'Cowboys & Aliens': Circle the Wagons and Blast 'Em

ILM's Roger Guyett talks about rounding up a new breed of alien.

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Cowboys & Aliens is a Western at heart with sci-fi flare. All images © Universal Studios and DreamWorks II Distribution Co. LLC

As usual, it's been a very busy summer for ILM, with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Super 8, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and now Cowboys & Aliens. But, like all large VFX studios, they're continually reaping the benefits of the proprietary technology: namely, energy conservation shaders and lighting models for greater photorealism, as well as the GPU-rendered Plume for large-scale explosions along with dust and dirt during interaction with the aliens.

Speaking of aliens, ILM had quite the challenge in devising something new for this intriguing mash-up of the western and sci-fi directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and co-starring James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Indy Jones (Harrison Ford).

While Legacy did the overall design of the alien, which is a bipedal reptilian-like creature nearly 10-feet-tall, in collaboration with production designer Scott Chambliss, ILM not only made the CG version but also created a more advanced version of the species.

"We created an uber alien in evolutionary scale to make it more complicated in hierarchy," says ILM visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett, who also oversaw onset vfx production. "We used the Legacy design as a foundation and then [vfx art director] Christian Alzmann and others developed it.

In addition to the mothership, the speeders were used by the aliens to round up humans.

"Jon is extremely sensitive to performance, so they concentrated heavily on behavior. It was interesting to work with an actor's director. He didn't want to over animate. He wanted to underplay it. At the same time, we had the challenge of how it moved for a creature of that size. Having a puppet or any kind of representation on set was invaluable. But we've all seen a multitude of designed aliens. The trick, I think, was to make them interesting through their behavior and what happens to them.

"And when you think of the western, you have people in very arduous conditions. It's people in big country, big terrain and big environments facing the elements. And I thought that the irony of all this was that the aliens turn up and it could be more exaggerated for them. This is not their planet. They're frontiersmen in a way: traveling to another place and having to deal with all the adversities of the climate. And in our case, we played up the fact that they weren't comfortable in our world. There are flies all around them; they didn't like the light; when they were wounded and exposed, a strange fungus grew around them."

Daniel Craig's Jake Lonergan wields alien technology to even the gunfight for the humans.

In fact, they're a mining race in search of natural resources to take back to their planet and become fixated with gold. ILM keyframed all the animation (overseen by Marc Chu) because after doing some MoCap tests (a la Super 8), they found that it didn't work to take the motions of a human and remap it onto the creature. "I set up an all-CG test for the studio where the cowboys were mocap," Guyett continues. "It gave you an idea of what the aliens could do and we explored some fighting techniques (including Last of the Mohicans-style hand-to-hand) to see how they would attack a creature of that size. They have a complicated anatomy that we made organic to their behavior and in relation to their ship."

ILM built the first 20 feet of the mothership, which in the movie appears like a tower. It's like a mining vessel that lands and burrows its way into the ground. Ghost VFX in Denmark did extensions on the spaceship with ILM and Kerner did miniature work that included collapsing terrain. Embassy, meanwhile, did the speeders and

"Jon and I spoke a lot about the alien itself as an insect or creature and the ship is really a shell that they adapt so that you have an ant farm inside a machine," Guyett adds. "They're a mining race and their body is built to be underground. Their technology line is also a little ambiguous. Each race wouldn't develop in the same way that we do here, so some of their technology seems more advanced than ours and some seems simpler. But they clearly have heavy-duty weapons and can travel in space."

The blaster that Craig wears like a manacle was also a design challenge. "The weapon is Transformers-like but we were conscious of the elements to make sure that it worked, and we went through the HUD technology and so that there was an alien feel to it yet something also familiar at the same time. It's harder and harder to break the mold on this kind of stuff."

Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication next year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.

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