Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Part 36: Into the tunnels with the Martian Drones

I wish I could recall how long we were down on set in San Pedro putting performers in Drone suits, etc.  If I had to guess, I would say about four weeks.  However, looking back and recalling the day to day work, it seemed like months.  And during that time, while a group of us would meet in the parking lot behind Stan's studio and get into our car pools, Rick Lazzarini remained in Stan's shop by himself, trying to work out the intricate mechanics that would make a Face Hugger run for the movie ALIENS.  In fact, most nights when we would return, he would still be there, working.

One of the mechanical attempts was conceived by Jim Cameron, himself, who suggested that Rick use a small gasoline-powered motor (the kind used for COX model racing back in the day).   These engines generally required an external starter motor that looked like a small drill or dremel tool.  however, the starter port was in accessible.  Jim suggested that Rick use a flex-shaft that would run down the length of the tail.  I can still see Rick's tormented face as he tried in vain to get the little gas motor started using the flex-shaft.  It turns out the the length of spring in the flex-shaft reduced the torque and the motor wouldn't start.

And, when the engine did start, blue gray exhaust smoke would putter out of the side of it.  Back to the drawing boards!

A quick note to the readers: I looked through my photos and discovered that after the Drones ate Mrs. McKeltch, I didn't take any more photos!  However, someone posted the entire movie on youtube and I have cut and made commentaries on some clips that will help illustrate what we accomplished.


But first, since I now have "video assist" I'd like to show you some Drone footage that I have described in the last blog.  Here is the first scene we worked on, the appearance of the Drones and the Supreme Intelligence:

Here is Mrs. McKeltch being eaten:

As I was looking through the footage, I studied the scene that I described last time of the Martian Supreme Intelligence being shot to death and the set catching on fire.  You can see the fire starting in this clip, take a look:

Crazy, right?

Up to that point in shooting, we had avoided needing the little performers to be in the suits, but now all of that was going to change because the Drones would have to perform tasks like loading a shooting their guns, etc.  So now, we would rotate which little performer would get strapped into the rig and because no two of them were the same size and weight, it would affect not only the larger performers, but how the suit would go together.  The lightweight aluminum frame would bow under the weight, making the removal of the head (which was now a necessity to get the little performer in and out) much more difficult.  Then, once that was done, we would make the extra effort to make sure that the skin was lined up and closed correctly.

With the added weight the larger performers would need to take breaks more often which also slowed things down.  Our first scene which utilized the full Drones was when we worked with actor, Bud Cort (from HAROLD AND MAUDE), who played a S.E.T.I. scientist.  If you watch the following clip, you'll see a good example of the little performer's contribution to the creature.


Unlike their larger counterparts, the little performers were completely blind inside of the suits and had to be coached via headsets by Alec Gillis on the outside.  When it came time to load the Martian gun, all of the steps were done in cuts so it appeared that the action was natural and purposeful. I believe for the extreme close up shots of the martian hand putting the copper rod into the gun, we had a little person, wearing a Drone glove on a ladder between the two drone suits that were pushed side by side.

There was no way that the little performers could hold those guns because of weight issues.  I recall that we even tried removing the claws from the gloves so that the performers could attempt to hold the guns with their bare hands but it was not to be.   Dave Nelson, with the help of the physical effects department, mounted the gun to the side of the drone by an aluminum rod that could pivot on one axis.  Unless the gun had to move, we could then dress an empty glove from the Drone body to the gun and the little person wouldn't have to suffer in the suit.

Let's take a look at the "Needle Room" - it is a cool set and the Needle Machine, itself was impressive:

Getting the chance to work with so many incredible people on INVADERS was a delight, but there was still one more treat in store.  Toward the end of the schedule, as the Martian spaceship was set to explode, a group of extras was hired to evacuate as marines and scientists.  Among them was none other than legendary Science Fiction icon and collector, Bob Burns!  Alec had known Bob previously and introduced him to those of us on the crew with whom he was unfamiliar.  If you don't know who Bob Burns is (shame on you, he and his wife Cathy are two of the most delightful people you will ever have the pleasure to meet), here is a link to his web site, there is so much to see: Bob Burns

INVADERS was a film that many friendships were forged both in the shop and on set.  It was also a very important film in my career as it would lead not only to projects run by some of the talented artists on Stan's crew, but also back to Stan Winston's less than a year later.

However, once the show wrapped, Alec Gillis and Rick Lazzarini left for England and ALIENS, while the rest of us were scattered through Los Angeles, in search of our next gigs.

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