they’ve worked, crucially, on every Alien film bar the first, and on the original Predator.
“The techniques that we use, we can probably say that they’re old school,” Gillis explains to us. “There was a time, because we’re noticing a change in film-making, when you got an organic or perhaps random benefit to having a real-life thing on set. Nowadays, as flexible as the digital proponents like to tout the technology as being, you lose a lot of the spontaneity of having the thing on set. And that’s what we love. We love getting in there with the slime and the rubber and the fake blood and just making it look as real as we possibly can.”
The film has several alien warriors, the predalien, and a lone predator, all of which were physically real, so the film was a fair job of work for ADI.
“These movies have been great for us,” Gillis says. “We’re used to coming in on big studio films and picking up the scraps that the digital companies don’t have time for, or that are too expensive. We’re looked at as a lower cost alternative. And quite frankly there’s a lot of territorialism among these big digital corporations, but we’re a smaller business than that, it’s just Tom and I and our small team, so we come in and say ‘Fine, we’ll do whatever you want, we’re not going to force our techniques on you,’ but if a director prefers what we do over the digital, it’s ‘What can we do to help?’ In the case of the AVP movies, they come to us and they say: a) We don’t have the money to spend on huge digital budgets, and b) most importantly, we like the look of the practical stuff.
“Take a James Bond film, right. If you go into a James Bond movie and you’re seeing a bunch of digital fakery, you’re saying what happened to all the stuntmen risking their lives and the cool miniatures or the full-scale bridges that are being blown up? It’s a disappointment. With the AVP movies, we feel that part of their hallmark is the reality of them. If you want 100,00 aliens running up a pyramid, don’t look at us. If you want close contact with your actors, if you want a 20-foot queen alien that can provide you with 60 percent of your shots but not all of them, then we can help, so that’s how we come at it.”
With Requiem, ADI have taken the look of the creatures back to their roots, with ribbed alien warriors hearkening to those of Aliens, and a single, seven-foot tall predator without armour – which is what the creatures looked like in the original movies.
“When we did the predators on AVP 1, we were very concerned as there was such a different armour design direction that Paul Anderson wanted to go in. People were used to seeing the Predator in steamy jungles with barely anything on but a mesh body suit. But you know, Paul’s idea was that these guys are fighting aliens now, so you’ve got to clad them in armour, because if Arnold Schwarzenneger can draw blood from a predator, just think what an alien would do to one. We had to cover them quite a bit, and that leads to certain inevitable outcomes in terms of bulk. Then there was the fact that we only had one seven-foot guy wearing the suit in AVP 1. We were feeling, and I think the fans felt it too, that the predators were too stocky and chunky generally speaking. So it was great on AVP–R to go back and redo it. And because we’re focussed on the adventures of one Predator, we could get Ian Whyte and make of his fantastic height and his performance ability.”
Ian Whyte , an ex-pro Welsh basketball player, is the predator in AVP-R. He also portrayed every predator in the first AVP. He’s a mighty 7′ 1″, but lesser men than he had to be used when there were multiple Predators in a scene.
“When you get into Central Europe, where we shot AVP 1, you don’t have the NBA out there, growing them large, so it was tough,” explains Gillis. “I think the tallest guy we had was 6′ 10″, who was a surgeon. At one point he said, ‘You know, I have to get out of this suit because I have to go perform surgery,’ so we lost our tallest predator that day, We had guys as short as 6′ 5” in the suits, that’s always heartbreaking.
Um, that’s still pretty big…
“Yeah, I know, when does a 6′ 5″ guy get told he’s too short!?”
The climax of the film involves a battle between the predator and predalien, which towers over the hunter.
“Tom’s not that tall. what we did was we changed some of the proportions, we made arms of the predalien longer, we made the head larger and longer. And generally speaking with the predator you can get away with full body shots, because he is very humanoid. With the predalien we like to maintain the insect-like quality. So the alien suits are really made to be most effective when show from the hips up, and that was the case with the predalien. We just had Tom on risers and boxes whenever we could. In some of the stunt fight scenes, I’m anxious to see how it cuts together, because sometimes when a stuntman is making a leap or lunging through the air you see him full body. It’s always the difficulty with these creatures, you have to pick your angles and cut properly so that you maintain the creepiness, and minimise the man in the suit look.
“Even in the first one, as brilliant as the suit was, and as tall and thin as the performer was, when you see it standing in the doorway, and dangling from the rope at the end of the movie you say ‘Oh, it’s a man, it’s just a guy.’ Newer audiences are accustomed to what these creatures look like. We’ve seen the toys and all the artwork and all that stuff, so it’s not really as much as a problem as it once was – people see what they expect – but still in the movies we like to maintain as much of the insect-like proportions as much as we can.”
Having the man who designed a creature actually portray it must have its advantages in achieving this.
“Absolutely,” agrees Gillis. “Tom has more experience at this point than any other suit performer, so there’s a great deal of performance savvy and knowing how to work the rubber to get the effect. But beyond that he’s invested in the success of the character from the pride of authorship, you know Tom is not going to be the one who complains that a zipper’s pinching him or that he’s been in there too long and he’s tired. He will call me over privately, like he did on AVP: R when we were shooting in Vancouver in the middle of November, as snow was falling. We were shooting at night, with big rain towers pumping rain, and it’s freezing when it hits the ground, and Tom is in this rubber suit that’s soaking up this freezing water and he tells me “I can’t s-s-stop shaking,” and I realise, shit, this guy’s about to go into hyperthermia. I don’t think too many performers would commit themselves in that way.”