Prior to Alien: Covenant's theatrical release, I got in touch with the head of Odd Studio, Adam Johansen and the head of Creatures Inc., Conor O'Sullivan to discuss Covenant's various practical sets, props and the process around their creation. At the time these interview questions were submitted, we had only been given a couple trailers for Alien: Covenant and so, some of the questions reflected our most burning questions of the time. Both Adam and Conor graciously offered up time out of their busy schedules to answer my questions for the fans and community here at Scified / Alien-Covenant.com. Due to the spoiler-ish nature of some of the questions, I had to refrain from posting until after the film's release. By now, I would assume most of our readers have seen the film, so without any further ado, I give you our interview with Odd Studio and Creatures Inc., the companies responsible for bringing the Neomorphs and Xenomorphs alive in Ridley Scott's Prometheus sequel:
Alien-Covenant.com (AC): How did Odd Studio and Creatures Inc first become involved with Alien: Covenant?
Conor O'Sullivan (Conor): I’ve worked with Ridley on 3 occasions, Prometheus (we were responsible for the Engineers),
the Counsellor and Exodus. You’d have thought I’d learnt my lesson!
But I enjoy working with him – he’s creative, fun, demonical and loves working with his crew. He decided that he wanted me to head up the Creatures design and Make up effects department – which was a great honour and opportunity.
I had long admired Odd Studios work and after meeting them knew we could work together and make a great team.
Adam Johansen (Adam): I had also admired Conor’s work on projects such as Dark Knight (Heath’s joker make up) and I thought the ‘Engineers’ Creatures Inc did for Prometheus were beautifully done.
Conor contacted myself and Colin Ware October 2015 as he was heading to Australia and was keen to chat about a possible collaboration with Odd Studio on Alien: Covenant. We met and chatted and it quickly became apparent we could work well together. We also have a lot of mutual friends and colleagues both here and in the UK and a partnership seemed
to make sense.
AC: How long would you say Odd Studio and Creatures Inc spent working on Covenant?
Conor: We started on the project in November 2015 – and finished on the main shoot in July 2016 – though there were some pick-ups. I am currently working on an installation of the creatures for Madam Tussauds – so I’m still on it.
Adam: Yes, November 2015 was when I officially started and by mid November my Odd Studio business partner Damian Martin joined me along with Colin Ware and Emily James, working
on some initial sculptures and finishing tests. Actually, I had a day last week going through Fox storage for some pick ups. So maybe I’ve only just finished working on Covenant as of
the start of March 2017!
AC: Compared to your work on other films, would you say Covenant was more challenging or
was it a fairly smooth process?
Conor: Ridley is demonical! He likes to stir it up for everyone – the crew the cast, and the producers. He does that because it achieves a greater degree of effective creativity.
It was very challenging. Above all of that, Alien is an incredible high standard to maintain. As Adam said once – it almost made him feel physically sick working on it.
Adam: Alien, was one of those films that to say had a huge impact on me would be a monumental understatement. The world that Giger and Ridley created together, using Giger’s artwork for the creature, instantly became a cinematic classic.
Following that legacy and being honoured with working with Ridley Scott on an Alien film was indeed a huge responsibility. That responsibility, combined with the sheer scale of the
project and the pace of which it ran, was one of the most challenging jobs I’ve been involved with.
AC: What aspect(s) of creating props for Alien: Covenant were the most challenging?
Conor: For me the design was the most difficult thing. Getting my crew of designers to give Ridley not only what he wanted – but also what he needed. It was a difficult balancing act.
Adam: Personally, the design of the adult Neomorph, in particular the head, was most challenging. There were many, many artists working on the designs for this but nobody was quite getting there. Ridley continually referenced a goblin shark for the mouth/jaw articulation and a sketch form Carlos Haunte. I sculpted many maquettes and full scale heads while Colin Shulver worked on the body in Zbrush with Conor compositing both elements together in photoshop until Ridley was happy. Damian did a gorgeously disgusting paint job and colour scheme to finish it off. When we presented the finished full scale Neomorph head to Ridley on location in NZ he was thrilled. It was a satisfying moment. Generally, the design of most creatures was challenging because again, we were trying to
give Ridley exactly what he wanted and also trying to retain a Giger aesthetic.
AC: What aspect(s) of creating props for Alien: Covenant were the most enjoyable?
Conor: Working with Adam and his crew!
I like working on set with the things we’ve made. But otherwise we did a lot of 3D printing and I found this very interesting and productive.
Adam: I enjoyed working with Conor and his crew too. Both our crews worked very well together and it resulted in one big creature crew family, with old friendships re ignited and many new friendships made among our 45 strong crew. Having such a dedicated and talented crew made it all possible and made the experience most enjoyable for me.
This was the first time I’d worked with Ridley and it was a career highlight for me to work so closely with him, especially on set. Be it puppeteering or dressing blood, KY and food onto
our puppets/suits/effects with him was an unbelievable experience for me. He really loves to get things in front of the camera and shoot effects/creatures practically and that was an
honour to see him in action with our creations.
AC: We know Covenant will feature a variety of Alien monsters, a few of which are familiar to us. Since Ridley Scott teased the return of the Chestburster, are you able to confirm if a practical model of a Chestburster was created and used?
Conor: We designed and made a practical version of the chestburster – Dominic Hailstone came up with the design. It was a simple puppet made in a beautiful glass clear silicone
It’s very new. Gonna be controversial!
Adam: I loved the puppet we came up with and Ridley and Dom’s design in my opinion was gorgeous. Greg McKee our head animatronic designer came up with a beautiful little armatured puppet that moved very well. As it’s a departure from the original, I feel it may divide audiences too.
AC: To what extent would you say your practical effects have been paired with CGI? By this I mean, is there an overabundance of practical effects used with complimenting CGI enhancements? Or were most props used un-altered by CGI?
Conor: Hmm, at the point of this interview it’s difficult for us to know what will end up on screen. Everything was built and filmed, with the discussion of cg augmentation etc required for some elements.
Adam: At this point it is difficult to say what is and what is not CG. We made practical effects for all of the creatures and all the make-up effects – even though some of the creatures we had designed were impossible to realize without CG.
Ridley prefers to film everything for real and then use it to dictate lighting, textures and design in CG. It seems to be part of Ridley’s process, making things practically and shooting
it to determine how it’ll end up, practical, cg…or both.
Remember - you’d have thought I’d learnt my lesson!
AC: We've heard Alien: Covenant will utilize animatronics as well, for various aliens throughout the film. One of these is the Xenomorph itself. Are you able to elaborate at all on this specific piece?
Conor: The Xeno’s design was one of the impossible creatures to realize practically. But we gave it a go.
Adam: The full scale suit was unlike any creature suit we’ve produced before. I think we came up with something really neat. I still clearly remember the conversation Conor and I had which
was a bit like “what if we…”.
It stayed as true to the proportions of the design as much as practically possible I think. A huge bunraku suit/puppet with some animatronic movements in the head/neck by Greg McKee. The life size version was an animatronic puppet attached to an actor (a bit like a Chinese dragon) with animatronic head etc. I started fleshing out the full scale body sculpture and was joined by Dominic Hailstone.
Together we worked on the body and Dominic moved onto the full scale legs and arms. Bradley Simmons sculpted the initial head and face. Later there were some facial tweaks made by myself and Robert Trenton.Colin Shulver was working on the design too in Zbrush. Marea Fowler, our head fabricator
did a brilliant job bringing the suits together making it as comfortable as possible for our creature performer, Andrew Crawford. Andrew did an amazing job wearing and performing in the suit, on stilts, in very trying conditions and small on small set environments. Damian, myself and Julian Ledger did the art finishing on the suit and Julian painted all the translucent carapaces.
A smaller, more traditional xeno suit, worn by Goran D. Kleut was requested by Ridley for shots where the full scale suit, which stood over 7.5feet tall would’ve been impossible to use. This was sculpted by Andy Hunt and Colin Shulver and painted again by Damian and Julian.
Conor: The final body design by Colin Shulver was realized towards the end of shooting.
We made 3 practical versions – 1 at life size version (8 ½ feet tall) and another as a man in a suit and a third totally animatronic upper body.
AC: Was an animatronic suit created for the new Alien creature (Neomorph) as well?
Conor: A simple suit was made as well as a separate animatronic head.
Adam: The Neomorph is seen at varies stages of growth. This meant we had to produce 2 versions of small rod puppets, some stand in and vfx reference heads and the adult suit and animatronic head Conor mentioned.
AC: Early rumors suggested the new Aliens in Alien: Covenant would have translucent skin, like the original concept for Giger's Xenomorph. Are you able to confirm if a translucent puppet or suit was created for Alien: Covenant?
Conor: We always use translucency using silicones – wherever we can. The Neomorphs have skin like an old man or a new born bird.
Adam: Yes, the are really translucent elements to both creatures however the Neomorphs are definitely the more translucent of the two. We referenced a lot of aquatic animals such as the goblin shark and sting rays etc for the finish.
AC: The shower scene at the end of the Alien: Covenant trailer, was that Alien a suit or CGI, or blend of both?
Conor: This was the animatronic head and torso. It was our first outing of our Alien creature – which was barely ready. From what I can see there have been some enhancements but it is largely a practical shot.
Adam: Actually this was one of the most enjoyable shots with the Xenomorph for me. We were literally sitting in the next shower cubicle with our big animatronic xeno soaking wet as Conor puppeeteered the tail and I was the hand coming into shot.
AC: The eggs seen in the Covenant Trailer look taller and less bulbous than the ones in previous Alien films. Was this merely a design preference or can you say whether or not these are "different" eggs?
Conor: They are slightly different eggs – again one of the designs Ridley like by Dominic. I think I prefer the original shape – more Aphid egg like.
AC: You worked closely with Alien: Covenant's concept artists to bring their imaginations to life. Were there any of their concepts which you did not get a chance to create, but wish you could have?
Conor: We were the Alien: Covenant Creature concept artists. I would have liked to have more time.
Adam: When we began the project we were under the impression most things were designed and had been signed off on, but this was not the case and we did become the concept artists/designers.
AC: Of all the practical props and effects you worked on for Covenant, which was the most memorable (if you can say)?
Adam: I loved all the shots we worked on but perhaps the most memorable for me was the first gag we shot, which was filmed on location in Milford Sound NZ. This was the beginning of principle photography and the scene was insanely violent and technically challenging. The scene was with my good friend Nathaniel Dean who plays Hallet, whom Damian, myself and Colin Ware had worked with years ago on Farscape. It was the Creature Dept’s first gag so it was a big deal for us, making sure we nailed it. After a few takes and after many, many litres of blood, slime and entrails had covered Nathaniel he looks at me. And right before the next take he smiles like a kid and says “How fucking awesome is this!” I hope the audience finds them all memorable.
Conor: They’re all totally unforgettable – but the chestburster’s going to be the controversial one.
AC: How many "burster" sequences can we expect to be completely practical?
Conor: The chestburster is largely digital replacement I think, however the mouth and backburster's should be 90 % practical.
AC: We know Ridley enjoyed scaring his cast in both Alien and Prometheus by surprising them with some form of practical effect gag - to elicit a real, natural response. In Alien, it was the Chestburster sequence and in Prometheus, it was the Hammerpede escape sequence. Did Mr. Scott request any similar set-ups from your team prior to filming certain scenes? If so, we're they effective?
Conor: He did – with everything. We shot facehugger's out of eggs, made dummies of everybody and sprayed more blood around than an abattoir.
Adam: Ridley would make sure the cast weren’t in earshot when he discussed sequences on set with Conor and myself.
AC: Were there any setbacks or issues which arose while building any of the props or suits?
Conor: The biggest setback for us was time. We had been told that all the creatures were all designed and there would only be motion capture suits with ref heads for us to make for the CG guys to ad in the digital creatures.
We were just to do practical make up effects and do the design.
I should have known better – I never learn my lesson it seems.
There were hundreds of random designs - none of which Ridley had committed too. Then Ridley decided at the last minute to make men in suits (something I subconsciously knew he was going to do all the time) – which then began a frantic search for suitable cast and crew.
Adam: Time was an issue especially with the late decision to make suits. Finding the right cast for the suits and then obviously producing the suits required the team to be at the top of their game and we certainly benefitted from years of experience building creature suits in short time frames from the Farscape days.
AC: Were there any dramatic changes made to any of your props throughout or just prior to filming? If so, are you able to say which ones and why?
Conor: Things got a bit jumpy on our first outing with the Xeno.
Ridley had approved a design by Bradley Simmons – which we had scanned, printed molded remodeled and cast.
But in the frantic activity of starting the shoot, travelling to a remote location and then trying to get the thing ready we had all overlooked the impracticality around the lips design.
When the mouth closed, the muscles went baggy – which looked crap. Adam, Rob Trenton, Damien Martin and a few others - did a couple of long days (and nights) and sorted the whole
thing out. Jumpy but we got through it.
Adam: Yeah, I basically made the call to strip the Xeno face back to the skull and redesign it as it wasn’t totally working. That required us working around the clock to redesign, resculpt, recast and finish it. I’m so glad we did because Ridley’s response to the modified look was “There he is!”
AC: Have you enjoyed reading some of the fan theories on the internet regarding Alien: Covenant? Have there been any rumors or speculations which caught your attention?
Adam: The leaked photos stirred up loads of theories, which were interesting to read. New names/titles/theories for some of the space creatures have been fun to read :-)
Conor: Nothings really caught my attention – but I know there will be stuff once it comes out.
AC: How would you rate your experience working on Alien: Covenant? Compared to previous films you've been involved with; would you say Alien ranks higher on your list? Why or why not?
Conor: I’ve aged about 20 years. Stressful, fun, creative and a great experience.
Adam: Working with Ridley Scott on an Alien film, where I was privileged enough to co-supervise the creature effects, is about as high an honour as I can imagine. Other career highlights I’ve been honoured to be involved with was working with George Miller on a Mad Max (Fury Rd) film and George Lucas on 2 Star Wars films.
I definitely aged on Alien: Covenant, it was very stressful but one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
AC: Finally, can you tell us what the "Black Goo" is really for?
Conor: The black Goo? The God’s special jam.
Adam: Nope ;)
I would like to send a big thank you to Adam of Odd Studio and Conor of Creatures Inc for taking the time to answer these questions and for elaborating as much as they could. Having seen Covenant, it's fun to read their responses - the Chestburster scene was definitely a controversial one.
As always, feedback is encouraged so feel free to leave your thoughts on the interview in the comments below! Also, I encourage you to like Odd Studio's Facebook page and Creatures Inc's Facebook page, as they both keep sharing incredible behind-the-scenes Alien: Covenant photos, which fans here will definitely appreciate.
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