Concept artist Steve Burg was selected to design the nonhumanoid alien species that first appeared in the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Scorpion” and marked a significant departure from any alien race seen on the show thus far. Rather than the distinctly humanlike creatures featured before, this Species 8472 would be the first fully computer generated alien to appear on Star Trek. Although the technology was far from perfect, according to VFX supervisor Ronald B. Moore, it was good enough to do what the show wanted.
“We’d suggested it before,” said Moore, “and they [the producers] were a little reluctant because you make mistakes with CG stuff sometimes. With CGI you’re always on the cusp. We’re not really good at people yet. Jurassic Park was showing us that we could do things as long as they weren’t too real.”
The seeds had been sown earlier in Season Three in “Macrocosm,” an episode which featured giant microbe-like creatures that were completely computer generated (CG). The producers had been impressed by what they saw and wished to take the technology further. So when they came up with an alien race that was destroying the Borg, they made it clear that they were ready to experiment with a CG alien. Determined to take full advantage of CG technology, VFX producer Dan Curry suggested that, if it was going to look really alien, the creature should have three legs.
“We had a script for a vicious alien creature that had to be so powerful and so fearsome that it was able to chop up and destroy the Borg,” said Curry.
When we got the story I was interested in creatures that had weird locomotive properties. I guess it goes back to the old fifties sci-fi book The Day Of The Triffids, about these tripod plants that come to Earth and cause trouble.
When this came along I thought why not do a tripod creature. So I did some crude sketches and working with John Teska and Steve Burg we swapped drawings back and forth until we came up with the 8472. That was seen in the show.
Curry’s proposal, however, was not immediately passed on to Foundation Imaging, the company which was commissioned to design the creature. Ron Moore explains that this was because he did not want to impose a design upon the people he works with too early in the process.
We approached Ron Thornton at Foundation and said, ‘Look, here’s what we’re trying to do. Why don’t you have your guys draw something up and we’ll look it over.’ The way I like to work with the CG houses is to be nebulous. I don’t like to be real specific because it ties their hands in.
I would never presume to jump on that three legged thing unless it was a script point. I’ll just say, ‘Show me some alien creatures.’
Therefore, with plenty of room for latitude, Foundation Imaging turned to concept artist Steve Burg, a veteran of films such as The Abyss and Contact and of several earlier Foundation Imaging projects including Hypernauts. Indeed, Steve had designed the three legged gloose that had stuck in Dan Curry’s mind. Steve Burg worked with Foundation Imaging’s owner Ron Thornton, who passed all of Curry’s and Moore’s comments onto him. Steve Burg started working to some very simple guidelines.
“The main desire,” according to Burg, “was to do a creature that was definitely not a man in a suit, just to see how that would work out. They were still writing the script at that moment, so there was only a very brief description.”
It said it was big and ferocious and terrifying and moved very quickly; it was fourteen feet tall at one point. That was about it. There aren’t really that many limitations on what you can accomplish. It’s mostly about artistic choices. You don’t have to think about physical limitations like with a puppet creature. I would say creatures and robots are very much like character design for animation. You just have to try to evoke a certain feel and create an overall impression.
Burg’s initial drawings, however, did not particularly impress the producers. “They thought that it was too humanlike,” he said, “and too similar to the creature from Alien.”
I guess they felt it was just too typical and I have to say I agree. When you first start in on something, you tend to use slugin placeholders and those tend to he derived from other things you’ve done. Then later it starts to take on its own identity. It does have sort of a mantis like feeling and I think that kept on through but I think there was a miscalculation in that we began by making it too derivative, not of Star Trek things but of other creature designs. There are definitely similarities between the head and the alien from Predator.
I think it was the head they were most concerned about. They wanted something like the alien, but they didn’t want a ripoff. They wanted something that was that distinct; something very nasty and powerful. It also had to be intelligent. The thing about an alien, unfortunately, is making it smart usually means making it something we can relate to on a human level. Probably, real aliens would be so weird that they’d be unfathomable. But this is film and television; we have to be able to understand it fairly quickly.
Intelligence is just something to do with the eyes. One thing that Ron [Moore] mentioned, which he may have gotten from Paramount, was that the thing was to have practically no mouth. One way of making it look smart is to not give it big teeth, like a Tyrannosaurus or something. If something looks very nasty and it doesn’t have obvious claws or teeth, you figure it works on a whole other level.
Once the first drawing had been rejected, Ron Thornton told Burg he should simply produce some quick sketches showing a variety of looks they could choose from.
The next batch were just basic silhouettes. Some have three legs; some have two legs; some of them have a split, tripodal base, with below the knee bifurcated. I don’t think I had any real strong idea. In that situation you basically try to do as many variations as you can and hope that one of them will click.
The series of drawings included several three legged creatures that were close to what Dan Curry was looking for. The producers chose one of these drawings and asked him to develop it further. This involved a fair amount of work, since the view they had chosen showed the creature from behind and, consequently, did not show its face.
Burg began work by concentrating on the creature’s body. As he confronted the difficulties of the creature’s alien anatomy, it started to take on a more definite form.
With CG even if things don’t have to support their own weight, you still have to think about how it will move in a general sense. The biggest problem was dealing with that third leg. In the end it became like a human leg, but it started out as more of a symmetrical tripod; all the legs pointed out from the middle and the body was more centrally located. A tripod is one of those things that sounds great but if you have a tripod, and the creature still has a front and back, what do you do? I think it moved back toward something you could relate to; it became sort of a centaur.
By this stage, Burg was starting to develop a clear idea of what the Species 8472 looked like, even if the final design was still forming with each successive drawing.
The thing about any of these things, it’s not like it’s any one moment the design suddenly appears. It’s more of a process that evolves. There are various people who affect it. Your job is to try to capture the quality that people are looking for in a visual. I think that once this guy got underway he began to take on his own identity. It’s really good when that happens. It’s almost like these things come out of a fog. It’s a gradual thing but by the end it becomes its unique self. At a certain point, something clicked and everyone started to see what this creature was.
The task of constructing the CG version of the Species 8472 was given to John Teska at Foundation Imaging. By the time Teska became involved, Burg had already produced a set of drawings that showed what the creature should look like but a lot of creative work still had to be done. In fact, the producers handed him several drawings with instructions to use different elements from each one. These gave Teska a clear idea of what was wanted but they still left plenty of room for interpretation. The finished model turned out closely similar, though not entirely identical to Burg’s final concept drawings.
“It was something of a Frankenstein’s monster,” said Teska. “The key features, the things that distinguished the creature, were the three legs, the tendons in the neck, and the basic head shape, all of which had been laid out in Steve’s artwork.”
I followed that fairly closely. But, in addition to pulling these designs together, I had to go in and do deeper detail like sorting out the colors and working out literally what the flesh would look like — the wrinkles and things like that. Certainly, there was plenty of room to put my own ideas in and breathe life into it.
From “Designing Species 8472,” Star Trek: The Magazine, 2, 2 (June 2001)