Andrew Li, Assistant Art Director, AVP-R

Andrew Li, Assistant Art Director, AVP-R

O’Malley and I have just wrapped up a great interview with up and coming art director, and assistant art director on Alien vs. Predator 2, Andrew Li. A science-fiction veteran, Andrew has worked on films like The CoreThe Chronicles of Riddick and X-Men: The Last Stand, with the latter, coincidentally, being a film that the Brothers Strause also worked on in the visual effects department. Six degrees and all. Without further adieu…

Let’s get to it!

Alien Experience: First off, could you give us a brief overview of your role on Alien vs. Predator 2?

Andrew Li: I worked as an Assistant Art Director on AVP 2 in the art dept. My main task was to facilitate the design and construction of film sets under the direction of our Production Designer Andrew Neskoromny and Supervising Art Director Helen Jarvis. This means that my job changes to suit whatever is needed as the design of sets progresses. One day I might be outside photographing and measuring up a location that we intend to shoot. Another day I might be developing concepts designs for a Predator spaceship. Or I might be drawing construction drawings for different sets. Or I could be in the sound stages to check out how our sets progressing during construction and address any questions that might come up as our talented construction crew is building the set.

AXP: And how did you get the job?

AL: I was working as an Art Director on a TV series called Eureka in the summer of 2006. The  Production Designer of that show, Lance King, knows Andrew Neskoromny, so one day Andrew dropped by for a visit. I worked with Andrew on The Core in 200,1 so when he came into our office he said “hi” and told me about this very cool *hush-hush* project that he was about to start. And he asked if I would be interested in joining his crew. But in actuality, I had already known about AVP 2 from Helen Jarvis. I have worked with Helen on several shows since X-Men 2. She is one of the best art directors working out there today. And she’s a wonderful person as well, so I guess I was going to end up working on AVP 2 anyway because Helen was hired as Supervising Art Director and she would have offered me a job as well.

AXP: How was it to work with Andrew Neskoromny again?

AL: The last time I worked with Andrew was in 2001 on The Core. That was a rather challenging and weird show on many levels. Nine eleven had just happened. We were about three months behind from day one because they had replaced the Director and Production Designer mid-way during our prep and all the designs went through a total revision. Andrew was under extreme pressure as the Supervising Art Director to deliver many large and complex sets in a very short time. So in short, he worked the art department pretty hard. On AVP 2 he was more at home because I think he prefers working as a production designer. So I enjoyed working with him on AVP 2 better where we had more time to develop designs and we weren’t working 72 hours a week like on The Core! Both Andrew and I love sci-fi so it was fun to have an opportunity to work on predator spacecraft and alien hideaways together.

AXP: Neither of you are strangers to science fiction and horror; what from your experience have you brought to the sets of AVP 2?

AL: I worked mainly on the sewer set and the predator spacecraft. Andrew drew from his experience in designing Dawn of the Dead to create the creepiness of the sewer set. We wanted to keep the sewer relatively small so that the aliens and predators would look very menacing and horrifyingly huge in the set. In fact, when the predator is standing in full costume, he is over 8 feet tall!!!

When we seen him wading through the sewer water hunting down the rogue aliens, he definitely looks VERY, VERY scary!!! For the spacecraft, I build a physical model and destroyed it on purpose to see how it would look as a crashed ship. Our very talented illustrator Rob Jensen had established the look that we wanted. We did not have a big budget for this set so we tried to put a lot of the money in the beautiful sculpted predator architecture of the ship and we used lots and lots of aluminum extrusions and pipes to fill in the rest of the set. In some ways, the detailing on the set is similar to what I did on the Virgil “earthship” on The Core. But we were careful to keep the design non-human like as well. I got a lot of inspiration from the creature and prop design work coming out of Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. We wanted to make the predator spacecraft organic and beautiful, but also very rugged and macho.

AXP: How did Andrew Neskoromny’s previous work on Alien: Resurrection affect his approach?

AL: He is very familiar with the whole Alien franchise. And our Directors Colin and Greg Strause are totally into this genre as well. So this really jump started the design process because in essence, they already spoke “Alien designspeak”. We wanted this movie to be dark and scary, so Andrew didn’t have any trouble with making the sets look creepy when it had to be. We do a great deal of research in the art dept. Having an Alien film already under your belt helps us to zero in on what is important so spend less time Googling irrelevant things.

AXP: As the setting is unique to both the Alien and Predator franchises, what kind of influences did you draw from the previous installments?

AL: Any Alien movie would not be complete without at least one Gigeresque hive and we certainly tried to continue with that tradition with our own version of an Alien hive. The Alien is an iconic movie monster. Every Alien fan knows what this amazing killing machine can do, so it is not hard to imagine that it can adapt itself to just about any setting on this planet, another planet or outer space.  We studied previous versions of the Alien hive and adapted ours to suit a much more earthbound setting. Without giving too much away, you can imagine what might happen if you had a wasp hive infestation in your home. Imagine what would happen if the wasps were a thousand times bigger and used acid for blood.

As for the Predator, we got a glimpse of their starship at the ending of the last AVP when we see one of their own lying dead on a Predator altar bed. We take cues from that design and ramp it up for our version of the altar bed and the Predator spacecraft. We developed our own version of the Predator alphabet which is similar to the characters that have already been established.

AXP: This is the first film featuring the Alien creatures to be shot predominately on-location; was it a challenge to create new and convincing environments?

AL: What’s unique about this Alien movie is that we finally see the Aliens invading somewhere that most people would be familiar with – small town U.S.A. In a sense, this puts the movie in the classic horror genre where some evil being is killing innocent people in places that were once considered safe. So by this measure, it was not difficult to create new and convincing settings. The Alien is an incredibly resilient character.

AXP: Much of the previous films’ effectiveness relied upon their use of setting; how did this play into the set design and choice of locations?

AL: What was challenging was working with a relatively low budget for a movie of this scope. We had to create fairly high production values on a medium budget. Our excellent DOP Daniel Pearl lit and shot the sets beautifully and goes to show again and again that proper lighting can improve the look of a set many fold. What was also challenging on a logistical level was securing locations. Our very able Locations Manager Steve Sach did his best to get us the best locations that our Directors wanted, but on many, many occasions we lost the locations because of poor timing and a hundred different reasons. It’s much harder to convince a shop owner to rent us their space for a monster movie with no movie stars than it is if we had say Harrison Ford on our cast.

AXP: The production designs of the Alien saga in particular are landmarks in science-fiction cinema; what kind of impact did these films have on your career?

AL: I am a big sci-fi fan. It’s hard to design a creepy industrial spaceship without being influenced by the design established by David Crowther in the original Alien movie. Creature design-wise, it’s hard to top the Alien creature. Many, many designs have tried to create something as scary and memorable, but that monster is one hard act to follow. It’s difficult to say what those films have done to my career, though. I get inspiration from many sources for my design work, especially in sci-fi. The Alien saga would be required viewing for someone designing in that genre.

AXP: Atmospherically, which series of films would you say AVP 2 resembles more? Alienor Predator?

AL: AVP 2 brings the conflict between these two powerful tribes back to where we live. Only the Predator [franchise] has ever done that with Danny Glover fighting it out in L.A.

AXP: As the film is set in contemporary America, how much work was there when it came to props and costumes?

AL: I guess you’re talking about the clothes that our human characters wore and what they used. Like everything else you see on the big screen, someone made a decision to put that there. The Strause brothers with our Oscar-winning costume designer Angus Strathie chose clothes for our teenage actors that were hip but not too stylish for a small town. The military wear is pretty well what you would expect. The main difference in our clothes is of course that some of them had to be rigged for our “chest-bursters” – those nasty baby Aliens that pop out of people’s chests at the most inconvenient times. The Strause brothers wanted all of the military type props to be grounded in reality. So there were no sci-fi laser rifles or photon cannons or a Ripley-style transformer-like walker with huge claws.

AXP: What was involved in modifying existing locations?

AL: We work with what was written in the script, the storyboards and the intent of the Directors to add or delete from locations to make it look good on screen. We used A LOT of locations on this movie, so I won’t go into details here to bore you. We shot in an old hospital for the mentally ill. Yes, an insane asylum, as they used to call it. It’s been used a lot by many other productions. In fact, a movie was shooting there when we were scouting it! We took advantage of some of the modifications that had already been done by previous productions and extended the colours and details to other parts of the hospital corridors to suit our story.

AXP: Can you talk at all about any of the sets built in-studio?

AL: I can talk about it in general terms. We rebuilt part of the hospital that we shot on location on the stage because we had certain stunts and Alien effects that we wanted to create that weren’t possible on the actual location. From a control POV, it is always better to shoot on the stage. We can make anything happen on the stage. I was responsible for drawing our other two major studio builds – a very cool and creepy sewer set with a continuous 3 foot deep pool of murky water and floaty bits and our Predator spaceship. The ship construction, under the watchful eye of our talented construction foreman Dale Menzies and construction coordinator John Beatty, looked like a huge wooden ark suspended high in the air when it was only in its raw framing stage. It looked very cool. I think our construction, painting and sculpting crew did an amazing job of creating a large spaceship that looked awesome, especially when you considered that it was done without a huge budget.

AXP: In terms of scale, how do they compare to the earlier films?

AL: This one definitely brought the series back down to Earth in more ways than one. It’s the smallest of the lot, but that suits the genre better – sci-fi/horror.

AXP: What kind of direction did the Brothers Strause give in regards to the overall look and feel of
the film?

AL: Our Directors were involved every step of the way. Nothing goes on the screen without the approval of the Director. Film is very much an auteur medium. The entire production process is very collaborative. But in order for the film to look and feel complete, it usually needs to be crafted under the direction of one vision. Or in this case, two visions.

AXP: Did you have a favourite set or location? Why?

AL: I liked the Predator spaceship. It’s always more challenging to invent something that has never been seen before.

AXP: How extensive was the storyboard process?

AL: Most of the script was boarded. In fact, a lot of the more action oriented scenes were done in previs. It of course helped that the Brothers Strause ran a VFX house Hydraulx and had a very capable crew to previsualize many of the scenes for them. Storyboards and previs are absolutely invaluable in filming. Sure, there are changes made on the set when we’re actually in production. But they always refer to the boards to make sure that they have all the shots so that they don’t get stuck in the editing room without a vital shot.

AXP: How much of the initial conceptual designs made it into the film?

AL: Our very talented illustrator Rob Jensen did a lot of beautiful illustrations which inspired the crew. The construction crew would pin these illustrations up on the stage where the sets were being built and used them as reference.

AXP: How much, if at all, did you work with ADI in terms of the creature designs?

AL: ADI were an entity unto themselves. The art department did not have much involvement with them at all.

AXP: What do you feel is key in terms of design for this film?

AL: This is a horror movie. The low key lighting was critical in creating the right mood and very convenient for hiding deadly Aliens.

AXP: What was the biggest challenged you faced during the pre-production concept design process?

AL: We had to produce a really good look for the movie in a short time without a lot of money. In a way, this is a very challenging and creative exercise because you are forced to be more creative to get the most bang for the buck.

A big thanks to Andrew, and our own O’Malley for collaborating with me on this interview. Andrew’s latest works include a television pilot for The Bionic Woman, and a feature film called They Came from Upstairs.