Book Review: Aliens: The Set Photography by Simon Ward

The movie Aliens turned 30 recently, and there are rumblings of another movie in the Alien universe in the works, so there’s no better time to go back and see what went into making one of the most iconic films in the franchise and in sci-fi as a whole. Aliens: The Set Photography by Simon Ward from Titan Books walks through every aspect of production and filming from pre-production casting and behind-the-scenes shots to walkthroughs of every major sequence of the film, how weapons and props were built, how aliens and other creature constructs were produced and animated…it’s very comprehensive across 140 pages.

The sizable (10.25″ by 12.25″) hardcover opens with an introduction by Carrie Henn, the actress who played Newt in the film. Her anecdotes and insights are peppered throughout the book along with quotes from Sigourney Weaver (Ellen Ripley), Jenette Goldstein (Pvt. Vasquez), and Tom Woodruff (Creature Effects Coordinator). From there, we explore the cast and crew and how they grew together through the experience, and then dive straight into the film itself. Captions often highlight which scenes or dialogue were exclusive to the Director’s Cut versus the theatrical release, and readers learn about all sorts of little details, including the fact that Michael Biehn was not the first person cast to play Hicks, Newt’s stunt double celebrated a birthday on set with the cast and crew, helpful tricks director James Cameron used to help a very young Carrie Henn stay focused during scenes with her adult co-stars, and we even delve into the contents of Hicks’ locker on the Sulaco to find what may be a reference to Biehn’s role in his previous endeavor with Cameron — The Terminator.

Breakdowns of how some of the equipment and creatures were designed and built were really interesting, as well as getting a glimpse of what was managed using miniatures and what was built life-size (the drop-ship, alien queen, and power loader got both tiny and big treatments). The facehuggers were upgraded from the original movie, adding more animatronics to allow them a wider range of skittery motion and more ambulatory tails. The aliens themselves were given consideration and design changes by Cameron, who envisioned them as older, more mature warriors compared to the relatively young alien in the original Alien. There is a full arsenal breakdown at the end of the book that covers much of the weaponry used (and some that never got off the shelf) by the marines in the film, along with trivia like the trigger on the smart-guns was actually a motorcycle handlebar, or that the pulse rifles and sentry turrets were built based on actual World War II machine gun hardware. Cameron even wanted the helmet cameras to be used to shoot real footage within the movie, though the idea didn’t work out quite as he had hoped. One of my favorite notes was on Hudson and Bishop’s knife trick scene — Bill Paxton didn’t know they were going to put his actual hand in harm’s way for the scene until filming started, so his surprise and reluctance in the film might actually be genuine.

This is by and large a picture book with a handful of captions on each page, so there’s not an extensive amount of reading to do. With that in mind, large-print photographs of the aliens and dismembered Bishop might not be suitable for younger eyes. It’s quite comprehensive and a great collectible for fans of the movie and the franchise as a whole. A committed reader could fly through it in an afternoon, but there are details in every shot that die-hard fans will definitely appreciate. The added commentary by cast and crew really expand on things as well. The book is well made and the pages have a decent thickness to them that should hold up for quite a while under anything but the most intense abuse. As a horror and sci-fi junkie and big fan of the Alien universe, Aliens: The Set Photography has definitely earned a place on my coffee table.

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Mark Buckingham

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