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Feature FilmVFX

‘Alien: Covenant’: How On-set Suit Performances, Mo-cap, And VFX Each Played A Role In Production

The two central creatures of Alien: Covenant are the familiar Xenomorph, and the not-so-familiar Neomorph, a new monster inside Ridley Scott’s Alien universe.

Both species were ultimately realized in cg by visual effects shop MPC for the film, but getting to a final performance took several steps – from design, to building practical reference and puppets, having on-set suited actors, using motion capture, and animating digital versions.

Cartoon Brew explores what it took to find the right movement and behavior for the Xenomorph and Neomorphs in the film with overall visual effects supervisor Charley Henley from MPC.

Build it

A number of the previous Alien films had, of course, taken advantage of the state of the art in practical creature effects to represent the aliens on screen. Modern digital visual effects could certainly be used to showcase photorealistic creatures in full motion, but Scott still wanted something on set with which to shoot.

Original plate with practical Xenomorph.
Original plate with practical Xenomorph.
Final shot. VFX by MPC.
Final shot. VFX by MPC.

That led visual effects supervisor Charley Henley and the film’s creature design supervisor Connor O’Sullivan from Creatures Inc Ltd, and co-creature effects supervisor Adam Johansen from Odd Studio, to orchestrate a plan of shooting practical aliens, knowing that things could still be replaced in cg later on.

“We knew that Ridley would want to see for real something that relates to his creatures, which we could adapt beyond that later on,” said Henley. “But, we said, let’s build a hero version of the creatures just for the look. It doesn’t have to be in a suit, it doesn’t have to be practically operated on the set, but it will help the design process and allow Ridley to finesse the design by building something real that he can tangibly look at and tweak.”

This became what was called the ‘Looker’ versions of the aliens, since they ‘looked good.’ But things did go further, with the design and fabrication of several versions of the two main creatures, seen in the film from their young states (in which they burst out of human bodies) to fully grown sizes. Suits and head pieces containing animatronics were some of the more elaborate builds, made with the combined forces of Creatures Inc and Odd Studio.

Original plate.
Original plate for one of the med bay scenes in which the Neomorph bursts out of a character.
Final shot featuring MPC's digital Neomorph.
Final shot featuring MPC’s digital Neomorph, still in its infant state.

The intention was still for these practical builds to be stand-ins. However, some practical shots remain in the film. “There’s a tail that you see in the shower scene that is the practical tail,” said Henley. “As are some of the gore effects with the smaller creatures coming out – for the earlier birth of the creatures we kept it practical because it just worked in camera so well.

“The extra complexity of doing cg gore with blood and sinew and all these kind of effects is, well, if it works practically we didn’t need to replace it and it saved us a lot of hassle,” continued Henley. “But we ended up doing a lot of cg gore, too, which was quite interesting. It was a mix and match kind of game.”

Suit performers Andrew Crawford and Goran D. Kleut, and stunt performers, took on the roles of the Xenomorph and Neomorph on set. Creature shots were achieved on set using the practical creature effects builds, or the suited actors, with clean plates also acquired.

The Neomorph, which used Goblin sharks as one of its design references, makes a show of force.
The Neomorph, which used Goblin sharks as one of its design references, makes a show of force.

“Our first step was to allow the camera guys to set-up with the stand-in man in a suit,” said Henley. “Ridley could frame on it, he could do his first pass directing the action and block it out. Then we would discuss whether actually this creature needed to move faster, so that meant the actors and filmmakers would have to just imagine that action happening, or we’d bring in the stunt guy because he could do the moves, whereas the guy in the suit couldn’t.”

Finding the right movement in cg

Earlier, MPC and a team of previs artists had already explored the motion of the creatures. Early models were used for test animations, and then later refined during and after the shoot with more design and modeling, taking in photogrammetry scans of the suits and alien pieces that had been built practically.

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot showing MPC's digital Neomorph.
Final shot showing MPC’s digital Neomorph.

Although the on-set suited performances were incredible references, the performers were still limited in how much they could act like a Xenomorph or Neomorph. So the visual effects team further explored the movement via motion capture. MPC had their cg model that the mocap could be re-targeted to, and that allowed what Henley says was almost an ‘experimental’ period in finding the right animation. “Ridley’s brief was, can we find something off-edge here?” related Henley. “It didn’t have to be too ordinary, but it didn’t need to be fantastical either.”

In addition, physical artists were hired to provide reference, including Javier Botet. The actor suffers from Marfan syndrome and has exceptionally long fingers and a tall, thin build, and was able to deliver something other-worldly for the creatures. “We got him to do some performance videos which gave us some really great inspiration,” said Henley.

Ultimately, all the creatures would be keyframe animated, with mocap or roto-mation being just the start of the animation process. The experimentation allowed the director to explore the right look – the creatures had not really been shown full frame and with so much motion in the previous films. This meant that occasionally Scott would suddenly ‘jump’ on a piece of animation he found compelling.

The practical Xenomorph shot for the shower scene.
The practical Xenomorph shot for the shower scene.
The final cg Xenomorph.
The final cg Xenomorph.

“We were in editorial and Ridley was watching something of one of the Neomorphs running,” said Henley, “and he was like, ‘Stop there, freeze frame that!’ and he got up and took his phone out and he took a picture of it on the monitor. Then all the animators had to take this and stick it on their wall. It was all about getting the style of what he really liked.”

  • very disappointing by the fx, nice creatures were built but fully remade across CGI !

    • jak

      You can clearly see from just the stills alone the CGI is an improvement on the modeled version.

      • Chicken McPhee

        Improvement yes, but it’s also a completely different shot with a completely different alien. That could’ve also been practical.

  • Chicken McPhee

    Yeah, why not use some practical for close-ups at least? You can’t get that unsettling level of realism even with really good CGI (as in the film).

    • Dylan Nightingale

      Yeah. Hollywood overuses CGI now in my opinion… not that I hate CGI but it is overused both in animation and live action.

      • Chicken McPhee

        Totally agreed. I hope more people start thinking outside the box and use special effects captured by the same optics, instead of imitating optics.
        Then again, some do it better than others. Ghost in the Shell wasn’t bad because it actually had practical sets.

    • jak

      That’s not true. There’s buckets of CGI in most movies nobody ever notices or just assumes it was practical. The only thing that torpedoes realism in modern (well executed) CGI is that obviously we know some things couldn’t have been done practically. The next generation of movie goers won’t have this hang-up as they won’t have this same bias.

      • Chicken McPhee

        I’m not bashing CG – I use it often. But it’s a bit like they create entire segments out of CG – they model and texture the tree, and the grass, and the leaves, and the creature, and this and that instead of combining it with actual shots/photography, like they forgot that CG is a tool, so they use it as a medium. (for example, Lord of the Rings vs Hobbit)
        CG is an extension of special effects. It’s a very powerful tool, and can be a good medium (esp. for animation) but it also doesn’t look very real sometimes.
        You just don’t get a perfect photo image from anything CG. But you can blend CG with reality and sell it to the audience so that they, fingers crossed, suspend disbelief. Just my 2¢.
        With Covenant, I suspended disbelief during all the parts with the crew. The one thing that jumped me right out of it was the shower “boo” scene, when they played Paolo Nutini’s “Let me down easy”. Still like the film. Later I saw the practical alien they made for the film – possibly for the shower scene.
        Most CG was good in the film, but that scene looked off. The running water looked like a decent dynamics effect, but it looked like CG.
        There’s a reason there were practical eggs in the first film. Remember how meaty they eggs looked inside? Remember how realistic the first facehugger is? THAT is suspension of disbelief. As for the above, yes, the CG alien looks better – but that’s because of the color correction and because it’s a completely different, superior alien design. The above shower shot – same deal – practical is a completely different setup and shot than the final CG – because the practical stuff in there were always an afterthought. Seems like Ridley was just trying to get stand-in shots to replace with CG later. Not unreasonable, but don’t blame it on CG. Completely different compositions (like the CG above) can also be done completely practical.

        • jak

          Comparing it to the first film is not terribly relevant as they didn’t have photorealistic CG in their toolbox. I don’t agree about the above shot, as the final design is way more detailed than a practical model that needs to move would be to stay
          within budget. It makes sense they added more detail to the digital model. And yeah totally it’s been color-graded etc but that not the only reason.
          I think everyone made the right call on these FX choices.

          • Chicken McPhee

            It wasn’t even exactly this shot, it was the shot where the alien launches itself at the couple. (i think the shot immediately after the closeup).
            It’s the only time in the film that reminded me that it was CG and broke me out of suspension of disbelief. Certainly it’s a good shot.
            Image is an image. The more you delegate to CG, the more you’re risking your audience will be reminded of that. And the reason I compare is that practical effects didn’t break disbelief at any time – even when they might’ve looked over the top or otherwise unrealistic. I compare that because that’s what CG is striving to beat, and while it can beat it visually, it won’t just disappear into the film. (Same as the original practical Jurassic Park sick triceratops will be superior to any CG sick triceratops that can be done.) On this shot, I think everyone did make the right call on the FX choices. I’d make those choices. It looks great. I just think something could be done combining the practical with the CG, which is obviously impossible on these shots since the design is 100% different.

  • mightymo

    It all looked good on the big screen. Enjoyed it much.

  • Jen

    I thought the vfx in this were great (and that’s about it), but the one shot that I did bump on was

    small spoiler

    There’s a scene later in the film where a xenomorph bursts from the chest, as a fully developed, but tiny xenomorph. The shot was pretty close up and it just looked so polished and shiny–like, very clearly CG rather than practical or a combination. That one moment stood out, but I didn’t have issues with any other part’s vfx.

    • Chicken McPhee

      Remember those tiny droplets of blood, running down the chestburster’s head in Alien?