Father of the Alien: The Story of HR Giger and sci-fi’s Most Terrifying Monster

Gautham Shenoy February 10, 2017 10 min

Grotesque. Graceful. Macabre. Beautiful. Bleak. Disturbing. Hopeful. Surreal. Symbolic. Fantastic. Phantasmagorical. The contrasting adjectives go on and on when trying to describe the work of Swiss artist HR Giger, who was born 77 years and 5 days ago on February 5, 1940.

Biomechanical. That was the term Giger himself (pronounced ‘gee-gur’ with a hard G) preferred to describe his style as, and so it is, with his biggest contribution to art and his legacy being the representation of humans and machines in a cold, interconnected relationship. We can dispense with trying to classify the style or looking for adjectives, because a style so distinctive, an aesthetic so unique and so widely acknowledged, has its own adjective – Gigeresque. That’s the adjective I’d use if I had to describe in a single word one of the most influential science fiction films of all time, the 1979 hit Alien.

HR Giger in 2007, seen here with two of his works at the art museum in Chur, Switzerland

The story begins in 1974. A French consortium bought the movie rights to Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterwork Dune with avant-garde Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky helming the project. This planned 10-hour film was to star the surrealist Salvador Dali (as the Emperor himself), Mick Jagger, and Orson Welles, with music by Pink Floyd. Important to our story today are not them (though, what casting, eh?) but two other people who were part of the crew meeting each other for the first time during pre-production.

They were a young script-writer called Dan O’Bannon, the man to whom we owe the popular image of brain-obsessed zombies (he was to be in charge of special effects for Dune), and a quiet artist who always dressed in all-black and preferred to stay in the shadows (literally), HR Giger, who’d been called upon to design all the architecture of Geidi Prime, as also the famed sandworms of Arrakis.

Giger by this time was already an established artist, famed for his revolutionary airbrush techniques and his signature freehand painting style, with solo exhibitions and books to his credit as well as his work on one of the most iconic album covers, Emerson Lake and Palmer’s 1973 album, Brain Salad Surgery.

Left: Giger at work on the doomed Dune project. Right: Dan O’Bannon and Giger during the pre-production of Jodorowsky’s Dune.

Doomed from the start with disagreements between the director and the financiers, and plagued with many problems, including steep cost overruns just in pre-production, Jodorowsky’s Dune was abandoned before even going into production. The collapse of Dune left O’Bannon almost broke on his return to the US, without a home of his own. One of the people he turned to help was his friend Ronald Shusett, whose couch he would sleep on for many a night. The other person he turned to during this time was the long-dead author HP Lovecraft and his Lovercraftian universe of chthonic creatures, eldritch entities and cosmic horror. A love – almost an obsession – that O’Bannon shared with Giger. But most of all, O’Bannon thought of monsters, haunted by Giger’s paintings, concept art and designs that he’d seen during their time together on Dune.

To get back on his feet, O’Bannon started to write. He recalled in an essay later, “Giger’s visionary paintings and sculptures stunned me with their originality, and aroused in me deep, disturbing thoughts, deep feelings of terror. They started an idea turning over in my head — this guy should design a Monster Movie! Nobody had ever seen anything like this on screen.”

O’Bannon kept writing one script after another, till his friend Shusett suggested he return to one of their older ideas and together collaborated to write what ultimately became Alien, drawing upon influences from across the spectrum of science fiction and horror classics. And during this time, he says, “ was on my mind, and when we sat down to do Alien I ended up visualizing the thing as I was writing it — I found myself visualizing it as a Giger painting.”

The Gigeresque paintings that left such a profound impact on Dan O’Bannon. Left: Necronom IV (which would become the basis later for the Space Jockey). Right: Li II.

Script almost ready, O’Bannon and Shusett went looking for producers telling them about a story that they described as ‘Jaws in space’, and ultimately found them in a production house with ties to 20th Century Fox, a studio that wasn’t quite keen on financing a science fiction film. Meanwhile, O’Bannon had already contacted Giger to do some conceptual creature designs for the yet-to-be-greenlit film. 20th Century Fox changed its mind about putting money into Alien after the success of Star Wars, which suddenly made putting science fiction on screen commercially viable again.

With the project greenlit, O’Bannon was quick to tell them about his desire to get Giger on board to do the designs, along with Ron Cobb and Chris Foss to do the human designs. The studio agreed to the latter two, but found Giger’s art a little too ghastly and disturbing and refused to hire him, instead asking Cobb to also design the monster. That was until the studio finally decided on the director, Ridley Scott, who’d impressed them with his treatment notes and sketches, enough to double the movie’s budget.

Seizing the opportunity, O’Bannon headed over to Scott with a copy of a book containing a collection of Giger’s art, Necronomicon, in hand. The story goes that Scott opened the book to the page containing the lithograph, Necronom IV (lead image, above) and knew right in that instant – to quote one of the producers – “ …that the biggest single design problem, maybe the biggest problem in the film, had been solved.” Necronom IV affected Scott so strongly that he asked Giger – when he flew down to Switzerland to meet Giger and convince him to come on board – to alter his original design only slightly. What’s more, over the course of pre-production Giger’s design scope widened to include not just designing the creature and all its four forms – from egg to adult – but also the entire environment of Alien, including the planet, the derelict spaceship and all that lay within, including the ‘space jockey’.

Left: The initial sketches by Giger building on from Necrom V. Right: The pre-final sketch. Note the lack of eyes, because it was felt it would be unsettling to face a creature when you didn’t know where it was looking.

Alien didn’t rely on computer graphics, but instead on real costumes that Giger himself fabricated, making good use of his industrial design background. He would secrete himself away in his workshop, always working mostly at night surrounded by assorted materials – animal, human and machine – to painstakingly bring his ‘nightmare’ to life. Giger created the exoskeleton using machine parts, and the rest of the creature’s body using bones from snakes, and tubes from a Rolls Royce. The head was manufactured separately, and the face of the creature had a real human skull inside. And thus, was born the Xenomorph, the most graceful yet terrifying monster science fiction or horror had yet reproduced on screen, changing forever the way we saw aliens, because Giger had a different take on what a monster, an alien, can be and is possible of.

Said he, “I always wanted my alien to be a very beautiful thing, something aesthetic. A monster isn’t just something disgusting—it can have a kind of beauty. It can move gracefully, it can be sinuous.”

If I make it sound like all of this was a breeze and a happy affair, it wasn’t. Giger was frustrated by the lack of time and budget, feeling that Scott didn’t give him enough of either to do justice to his vision. Tempers frayed, as you’d expect when two artists who are exacting in their craft are thrown in to work together. Giger got upset more than once when – to save money – Scott would resort to a quick fix. Things had to be practical. Giger found himself at odds with himself sometimes. But one thing he knew, as did the studio, Scott and the rest of the cast and crew, that they were on to something special. The vision of Scott, O’Bannon and Schusett’s story, the score of Jerry Goldsmith, Derek Vanlint’s camera work and the stellar cast all came together to make Alien a never-before experience. As Giger noted in his diary during the last days of production, “My idealism has ebbed away slowly, and I’ve begun to count the days before the final take… But one thing I know for sure: Alien will be an extraordinary film, possibly a classic among horror science fiction films.”

Left: Giger at work on the sets of Alien, creating the Space Jockey. Right: Fabricating the Xenomorph with a real human skull.

Alien was released in May, 1979, and the rest, as they say, is cinematic and cultural history. A science fiction film, a creature feature and a horror flick all rolled into one, Alien was a critical and commercial success, winning a host of awards, including Hugo Award for Best Dramatic presentation and an Academy Award for HR Giger and his team for Best Visual Effects.

After Alien, Giger would continue to be involved with films, but never to this extent. Even on the Alien sequels, his involvement was at best nebulous if not non-existent. The only other character of note that he created for film was the extra-terrestrial Sil, for the movie Species. He once even designed a pincer-like Batmobile for Batman Forever by melding the organic and the technological, thought it was never used. Beyond film and his paintings, sculptures and interior work, Giger continued to work with a host of musicians and bands as diverse as Debbie Harry (the Giger-designed cover of her debut album KooKoo is considered to amongst the best ever), Danzig (Danzig III: How the Gods Kill), Dead Kennedys (Frankenchrist) and Celtic Frost (To Mega Therion). He famously even created a specially-commissioned microphone stand for Jonathan Davis, the vocalist of the band Korn. He would open Giger bars where the whole interior and ambience was, let’s just say, Gigeresque; work on video games like Dark Seed.

The influence of his ‘biomechanical’ aesthetic has influenced everything from creatures like Predator and the Sentinels in Matrix to the aliens in The Avengers. It can be seen in Hellraiser and the cyberpunk works of William Gibson.

The last time Giger’s own designs and sketches found their way to the big screen was in the 2012 film, Prometheus. After Jodorowky abandoned Dune, and the movie rights were bought by another studio, Ridley Scott was contacted to direct Dune, which he couldn’t commit to due to personal reasons, but not before he had seen the designs and sketches already produced. The design and architecture of Giger’s Dune became the architecture and environment of Scott’s Prometheus.

In 2013, HR Giger was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame along with David Bowie and JRR Tolkien. A year later, he would be dead at 77, the result of injuries sustained during a fall, leaving behind a lasting legacy of endlessly fascinating and infinitely evocative art and, to use the word one last time here, a ‘Gigeresque’ influence that won’t go away any time soon.

If you’re interested in knowing about HR Giger the man, and his art, you can check out the HR Giger Museum online. I’d also recommend the 2013 biographical documentary, Dark Star: HR Giger’s World directed by Belinda Sallin.

That’s it for this edition of New Worlds Weekly, and I’ll see you again next Friday as we explore yet another facet of this genre we call science fiction. Live long and prosper!


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