The art behind “Alien”

31. August 2019

The summer cinema season became much more frightening with the release of “Alien: Covenant” on 18 May. The film, which follows on directly from “Prometheus – Dark Signs” from 2012, is Ridley Scott’s second prequel to his groundbreaking “Alien” film from 1979. In contrast to his predecessor, in which many felt that the cult figure’s appearance had been too long in coming, Scott delivers an intergalactic monster film par excellence in his latest work.

It is an appropriate and action-packed sequel to the film series that has been making audiences sweat for fear for almost four decades – and that would not have survived, let alone succeeded, without the essential contributions of the late Swiss artist HR Giger.

At the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, Giger brought a number of celebrities to Zurich with a series of posters and paintings depicting frightening and fascinating intertwined motifs of birth, sex and death. His works merged human and animal figures with technical elements, creating dark, ominous tableaux that seem to have sprung from the black abysses of the subconscious. As a surrealist of a much darker beat – imagine works by Hieronymus Bosch or Salvador DalĂ­ reworked by Clive Barker – Giger created large-format views of female bodies, faces, spines, and abdomens, entangled in machine-like structures, creating some of the most original and unforgettable images of the 20th century.

It was the first compendium of his works, the 1977 Necronomicon, that radically changed Giger’s life and legacy. Thanks to the scriptwriter Dan O’Bannon, the book fell into the hands of director Ridley Scott, who was preparing his “Alien” at the time. Fascinated by the images – especially Necronomicon IV and V – Scott engaged Giger to help him create his extraterrestrial film monster, the Facehugger and his eggs, and the alien ship. Giger was enthusiastic about this task and took over the modelling and painting of his designs himself.

Painting that inspired Alien

As Scott later wrote in the introduction to HR Giger Film Design, “Originally, Giger wanted to recreate the creature from scratch. I was so impressed with his ‘Necronom IV’ and ‘V’ paintings from the ‘Necronomicon’ book that I insisted that he should be guided by their shape. Never in my life had I been so sure as here. They were pretty much what I had imagined for the film, especially in the unique way they embodied both horror and beauty”. If you want to decorate your home with alien inspired designs, visit

Giger won the 1980 Oscar for Best Visual Effects for his work on “Alien”. The bonus material from the “Alien: Quadrilogy” Blu-ray box and the 2014 documentary “Dark Star: HR Giger’s World” (as well as the video above) give many backstage insights into his collaboration with Scott. When James Cameron directed the alien sequel in 1986, he and 20th Century Fox decided not to collaborate with the artist. It was a surprising (and frankly unwise) decision, for which Cameron later apologized to the artist in a letter.

With “Alien 3” in 1992, things didn’t go much better. Giger was hired both by the original director Vincent Ward and his replacement David Fincher to create new variations for his alien. His updated design gave the Beast a wilder look (as it was born from an animal’s carcass) and protruding claws between fingers reminiscent of Wolverine.

HR Giger

But after the initial collaboration with Fincher, the production soon hired Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis as head of the Creature Effects department, which Giger later commented as follows: “When I heard that Woodruff and Gillis had their own version of the alien, it occurred to me that they didn’t appreciate mine and that Fincher could probably already convince Fincher of their ideas. But it seemed like my role in the movies had never reached the right people…eventually they used some of my ideas, but what was shown in the movie was very different from my first draft.”

At least the participants have spoken of “Alien 3” with Giger. In Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Alien: The Rebirth” from 1997, Giger did not even appear in the credits, whereupon he wrote an angry letter to Fox, including these sentences: “How would it look without my extraterrestrial way of life? Most likely all continuations to ALIEN would not even exist!

Not surprisingly, director Ridley Scott, who returned to the film series in 2012 with “Prometheus – Dark Signs”, also brought Giger on board again. He told Filmophilia (via Slashfilm): “I showed him what we do, showed him the plot and he liked it very much. So he does some things for me. Some murals, big murals that we will see in almost one of the first chambers we will come across after landing”.

Scott’s team also did their best to show the artist the respect he deserved. While the prequel strictly speaking plays before “Alien” (and therefore required a more primitive variation of its shape), creature designer Carlos Huante told io9 that he had created an “aesthetic form” that “in my eyes perfectly complemented the beautiful Giger style that had permeated the first film”. And Concept Artist Stephen Messing confessed that as Easter Egg – a hidden gimmick – he even installed an “altar” in the “main room”, which pays special tribute to his work:

“Another set I was working on was known as the main room. It was a ceremonial room with hundreds of ampoules under a constructor’s gigantic stone head… I also modelled an altar area for this set as a tribute to Giger – it’s a relief sculpture hanging from the wall showing an alien shape surrounded by flowing structures. There are many Easter Eggs in this sculpture – such as several hidden Giger motifs that were not used in the original film.”

Giger’s designs were also used in 2004 in “Alien vs. Predator” and 2007 in its sequel “Aliens vs. Predator 2”. The artist died in May 2014 at the age of 74, but his influence is omnipresent in the latest film in the Alien series. Giger, who created some of the most beautiful nightmare images ever shown on the big screen, is known to this day as one of the most unique visionaries in cinema history and the man to whom the Alien series owes its monstrous power, no doubt more than any other.