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Production Design and Props
Production Design

Production designer Scott Chambliss was tasked with maintaining the balance between the two visually distinct worlds of Cowboys & Aliens, and he managed that with his distinct designs. "When you hear the title,” says Orci, "it's easy to conjure up images of guys on horseback with Stetsons riding under flying saucers. But Scott's approach was to meld these two worlds together, subliminally referencing the Old West in his design of the aliens and their world.”

To maintain the integration of these two genres, all of the alien hardware, weapons, speeders—as well as the alien tower and its workings—needed to be tailored to a 19th-century sensibility and imagination. Favreau asked for a setting in the throws of the Industrial Revolution…one of railways, steamships, telegraphs and tools with their multiple moving parts. This is the future from a decidedly late-Victorian vantage point.

Drawing inspiration from the sculptural work of American artist Lee Bontecou and the angular and geometric patterns of Brutalist architecture, the alien hardware is a far cry from the high-tech gadgetry or shiny antiseptic armor of much sci-fi imagery. Gritty and creepily biological, the invaders' nightmare technologies range from the 10-winged insect-like alien aircraft—ones that extend their long metal whip-like tentacles to snatch up their prey—to the giant vivisection tables, with their mammoth clamps and decrepit skin-like surface, encrusted with the blood of their victims.

Burrowed deep below the surface of the Earth are Absolution's loved ones, the aliens' victims…and the real motive behind the alien assault. The labyrinthine tunnels where the aliens extract the precious resource they've found and hold their human specimens hostage was built as the "cavern set.” This equaled a series of subterranean spaces that correspond to the area beneath the remote New Mexico desert where the alien ship has touched down and where the final battle takes place.

After spending months preparing the New Mexico locations, Chambliss left the company to shoot in this state while he returned to stages 6 and 27 on the Universal Studios lot. There, he and his team spent months building two astonishing environments. Chambliss explains of the 19,200-square-foot set: "We wanted the cavern to feel like it is miles underground and goes on forever. These tiny tunnels open up into big, scary spaces and then close down into creepy areas where the aliens do unspeakable things to their human captives.”

In addition to the series of tunnels where Jake and Ella race to free the human hostages and end the alien invasion, the cavern included the cave where prisoners are suspended like slaughterhouse animals…not to mention the surgery room where the aliens perform human vivisection.

The production designer found an innovative way to create the illusion of a vast underground space for the journey that Jake and Ella take after they penetrate the alien tower. Chambliss and his team created a modular set…an intricate puzzle of huge, dark rock walls and floors with interchangeable pieces that could be moved into different configurations to accommodate the actors and the shooting crew. Giant "rock icebergs” that were up to 14-feet tall were lifted by a gantry system or rolled around whenever Favreau wished to change the sets.

Down from the cavern set, on stage 27, Chambliss fashioned a very different, but no less frightening, environment for an earlier scene in the film: the first face-to-face encounter with the alien. To set the stage, Jake, Dolarhyde, Ella, Doc, Meacham and young Emmett have set off in pursuit of their assailants. While riding across the high desert plains, they see something unusual in the distance: a paddleboat wheel propped upside down in the air. Disturbing, as there isn't a river for hundreds of miles. Something has plucked this riverboat up and tossed it out into the open desert as if it was a discarded toy.

Our heroes are seeking cover from the storm when they come upon the upturned riverboat. As Emmett wanders through the vessel exploring the wreckage, the space becomes more threatening. In this topsy-turvy place, he passes through an archway into the main casino. Its gambling tables and piano remain in pieces on the ground, while chairs are suspended from rafters and boulders jut up into the boat. In the corner, a shadow lurks.

After researching riverboats from the period, concept artists drew illustrations to demonstrate what the intact riverboat should look like. Starting with foam core models of an undamaged boat, the artists broke down the design to see how the set would look if a boat had been hurled about. "It's a combination of creating something based on a real object that is, at the same time, a very abstract sculpture,” says Chambliss, "all the while keeping in mind that we needed to make this a dynamic, unusual space for the actors.”

Relying upon the artists' models, Chambliss' team built the framework of the upside-down set. Complete with broken windows, uneven surfaces and pitched walls, the riverboat included mounted trophy heads, as well as cracked mirrors and kerosene lamps. When it came time to dress the set, the fun began. Laughs Chambliss: "We had this beautiful furniture, casino tables, elaborate chandeliers, chairs, framed paintings…and then we got to destroy them. The crew and I had great fun throwing the stuff around, stomping on this and crushing that, seeing where it landed and deciding what worked.”


Iron Man and Star Trek property master RUSSELL BOBBITT joined the team with the challenge of outfitting a 19th-century world with props from weaponry to whiskey bottles. He and his crew blended period research with fantasy invention to create a battery of props from three different but intersecting worlds. But hewing as close as possible to the historical record presented challenges when it came to outfitting one of those worlds.

Ella tells Dolarhyde and the chief of the Chiricahua Apache, Black Knife, that no matter the history of the Indians and the white man, they must come together to fight a common enemy. The Chiricahua are a formidable force that joins an already unlikely alliance of cowboys, outlaws and cattle baron to fight the aliens. Historically, this tribe were some of the last standing American Indians who fought against land incursions. Their steadfast resistance to white settlement nearly led them to extinction, leaving behind scant details about their way of life. The few written or photographic records of the Chiricahua were created years after the period in which our story takes place and were often unreliable. The subjects in the photos taken close to the time frame were usually highly posed by European photographers, who would alter their dress and the items they carried to suit white men's image of who the Indians were and what they thought the Indians should represent.

What is clear is that the Apache were well-armed, skillful warriors; they used their bows and arrows, spears and shields with incredible precision and collected pistols and rifles from trades with and raids on European settlers. Bobbitt and his team worked closely with the Apache technical consultants on the traditional weaponry—from lethal war clubs and stones lashed to heavy sticks, to shields made with layers of wet rawhide sewn around a frame and dried until they were rock solid.

Bobbitt explains: "We learned what kind of feathers to use [turkey], how long the bows are [never more than 42 inches or under 30 inches], and we had everything, from lances to quivers, made properly unde

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