The journey from the printed page to the screen is a long and arduous one. Rewrites, casting, location scouting, special effects...there are literally hundreds of elements that have to fit together just right in order to breathe life into a film. One of the earliest steps in this process is that of concept art. Sometimes screeenwriters give detailed descriptions of the characters in their scripts, other times they leave the appearance of characters blank, making it the responsibility of the filmmakers to give the characters a distinct visual look.
Either way, concept artists are some of the first people to work on a film, as they are commissioned with making a visual representation of a character that, up until that point, is only a string of words. Often times, the original depictions of characters are changed as development of the film goes on. Sometimes these changes are minute, other times they are drastic. Join us as we take a look at some of the most shocking first drafts of iconic movie characters.
15 Chestburster (Alien 3, 1992)
The troubled production of Alien 3 is well known, with countless script rewrites, studio meddling and a budget that ballooned beyond investor’s wildest predictions. Regardless of whether you think it is the red-headed step child of the Alien series or an underrated gem (ahem, it’s the latter), you have to hand it to the filmmakers for attempting to create something that audiences had never seen before while harkening back to the horror roots of the original film.
To achieve this, Alien 3 adopts a distinct Gothic look, relying on religious imagery and an absence of technology that ratchets up the dread compared to the thrilling, adrenaline pumping second installment. The alien creature was also redesigned from a bipedal creature to one that stalked its prey on all fours, due to it’s host being a dog (or Ox if you’re watching 2003’s Assembly Cut). The birthing sequence in Alien 3 is graphic, and we are shown our first glimpse of the young xenomorph as it shakily rises to its feet. It’s brief, but terrifying as audiences know what comes next. Originally, however, the xenomorph was going to be unlike any that we had seen before, adorable.
Originally the filmmakers decided to use a whippet, a breed of dog that resembles a smaller greyhound, as the young xenomorph. The special effects crew fitted the dog with a xenomorph costume, although the dog understandably freaked out when they tried to cover its face with the xenomorph’s cowl. Ultimately, the dog looked ridiculous and the idea was scrapped.
14 Elsa (Frozen, 2013)
Adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Snow Queen, Frozen has become one of the biggest earners for the House of Mouse. Disney’s most successful film to date took almost seventy years to bring to the big screen, with efforts starting all the way back in the 1930s. The story was always shelved however, as they could never nail down the story.
While the final incarnation of Frozen revolves around two sisters, Queen Elsa and Princess Anna, in early versions of the script the two weren’t even related. In fact, Anna was a peasant who sought out the mythical “Snow Queen” to freeze her broken heart. The Snow Queen would have been a very different looking Elsa, as early sketches depict her with shorter, spiky hair, a malevolent smirk and fur coat made out of living weasels.
This early version of Frozen would have seen the story progress down a well worn Disney path, as a nefarious antagonist manipulates the good-hearted protagonist, similar to that of The Little Mermaid, Snow White and Aladdin. The decision to have Elsa’s character arc do a 180 was inspired by the songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. The husband and wife duo tried to write a song that would tap into the head space of someone who was isolated and lonely, and the film’s signature song, Let It Go, was born. Once Disney execs heard the uplifting tune, they knew that a complete overhaul was necessary. Since Frozen has gone on to be a money printing machine for Disney, it’s safe to say it was the right call.
13 Azazel (X-Men: First Class, 2011)
Unless you’re a self-professed comic book enthusiast, when the evil red-skinned mutant known as Azazel popped up in 2011’s X-Men: First Class, you probably thought he was just a low rent rip off of the more well known blue-skinned mutant known as Nightcrawler. After all, he didn’t say much, and spent the majority of the movie sulking around in the shadows until the story needed his teleportation powers to advance the plot. In the X-Men comic books, however, Azazel is much more than just a palette-swapped goon, and his original design in First Class reflects this.
The early concept art of Azazel’s appearance in First Class depicts the character as much more demonic, with gnarly horns and pronounced spikes bursting out from underneath his red skin, appearing as though he would be more interested in destroying the last of the unicorns to plunge the world into eternal darkness instead of wasting his time fighting moody teenagers with special powers. This is because in the comics, Azazel is literally the Devil. He is also Nightcrawler’s father, explaining their similar powers. X-Men fans hated this and subsequent writers have pretty much ignored this completely, so it probably made sense for First Class to turn Azazel into a facsimile of a well known character instead of getting involved in that mess of a story arc.
12 Fifield (Prometheus, 2012)
Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror film about creationism isn’t really an Alien prequel, but it kinda sorta is, or at least it “shares the same DNA” whatever that means; but no wait, it definitely is since its sequel is called Alien: Covenant. Anyway, regardless of whether you think Prometheus was a superb sci-fi head scratcher or any ungodly abomination that forever tarnishes the Alien saga right up there with killing off Newt and Hicks and the weird human/alien love child, the fact remains that the film originally started off as a direct prequel to 1979’s Alien.
Written by Jon Spaihts, the original treatment of Prometheus featured creatures very similar to that of the beloved Alien franchise, complete with phallic shaped heads, double jaws and even a homage to that unforgettable dinner table scene. Wanted to make something distinctive, Ridley Scott hired Lost scribe Damon Lindelof to rework the script. As we all know, overt references to the Alien saga were removied in favor of a murky storyline that didn’t always make sense.
One element of the film that underwent numerous changes during production was the design of Fifield after he is exposed to the mutagenic black goo. In the final version of the film, the mohawk sporting geologist is transformed with practical makeup effects, however there was also a completely digital version of the mutated Fifield, one that was much more alien in appearance.
In this digital creation, Fifield retained human facial features underneath a tranlucent cowl that is very similar to that of the alien. In another design, Fifield looks even more like the classic alien, complete with the marriage of the mechanical and organic aesthetics. After much deliberation, the film chose to go with the more human version of Fifield we see in the film, as Scott did not want the audience to have any doubt that the monster and Fifield were one in the same.
11 Ralph (Wreck-It-Ralph, 2013)
Ralph is the villain in an fictional 8-bit arcade game called Fix-It-Felix, Jr., but after 30 years of being the bad guy, he dreams of something more. Ralph yearns to be accepted by others and prove that just because he is a “bad guy”, doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy.
The concept of this film had been floating around since the 1980s under the working title of High Score, and during those very early stages of development, Ralph was going to be a supporting character with Fix-It-Felix acting as the story’s protagonist. Writer Phil Johnston thought that the story of Ralph trying to become a hero would resonate more with audiences, and the roles were reversed. In the version of the film that hit the big screen in 2013, Ralph is depicted as a giant human with abnormally large hands and feet, resembling those of a gorilla like Donkey Kong (the core mechanics of the fictional Fix-It-Felix game are even similar to the original Donkey Kong game). However, before that character model was set in stone, Ralph went through a variety of rather drastic designs.
Originally Ralph was a furry red monster, similar to that of Sulley from Monsters Inc., with giant wrecking balls for hands. In another revision to the character, Ralph borrowed an abominable snowman-esque look. Ultimately it was decided that the audience would develop a more relatable relationship with Ralph if he was humanoid in appearance, thus cementing his final look.
10 Na’vi (Avatar, 2009)
James Cameron’s special effects heavy remake of the 1992 animated film Ferngully: The Last Rainforest revolves around statuesque feline-like aliens defending their home planet of Pandora from greedy humans who wish to mine the planet for it’s rich abundancy of the precious mineral Unobtanium, because, subtlety. James Cameron is known for his visual flair and knack for creating very distinctive and natural worlds within his films, and Avatar allowed the director to create an entire planet from scratch.
When the film was early in development, 20th Century Fox, who distributed the film, hired conceptual artists to help Cameron realize his vision for Pandora and its inhabitants, the Na’vi. Original sketches show the Na’vi resembling the more traditional attributes of aliens, specifically the “greys”. These early concepts showed the Na-vi as having elongated oval heads, no nose and no visible ears. They did however, have their trademark blue skin, and fluorescent orange dreadlock -like appendages originating from the tops of their heads like hair. It wasn’t until James Cameron began to flesh out the details of Pandora and its ecosystem that the Na’vi were redesigned into the svelte, cat-like humanoids that we see in the film.
9 Newborn (Alien: Resurrection, 1997)
Resurrecting Ripley, after she sacrificed herself in order to eradicate the alien species, is probably an even bigger slap in the face to fans than killing off Newt and Hicks in Alien 3 (spoiler alert for a 25-year old film, by the way). Much like the greedy Weyland Yutani corporation, Fox needed to keep this cash cow going and decided to clone Ripley in order to extract the xenomorph queen that was gestating inside of her.
After some horrific misfires, the cloning process is a success, producing a viable alien specimen along with a seemingly healthy Ripley. In an effort to differentiate the film from its predecessors, the cloning process has now connected the alien and Ripley on a genetic, instinctual level. This leads to some rather strange imagery, but the most disturbing has to be that of the newborn, a human/alien hybrid that connects more with Ripley than it does its queen.
The newborn was a pearly white color, featuring a more humanoid appearance, with huge sunken eye sockets. As creepy as the final product was, the original design was even more shocking, as the newborn sported both male and female genitalia. Although the film had been shot with this version of the creature, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet had the engorged genitals of the newborn removed digitally in post production.
8 Mad Hatter (Alice In Wonderland, 2010)
Director Tim Burton has a distinct visual flair that is fairly consistent throughout all of his films, and 2010’s Alice In Wonderland is no exception. When the film entered production in 2008, various artists were hired to help flesh out the vivid world of Lewis Carrol’s imaginative world. Michael Kutsche was tasked with developing the initial look of the Mad Hatter. Kutsche’s design incorporated a lot of green and even a slight steampunk aesthetic with the bug-eyed goggles, which had been done well before any casting choices were made.
Colleen Atwood, who was the costume designer on the film, said that Burton gave her the pre-production sketches, including that of the Mad Hatter, but explicitly stated that she needed to adhere to every single detail conceptualized in the drawings. It’s safe to assumed that Atwood took those instructions to heart, as Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter featured striking clashes of color, including that unruly reddish-orange hair.
Kutsche also designed Absalom, the blue caterpillar for the film. Originaly it was much meaner looking, with sharp, spiky hairs covering its body and a more monstrous face. After Alan Rickman was cast as the caterpillar’s voice, Kutsche resdesigned the character, incorporating Rickman’s facial features.
7 Green Goblin (Spider-Man, 2002)
The Green Goblin costume used in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man is, arguably, one of the worst depictions of a classic comic book character on the big screen. Of course, in the reality of the film, having a suit based in technology makes more sense (even if the design of the helmet doesn’t), with its originally being designed as a weapon. Despite the logic, the Green Goblin suit ended up looking hokey, almost like a Power Rangers villain, totally devoid of any real sense of dread.
When the film first entered production the design of the Green Goblin suit was much more faithful to the source material. Academy Award-winning special effects company Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. were brought on to design the mask, which looked genuinely terrifying. The mask was a hybridization of traditional makeup and animatronics, in which a life-like silicone skin was animated by servos to create a range of facial expressions.
Screen tests have popped up online showing off ADI’s amazing desgin work, however as we all know, Raimi and Sony decided not to go with this design. They have yet to shed any light as to why they decided to go in a different direction with the Green Goblin, but we think it probably has to do with the fact that Willem Defoe was cast in the role, and they didn’t want his face obscured by a rubber mask for the duration of the film, no matter how cool that mask looked.
6 Woody (Toy Story, 1996)
The denizens of Andy’s bedroom may be iconic now, but they all went through numerous changes before Toy Story hit theatres in 1996. For example, an early incarnation of Buzz Lightyear went by the name Lunar Larry and his original design was much more adorable than the macho action figure.
One of the more surprising character designs was that of Woody, the stuffed cowboy with a pull string that made him say things like “There’s a snake in my boots!” Initially, Woody was much larger than Buzz and the rest of the toys as he was literally made out of wood. Instead of being a vintage doll, Woody was a terrifying ventriloquist dummy, complete with wide, dead eyes and gaping nutcracker jaw. Even more interesting was how these early designs influenced the personalities of these characters.
In these early drafts, Woody was a jerk whose role as leader had gone to his head. He is sarcastic, narccisistic, rude and downright mean to the other toys, and the way he treats Slinky Dog makes Michael Vick look like a PETA spokesman. When Buzz shows up, he kicks him out of the window in front of everyone, coldly stating that it is a “toy-eat-toy world”.
Reportedly, Woody’s dark characterization was a result of then Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg insisting that the film having a more cynical edge that would appeal to adults. Ultimately, more level headed individuals prevailed and Woody was turned into a sympathetic character who happens to make some regretful choices.
5 Shrek (Shrek, 2001)
The iconic green ogre from the land of Ever After is known for the burly design that perfectly balances the cantankerous attitude Shrek embodies at the start of the film, and that of the likable hero as the story progresses. Combined with design flourishes such as his trumpet-like ears and trademark Scottish accent, Shrek has proved to be one of the most popular and enduring animated characters in recent years.
It’s hard to picture Shrek any other way, but early concept art painted a very different picture. While the trumpet ears were there from the beginning, virtually everything else was vastly different, with a conical shaped head and a much portlier mid section that would make even ardent supporters of the “Dad Bod” blush. This design also seemed to depict Shrek as much more of a simpleton, complete with missing teeth and a lazy eye, making him look like one of the Hulk’s offspring in Old Man Logan than an unlikely hero.
Interestingly enough, these design changes might have been enacted due to the revolving door of actors that were pegged to provide Shrek’s voice. The first Shrek movie came out in 2001, but the script had been floating around for quite a while before that. When Stephen Spielberg bought the rights way back in 1991, he had originally intended Bill Murray to play Shrek, and when Dreamworks got involved they decided on Chris Farley. Farley had recorded anywhere from 80-95% of the dialogue before he died in 1997, which saw the film get scrapped completely at the cost of $34 million. Eventually Mike Myers was brought on board, and his portrayal of the title character (complete with Scottish accent) convinced Dreamworks execs to toss out $4 million dollars worth of animation in order to redo the movie from scratch.
4 E.T. (E.T., 1982)
The lovable, marooned little alien with a crippling addiction to junk food and an affinity for ladies’ clothing may have stolen your heart, but the original designs would’ve would have stopped it. In terror.
E.T. began life as a spiritual sequel to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, called Night Skies. Instead of focusing on an absentee father who ultimately abandons his family to go hang out in space, Night Skies would have followed a family’s ordeal as they are continually terrorized by a group of malevolent aliens. As you might have guessed, this version of the film would be more of a horror film than a family friendly adventure, with Spielberg even bringing the man behind the Texas Chainsaw Massacre on board as the director.
For the aliens themselves, Spielberg hired special effects guru Rick Baker to dream up their appearance. While you can definitely see how Baker’s initial designs influenced the final look of E.T., they are a far cry from the cute, waddling little alien who wanted to phone home.
When Spielberg decided to shift the film’s direction, Baker’s designs were abandoned, resulting in a falling out between the two, as Baker had spent a considerable amount of time and money crafting these wrinkly abominations.
3 The Xenomorph (Alien, 1979)
Arguably the most terrifying creature in all of science fiction, the alien or xenomorph from the Alien film series is wholly unique and unlike anything that had come before, or since. The bizarre elegance of the design is thanks to Swiss artist H.R. Giger (who won an Academy Award with Carlo Rambaldi, the man who created the mechanical effects, for the alien design). While it is almost impossible to imagine the titular alien looking any different, the creature did go through a few different designs before its final on screen version. Screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett wrote the script for Alien and O’Bannon sketched an insectoid alien creature that looked more like a Pokemon reject than a terrifying star beast (which was the original name of the film). O’Bannon would eventually be hired to work on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film adaptation Dune, where he would meet the Swiss surrealist artists H.R. Giger, who was also hired to work on the film. Giger showed O’Bannon some of his art and was immediately inspired by the haunting imagery.
After the collapse of Dune, O’Bannon and Shusett would revisit the Alien script, and it was eventually put into production by 20th Century Fox. Ridley Scott was brought on as the director, and during discussions on the creature design, O’Bannon suggested H.R. Giger be brought on board to design the alien. Scott agreed, but Fox was reluctant, expressing concerns that whatever Giger dreamt up would be too disturbing. Eventually, Fox backed down and Giger would go on to create one of the most grotesque, instantly recognizable villains in film history.
Fun facts: Originally, the alien was conceived with a translucent white skin, with the idea that audiences would be able to see the inner workings of the alien’s body. A suit was made, however Scott disliked the look, opting for a jet black skin that he felt would make the creature appear more menacing. Additionally, the original design saw a human skull being the basis for the alien head, as Giger envisioned the creature as being a human underneath a suit of biomechanical armor. Models were made, and Giger felt that an absence of eyes were necessary in order to make the creature even scarier, and the sleek cowl was instituted.
2 Genie (Aladdin, 1992)
Aladdin was the most successful film of 1992, and for good reason. Everythign about the film clicked: the plot, the animation, the humor, the action, everything came together in one of the most beloved animated films of all time. A big part of the film’s success was the involvement of Robin Williams as the genie, which quickly became one of the most instantly recognizable characters Disney ever created.
Before taking shape as the characters we see in the final film, almost every single one of the characters in Aladdin went through numerous changes. Aladdin was originally going to be a thirteen-year-old boy, before executives decided to make him older. Animators were encouraged to make the character into more of a teen heartthrob, and were told to look at Tom Cruise and various Calvin Klein models for inspiration.
Many of the other characters went through some drastic changes, but none so much as the genie. The original sketches of the genie portray the character as unsavory, and even malicious. Each subsequent overhaul of the character brought significant changes, with everything from a razor toothed monster, to that of a creature with three heads.
Ultimately, the final design of the character was largely due to the casting of Robin Williams in the role. Much of the genie’s dialogue in the film was improvised by Williams, with the animators basing their drawings around Williams’ performance, which contributed to the overall look of the character.
Interestingly, Williams agreed to play the part of the genie as a sort of thank you for being allowed to do the film Good Morning Vietnam. He accepted a very small fee for his work, but stipulated that his name and image could not be used for marketing purposes, nor could the genie character take up more than 25% of the artwork on any promotional materials. Of course, the studio went back on both deals, causing a rift between Williams and Disney, which is the reason why he did not return for the film’s sequel.
1 The Predator (Predator, 1987)
Predator, the classic AH-nold flick that features a black ops team being hunted by an alien features one of the most iconic creature designs of all time. Filmmakers already had the makings of a memorable villain with the Predator’s trademark thermal vision, light bending camouflage and gruesome trophies, but what made the creature unforgettable was when audiences were given their first peak at what lay behind the mask. With menacing insect-like mandibles and beady, calculating eyes, the Predator’s design is both inspired and completely lucky since what they had initially looked like something that might fight Godzilla back in the days when giant monsters were played by men in rubber suits.
The film, which took it’s inspiration from a joke circulating around Hollywood that if a fifth Rocky movie was ever made, he would have to fight E.T., originally began production with a totally different creature design. Looking like an insectile cross between a dog and a duck, the suit, which was worn by Jean Claude Van Damme, was bulky and restricted Van Damme to clunky movements. Director John McTiernan contacted special effects legend Stan Winston to step in and help make the creature more menacing. While on a plane to Fox Studios, Winston just happened to be sitting next to Aliens director James Cameron. The two began discussing the Predator creature and Cameron stated that he had always wanted to see a monster that had mandibles, and the rest is history.