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VFX Supervisor Charley Henley Unleashes a New Wave of Xenomorphs in ‘Alien: Covenant’

Studios from Sydney to London help create the visual effects for Ridley Scott’s new sci-fi/horror film.

20th Century Fox released Ridley Scott’s highly-anticipated sci-fi/horror Alien: Covenant in the U.S. this weekend, and at press time, the film was on track for a strong box office showing. The sixth film in the Alien series follows the crew of the titular spaceship, which lands on an uncharted planet, only to come face to face with the terrifying xenomorphs that were first introduced in Scott’s 1979 cult classic Alien. The film is positioned as a sequel to Scott’s 2012 film Prometheus, bridging the gap between Prometheus and Alien.

Shot mostly in Australia and New Zealand, the complex visual effects work was spread among facilities around the world, with London-based MPC serving as the lead VFX house.

Lead VFX supervisor Charley Henley, who worked on Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator and was nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA award for his work on Prometheus, says, “It was a fairly tight post-production schedule, and we had to keep everything active right until the end, because Ridley wanted to keep tweaking. That was the biggest challenge I'd say.”

Henley’s VFX credits include such films The Jungle Book, Cinderella, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and AVP: Alien vs. Predator

Animation World recently had a chance to talk with Henley about his work on the film.

AWN: How did you get involved in this film? When did this start for you?

Charley Henley: Well, this project started for me in August 2015. I was still working on Jungle Book at the time, and I got a call to head over for a meeting with Ridley and some of the key players in the early stages of pre-production. Ridley was having a roundtable with people who he wanted involved. Chris Seagers, the production designer, was in that meeting, and Neil Corbould, the special effects supervisor, was there as well, and Ridley Scott obviously and Mark Huffam the producer, and we also had the costume designer, Janty Yates.

There was a bunch of work that Ridley had been collecting over quite a long period, some of which was concept art that didn't see the light of day. At that point, they already had quite a large amount of concept art spread all over the room. It was a bit intimidating.

I saw straight away the degree of work that was going to be involved, from creatures to sketches to some old stuff from previous designs that had never been used in Prometheus, but that he wanted to continue focusing on in this film.

We had this thread of work to look through, and we did a walk around and he talked about what he liked and what he didn't like so much, and we just discussed what we all thought about it. Then we did a skim through the script, and it was just an amazing introduction to the project.

AWN: To what extent then did you rely on the look of the previous films, or were you looking for a new aesthetic?

CH: The idea for this film, Ridley wanted to take it back somewhat to the gritty, slightly more grungy nature of the original film, as compared to Prometheus which is a slightly cleaner aesthetic.

It was heading towards a bit of a rougher edge and that was part of the decision to shoot mono rather than stereoscopic, because he felt he'd have more freedom with things like camera shake and compositions that were slightly restricted in running a show that was shot native stereo, which we had on Prometheus.

But we continued with some of the principles of the design carrying through from Prometheus, so the ships have a certain feel to them that relates to the design and some of the aesthetic of the previous films.

Some of that has to be carried on, because that's the thread – that's that world already established. Of course, the ship is different because, whereas the Prometheus ship is more like a luxury yacht of a spaceship, this is more of a working industrial vessel. So it's aesthetic is a little bit more of a nod to the original Alien ship which is more of a working ship as well

AWN: To what extent did the film rely on practical effects?

CH: We really went into it wanting to get as much practical as possible and allow Ridley to come to the set and build the scene.

As much as we planned things thoroughly, we wanted to allow him to come to the set and shoot it how he felt at that moment it needed to be shot, and rely on his instincts. He liked to shoot with multiple cameras running all the time and build the scene as a bit of a jigsaw from the outset.

So really the main thing we had to worry about was establishing what pieces we'd bring to the set to allow him to shoot that way, planning with Chris Seagers exactly what sets needed to be built, what was practical to build, to allow good interactivity with the actors and allow as much of a sense of the aesthetic to be there. There was a lot of pre-production work in dividing up what amount would we build and where would we put extensions in.

The same went with the creatures in the end. They were a particular challenge, to fit them into how tactile Ridley wanted to be. He wanted to have the feel of the original film and have a lot on set to work with, but it wasn't all tennis balls on sticks for the sight lines. We had an array of practical materials as the basis for the shoot, knowing that we would maybe need to do more clean-up to remove some of the practical stuff.

Conor O'Sullivan was the creature designer… building practical versions, practical puppets for each of the creatures and the different stages of the creatures, because there are two main creatures, the traditional Alien as well as this other creature called the Neomorph.

You see them from birth to fully grown, so there are various stages that you visit, from when they're “chest-buster” size, and then there's teen and then there's the grown one. We deal with all these different scales, and they change shape a bit between them.

We had this array of materials to shoot with and references, and then ended up replacing it, or pretty much 90% of it with CG. It just gave the freedom to have the performances evolve. That was how Ridley wanted to work.

AWN: Did you use much previz?

CH: Yeah, we did. There were some very key scenes that Ridley was very keen to previs in pre-production.  There were a collection of scenes he was fine to just shoot it as it came.  I mean he does his “Ridley-gram” [storyboard] as he tends to call it. He's an incredible artist and he draws as if he's really looking through a camera, so there's not a better storyboard artist than he himself.

The great thing is he draws something and then you find, oh if I put a certain lens on and frame it up, it looks exactly like his drawing. His drawings are a Godsend to the pre-production process. He would do sketch storyboards for a number of scenes where he was particularly keen on working out the geography. There was a scene in the med bay, which is like the birth of the Neomorph. That was the first scene we prevised, where this creature bursts out of this person’s back and there's a lot of gore and blood and messiness. He's got his shirt off, so we've got a real live actor; we've got a dummy with a back that can explode; we've got a puppeteered mini-monster that falls out of the back; we've got blood and guts and gore all over the place. Then the creature has to start animating and comes and attacks one of the girls there, and so it was a challenge to plan what to shoot practically and when the CG takeover is. So, that was a good one to previs. We prevised that one up front.

Another major scene that we prevised was some of the space walk stuff. When there are scenes outside the spaceship, we prevised that with The Third Floor. They had worked with Framestore quite a lot and Framestore was doing the exterior space shots. That made sense because it was very CG -- a lot of the environment was going to be CG.

Also, if we were having a feeling of zero G, we needed to design camera moves, because it's fairly complex and slow stuff to shoot. We had an amazing space suit that Janty and her team built practically on a remotely controlled crane arm that would move the spacesuit around, and we had to match the camera to that, and so there was a number of technical challenges with the space walk.

AWN: Did you use any postvis?

CH: We did an awful lot of postvis, mainly just to help Pietro Scalia and Ridley cut the film as soon as possible to get a lock and build turnover. We were really keen to give them as much material as possible and support that process, rather than just having bluescreens hanging around for a long time and creatures or plates so we wanted to block in some postvis versions.

We had a local team in Australia, so that as scenes got shot we could start postvising straight away. Because Ridley was cutting as we were shooting, basically Pietro would be in the cutting rooms on the set in Australia. As we shot scenes then they'd cut it and just make sure we weren't missing anything that we needed to pick up.

AWN: I see that there were quite a few visual effects facilities involved. Can you break down the work that each of them did?

CH: There were four main facilities: MPC, Framestore, Animal Logic and Luma. Rising Sun Pictures did about 24 shots and Atomic Fiction did 10. Peerless in London did one, but it was a five-minute epic challenging shot, so it worked out well having them do that.

MPC was the main facility. They did the majority of the work, and then the rest was split up. We had about 630 odd shots between MPC Montreal and London –  about 530 in Montreal and 100 in London. That accounted for pretty much half of the shot count and probably about half the volume of work.

MPC did all the exterior environment work on the planet that they visit, which included enhancing the landing sequence that was shot in New Zealand. They also built the exterior of the city of the Engineers. They also did the key creatures – the xenomorph as an adult, the grown xenomorph and the neomorph, from baby to fully grown.

The two landing ships that come down on the planet were MPC as well. There's one called the lander, which is a shuttle. That was actually a shared effort with Framestore because they needed it as well.

Framestore, also based in London and Montreal, did everything in space, anything exterior, views out of the windows looking at space, exterior views of the ship and the main ship. A particular R&D challenge for them was these giant sails, which are like a kilometer wide. The main ship is 1,200 meters long, and these huge sails open. They're a recharging mechanism, like solar panels made of a very fine material, and they had to design how that would open, what it would look like.

Framestore also did the chest buster, which is like the small alien birth out of one of the actors’ chest. The chest buster arrives in an homage to the original Alien, but it's a slightly different creature. They worked on that creature as well as the face hugger, which is quite similar to the classical original face hugger.

Framestore also did some interiors, including the hall of heads, which is a big set with these giant sculptures of The Engineer’s ancestors. The room is full of heads that are about 40 feet high. They did extensions of that environment as well.

Animal Logic came in third in terms of volume and complexity. They were brought on particularly because Ridley really liked the holographic work they'd done on Prometheus. At the time there was a company called Fluent that was headed up by Paul Butterworth, but he'd moved to Animal Logic and he had some of the main artists there, so we engaged them to do all the hologram work.

Luma, appropriate for the name, did a number of floating lamps in the set in the Engineers’ world, as well as a laboratory that David had been working in and a number of other little places where David's been living inside a building that's originally built by the Engineers of the planet, which has now been wiped out by David himself.

They also did some set extensions and some graphics work on the cryopod room.

RSP did two things. David is the original android on the planet from Prometheus, and he's been left behind here. Well he's been there for 10 years before anyone else turns up, and then the new ship arrives and they have on board an updated model of the same android, and he's called Walter, and it's also played by Michel Fassbender.

One of our challenges was just the classic double effect where they both have to play each other in the same scene, and at the same time they had to fight with each other, as well as a big dialogue scene with each other. David also had to teach Walter how to play the flute, so we had to have them talk to each other and then David has to place his fingers on top of Walter's fingers, and hold the flute to his mouth and play it, and that was a particularly difficult shot.

We designed it as numerous small shots, but on the day we had a whole motion control set up there, and Ridley wanted to play it as one long shot, so we ended up with this five minute shot that had to constantly have both, Michael Fassbender as Walter and as David playing against himself, with the camera moving round and round. That was complex. That's the shot that Peerless did.

Atomic Fiction did 10 shots with a melting face. We have an acid burn on one of the actor’s faces and they focused on the melting skin.

Scott Lehane's picture

Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.