'Alien: Covenant' VFX Team Hatches New Neomorph, Xenomorphs

Alien: Convenant Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

As Fox's Alien: Covenant debuted to $36 million at the North American box office over the weekend, the film’s visual effects supervisor Charley Henley of lead VFX house Moving Picture Company says his first meeting with director Ridley Scott was "fairly overwhelming — he has a lot of art and you could see the scale of the film."

Adds Henley, who also worked with Scott on the franchise’s prior Prometheus: “The new Neomorph was developed from an idea Ridley had since the early days of Prometheus; he had concept art when we had our first meeting — these ghostly white creatures with a protruding back of the head. ... It was humanoid and has this large head and a smooth face without eyes. It’s not particularly muscular, and has spikes on its back.”

Since they wanted to shoot something practical on set to incorporate the actors and lighting into the VFX shots, they created an alien sculpture as a reference. There also was a suit that an actor wore for “creepy” movement reference (though the completed creature was animated by hand, not using motion capture).

“In developing the motion, we referenced a cross between insects and baboons,” says Henley. “We wanted to find interesting and disturbing poses. And we looked at ways praying mantis move and attack. We also referenced a goblin shark, a deep-sea creature that puts its jaw forward to catch prey. It was fascinating and scary how the mouth would work.”

Scott wanted skin that resembled that of a human, and so MPC applied its latest software used for the skin on digital doubles such as the CG Mowgli that appeared in Disney’s The Jungle Book (which won an Oscar for VFX). “We gave the Neomorph areas of dry skin and more waxy skin, with a sweat element,” Henley relates.

Meanwhile, the Zenomorph got a makeover for this film. “For the original Zenomorph, everyone knows the design, but we spent a lot of time on this one,” Henley says. “It wasn’t a direct copy. If you are a fan, you’ll probably spot the differences. Ridley wanted to bring a more fleshy, translucent quality to the skin and have areas that were hollow. He found some great references.” They included an ecorche — a sculpture of a human figure showing the body’s muscles, but without the skin. MPC also tapped the muscle software system used for Jungle Book.

Additional VFX houses that worked on Alien: Covenant include Framestore, Animal Logic and Luma.

MPC also worked with Fox and Scott on Alien: Covenant in Utero, a virtual reality experience based on the film. Separately, as first reported Friday by The Hollywood Reporter, Fox’s FoxNext Destinations location-based entertainment unit is developing a multiplayer VR game based on the Alien franchise.