How 'The Predator' Creature Effects Team Expanded on the 1987 Action Classic

The first alien hunter, the titular creature from 1987's Predator, was a rush job.

Before actor Kevin Peter Hall inhabited the suit—with its signature mandibles and dreadlocks—the Predator team tried out a different design, with Jean-Claude Van Damme inside a the long-limbed creature with the face of a praying mantis. But this first suit proved impractical for the arduous, on-location shoot, so the production enlisted Stan Winston, a make-up effects designer already renowned for his work on The Thing, The Terminator and 1986's Aliens (for which he won his first Oscar), to design an alien practical enough for the Mexico jungle where Predator was shot. Along for the ride were Winston's special effects proteges Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis.

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Stan Winston's alien hunter in 1987's "Predator." 20th Century Fox

"We begged Stan not to take the job," Gillis told Newsweek. "We only had eight weeks to build the Predator. We had just come off Aliens and people had high expectations."

But Winston and his team came up with one of the most beloved alien designs in cinematic history, cementing the Predator in the cultural firmament, no matter how bad the sequels got. "That stuff is still iconic," Gillis admitted. "But it was based on eight weeks of sleepless nights."

Whereas the original Predator was a trial-by-fire, the new release, director Shane Black's The Predator, in theaters now, was something of a victory lap. Black employed a lot of their work in the final theatrical release, particularly the main predator character, a fugitive from the predator homeworld who crashlands on Earth. Behind the animatronic face and inside the head-to-toe foam latex body mask is stunt actor Brian Prince."We always try to design for a night out," Woodruff says, describing the job as not just about delivering a striking effect, but also making it comfortable and wearable enough for actors to perform. Woodruff has first-hand experience both inside and outside the costume. He's played an Alien xenomorph, the Gillman in The Monster Squad (directed by The Predator co-writer Fred Dekker) and the titular monster in Stan Winston's 1988 horror movie, Pumpkinhead, making him an expert in the nuances of physiological, biological movement that CGI artists still struggle to recreate to physical perfection.

"Tom actually wears the stuff," Gillis says, almost as if he can't believe their good fortune to still being playing rubber-suited monsters, decades after Frankenstein and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Modern audiences adore practical effects, even as digital work becomes seamless enough to pass by even the most discerning movie watcher. Fully animated environments are now the norm in even the most realistic movies, with CGI in movies like The Wolf of Wall Street clearing by viewer scrutiny largely without comment. Still, the allure of practical effects continues, offering tactile possibilities a fully virtual model can't. Gillis and Woodruff are now special effects royalty, some of the last practitioners of a practical approach to monster-making that was lost in the 1990s rush toward CGI effects.

"When Jurassic Park came out a lot of people who do practical FX were worried," Gillis said, explaining the historical context for our current special effects era, where even practical effects masters like Phil Tippett (Star Wars Original Trilogy, Robocop) are learning the CGI ropes (Tippet became a master of both forms, spearheading the digital effects for 1997's Starship Troopers, which hold up to this day). "We looked at it and saw that the digital tools are powerful and broad-reaching, but we decided we're going to stay specialist."

It was a gambit that paid off. "We have a found a way not just to survive but thrive," Gillis said. "A lot of directors are coming back to practical work."

Not only are practical effects in vogue, but directors frequently come to Woodruff and Gillis' Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. for design work, enabling them to see their creatures in real-space before committing to digital versions, including the upcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters director Michael Dougherty, who enlisted Woodruff and Gillis to create maquette versions of the giant monsters in the movie.

"We'll do clay sculptures," Gillis said. "Directors love clay."

Often, Woodruff and Gillis are tasked with designing creatures that enable a director to fulfill the most complete possible version of his or her vision, building models and maquettes for them to pitch to studios, or as real-world, tactile forms difficult to envision on the page or in the computer alone.

Here's how Woodruff and Gillis created a new predator for Alien vs. Predator: Requiem:

Of course, this means a lot of painstaking work never makes it to screen. It's not wise to be precious in their field, where design after iterative design can be wiped away with a single studio note (much of their work that doesn't make it to screen can be seen on their YouTube channel, studioADI).

Woodruff and Gillis did work on The Predator that never appears on-screen, as they have on countless other movies (most famously, they designed all-practical effects for a reboot/prequel to The Thing, which was replaced with full CGI at the last minute), but their unseen creations still contribute to the movie's alien mythology.

The Predator opens on a skirmish in space, with one predator ship firing upon another. We get a loose sense of various factions at play; internecine conflicts on the predator homeworld, between different factions and castes. "Shane Black had this idea to have a civil war going on in the predator world," Gillis said. "Among the various parties, we originally had a science faction. Somebody's got to build these spaceships, they're not all wearing loincloths!"

Woodruff and Gillis, who've found their niche in a new era, continue to be optimistic about the balance of CGI and practical effects, with The Predator as a perfect example of the hybrid possibilities, with both its practical predator suit and the fully CGI, 11-foot-tall predator tracker that appears in the film's second half.

"A lot of fans fall into this camp of #WeHateCGI," Gillis says. "But we don't fall into that category, we like the mixed bag, because any technique is a tool for storytelling. If you're building a house why would you not use a hammer?"

The Predator is out in theaters now.

How 'The Predator' Creature Effects Team Expanded on the 1987 Action Classic | Culture