14 Surreal Facts About H.R. Giger
When Swiss surrealist artist Hans Rudolf Giger died at the age of 74 in 2014, he left behind an impressive body of work. Best known for designing the lanky, drooling Xenomorph for 1979’s Alien, much of his life was devoted to studies in biomechanical visions. Here are a few things you might not have known about the man behind the horror.
1. EARLY AUDIENCES SPIT ON HIS WORK.
Growing up in Chur, Switzerland, young Giger was urged to enter the family business and become a pharmacist. He preferred art, entering the School of Applied Arts in Zurich and creating works based on his adolescent love of Egyptian iconography like mummies and sarcophaguses. During some of his first gallery shows that displayed his preference for quasi-sexual imagery, neighbors were so appalled that they spit on the gallery’s windows when they walked by.
2. HE MADE AN ALIEN FILM BEFORE ALIEN.
Nearly 10 years prior to beginning work on Alien, Giger was invited to design costumes and sets for a small Swiss film titled Swiss Made [PDF]. Released in 1969, the film is about a humanoid extraterrestrial who visits Earth with his alien dog companion. “I used a real dog,” Giger said, “and I made the clothes in polyester.” Although crude, the design of the alien (above) hints at the banana-shaped cranium he’d later make famous.
3. A BOOK GOT HIM THE ALIEN JOB.
Ridley Scott had no idea how he was going to proceed with the art direction for Alien, a script he agreed to direct about a space crew that inadvertently picks up a dangerous, acid-blooded passenger. When he visited the Fox lot for a meeting, he spotted Giger’s book, Necronomicon, which collected many of his darkly fantastic paintings. “I took one look at it, and I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life,” Scott said. Giger designed the creature in its four stages: the egg, a face-hugger, a chest-burster, and a full-grown adult with assistance from model maker Roger Dicken. Both artists were on set to provide touch-ups; Giger hand-sculpted the “space jockey” out of clay.
4. HE CRAFTED THE ALIEN OUT OF MEAT, TOY SLIME, AND CONDOMS.
Discussing his craftsmanship on Alien with Starlog in 1979 [PDF], Giger shared that the eggs from which the aliens hatch were made of some very practical materials. In addition to plastic, the artist used store-bought, neon-green toy Slime that was popular in the 1970s as well as “some real [animal] flesh inside.” For the stretching tendons seen when the adult alien opens its maw to devour a victim, Giger said he used “shredded latex contraceptives.”
5. JAMES CAMERON WROTE HIM A LETTER OF APOLOGY.
For reasons that were not immediately clear to Giger, the artist was not asked back by Fox or director James Cameron for 1986’s Aliens—this despite the fact that Giger won an Academy Award for his work on the original. Closer to the film’s release, he found out why via a letter written by Cameron himself. The director explained that Giger’s “bizarre, psycho-sexual landscape” is what attracted the director to the sequel, but that he “felt I had to put my own unique stamp on the project … I felt the risk of being overwhelmed by [Giger].” Cameron went on to ask Giger’s forgiveness for the slight.
6. FOX FORGOT TO GIVE HIM A CREDIT ON ALIEN 3.
Giger was invited to return to the franchise with 1992’s David Fincher-directed Alien 3. While contributing to the new design work, Giger clashed with the effects team and found the experience unsatisfactory—even more so when he screened the film and noticed Fox had both ignored his contractual specification that he be credited for work on the sequel (instead of just “original design by”) and left his name out of the closing credits. The mistakes were corrected for the film's home video release.
7. THE STUDIO PURPOSELY LEFT HIS NAME OFF ALIEN: RESURRECTION.
Although he didn’t work on the Alien franchise’s fourth installment, Giger certainly had a legitimate claim that any design work owed an incredible debt to his original designs. Fox, however, seemed to disagree, omitting his name from the credits entirely. An angry Giger sent off a letter to Fox. “The creatures in Alien: Resurrection are even closer to my original Alien designs than the ones which appear in Aliens and Alien 3,” he wrote. “Why does Fox not give me the credit I rightfully earned? ... All I can wish them is an Alien breeding inside their chests.”
8. HE WAS UNHAPPY WITH HIS WORK ON POLTERGEIST II.
Rather than be invited to work on Aliens, Fox installed Giger on another sequel project: 1986’s Poltergeist II: The Other Side, a follow-up to Tobe Hooper’s 1982 film about a family burdened by malevolent spirits. Giger was disappointed in how his Great Beast design appeared in the film and expressed that he would’ve preferred to work on Aliens—in production around the same time—instead. “Perhaps the Poltergeist people wanted to keep me away from Aliens for fear of losing me” he told Cinefantastique [PDF] in 1988. “I was horrified by Poltergeist II.”
9. HE DESIGNED A BATMOBILE.
In 1994, Giger was invited to submit a design for a revamped Batmobile for Batman Forever, the second sequel to Tim Burton’s 1989 original. While a pairing of Burton and Giger would have been interesting, the filmmaker had left the series by this time, replaced by Joel Schumacher. Giger’s lobster-claw-shaped vehicle was a radical departure for the franchise; it never made it past the sketch stage.
10. DEBBIE HARRY ASKED HIM TO PAINT HER ALBUM COVER.
Giger’s work was celebrated by a number of musicians, many of whom asked him to design their album cover art. For Debbie Harry’s 1981 record, KooKoo, Giger used a recent acupuncture session as inspiration, depicting Harry’s face being threaded by four needles. Harry had asked Giger during a gallery event. He accepted, but later confessed he had never heard her music. “This was due to the fact I was more interested in jazz,” he later wrote. The image was banned from advertisements in England.
11. SOME OF HIS PAINTINGS WERE STOLEN.
When Giger settled into a modestly-budgeted castle in Gruyères, Switzerland that could provide a home for all of his work, not everything was in place. According to a 2009 Vice.com interview, Giger found that some paintings had been stolen from the property; others went missing during transportation to gallery shows. “I said I’ll pay 10,000 francs if someone knows anything about them,” he said. “It upsets me so much … it’s sh*t.”
12. YOU CAN VISIT A GIGER-THEMED BAR.
Fans looking for a truly immersive Giger experience may want to visit Switzerland, where two bars designed by the artist are still in operation. The Giger Bars in Chur and Gruyères are extensions of the artist’s work in biomechanics, with columns of vertebrae and posts that have been polished so that they feel like something (almost) organic. The latter location is also adjacent to a Giger-approved museum of his works. Before his passing in 2014, Giger was in talks to bring a bar to the United States.
13. HE HELPED DESIGN TWO COMPUTER GAMES.
Giger’s aesthetic was on display in relatively low-resolution in Dark Seed, a 1992 DOS and Amiga computer point-and-click game: the artist contributed concept and background art. A sequel, Dark Seed II, followed; neither one caught on with gamers. “That was done without my real involvement,” he later told an interviewer [PDF]. “They just used my name.”
14. A FLESH-EATING PLANT WAS NAMED AFTER HIM.
Following Giger’s death in 2014, a plant breeder named Matthew Kaelin named a carnivorous species “Nepenthes H.R. Giger” because of its spikes and peristome teeth. While the plant normally dines on insects, it has been known to digest small animals that happen to fall into its mouth. Resembling something from a hostile alien world, it's a fitting tribute to the artist.