The Alien Factor (1978) Retrospective

How many of us started into filmmaking with crude, 8mm “mad scientist” horror epics, churned out on weekends in basements, garages, and living rooms? How many of us later progressed to more sophisticated Super or Single 8 (maybe even 16mm) films with sync-sound, elaborate special effects, and jazzy titles? And finally, how many of us through these first two stages of normal film-making development yearn for the big times that crack at doing a real, honest-to-goodness feature film? The answer to all three questions is most of us. And our group certainly wasn’t an exception. Ever since the beginning of this magazine back in 1972 I have become very aware of the abundance of true talent hiding itself in the shadow of the words “amateur filmmaker.” I think the articles and film profiles presented in Cinemagic testify to that fact. And though many of the films and filmmakers presented in these pages are truly amateurs (albeit creative, talented amateurs), a good many have the ability and experience to rub elbows with the best of professional film people. With this knowledge in mind, and the fact that I’ve come to personally know so many talented filmmakers through the sheer existence of this magazine, I figured that it was time to pool local (and some not-so-local) talent for the purpose of making a feature-length theatrical film.

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The plan was simple enough: gather together a group of technicians and special effects artists get each individual to chip in an equal share of money, and let everyone “donate” his time and talents. With this concept, and a very rough idea for a story, I called together a varied group of filmmakers from the local Baltimore area. Most of us knew each other pretty well on a social level, but few of us had ever worked together on a creative film project. That first meeting, back in June of last year, went exceptionally well, and after three or four subsequent gatherings, we had kicked the story concept around and were setting our sights on a July 1 starting date. Our assembled group consisted of Dave Ellis, who would handle the sound recording; Britt McDonough as our chief cinematographer; Tony Malanowski as assistant director; John Cosentino on creature designs and special effects; George Stover playing a featured role in the film, as well as pulling in additional local acting talent; and yours truly, as script writer and director. Actually, such “titles” are nice and professional sounding, but when you get right down to it on just about any independent film, everybody does a little of everything. As mid-June rolled around and we had spent about two thousand hours in pre-production work (the tiny details are endless), I got a call from our only out-of-state partner, John Cosentino, who was handling the creation of two of our creature designs. “We’ll die inside these foam rubber suits in that heat,” John persuaded. And I listened, and finally. I agreed. So the July 1 commencement was pushed up until an October commencement. That worked out just as well, because typically, we hadn’t realized the tremendous amounts of time necessary to merely get ready for Day One of the shoot. October 1st came and went, and it wasn’t until October 16th that Day One actually happened. Now it is mid-January, and filming is just about completed. After working for five weekends in October and November, and knocking off for the holidays during December, filming was resumed a few weeks ago. We would be finished filming now, too, except for some terrible sound problems which cannot be ironed out. At the outside location for one of our major sequences we discovered that we were near a small suburban airport. Despite waiting endless hours for small planes to either land or get out of mike range, we still picked up enough of the buzzing airplane engines to be very noticeable. Our choice is to spend tons of money and time in a studio dubbing sound, or to find a new location and re-film that major sequence.

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We’ve decided that in the long run, it’ll be much cheaper to re-film. The result is that we have only two small sequences which are usable from our October/ November shooting. Those sequences represent a lot of the total film, and our challenge now is to complete filming within a few weeks. We’ve already been out for two weeks in the worst winter weather in Baltimore history (average temperatures of about 10 degrees or lower) , and we have three more weeks to go. We’ve got most of the film in the can now, and we’re confident that we’ll have 100% by February 13th. Of course, by the time you read this it will probably be late March, and filming will have been finished, but I’ll let you know how it worked out in the next issue.

The Evolution Of The Story

My original idea was to make a ” film quickly and cheaply, a fast-buck vehicle that we could use as a springboard to bigger and better projects. The first title for our film was Lance Sterling Monster Killer, and it was to be a parody of every horror flick we’d ever seen. At first there was so much enthusiasm for this approach that we were coming up with more comedy and sight-gags than plot, and it seemed that the whole thing was turning into a sort of one-act satire. Finally, we came to our senses and said. nix.. From everything we had heard and read, the safest bet for a “first feature” was a straight-approach horror film. We continued on that premise, and I began writing the script. As the days rolled on, and script page after script page was completed, I started to notice that our ordinary horror film was turning more into a science fiction kind of thing, demanding a lot more special effects and good acting performances than we had previously calculated. A conflict then set in: should I continue writing this rather involved story, or scrap it and go back to a simple “monster-on-the-loose” concept? My decision was to compromise: three monsters on the loose with science fiction overtones. Thus our monsters became alien creatures, set loose on earth by an accident. Since we wanted our film to ring nostalgic of sci-fi films of the ’50’s, I set the whole story within the mythological small town of Perry Hill. If you change “Hill” to “Hall,” it should sound like a familiar place but “Perry Hall” somehow just doesn’t cut it as a small town.

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So our imaginary small town took on all the characteristics of typical old sci-fi movies. Although there isn’t really any scene in the film taking place in the town’s exterior, we did find a suitable location for a few establishing shots. Just about all of the action “in town” was written to take place in the sheriff’s office, an interior we built on a super-modest budget in part of my basement. Our total office set budget came to about $50.00 and most of that was for lumber. I had several planks of sheet rock, which we used for the walls, and between us we all donated something to embellish the set: an old varnished door and table lamp from Dave Ellis, Venetian blinds from Tony Malanowski, a black dial phone from George Stover, and even an old wooden coat rack brought to us by our good friend Bruce Dods, who came down from New Jersey to watch us film one weekend. Our gun rack was purchased from a secondhand store for $5.00, and the guns placed on it were borrowed from a variety of people. The large bulletin board in the set is merely another piece of sheet-rock, framed and painted tan; and the local Post Office was eager to donate several old “wanted” posters. For a “call box” we set up a microphone and a wood-encased stereo speaker on top of a small particle board desk. The mike is a genuine tabletop one, picked up by one of our actors, Chris Gummer, for a dollar at a flea market. With all the ingredients put together, I’ve got to say that our sheriff’s office has charm, and a definite photogenic quality. Composition was generally easy when we shot on this set, and it’s visually enjoyable on the screen.

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Having the set built early helped me tremendously to visualize camera set-ups while I wrote the script. I knew the limitations of camera angles, and I always knew which direction the characters would have to face for continuity’s sake. The basic story of The Alien Factor is fairly typical, but that’s the way we wanted it. Three alien creatures are loose in this small town, and they’re attacking the townspeople left and right. The sheriff is stumped (he at first attributes the deaths to a large animal), and the mayor is on the sheriff’s back to “get out and find the thing before it kills anybody else!” The town doctor (a woman) helps thicken the mystery by discovering strange, impossible symptoms in several of the bodies (“No animal I’ve heard of could do that”). Meanwhile, there is an overly ambitious girl reporter the small town girl who’s been to the big city to study journalism and has now returned home to become the assistant editor of the town paper. She’s pesky, and constantly risking her neck within the film. Finally we have the outsider who comes into town, befriends the mayor, and inevitably becomes the savior. With these characters it was easy to create emotion and turmoil and hence, conflict. You’ve got to have conflict to have any sympathy for your characters, and if the audience can’t sympathize the story loses credibility (and it’s tough enough trying to make horror and science fiction believable). So far, our actors have done a convincing job, and in the daily rushes they seem believable to me, so I’m confident that when all is cut together properly, our story will have believable characters with whom the audience can identify. I should point out that we did things a bit backwards in our preproduction scheme; that is, we held screen tests and chose our actors before the final script was written. I had roughed out a story, described the characters, and scouted most of the exterior locations before we held the screen tests. With our cast selected, I knew precisely what sort of personalities I was dealing with, and although I had preconceived notions as to the characters in the film, knowing what the actors were like really helped. This was my first crack at writing an entire feature-length script, and Baltimore is not Hollywood—so it wasn’t a matter of having hundreds of talented actors at our disposal. We had to take what we could get locally for the most part, but somehow, the people we cast fit beautifully into their respective roles. The only sort of difficulty we encountered with our performers ( who are all working on a deferred payment basis) was in scheduling. We wormed our way around this by giving available actors scenes which were written for other actors (who weren’t able to meet schedules on particular days). Luckily, this sort of character-switching had no ill effect on the story, and in one case it actually worked out better.

The Special Effects

Although our original concept was to make a quickie, fast-buck monster film, we wanted to at least have the monsters look good. When the script metamorphosed to a more plausible story line, we at first still decided to let our special effects go at three different “monster” creations. However, as we got further into developing our story, we saw a definite need for additional and more sophisticated effects. The first decision here was to make one of our creatures a stop motion model, rather than a man in a suit, like the other two creatures.

The Leemoid

For this task I convinced our cameraman, Britt McDonough, to build a ball-and-socket, latex build-up model, based on my specs. Britt put the model together in one week, using a new, simplified ball-and-socket construction method recently developed by a young man in Virginia. (This new method does not require drilling or soldering, and uses ready-made parts. We will present an article on this in a future issue.) The only significant difference in our stop-motion sequence is that the model will be superimposed over live action of an actor. The reason is that we want the creature called a Leemoid in the film, to be a rather ghostly energy creature who is visible only at night. The sequence involving the Leemoid takes place near the end of the film, and will last about three minutes on the screen.

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The Zagatile

For our other creatures, we called on John Cosentino and Larry Schlechter. John (who, as I mentioned earlier, is from Michigan) submitted several drawings of various creatures, and two designs were chosen. One of them, a 7-foot-tall beast with furry legs similar to Harryhausen’s 7th Voyage cyclops, became our Zagatile in The Alien Factor. The second design must remain secret for now, for it would reveal too much about our plot. In any case, both creatures were meticulously sculpted in clay, and huge full body casts were made in plaster. John decided that he would have to wear the Zagatile outfit, so he somehow managed to make his own body cast. He used 700 pounds of plaster for the cast, and described it as “Yucchh!” His process was so intriguing, though, that I asked him to write an article about it for a later issue of CM (he agreed to do so). The unique thing about the Zagatile is its feet: a foot and a half of welded steel, with claw-shaped toes, and ski-boots at the top into which John strapped his own feet. Together with his own six-foot frame, John stood 7 feet tall when suited up and standing on the steel Zagatile feet.

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The Inferbyce

Larry Schlechter chose a different approach to creature design. Since his Inferbyce was to be a man-like version of a cockroach, Larry decided that for it to look hard-shelled, it would have to be hard-shelled. He created the suit in hinged sections out of a cardboard base with papier-mache build-up. Several coats of liquid latex, paint, and varnish complete the effect of a shiny, slithery cockroach-thing. With our main three creatures out of the way,  we took to the task of additional special effects.

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The Crashed Ship

Many of these were simply in-camera optical effects, while others were miniatures combined with live action. One of the most convincing on-screen effects so far is a shot of a huge spaceship which is crashed into the earth. Two of our characters walk up to the large craft and inspect it. Here again, we called on the talents of John Cosentino and Britt McDonough. Together they constructed a beautiful miniature of the spaceship and surrounding “earth.” The earth was sculpted in Celluclay (a ready-made papier mache substance) and appropriately painted. To pull off the illusion of the live actors looking dwarfed against a giant craft we did a “deceptive perspective” shot. That is, the spacecraft model platform was arranged in such a way as to blend in with the live terrain, and the actors were placed several hundred feet away from the miniature. The camera, sporting a 10mm wide-angle lens, was placed a few inches from the model, and the effect became the illusion of a large spacecraft and tiny men. The important thing in such a shot is how well the tiny miniature actually blends in with the live terrain, and having both the close miniature and the distant actors in sharp focus. We were fortunate when we shot this sequence because it was an extremely bright day and we were able to close down the lens to f8. To further insure sharpness, we focused mid-way between the miniature and the actors. All-in-all, the effect is totally convincing, and people who have seen it think it’s some sort of precisely executed matte shot.

John Cosentino places twigs into the miniature papier mache platform that the spaceship model rests on. The miniature was coated with real snow.
John Cosentino places twigs into the miniature papier mache platform that the spaceship model rests on. The miniature was coated with real snow.

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After the miniature blends into the real, life-size landscape, the camera with a 10mm wide-angle lens is placed close to the miniature.

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The miniature placed close to the lens creates the illusion of a huge spaceship. The actors are placed 200 feet in the background, lined up so that they appear to be next to the spaceship. It is important for the miniature to blend perfectly with the life-size background. It is usually best, therefore, to assemble the miniature set. up on location. The models and main ground pieces are built beforehand, but the final assembly needs to include dirt, sand (or in this case, snow), rocks and twigs from the location properly blended to merge with the background.
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The foreground miniature is complete and ready for setting up with the actors. Note that the small twigs on the platform will blend in with real trees in the background adding depth to the perspective illusion.
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Space ship miniature

CREW

Bill Cosentino … special effects assistant
John Cosentino … ‘Zagatile’ (tall creature) designed by / special effects
Ernest Farino … ‘Leemoid’ designed /animated by (as Ernie Farino) 
Britt McDonough … special effects
Ted Rae … special effects assistant (as Ted Richard Rae)
Larry Schlechter … ‘Inferbyce’ (incect) designed by / special effects Visual Effects by
Ernest Farino … additional photographic effects (as Ernest D. Farino)
CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Cinemagic v1 09 (1977)
Cinemagic v1 10 (1977)
Cinemagic v1 11 (1978)
Cinemagic v2 06

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