Interview by Daniel Cooper, Edited by Scott Middlebrook.
Sometime around September 2019 a video clip started doing the rounds of Alien-related social media. It was someone doing cosplay in a Xenomorph costume. It was distinctive in that it had a translucent dome that showed off the skull and ‘head ribs’ underneath – and it had cool animatronic jaw that shot out. Something the costumes used in the films generally don’t even do. They usually just make an animatronic head for close ups.
I duly clicked Like, along with numerous others, and went on with my life.
Fast forward a month and an email lobs from Clara asking me to edit an interview she and Daniel Cooper did with Rachel J Arts. My first reaction was ‘Rachel who now?’ before scrolling through the mail to find a hyperlink and ah – the cool costume with the dome and cool animatronic head. Rachel J is Rachel Johnson.
The sheer amount of effort to construct such a costume indicates some hardcore love for the films. But as with many other fans, it can be difficult to choose a favourite. “It’s a tossup between the first and second film”, Rachel says. “I love both for completely different reasons and I cannot imagine either one existing without the other. They’re perfect films.” She adds, “I’m glad that Aliens has introduced the Colonial Marines for cosplay reasons and has also shown us a more positive spin on the usually sinister androids that we continue to see in the franchise.”
However when it comes to the Alien itself, the ‘Big Chap’ from the first film is her favourite. Obviously. But for human characters it has to be Ripley. “I love seeing a character on screen that I can look up to as a hero… that anyone can look up to. She’s smart, resourceful, and turns into a complete badass of a character due to her encounters with the Xenomorphs. Also, she had a cat. I love cats.”
Her reaction to the prequels is a little more mixed. “Prometheus and Covenant were partially there as films and as contributors to the franchise: I want to continue see more focus on the story of the Engineers and of the androids, however I felt like there were moments in both films, particularly Covenant, that felt compelled to stop in their tracks midway through the plot and throw some more of the same surprises at us again just for the sake of calling themselves Alien films. Regardless, I won’t lie, I was still giddy seeing the monsters tearing things up on the big screen again!” And just to reinforce her fan cred – “Part of me wants to see Jeri the synthetic Xenomorph (from the Aliens: Stronghold comic series) on the big screen because the premise of a wisecracking talking alien just seems too ridiculous to pass up!”
Rachel’s animatronic Alien was a long time coming, ending up in cosplay via drawing. Studies in technical and video game art had Rachel tending more towards designing the bad guys and monsters unlike many of her fellow students, who were more interested in the heroes. The accessibility of just picking up a pencil and paper was creatively fulfilling, however – “Sometimes I don’t feel like drawing but I still want a creative project to work on. On a whim, when I was in a little bit of a rut, I decided in the summer months leading up to Dragon Con 2014 that I wanted to try something new and go in a handmade costume. So, within a few months, I built my first Xenomorph out of pink foam, PVC pipe, and foam pipe insulation. It wasn’t very comfortable to wear but that didn’t matter to me at the time because I was now already hooked on cosplay!” This then led to a whole new community. “My cosplay friends are some of the coolest and most talented people I’ve ever hung out with and I love being around other motivated and creative people.”
After that first initial Alien costume a second followed, then after working on and off for three years – she has a day job maintaining commercial grade laser cutters, 3D printers, and vacuum forming machines – the latest masterpiece was complete. And with it, its own set of challenges. “Attaching the entire jaw mechanism was a tedious process. I had to make sure all of the moving parts were mounted and angled perfectly before proceeding to the next step, otherwise the tongue could be too close to my face or it could stick out too much and get stuck in the articulating jaw. I think I spent 2 straight weeks on getting the moving tongue mounted and operating correctly, repeatedly putting on and taking off the helmet to make sure it still fit me!”
She continues, “Creating the dome buck (for vacuum forming the clear skull domes) out of plaster was also a beast of a project. While the form is a simple shape, due to the sheer size of it (and the weight!) it took a lot of elbow grease to sand it down to a smooth finish and it required several helping hands to lug it around to get it vacuum formed. And then I still had to dye the domes in a tub long enough that could completely submerge them!”
The first two versions of the dome didn’t quite work. The first seated on top of her head, but unfortunately gave her a “bobble head” look. The second was 3D printed from a modified game model, and while much heavier and getting rid of the “bobble head” effect, lacked the necessary detailing of the ‘ribs’. “For my final head design I went back to carving pink insulation foam again (as she had on done on the first head) and I spent a ton more time referencing the design from the first movie, and through my research I realized that most of the details on the movie head as well as on the entire costume were actually various found parts. I think my favourite details are the plastic siphon pumps glued to each side of the helmet!”
The final head, thanks to the insulation foam, ended up being light for its size. “The only downside is that the head fits pretty snug so I cannot wear it for extended periods of time without needing to take it off occasionally for a breather. I wouldn’t want it any other way though: if I made it too roomy the head will look bigger and that’ll make it look out of proportion and goofy. It’s a fun helmet to perform in though, however I do need a couple of handlers with me at all times because I have NO peripheral vision!”
She then consulted with Pilerud’s Cosplay, who designed his helmet first and uploaded his work in progress photos as a guide. “I inquired about his build having a moving tongue mechanism and the smooth plastic dome; I just HAD to tackle the challenge of fabricating those myself and talking to him was invaluable in figuring out how to achieve that on my own at a professional level of quality.”
About 400 hours later, when Rachel got to the final parts of the project – gluing details to fabric and shoes to make the feet, all her previous experience made it quick and easy. If she could start over from scratch though, would she do anything different?
“I would coat my parts in epoxy way earlier than I did. The epoxy coating made the parts more durable and stiffer, which meant some of the fasteners and magnets for holding the chest ribs close to my body failed. The good thing is I can still go back in and fix this without having to redo the entire piece. In addition to this I would also start the fabric aspects of the costume much earlier than I did because I underestimated the difficulty of sewing the neck cover and the gloves. Mad respect to to all of the cosplay seamstresses and tailors out there, your work takes some serious skill!”
The costume debuted at the Alien 40th Anniversary photo shoot at Dragon Con 2019. The response was amazing. “It’s a thrill being around other Alien fans and getting to pose with them for photos. Especially when I started moving the animatronic tongue! It was also a blast seeing the general public’s reactions to the skull inside the dome too: many people had no idea that the original creature design had a skull inside of the dome, and being in broad daylight (unsuitable for a Xenomorph!) made the skull even more obvious.”
Next up on Rachel’s plate is a prototype mechanism for a mechanical Alien egg. “I want to make a separate side prop to go with my costume and I’ve seen lots of handmade Alien eggs online, but none that open and close with a motor. I’m excited for this build because it will be 100% my own design and it can be something that anybody can control if they have the remote in hand!”