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"Alien: Ore" (2019) Q & A, Vancouver FX, part 2

As part of my ongoing Q & A series on "Alien: Ore" (2019), this interview is with Vancouver FX, the company involved with the practical special effects, on-set. 


The Current State of Special Effects, cont.

Nick: I'm a huge fan of special effects from older movies, ranging from The Terminator (1984) or Häxan (1922). There's something of a time stamp to these effects, but also a particular level of inventiveness. Do you think digital technology streamline the effects, making them "easier," but robbing them of their charm and personal flavor?

Dallas: The old classics will always be there to guide us as we create new creatures and effects moving forward. I go back and watch the originals often for inspiration and to study styles of the time. This whole industry is built off these amazing artists who came before and laid a foundation using practical effects. Whether practical or digital, none of it is easy to create; it takes time and specialized artistry. When done right, a CGI effect can be almost unnoticeable. An "easier" effect done bad—whether practically or digitally—is still just a bad effect and hurts the final look and feel of a film.

Apart from these pig sentries, Häxan also featured stop motion, forced perspective, and other classic special effects.

Nick: I feel that special effects are more effective when performed in the same physical space as the actors themselves. Do you think it's always better to have something visual to respond to, versus nothing but a greenscreen and a dangling tennis ball?

Dallas: Having a practical prop or set built is always preferable. I know a lot of actors prefer something static to work with allowing their performance to be more realistic on camera. Who wants to interact with a tennis ball or greenscreen when you can have the real thing!


Nick: Is horror your favorite genre to work in, effects-wise, or do you think fantasy and non-horror sci-fi are just as rewarding?

Dallas: I am a creature-maker at heart and building monsters is my full-time lifestyle. If there's a character design or film idea that really stands out to me, those are the projects I tend to take on. "Alien: Ore" is a great example of that, and the whole process of working on this film was very rewarding for me and my team. If there are horror or fantasy monsters to build, I'm [certainly] up for the challenge of bringing them to life.

The Ovomorph eggs—created by Vancouver FXon the set of "Alien: Ore" (photo courtesy of Vancouver FX). [editor's note: These eggs by Vancouver FX are exceptionally well-made, but still look like props in this photo. It goes to show that the correct angle, lighting levels (and use of slime) make all the difference!]

Nick: On that note, the new Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (2019) is upon us. If the show does well, do you think its use of classic puppeteer techniques (married with digital touch-ups) is something that could spark a renaissance of similar "puppetry in horror," which might very well change the way Alien movies are made—a rediscovery of older effect styles to bring the xenomorph to life?

Dallas: The Dark Crystal, by far, has been the most influential practical effects movie of my life. When I heard The Jim Henson Company was shooting another one after all these years, I got pretty excited. From what I've seen so far it looks amazing. As a special effects artist and puppeteer myself, I can only hope more productions see the value of in-camera creature and puppet effects in the future. The more tools a director has to work with, the better for the next Alien film.

Getting the Role

Nick: Did you hear about the project beforehand and audition for it, or were you approached for the role?

Dallas: The film production had posted a call for special effects artists and we had contacted production for details. When they told us that a chestburster "aftermath" and full size, Giger-style Ovomorph eggs were needed, I said we were interested and things developed from there.

Nick: How did you feel when you heard about the call for special effects artists for an Alien-related project?

Dallas: Truly, I just wanted the experience of sculpting and painting the full-size eggs. Giger is one of my favorite designers, [and] I've studied his art style for a long time. The chance to create those epic props is what convinced me to take the [Ore] gig on such short notice. After the set wrapped, I got to take them back to the studio where we have them on display as a nice reminder of the show.

Vancouver FX artists Dallas Harvey and Alisha Schmitt applying the Chestburster prosthetic (photo courtesy of Vancouver FX).

The Effects

Nick: Did you hear about the project and estimate, beforehand, how many effect shots would need to be completed? Did this number differ greatly from the number you had to actually perform, on-set?

Dallas: When I spoke with production, the directors knew already what they wanted to be created. Once we knew everything involved and [the overall] timeline, we started designing the effects. On the day of shooting, we added a few on-set effects like FX slime dripping and acid-to-ax disintegration. But most [of the] effects were well-thought-out and pre-planned, ahead of time.


Nick: Is there any particular effect that took the longest to prepare in advance?

Dallas: The Ovomorph eggs took the longest to fabricate because they were at full size. We only had one master mold and had to create four full-size Ovomorph eggs in time for shooting. The crew in studio was working around the clock for a few weeks to get everything ready to go. I spent the last night before the shoot painting all the eggs with an airbrush before packing them in the moving van a few hours later. The schedule was tight, but it was worth it. On set, they looked amazing—all covered in alien goo before the cameras started rolling! [editor's note: the slime really helped the eggs glisten, much how the Derelict set glistened, in the original 1979 Alien.]

The Derelict set, from Alien.

Nick: Was there ever a discussion between you and the directors about a chest-bursting sequence?

Dallas: Early on, it was said they just wanted the Chestburster aftermath. I don't recall talking about doing an actual Chestburster creature build, due to the story [script] not showing a sequence like that.


Nick: If you could've done a chest-bursting scene, how would you have gone about it?

Dallas: The original chest-bursting scene by far is my favorite—[the] most memorable of all [the Alien] films. If the option had been on the table, I would have sculpted a practical puppet and tried to keep it as close to the original as possible; puppet builds are a specialty of mine and I really like making the creatures I design come to life. Creating tricky creature builds like that is why I love my job.

Being on Set

Nick: As part of the effects crew, how did it feel being on-set, in an Alien movie?

Dallas: Shooting the film in Britannia Mines really felt like you were in the movie Alien. There was a point when I was dressing the eggs, adding slime with the mine water dripping in the darkness. Everyone else was shooting on another set and smoke was pumping down into the chamber. For a moment, I really felt I was in an Alien film and one of the eggs was gonna burst open next to me. An unforgettable set experience for sure!


Nick: Working with the actors, does it ever feel uncanny seeing them alive whilst working on "dead" versions of them?

Dallas: I'm pretty used to creating gore and realistic dead bodies, so it doesn't really bother me much. The actor Calder Stewart (who played the Chestburster victim) was really great to work with. We had a lot of laughs during the prosthetic makeup application and getting him placed in the chamber, on set.


Nick: Are actors generally pretty relaxed when it comes to being "killed"? Or, when applying their make-up, are there any tricks to helping them relax?

Dallas: Once we had Calder down on the ground in the chamber with the prosthetic applied, our main job was just keeping him warm and comfortable. Playing a dead body can be fun, but [it can also require] long hours, so we kept things light by joking around a bit throughout the shooting day. Everyone had a good time and the shot looked great on camera.


On-set Chestburster special effects makeup application, by Vancouver FX (photo courtesy of Vancouver FX). [editor's note: In this image, the gore is plain to see; in the final version of the movie, shadows and camera angels obfuscate these details. To paraphrase Ann Radcliffe, horror annihilates the audience's ability to imagine; terror allows their imagination to expand.]

The Ending (spoilers)

Nick: At the end of the movie, the crew confronts the monster. Ultimately the decision was made to go with a digital version, per Image Engine. Given the chance, how would you have implemented a practical alien, instead?

Dallas: Creating a practical alien suit for this film—while sounding like an awesome idea—would not have been the best way to go with the time frame and budget they were working with. If I had created an alien, my suggestions would have been: make a practical head and hands, but CGI the rest of the tail and body not seen as much, in-shot. An integrated approach would be best—with the practical elements showcased up close and in camera.

An image of the xenomorph by Image Engine, taken from their breakdown reel for "Alien: Ore."

Nick: What do you think of Image Engine's monster design? Would you have favored a design less like Stan Winston's and more like Giger's 1979 original? Do you have a favorite version of the monster, from all of the Alien movies or videogames?

Dallas: When it comes to monster designs it really depends on what the directors and production are wanting to see. I'm always going to be a fan of the original suit design, but when a production comes to me I'll [create] whatever style Alien creature they ask [for]; I'm just there to make their vision happen.



Nick: Who do you think wins, the xeno or the miners? For that matter, do you generally root for the monsters?

Dallas: I think in this case the monsters always win. Almost all the miners die in the end and one gets away, like they always do. I'm a fan of the "not-so-happy-ending" monster movie.

Closing Thoughts

Nick: How happy are you with the final product? Did it turn out better than you expected? In hindsight, would you do anything different?

Dallas: I thought the production turned out great (and I've heard this as well from many others who've seen it). A great response all around. The whole production team came together with what they had available and really made it work.

The use of real buildings and locations really add to the overall effect "Alien: Ore" maintains throughout its run time (image courtesy of Suzanne Friesen).

Nick: Given your experiences with "Alien: Ore," would you return for a feature-length sequel, if that were an option?

Dallas: For sure I would come back for more aliens and gore! The sci-fi/horror nerd in me would never turn down a chance to build more Alien universe designs.


Nick: If there was a sequel, would you push for the monster effects mostly being practical?

Dallas: I think a combined practical-and-CGI approach would be optimal to get the most out of the creature design. As a fan of both styles, the best way would be to integrate both techniques and pull off a next-level Alien creature. Maybe in the future they will film a new functional design that everyone loves.
***

This concludes the interview. Many thanks to Fox for allowing these interviews; to the interview subjects; and to Kailey and Sam for being so friendly, enthusiastic and helpful

If you liked this interview, check out all my interviews on "Alien: Ore." For even more details on "Alien: Ore," watch my lengthy analysis.

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