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ILM Talks Cowboys & Aliens Visual Effects

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood August 3, 2011 at 8:24AM

Jon Favreau has long been a practical effects-oriented director, but with Cowboys & Aliens, he had to embrace the digital side, with the help of George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic. Bill Desowitz talks to the famed VFX house about how they created those pesky aliens. There's nothing more daunting, it seems, than designing a great alien, especially in this ubiquitous post- 9/11 climate for invader movies. You can apply all the latest photoreal tech advancements you like, but if your creature isn't cool and captivating, forget it.
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Thompson on Hollywood

Jon Favreau has long been a practical effects-oriented director, but with Cowboys & Aliens, he had to embrace the digital side, with the help of George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic. Bill Desowitz talks to the famed VFX house about how they created those pesky aliens.

There's nothing more daunting, it seems, than designing a great alien, especially in this ubiquitous post- 9/11 climate for invader movies. You can apply all the latest photoreal tech advancements you like, but if your creature isn't cool and captivating, forget it.

That's why District 9 in 2009 was such a surprising stunner: Image Engine's cross between an insect and a crustacean was brilliant in its simplicity and expressiveness. The industry took notice of the Oscar nominee and has been mindful ever since.

In fact, when creating its 10-foot-tall, bi-pedal reptilian invader for Jon Favreau's Cowboys & Aliens, ILM adopted a similar organic strategy while obviously doing their own thing.

The aliens are a race of underground dwellers sent to Earth to mine our resources for replenishment back home, and their towering mother ship is an extension of their own biological nature, filled with tunnels and functioning like an ant farm inside the machine. It's a metaphor for colonialism, of course; they're both desperate and battle-scarred.

"The trick was to make them interesting through their behavior and what happens to them, and that was something that District 9 did very well," suggests Roger Guyett, ILM's senior visual effects supervisor (Star Trek, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End). "You were drawn into their world a bit and their idiosyncrasies had an immediate impact: they ate cat food. But those details overwhelm certain design aspects, so I was striving to find some behavior that fit in well with the Western genre, where you have people in very arduous conditions fighting 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. 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 don't like the light; and when they were wounded and exposed, a strange fungus grows around them."

Like War of the Worlds or this summer's Super 8 (both from ILM), the idea was to play Peek-A-Boo with the viewer, until the alien scheme is exposed and Daniel Craig (James Bond) and Harrison Ford (Indy Jones) join forces with Indians to fight them.

Legacy Effects (the late Stan Winston's company) did the initial design and then ILM crafted the CG work, even going a step further by creating a more complex uber alien. As with Super 8, though, ILM initially tried experimenting with motion capture, but found that the human movements didn't translate well, so they used traditional keyframing (supervised by Marc Chu) to get a suitably alien-like performance.

"It was interesting to work with an actor's director in Jon Favreau," Guyett adds. "He was very sensitive to behavior and didn't want to over animate; he wanted to underplay it. At the same time, we had the challenge of figuring out how it moved for a creature of that size. Having a puppet or any kind of representation on set was invaluable. I set up an all-CG test for the studio where the cowboys were [motion captured]. It gave you an idea of what the aliens could do and we explored some fighting techniques [including Last of the Mohicans-like hand-to-hand] to see how they would attack a creature of that size.

In the end, they went for an Alien or Predator approach, but, judging from the disappointing opening weekend box office ($36.4 million), perhaps the aliens didn't make a strong enough impression, since Cowboys & Aliens nearly got ambushed by The Smurfs.

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies, Production , Directors, Jon Favreau, VFX


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.