Q is for Queen

by Graham Edwards

In the VFX ABC, the letter “Q” stands for “Queen”.

Science fiction and fantasy films delight in carrying us to strange lands and even stranger planets. As we explore these brave new worlds, chances are we’ll encounter a thoroughly alien society. And who will we find sitting on the alien throne?

An alien queen, of course.

In 1924, a Russian silent film called Aelita, Queen of Mars whisked audiences across the far reaches of space to meet the scantily-clad Martian monarch. Directed by Yakov Protazanov, Aelita showcased lavish constructivist sets by Isaak Rabinovich and a fleeting glimpse of a funky balloon-shaped spacecraft – the movie’s miniatures are credited to Viktor Simonov.

A thinly-disguised treatise on socialism, Aelita bombed at the box office, yet its innovative production design appears to have influenced later and more memorable science fiction films including Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis and Universal Pictures’ 1930s Flash Gordon serial.

The sovereign ruler of the Red Planet finds herself leading a worker's revolution in the 1924 Russian film "Aelita, Queen of Mars."

The sovereign ruler of the Red Planet finds herself leading a worker’s revolution in the 1924 Russian film “Aelita, Queen of Mars.”

When it comes to alien queens, however, there’s one monarch who reigns supreme. Yes, I’m talking about the vengeful, egg-laying xenomorph from James Cameron’s 1986 film Aliens. Created for the production in both full-size and quarter-scale versions by artists at Stan Winston Studio, this big bad momma simultaneously pushed special effects technologies to the limit and created a movie icon that towers tall even to this day.

Here’s what James Cameron had to say about his original concept design for the alien queen, in the pages of Cinefex 27:

“For me, the queen is really a blend of what [H.R.] Giger does with what I wanted to do, which was to create something that was big and powerful and terrifying and fast and very female – hideous and beautiful at the same time, like a black widow spider.”

The alien queen battles Ripley’s power loader in “Aliens.” Stan Winston's crew operated the full-scale animatronic queen. For shots showing only the upper half of the loader, its mechanical legs were removed to afford greater maneuverability for operators Sigourney Weaver and John Lees.

The alien queen battles Ripley’s power loader in “Aliens.” Stan Winston’s crew operated the full-scale animatronic queen. For shots showing only the upper half of the loader, its mechanical legs were removed to afford greater maneuverability for operators Sigourney Weaver and John Lees.

In the same interview, Cameron commented that somebody had likened the queen to “an anorexic dinosaur.” In the film, Sigourney Weaver as Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley famously refers to her as “you bitch!” Which got me wondering – how did the Stan Winston team refer to their creation while they were on set?

As it turns out, the answer is prosaic. John Rosengrant and Alec Gillis, part of the original Aliens creature crew, told me they referred to her quite simply as “the Queen.” Gillis elaborated: “We were so dogged tired that one-syllable words worked best!”

For a shot in “Star Trek: First Contact” showing the assembly of the Borg queen’s body parts, actress Alice Krige was positioned with her head in a prosthetic neck-and-shoulders piece fashioned by Todd Masters Company. Bluescreen material masked her legs and torso. ILM digitally combined the result with footage of the biomechanical suit.

For a shot in “Star Trek: First Contact” showing the assembly of the Borg queen’s body parts, actress Alice Krige was positioned with her head in a prosthetic neck-and-shoulders piece fashioned by Todd Masters Company. Bluescreen material masked her legs and torso. ILM digitally combined the result with footage of the biomechanical suit.

Ten years after the release of Aliens, in 1996, concept artist Ricardo Delgado compared his design for the Borg queen of Star Trek: First Contact with the same deadly arachnid that had inspired James Cameron – the black widow spider.

Alice Krige performed as the cybernetic sovereign, wearing prosthetic makeup by Mike Westmore and crew, with Industrial Light & Magic deploying some smart digital effects for a shot in which a descending apparatus introduces the queen’s fleshy head and shoulders to a waiting biomechanical body.

Genre films in subsequent years gave us a healthy succession of notable queens (or at least characters close enough to royalty to count in my book).

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace benefited from the graceful presence of Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala, while in 2001 A.I. Artificial Intelligence treated us to a glimpse of the queenly Blue Fairy, voiced by Meryl Streep and digitally keyframed by ILM to emulate the retro qualities of 1950s Disney animation.

In the year 2001, a rather different kind of queen made audiences tremble with fear. In Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, the heroic young wizard played by Daniel Radcliffe goes up against a giant chess set brought to life by sinister spells. Photographed on a full-scale set, with practical effects and pyrotechnics by special effects supervisor John Richardson and digital animation by Mill Film, the chess sequence features a sword-wielding queen driven by a particularly aggressive kind of magic.

Harry, Ron and Hermione face the perils of a giant chess board in "Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone."

Harry, Ron and Hermione face the perils of a giant chess board in “Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone.”

No queen is complete without her castle. In The Chronicles of Narnia, Sony Pictures Imageworks constructed the freezing environs of the castle of Tilda Swinton’s White Witch (who looks a lot like a Snow Queen if you ask me). Meanwhile, for Snow White and Huntsman, Baseblack and BlueBolt built the brooding castle environments within which Charlize Theron as Queen Revenna worked her endlessly wicked ways.

In 2010, director Tim Burton concocted an arresting vision of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, for which artists at Sony Pictures Imageworks used digital warping and clever composition to enlarge the head of actress Helena Bonham Carter, techniques they revisited for James Bobin’s 2016 sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass.

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As I write this in the summer of 2016, alien queens are big again – in this case, very big. Following James Cameron’s lead, Roland Emmerich gave us “something we hadn’t seen yet” in Independence Day: Resurgence. The 200-foot-tall queen of the alien invaders was brought to the screen by visual effects artists at Weta Digital. You can read the full story of how they did it in Cinefex 148.

Not every movie queen requires motion picture magic to put her on the throne. Nevertheless, some of cinema’s most memorable monarchs were helped into power by teams of artists from the fields of visual and special effects. The result of their work is frequently spectacular, which just goes to prove one thing.

Queens rule.


Aliens photography copyright © 1986 by Twentieth Century Fox. Star Trek: First Contact photograph copyright © 1996 by Paramount Pictures. Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone photograph copyright © 2001 by Warner Brothers. Alice in Wonderland photographs copyright © 2010 by Walt Disney Pictures.