Alien's chestburster sequence remains one of cinema's most shocking, and the legend of how it was filmed has become almost as infamous as the scene itself. Here, in an excerpt from his book, Cinema Alchemist, Alien Art Director Roger Christian recounts how he helped construct a scene that would not only terrify generations of cinemagoers, but the film's seven cast members as well.
Filming commenced on the sequence in the morning, as the actors sit around the table eating, full of loose banter and chatter, Kane happy to have survived. Then Kane suddenly chokes and goes into spasms of pain. While Kane is fighting the pain the other characters turn him round and lay him on the table so that he is correctly positioned for the chestburster sequence.
Ridley did not want the actors to see the setup, just to experience the horror of the moment the baby alien actually breaks through.
Once Ridley had got that scene, Nick Allder hid a blood pipe under Kane’s T-shirt and a squib with a blood pack. On cue this let out a stream of blood to stain the T-shirt red as if something terrible was going on in Kane’s chest. The actors picked up their positions where they left off, surrounding the choking Kane. I think being nervous and inquisitive they crowded in on Kane. On the first take the blood pump didn’t pump much and the squib caused a popping sound and lifted the T-shirt as a stain of blood spread. It looked pretty scary, as if something had broken through the skin. The rest was imagination as it hadn’t broken through the material, but it shocked the actors. In a way this false start helped, as you could see it increased the actors’ anxieties about what was coming, letting their imaginations run wild. On the second take the blood pumped into the T-shirt and stained it heavily. The actors were sufficiently shocked at this, enough for Ridley to move on, feeling he had captured credible reactions. Paul Ibbetson then sent all the actors except John Hurt to their dressing rooms, and told them it would be a few hours to set up the next shot. Ridley did not want the actors to see the setup, just to experience the horror of the moment the baby alien actually breaks through. To practice how this would all work, we had set up a separate secluded area off stage for them to try it all out, so the actors were truly unaware of what was going to happen next.
Nick Allder set up the next stage. Roger Dicken had prepared the solid baby alien and Nick had fixed it on top of the hydraulic ram. Nick went to work with his team to set it into position under the table, and set up the separate blood lines and pumps. It was a bit of a squeeze to get everyone in under the table, around John Hurt’s body and legs. John still parodies this moment.
We removed the dressing on the table, careful to Polaroid exactly as it was left after the previous setup. We had to replace everything around John to match the last take, or objects would jump in the cut. The panel in the top of the table was removed and they set the false chest into place. John kind of lounged on the chair under it on a cushion so that he was correctly positioned. He lay there throughout the long process of the setup. He had to be in position the entire time as everything was geared to him being able to move his arms and head, while the effects boys moved the false chest piece in sync with him. The assistants plied him with glasses of wine and kept lighting up his favourite Gauloises cigarettes. He kept smoking and drinking, unable to see what they were doing below the table, smiling and joking as the assistant filled his tumbler to keep him happy.
Ridley kept the other actors at bay throughout all of this setting up on purpose, so the surprise would be real, and their reactions would not be acted but look genuinely horrified. They knew the scene, of course. They knew what was called for but had no idea what everyone around this table where Kane was lying, were planning. Ridley knew full well this was the moment in the film when he got the audience or lost them.
In conversation with Ridley, Nick Allder and me about making this scene more shocking, Ridley had decided to add bits of intestines, liver, stomachs, and any offal we could source around the baby alien. Nick had done this before, and I had too when trying to make an operation look authentic using a false prosthetic. Ridley immediately wanted it to look like the baby alien had launched its way out of Kane’s chest through his lungs and heart if he could, and knew that adding bits of fat and gristle around the puppet would further disguise the possibility it could be seen as just that – a puppet. I sent one of the team to the local abattoir to fetch a bag full of bloody animal innards. The buyer returned clutching a plastic bag full of liver, intestines, kidneys, and lungs – whatever organs they could find. This was washed so that it was sanitary, but still smelt. It was sanitised in formaldehyde, which in itself smelt bad, making the set smell like an operating theatre.
I sent one of the team to the local abattoir to fetch a bag full of bloody animal innards.
We redressed the table as it was. Then, when that was approved by the continuity lady, we made sure everything matched the dinner table contents to the Polaroids she had taken. Ridley was ready to film. The chestburster rig was primed and set. Paul Ibbetson called the actors down, ready in makeup and costume to shoot right away. I think they suspected something, as the cameras were all covered in plastic, and most of the crew were wearing plastic rain macs. They gathered around the table in the positions they were in for the last take, and prepared themselves to carry on with John writhing and screaming and them trying to help him. You could see they were all nervous; no one knew quite what to expect. I think that seeing John half-buried in the table with cameras set up all round him, and the blood-stained T-shirt from the last setup, made them a little nervous. The special-effects crew was bent under the table, and the set was pretty hot already from the lights setup. Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett were there in the back, watching and talking, as were other people, adding to the sense that something was about to happen.
The rigs were all charged and ready, Nick Allder working the ram and the effects team working the blood pipes. The actors couldn’t see these properly hidden under the table, so were really not sure what to expect. Tiny Nicholls had the T-shirt prepped and on the dummy, all ready to shoot.
Ridley didn’t really explain to the actors at all what would happen, just gave them positions for the cameras. When everything was ready the cameras were rolled and action was called. As Kane squirmed and rocked on the table, the props men also rocked the false chest to make it look like it was Kane writhing. As the second action was called for, Nick released the hydraulic ram to fire the baby alien through the T-shirt and the effects team worked the blood pumps. Kane’s T-shirt bulged up as if something was about to burst through, but the head didn’t actually break through. It still looked pretty horrible. Another splatter of blood suddenly appeared on Kane’s shirt, staining it further, but did not spray out as Ridley had hoped. It still shocked the actors, who were all leaning in closely over Kane, trying to help him cope with the agonising pain. What the eye doesn’t see the mind makes real, and maybe this false start increased their anticipation and in the end it was another cut that helped Ridley create the tension for the audience.
They quickly reset the rigs while Tiny scored the fabric even more on the T-shirt with a razorblade, so it would definitely break through this time. Once Tiny had finished, we redressed the table and the actors moved back to their positions. Looking down on Kane struggling like crazy with this huge patch of blood on his chest, they moved in even closer to try to see what was going on. The cameras were all duly set running and Ridley called action.
Ridley kept on instructing Nick to keep ramming the head through the T-shirt, searching for that perfect moment of creature and blood squirting.
This time the blood-covered baby alien broke through the T-shirt, but the blood lines clogged up and no blood came. Ridley called out to Nick to try again while he was still rolling the cameras. Nick withdrew the head and rammed it up again; a small amount of blood came with it, so Ridley cued Nick to ram the head through a few more times, and then he called cut. This small baby alien didn’t really look as shocking as it was planned without blood flying everywhere. Ridley quickly assimilated the reactions of the cast and spoke to Nick Allder, who said that during the next take the blood would flow.
Ibbo called for a reset. Ridley knew he had the breakthrough moment okay; the baby alien was nicely soaked in blood so looked correct for the first moment as the T-shirt rose and the head appeared and could work if cut quickly. They closed up the T-shirt so only a tiny hole was left, but it meant that the baby alien head would burst through now. He quietly asked Nick to add another blood line pointing at the crew at the back, and Nick told him this time he’d make sure the pressure was fully ramped up.
What happened next is better watched on the film than described. Suffice it to say that Ridley’s idea to add a second blood line and focus it on the actors and Veronica Cartwright paid off better than he could ever have expected. The actors were feeling a little more comfortable, as they had now seen the baby alien. The cameras rolled when Nick had the setup ready and the dressing was placed to match. On ‘action’, as the bloody baby alien head burst through Kane’s T-shirt, a massive spurt of blood shot into the air with it. Then another came out like a stream, and horrible as this bloody snarling head was, that one spurt of blood that caught Veronica in the face was far more horrible for her. She screamed in shock, recoiled back against the set, and dropped to the floor out of the shot. The others also got splattered in the fountain of blood, and they all recoiled. Ridley kept on instructing Nick to keep ramming the head through the T-shirt, searching for that perfect moment of creature and blood squirting. Veronica appeared again as she stood up, but looked white and shaken and she was crying as more blood kept flying around. Poor John Hurt was soaked in it, but kept on acting until Ridley called cut. This was a real reaction from Veronica, a true moment of method acting, as she was beyond playing the character – she was in distress. After Ridley cut the cameras they all stood around in shock, covered in splattered blood. And they all went back to their dressing rooms as Nick set up the next scene in the sequence.
This article was taken from Cinema Alchemist by Roger Christian, available now as an ebook from Titan Books and in hardback.