Alien: Carlo Rambaldi's Alien Head

leading from

Rambaldi's sketch of the Alien head from the cover of Carlo Rambaldi e gli effetti special

a) Rambaldi gets a call
Carlo Rambaldi got a call from the Alien production office in London. They asked for his belp because it was impossible for them to get what they wanted over in England, Rambaldi agreed to study the problem, and was sent copies of Giger's design paintings for the alien, indicating the action of it's protruding tooth encrusted tongue. Rambaldi was asked to devise the mechanism to make it all work. After studying Giger's designs, Rambaldi offered to come up with a solution in four weeks time and accepted the job. 

Rambaldi posing with plaster model of Alien Head. Source: Cinefantastique, vol9 no1, p21

b) Hired as a stopgap
The man had only been hired as a stopgap because David Watling who was the other person working on the head who was actually supposed to be doing the special effects for Alien, had failed miserably. He was supposed to mechanize and the head and everything else and he was incapable of doing the work, and then in the end he was only supposed to work on the tail and he would not even do that. Carlo Rambaldi accepted the job from Gordon Carroll only as a substitute and he was asked to have a go at it while David Watling was also asked to have a go at it and neither knew about the fact that the other one was working on the same thing. 

(Rambaldi Alien Head and Giger : source Cinefantastique, vol9 no1, p21)


c) Rambaldi begins work
Giger had made a polyester caste of the alien head and had it sent to Carlo Rambaldi as he began work at his Hollywood company, located in Tarzana in the San Fernando Valley region of the city of Los Angeles, with little collaboration from the production in England. In addition to Giger's concept paintings, Rambaldi was provided with a "rough" sculpture on which to base his work. He began by sketching a schematic of the alien head and the mechanical parts required. Working from Giger's concepts, Rambaldi devised facial characteristics facial movements for the alien that would suit its unique anatomy. Using these sketches and mechanisms involved, Rambaldi made his own modifications on Giger's design, dictated by the mechanisms required, and sculpted a final version of the alien's head out of clay. He forwarded a videotape of the finished clay models, showing all angles, along with copies of his design to the Alien production office in England for final approval.

(Rambaldi's plan of the Alien head and interior plan from Carlo Rambaldi e gli effetti special)
d) The Go-ahead 
Given the go-ahead, Rambaldi proceeded with construction by making polyurethane, which provides a natural flexibility for the flesh-like moving parts of the alien's face. Rambaldi had developed his own custom made polyurethane formula over the years, one that provides a texture that closely approximates living tissue in both stretch and appearance. Coloring, added during the mixing process, provides the alien flesh with its characteristic huge of metallic grey. The polyurethane casting of the heads was formed over a strong skeletal understructure of molded fiberglass. Moveable fibreglass parts, covered in polyurethane, such as the Alien's face, jaws and protruding tongue, were attached to the fibreglass heads by means of interlocking joints. The Alien's skull-like face is attach to the head at one pivot point  which permits controlled independent movement in either a horizontal or vertical direction. This allows the Alien's face to glance from side to side, or up an down, without making a corresponding movement of the entire head. The protruding action of the tongue is governed by a geared track for smooth movement, and operates independently from the action of the jaw muscles. The tongue could move slowly, and stop at any point, or could be shot away from and returned to the head in a quick movement governed by a powerful spring mechanism. Rows of metallic teeth are attached to the upper and lower jaw, and behind these, movable sets of additional teeth are place on the end of the tongue, which opens like another little mouth and acts like a grappler.  Rambaldi chose to fashion the Alien's teeth out of polished steel for maximum reflectivity, adding just the right touch to make the creature's appearance as a cold, vicious, nearly indestructible killer more convincing. Controls for the upper and lower lips of the Alien were installed to permit the creature to bare its hideous teeth merely by curling its lips. Prophylactics, three on each side, were used to simulate the tendons which attach the jaw to the skull. Being translucent, they permitted visibility of the moving tongue inside the mouth from side angles. The final tought was a 1/2" thick, shiny plastic dome which covers the top of the head, from the nose up, for its entire length. Capable of being both translucent or opaque depending upon the lighting and comer angles employed, the dome gave the Alien an ever changing appearance.

(Rambaldi Alien Head and Giger : source Cinefantastique, vol9 no1, p21)

e) Impressive presentation
When it turned out that David Watling was failing, Carlo Rambaldi arrived in Shepperton on August 21st, a week late. He brought with him Dean, his Hollywood agent which surprised HR Giger because DEan was a real American Indian. Rambaldi came with his very impressive presentation of three Alien heads, he wore gloves when he opened his boxes which came from America and unpacked it with the help of his two assistants who had travelled from Rome. The way it was done looked solemn and they were were all very impressed. Rambaldi had done a marvelous job. David Watling who was there at that time was impressed as well. Giger noted that it looked as if a fossil had fallen victim to a brilliant amateur carpenter.  Carlo had built a substructure on the lines of their model cranium housing a highly complex mechanism, the faces muscles etc can be moved and Giger was very inspired to see how this could all be operated  by wires that were bicycle cables he had never seen before how this sort of thing worked the way they worked.

(Rambaldi sketch of Alien head, Source: Cinefantastique,  vol9 no1, p22)

f) Rambaldi and Giger
Carlo Rambaldi was Italian, and Giger had studied Italian for two years and so he was able to communicate with Carlo in Italian and also he liked Italians and straight away they established a good relationship, and Giger was also very impressed by him because he was the living Oscar winner that he had ever met in his life. He told himself that this was the man who got an Oscar for King Kong. And when Carlo told them this on his arrival, there was a rapt silence and he enjoyed that. Giger knew that Carlo was extremely important.

(Rambaldi ketch of Alien head , Cinefantastique, vol9 no1, p22)

g)  Mechanisms
Each movemt of Rambaldi's articulated Alien head is controlled separately by hand via the action of a flexible cable. A lever control causes the cable to constrict or release, causing a corresponding action on a muscle, tendon, or moving part of the model. The principle involved is the same as that which operates the cable release on the camera. Each cable runs up into the head through the neck opening, and if 45 feet in length, to permit both concealment within the suit as well as considerable freedom of movement for action scenes. During the filming of ALIEN, it took a crew of six operators to control all of the head movements for the most complex scenes. In contrast, only a maximum of seven operators were required to manipulate the Rambaldi alien see in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, and that involved torso and body movements in addition to those of the head, giving some indication of the much greater complexity of head movement capabilities designed by Rambaldi for ALIEN. Special techniques employed during the shooting which added a note of realism including running fluid through the mouth as the creature opened it jaws, providing cascade of saliva; KY Jelly added a glistening, membranous appearance to the action of the protruding tongue; and oil was rubbed onto the head to give it a sweaty, reflective sheen
(Rambaldi's plan for an Alien head, Cinefantastique,  vol9 no1, p22)

h) Alien looking like King Kong
Two of the heads were identical and fully articulated, one a primary and the other a backup. 
And the third was a lightweight version without mechanisms except for lips. And so for long shots requiring no articulation at all, studio craftsmen had struck an additional three heads from Giger's mould.  In the end, they had six alien heads, one mechanized, one distance controlled and fully mechanised, one half mechanised, two unmechanised and one made from plastic foam described as a soft rubber variant which the stunt-man wears for falling a great height. and any other such elaborate stunt sequences. Once Giger had painted the creature head up and placed upon it the transparent dome, it seemed that it was then that Giger noticed that it appeared that Rambaldi's alien head had taken on a more ape like countenance perhaps because Rambaldi recently come off from working on the King Kong, a fact which distressed him to the point of wanting to cry, but which Giger later reconciled to artistic licence. It worked perfectly but Rambaldi had also made elements of the head that shouldn't have moved. However the fact was that they couldn't have an Alien looking like King Kong and so the ape crazy Rambaldi had to remodel the head to bring it in line with the other alien heads.

(Rambaldi's plan for an Alien head  Cinefantastique, vol9 no1, p22)

i) Using the old methods
Giger had hear how the other special effects people were making fun of Rambaldi because he did use moderns means of working such as modern electronics or anything like that, He still made everything in a down-to-earth way using mechanical things to power monsters, and the incredible thing was that it worked brilliantly. Everything else such as modern electronics usually when it gets sticky or there's slime or something stuck to it, it doesn't work any more. Rambaldi saved the Alien. Without Rambaldi, the Alien head would probably have remained lifeless.  

(Rambaldi's plan for an Alien head, Cinefantastique,  vol9 no1, p27)

j) Completing the Alien work
However it went that Rambaldi's alterations were minor and more strictly a constriction of having to arrange complex actuating mechanisms within an extremely confined area. Still remarkably akin to its original inspiration, the completed alien was by an account, an unfettered embodiment of Necronom IV, an unmistakable giant with teeth. All of these heads are supposed to represent one single Alien III life form, and so to have one that looked like King Kong would not do. With guidance from Ridley Scott and H R Giger, Rambaldi staying much longer than the three days originally planned, had to make minor alterations and completed unfinished details. Highly polished chrome teeth were implanted into the jaw and tongue, and since Ridley Scott want them visible even when the mouth was closed, Rambaldi fashioned lips from transparent rubber, and used stretched rubber condoms between upper and lower jaws to serve as exposed tendons.  After two frenzied weeks, due to prior commitments, Rambaldi could not be on hand for the actual shooting and departed London , but brought in his collaborator from Rome, Carlo DeMarchis, to train the crew and supervise the operation of the controls during filming. 
(Rambaldi's plan for an Alien head , Cinefantastique, vol9 no1, p27)

k) Adapting
Although they managed to have a functional Alien head, they originally wanted a remote controlled to limit the need for cables but David Watling was unable to give, so with the Rambaldi head, Brian Johnson noted that the cables coming out of the head were a bit of a problem. They had to dress them so that they couldn't be seen and at the same time allow maximum amount of flexibility. Also, they found out that you could see the mechanism which operated the head, so that's when the goo appeared, the goo covered up the mechanism. They rubbed the whole head with K-Y jelly and also had it oozing out of the mouth. They must have used gallons of that stuff, because it drips and you're constantly replacing it. While the lubricant jelly did an admirable job of camouflaging flaws and making the alien look even more nauseating. As a result, Giger had to repaint his creature after each day's shooting.
(Rambaldi's plan for an Alien, head , Cinefantastique, vol9 no1, p27)

Quote Sources
  1. Stewart Jamieson: You went through a few frustrations turning your illustrations into three dimensional form.
    HR Giger:I didn't know that I would be responsible for building the creature until I visited England and found that the alien being built was disastrous. They couldn't execute my illustrations so Ridley asked if I could do the creature myself, and I agreed to try (.) while the alien's head was shipped to Carlo Rambaldi to engineer the internal mechanisms, when it returned , we were all very excited - until I saw it, it looked like an ape. (Rambaldi had just come off working on the King Kong remake) I nearly cried. It worked perfectly but he had made elements of the head move that shouldn't have moved. He was ape crazy. (Total Film , December 2003, p14)
    (NB, Giger had agreed to try to create the creature long before the head which he created was shipped to Rambaldi, so after "I agreed to try", it must be the end of a sentence before he goes off at a tanget to talk about the Rambaldi story)
     
  2. Interviewer: What was your relationship with e.g. Carlo Rambaldi,? How did you work with other technicians.
    H R Giger : Carlo Rambaldi was Italian, and I had studied Italian at School for two years and so I was able to communicate with him in Italian, and I like Italians. and we straightaway established a good relationship, and I was very impressed by him because he as the first person, who had an Oscar, whom I met, in life I mean, the first living Oscar winner I'd met, and I said to myself, ha, that's the man , he got an Oscar for King Kong, and that's what he told us and there was a rapt silence and so on and he enjoyed that and Carlo Rambaldi was extremely important. He had only been hired as a stopgap, because the person whom they got from England, the man who was actually supposed to do the special effects for Alien, he failed miserably, he was supposed to mechanise the head and everything, but he wasn't capable of doing it and then in the end he was only supposed to mechanise the tail, and he couldn't do that either, And that was awful for him, and thank God, Gordon Carroll gave Carlo Rambaldi the job, that is, only as a substitute, asked him to please have a go at it, that is, and it came out the fact that he have given two people the same job and asked them to work on the same thing. Neither knew about the other one. But then, when the other one failed with the thingy and Rambaldi came with his very, erm it was a very impressive thing, an impressive presentation, he wore gloves when he opened his boxes which came from America, this Alien, I think two, an Alien head , had to cast it in polyester, and then it was sent to him in Tarzana, and there he mechanized it, the way that Gordon Carroll wanted it, and then it arrived, he unpacked it on the table with the help of his two assistants, wearing gloves, and it looked solemn, and we were all very impressed, how you could with these simple wires, that is with the cables from a bicycle cable, and all of it could be... you could pull the thingies and I had never seen that before, I was extremely impressed with Carlo Rambaldi. And then I heard the that the other special effects people , they kind of made fun of Rambaldi, because he didn't use modern means of working, like modern electronics or something like that. He still made everything in a kind of down-to-earth way using mechanical things, powered his monsters or his monster but it worked. That was, that worked brilliantly. Everything else usually when it gets sticky or there's slime or something stuck to it, it doesn't work any more, whereas Rambaldi saved the Alien. Without Rambaldi, the Alien head would probably have remained lifeless. (report from raw Giger interview for Alien Evolution)
    (Rambaldi's plan for an Alien head, Cinefantastique,  vol9 no1, p27)
  3. Rambaldi's work for Alien, like that for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, was in the role of troubleshooter, as one who was brought onto the production to save an impossible situation. "I got a call from the ALIEN production office in London." said Rambaldi. " They asked for my belp because it was impossible for them to get what they wanted over there.". Rambaldi agreed to study the problem, and was sent copies of Giger's design paintings for the alien, indicating the action of it's protruding tooth encrusted tongue. Rambaldis was asked to devise the mechanism to make it all work. After studying Giger's designs, Rambaldi offered to come up with a solution in four weeks time and accepted the job
    Rambaldi began work at his Hollywood company with little collaboration from the production in England. In addition to Giger's concept paintings, Rambaldi was provided with a "rough" sculpture on which to base his work. He began by sketching a schematic of the alien head and the mechanical parts required. Working from Giger's concepts, Rambaldi devised facial characteristics facial movements for the alien that would suit its unique anatomy. Using these sketches and mechanisms involved, Rambado made his own modifications on Giger's design, dictated by the mechanisms required, and sculpted a final version of the alien's head out of clay. He forwarded a videotape of the finished clay models, showing all angles, along with copies of his design to the Alien production office n England for final approval
    Given the go-ahead, Rambaldi proceeded with construction by making polyurethane, which provides a natural flexibility for the flesh-like moving parts of the alien's face. Rambaldi had developed his own custom made polyurethane formula over the years , one that provides a texture that closely approximates living tissue in both stretch and appearance. Coloring, added during the mixing process, provides the alien flesh with its characteristic huge of metallic grey. The polyurethane casting of the heads was formed over a strong skeletal understructure of molded fiberglass. Moveable fibreglass parts, covered in polyurethane, such as the Alien's face, jaws and protruding tongue, were attached to the fibreglass heads by means of interlocking joints. The Alien's skull-like face is attach to the head at one pivot point  which permits controlled independent movement in either a horizontal or vertical direction. This allows the Alien's face to glance from side to side, or up an down, without making a corresponding movement of the entire head. The protruding action of the tongue is governed by a geared track for smooth movement, and operates independently from the action of the jaw muscles. The tongue could move slowly, and stop at any point, or could be shot away from and returned to the head in a quick movement governed by a powerful spring mechanism. Rows of metallic teeth are attached to the upper and lower jaw, and behind these, movable sets of additional teeth are place on the end of the tongue, which opens like another little mouth and acts like a grappler. Rambaldi chose to fashion the Alien's teeth out of polished steel for maximum reflectivity, adding just the right touch to make the creature's appearance as a cold, vicious, nearly indestructible killer more convincing. Controls for the upper and lower lips of the Alien were installed to permit the creature to bare its hideous teeth merely by curling its lips. Prophylactics, three on each side, were used to simulate the tendons which attach the jaw to the skull. Being translucent, they permitted visibility of the moving tongue inside the mouth from side angles. The final tought was a 1/2" thick, shiny plastic dome which covers the top of the head, from the nose up, for its entire length. Capable of being both translucent or opaque depending upon the lighting and comer angles employed, the dome gave the Alien an ever changing appearance.
    Rambaldi constructed three heads for use in the film; two mechanical heads used primarily for close-up work, and a lightweight, non-mechanical head for longshots. Of the two mechanical heads, only one was fully mechanized to perform all of the head movement functions he designed, and was the one that was used most of the time during filming. The second mechanical head was lighter in weight and easier to work with, but was rigged only to cause the creature's lips to curl. Rambaldi delivered the completed heads to England and spent two weeks there conferring with director Ridley Scott, working on the painting and final detailing of the models, and instructing the production team on their operation and movement capabilities. Due to prior commitments, Rambaldi could not be on hand for the actual shooting , but brought in his collaborator from Rome, Carlo DeMarchis, to train the crew and supervise the operation of the controls during filming.

    Each movement of Rambaldi's articulated Alien head is controlled separately by hand via the action of a flexible cable. A lever control causes the cable to constrict or release, causing a corresponding action on a muscle, tendon, or moving part of the model. The principle involved is the same as that which operates the cable release on the camera. Each cable runs up into the head through the neck opening, and if 45 feet in length , to permit both concealment within the suit as well as considerable freedom of movement for action scenes. During the filming of ALIEN, it took a crew of six operators to control all of the head movements for the most complex scenes. In contrast, only a maximum of seven operators were required to manipulate the Rambaldi alien see in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, and that involved torso and body movements in addition to those of the head, giving some indication of the much greater complexty of head movement capabilities designed by Rambaldi for ALIEN. Special techniques employed during the shooting which added a note of realism including running fluid through the mouth as the creature opened it jaws, providing   cascade of saliva; KY Jelly added a glistening, membranous appearance to the action of the protruding tongue; and oil was rubbed onto the head to give it a sweaty, reflective sheen  (Cinefantastique, vol 9, no 1, p23)
  4. H R Giger: Then, of course, there was another man involved with the mechanics: Carlo Rambaldi, the maker of King Kong. He had a lot of experience, but I was responsible for the shape and look of everything. He handled the inside and I handled the outside. (Famous Monsters #158, p30) 
  5. H R Giger (21st August 1978, Shepperton Studios): Rambaldi, the 'magic artist' who brings cinema artists to life, has arrived with his crew, a week late. He's brought with him his Hollywood agent, Dean, a real Indian. His staff have traveled from Rome. Rambaldi, a charming extraordinary man, can virtually only speak Italian, although he's been several years in America. The great cases are carefully unpacked and we monster-makers wait on tiptoe to see what has happened to our polyester. We are not disappointed. Rambaldi has done a marvelous job. This is confirmed by the English engineer who is working on the spare head. It looks like a fossil that has fallen victim to a brilliant amateur carpenter. Carlo has built a substructure on the lines of our model cranium, housing a highly complex mechanism. The face muscles etc: can be moved individually by hand, using ten cables. Scott has the idea of covering the face muscles with preservatives. (Giger's Alien, p68) 
  6. Cinefex: When all the detailing was complete, H. R. Giger airbrush painted it in characteristic blacks and browns. Finally, a smooth vacuum-formed plastic shell was fitted over the top of the head, enshrouding translucence the nasal cavity and eyeless sockets which still suggested a human lineage. It no longer looked precisely like the sculpted prototype. Giger felt that it had taken on a more ape like countenance, a fact which at first distressed him, but which he later reconciled to artistic licence. In actuality however,  the Rambaldi alterations were minor and more strictly a function of having to arrange the complex actuating mechanisms within a extremely confined area. Still remarkably akin to its original inspiration, the completed alien was, by any account, an unfettered embodiment of Necronom IV - an unmistakable giant phallus, with teeth.
    Carlo Rambaldi with head mechanism Alien stage III (from Giger's Alien, p60)
    In late August, with only the finishing touches yet to do, Rambaldi  flew to London with three Alien  heads. Two were identical and fully articulated - one a primary; the other a backup. The third was a light weight version, without mechanics except for the lips. For long shots requiring no articulation at all, studio craftsmen had struck an additional three heads from Giger's mold - including a soft rubber variant to be used during some of the elaborate stunt sequences
    With guidance from Ridley Scott and H. R. Giger, Rambaldi made minor alterations and completed the unfinished details. Highly polished chrome teeth were implanted into the jaw and tongue; and since Scott wanted them visible even when the mouth was closed, Rambaldi fashioned the lips from transparent rubber. Rambaldi also stretched rubber condoms between upper and lower jaws to serve as exposed tendons. (Alien The Special Effects, p28, Titan Books,  and Cinefex 1)

  7. H. R. Giger (30th August 1978, Shepperton Studios) : Rambaldi has now been here a week. Originally he was only going to stay here for three days. He has to remodel his Alien's head which looks a bit like an ape. We've got six Alien's heads - one mechanized, one distance controlled and fully mechanised (but not working properly yet , one half mechanised, two unmechanised and one made of plastic foam, which the stunt-man wears for falling from a great height. All these heads have to represent Alien III, so we can't have a version looking like King Kong. (Giger's Alien, p69-70)  
  8. Rambaldi departed London after two frenzied weeks, leaving in his stead an old associate from Rome, Carlo DeMarchis. DeMarchis stayed for the duration, supervising use of the Rambaldi heads during photography, orchestrating required moves, and training the technicians needed to manipulate the mechanical contrivances.(Alien: Special effects, p31 and Cinefex 1)
  9. In another studio, Carlo DeMarchis is working on the facial musculature of the monster because the creature is able to perform real movements, these have to recorrespond optically to the facial muscles, for this work, we're using contraceptives (HR Giger's The Making of Alien)
  10. Carlo Rambaldi with his crew, probably Carlo Rambaldi's most famous mechanisation is King Kong in the new movie version. He was awarded an Oscar for the mechanisation of that ape, and he also instilled life into our Alien. The facial movements are controlled by hand through wires attached to a level console (HR Giger's The Making of Alien)
    Rambaldi's Alien head attached through wires to the lever console
  11. "The cables coming out of the head were a bit of a problem, " Brian Johnson added. " We had to dress those so that you couldn't see them and at the same time allow maximum amount of flexibility. Also, we found out that you could see the mechanism which operated the head. So that's when the goo appeared - the goo covered up the mechanism. We rubbed the whole head with K-Y jelly and also had it oozing out of the mouth. We must have used gallons of that stuff, because it drips and you're constantly replacing it. "  While the lubricant jelly did an admirable job of camouflaging flaws and making the alien look even more nauseating. As a result, Giger had to repaint his creature after each day's shooting. .(Alien: Special effects, p31 and Cinefex 1)


     

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