Jun 16, 2017

Neither CGI nor Van Damme played a role in the iconic Predator, 30 years old today. Here's why

BYGautham Shenoy

It seems only yesterday that we went to watch a macho action film because it had Arnold ‘Shivajinagar’ in it, and ended up awestruck by the vicious-yet-honourable killing machine, the alien trophy hunting warrior we call Predator: arguably the only foe that made Arnie use his brains and not his brawn. It may seem like yesterday, but in reality it was 30 years ago that Predator released. It was June 12, 1987 (feeling old yet?).
And today, 30 years later, Predator still stands as one of the high points of 80s sci-fi action movies, not dated as the rest of them (mostly because jungles look the same even today), and an experience that its sequels and spin-offs have yet to match. And to think this movie that was nominated for a for a Hugo Award (Best Dramatic Presentation) and the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film, started with a joke.

The larger-than-life men of action of Predator, except for Shane Black (back row; between Jesse Ventura and Arnold) who we shall meet again later on.

After the release of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV, a joke started doing the rounds of Hollywood. “Now that he’d defeated the Russian boxer as well, and run out of earthly opponents to defeat, who would Rocky Balboa fight in the next movie? An alien warrior from outer space?!” This soon reached the ears of brothers and screenwriters Jim and John Thomas, who took inspiration from this joke to write a spec script for a movie titled ‘Hunter’ about a special forces team which comes up against a deadly alien hunter in the jungles of Central America.
It was promptly picked up by 20th Century Fox and handed over to Joel Silver, the producer of 1985’s Commando, who decided to use this as a big budget sci-fi action vehicle for Arnold, who in turn needed a worthy foe after Commando, as much as Rocky did after Ivan Drago.
That foe turned out to be a man looking for a break in Hollywood, Jean-Claude Van Damme, who was chosen to play the titular alien hunter.
Predator creature
Left: A model of the creature’s original design with backward-bent reptilian legs, extended arms and a scary face. Right: How it ultimately looked like, on location, once the suit was made. Inside the suit is Van Damme.

As per the original script, the alien was supposed to be an agile and nimble ninja-like creature who would kick. Van Damme recalls, ‘They said I would be in a tight leotard with half-human, half-animal makeup on my face.” No wonder he signed up because that would give him all the opportunity to dropkick and punch and generally show off his martial arts skills, while taking on one of the biggest action heroes of that time. But the Muscles from Brussels Vs The Austrian Oak showdown was doomed and dammed from the start.
For no one had told Van Damme that he would be invisible for more than half the film and even when seen, his face would not be visible. More importantly, the original ‘hunter’ suit was as bulky and cumbersome as it was funny looking. Arnold would describe it as ‘…a lizard suit with the head of a duck.” To compound things, Van Damme found himself running around in a red suit (more on this in a bit) which he didn’t like one bit and went around muttering, “I hate it, I hate it…”. Even more so when he found out that he was more of a stuntman than the second lead and there would be no chance for any martial arts to be displayed.
It took all of two days of shooting for everyone to figure out that this wouldn’t work, not least because the ungainly monster suit that was ultimately made looked more comical than scary and was impractical and cumbersome to shoot with in the muddy jungles.
Left: Van Damme in the red hunter-shaped suit. Right: Van Damme with his right hand encased in the Hunter’s arm, giving a ‘I didn’t sign up for this’ look alongside Carl Weathers with a prosthetic arm. Via: Stan Winston School of Character Arts

Van Damme quietly left when production was halted for a few weeks so that a better hunter – by now called Predator – could be created. Something that was horrifying and less ha-ha. On Arnold’s suggestion, the director, John McTiernan, turned to design legend Stan Winston who’d just finished working on James Cameron’s Aliens. The first spark of inspiration for Winston came – by his own admission – from a poster in Joel Silver’s office of a Rastafarian warrior. Winston kept drawing and sketching designs – given that time was short – even when on a plane to Japan to attend a symposium for Aliens, with Cameron in the seat next to him. Winston recalls, “Jim suddenly said, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to see something with mandibles.’ And I said, ‘Hmmm, that’s an interesting idea.’ And I stared drawing the now-famous mandibles of the Predator.”
Left: Stan Winston’s sketches for the Predator. Right: The original Stan Winston Predator suit.

Stan Winston and his crew worked day and night to make the suits, complete with a mechanical head with moving tusks and mandibles and a fully animatronic face. With the Predator now a fierce tribal-looking and intimidating creature – and with no one bothering to call the 5-feet-9-inch Van Damme back – the imposing 7-foot-4-inch Kevin Peter Hall was chosen to play the titular Predator. There was to be no fancy CGI or motion capture, just a man in a suit (but what a suit!). Perhaps this is what lends charm to the film — its technology does not date it.
Left: Kevin Peter Hall. Centre: Hall taking a break on the sets of Predator. Right: Hall with the special effects crew with Stan Winston (crouching in the front) Via: Stan Winston School

Even the famous Predator camouflage or ‘invisibility effect’ was achieved with camera techniques, not CGI. First Hall would do the scene in a suit that was bright red (as it was farthest from the green of the jungle and the blue of the sky). The scene was then replicated, but without the actors, using a 30% wider lens on the camera. Once the red was removed from the first shot with chroma key techniques, leaving an empty area, it was combined optically with the second take. The result? The trees from the second take filled in the empty area, and because of the second take’s wider lens, it left a vague outline of the Predator with the background scenery seeming to bend around its shape, creating one of the highlights of the film.
And the green, glowing blood? Again, no effects were used but a physical substance itself: Fluorescent green liquid from readily-available glow sticks, with the sticky texture and gooeyness coming from the personal lubricant K-Y Jelly that it was mixed with. Keep that in mind when you watch Predator again for the umpteenth time.
Speaking of which, Shane Black, who played the dorky radio operator in Predator – a casting that is often cited as being a favour from producer Joel Silver for writing the successful Lethal Weapon that had released a few months earlier, but mostly so that Black could be around to make script changes on location on the fly – is directing the next Predator movie. Co-written by Black himself, and titled The Predator, it’s set between the events of 1990’s Predator 2 and the eminently forgettable 2010 sequel, Predators. With the filming wrapped up this month, looks like we’re on track for a date with the ultimate hunter a year from now.
On that hopeful note, I sign off for this week, and I hope I’ll see you again here, next Friday, for another edition of New Worlds Weekly, on FactorDaily. Until then, share with us your Predator stories, memories and opinions by tweeting to us with #NWWonFD or using the comments section below. You can also leave us a note on the FactorDaily Facebook page.
Live long and prosper, and… Get to the chopperr!

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Gautham Shenoy is a writer of FactorDaily.