Aliens 30th anniversary: Oral history of Power Loader Ripley vs. The Alien Queen

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It was a showdown between two mad-as-hell mothers.

On one side, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, trying to rescue the little girl Newt (Carrie Henn), the lone survivor of a decimated colony who stands as a surrogate for Ripley’s own lost daughter. On the other, the gargantuan Alien Queen, who mercifully spares Ripley and Newt — only to have the human betray their unspoken deal and torch her nest of hatchlings.

It’s on.

Monday, July 18, marks the 30th anniversary of the debut of Aliens, so EW asked Weaver, director James Cameron, and producer Gale Anne Hurd to reminisce about that final knock-down drag-out.

Later this week, they will reunite with the rest of the cast for a panel at San Diego Comic-Con, and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment will host a free screening at the event on Saturday at 7 p.m. PT. Details here: gofobo.com/aliens30th.

For now, a clash between two deep-space mama grizzlies.

During pre-production, Cameron and the late special effects pioneer Stan Winston started by mocking up the Alien Queen’s 15-foot metal skeleton just to see if it could be puppeted. The team who previously made The Terminator, ironically, did not want to use robotics.

Hurd: One of the things that was most critical was to make sure that what Jim and Stan Winston discussed was viable, and that we wouldn’t need a cable and rod actuated animatronic for something that large. One of the reasons being — it just seemed too dangerous for Sigourney Weaver to be up against something that large, animatronic and unwieldy. What if there’s a swat and it hits someone? That’s going to hurt them — potentially kill them. We wanted to avoid that.

Cameron: I did the initial drawings. I presented them to Stan Winston, and then the next thing was, all right, now how are we going to do this damn thing? Because you got to remember, there was no CG back then. So, you know, we’re talking about big puppets, miniature puppets, and maybe some guys inside it, and I said, well, I think you can put guys inside this thing. I think you can put two people inside it. He thought I was nuts. So we did a test where we built a frame that could hold two people.

20th Century-Fox

Hurd: You’ve got to remember the state of computers back then also, this was not a time of microcircuitry that’s as advanced as it is today. There were robots in manufacturing lines, and we used some robotics in the film, but it was first generation. If it could be choreographed with people, it’s much easier to tell someone what you want to do and how to change something in a nuanced way. And it’s less likely to break!

Cameron: So we hung up this body [skeleton], put a couple guys in it. We covered them in black plastic garbage bags. It was just easy, and cheap, readily available black polyethylene. Then we took it outside and hung it up on a crane, and we shot it with a, you know, camcorder. If you kind of squinted right, you kind of saw how it would work, and so we figured that that was a successful experiment.

Hurd: Once we realized the design could work and we could put two of Stan Winston’s puppeteers in the Alien Queen, Jim proceeded to write the scene.

On set, the actress never learned about how the mechanism of her foe would work. She said she never saw it under construction and only came face to face with it when the Queen was fully functional.

Weaver: It was just so exciting to finally have a confrontation with this thing I had suspected was…  somewhere. It had an almost operatic feeling because the set was so enormous and there was fire everywhere and there was this enormous creature who was, even as a puppet, was so distinctly and fiercely female. So it was kind of a great showdown and very satisfying. I don’t know what [Henn’s] memories of that are. She was a trooper, to stand there, you know, and take it all in.

Everett Collection

Cameron: It all worked out pretty well. Kind of surprisingly well, for being such a hair-brained idea. It was two guys inside the suit that ran the arms, and then the legs were puppeted from off-camera using rods that went to the ankles. There was a guy on a ladder with a long pole with some fishing line on it that was whipping the tail around, and the head was actually a complicated servo with hydraulics. I think probably three or four guys manipulated the different axes of the head.

Weaver: Of course, I don’t think of her as a puppet [laugh], even today. I made sure that I didn’t know all that. I felt I needed to not get too involved in the mechanics so that I could just experience it on the fly. I sort of stayed in my own world. But I know that it must have been crazy inside the Queen, you know?

Cameron: I’ve always said that Sigourney Weaver made the Alien Queen alive because you believed that she believed it was there, you know? A lot of times, she’s reacting to nothing. Other times, she was reacting to the full-size puppet, that was actually there. But it was her investment as an actor that made you believe the Alien Queen I think, as well as all of our tricks with lighting, and slime, and backlight, and smoke, and mist, and steam, and every other damn thing we could throw at it to kind of hide it and make it mysterious.

Sometimes both Ripley and the Queen were miniatures, animated with a process called “go motion,” a more sophisticated version of stop-motion. You can see these model versions from the film in the image above.

Hurd: I kept thinking, ‘There is no way this is gonna work.’ But it did. And you couldn’t tell when we cut from full-size to those [miniatures]. One has to acknowledge that Jim is indeed a genius. He had faith.

Cameron: One of the harder shots was getting it to run after [Ripley] when she runs to the airlock, and that was a miniature puppet that was probably only about 3 feet tall, operated by rods with a slot in the floor. You had to frame it very carefully so you didn’t see the rods, since in those days, you couldn’t even take rods and wires out [digitally]. So that [fight] was basically a giant exercise in practical effects. So it was either practical full scale, or it was practical miniature.

When Ripley wears the Power Loader gear to grapple with the Queen, even the life-sized Sigourney Weaver was being puppeted by a large man inside the yellow armor. The awkward movements made choreography a challenge.

Cameron: I’m the conductor, and Stan was the conductor. I was dealing not only with the Alien Queen, but with the Power Loader as well and with camera motion. We were swinging the camera around to increase the speed of the Queen or the Power Loader and  give it all this kind of rotating, waltz-like or martial-arts-like kind of movement.

Weaver: The whole thing was so exquisitely planned out and rehearsed with the whole special effects team and John Richardson [designer of the Power Loader.] I rehearsed every lunch day, walking in the Power Loader around in a sort of ring somewhere in the studio, like a horse going through its motions with John [Lees], the guy behind me who did a lot of the heavy lifting of the arms, so that we could really be in sync. Jim doesn’t leave stuff to chance. 

For Weaver, the dance begins with a betrayal — The Queen allows Ripley to remove the child and go … But before she leaves, the human opens up with her flamethrower on the nest of eggs.

Weaver: [Ripley] is basically saying my children are more important than yours, you know. And what’s kind of great is that Jim gives the Alien Queen full rights of motherhood, you know? She has every right to be outraged. All she’s doing is doing what she’s biologically supposed to do. It’s a funny thing to look back on that day and remember how to play that moment where we make that deal, which was all nonverbal. I take my hat off to the puppeteers, because I felt like I was in a dialogue with the creature. To decide to screw her was just like, “Nah, you know, I’m not going to walk out on all this, on these future murderers.”

The actress never felt endangered. But she did feel dangerous.

Weaver: Looking back, I’m always astonished that they trusted me to flame the dummies and shoot blanks into the stunt guys and bazookas into some of the other targets. You know, we just went for it. And luckily I didn’t kill anyone.

To send your own questions in for the Aliens panel, tweet @Breznican.

A version of this story appears in this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now, or buy it here — and subscribe now for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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