Why we imagine aliens the way we do

Alright Dean. They’re sad because they think that we don’t like them. It really depends on
how long they’ve been evolving. That’s an alien. Aliens have noses? There’s no right answer, since no
one really knows. But we often imagine extraterrestrials to look a certain way,
because we’ve encountered them in books, films, or on TV shows. Oh my god, it’s one of those facehuggers from the Alien movie. Which means that
when we think about aliens, we’re usually thinking about the product of someone
else’s imagination. This is the first film featuring life out in space: A Trip
to the Moon by Georges Méliès. It came out in 1902 and the strange moon aliens
in it are not at all that strange. They actually look a lot like us. These creatures were incredibly ambitious at the time, but they were also convenient. This is Charlie Henley, an Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor who worked on
Ridley Scott’s Alien series. So yeah, he spends a lot of time thinking about
aliens. Obviously sometimes it’s just like, well, we’ll dress somebody up. So they’re gonna end up with a head and arms and legs, you know? The idea’s that they would relate to us if they’re intelligent, so we’d be kinda
similar. We don’t have any reason to believe that they
would look anything like us. The form of a human being is the result of several
billion years of evolution. There’s no reason to believe that the development
of life would be so similar as it was on Earth, that the sort of the form of life
would look anything like we have on Earth. That’s Andrew Siemion, the
director of SETI Institute where they conduct experiments to detect
extraterrestrial technology. We’re lucky in that we don’t have to think too much
about the biological organism, the specifics of the life that created the
technology, because we just search directly for the technology and then we
use that a proxy for the existence of life. But imagining alien organisms, especially ones with relatable features, is what
feeds a popular theme in science fiction: the relationship between us and them. There’s always a point of contact, an interaction that’s sometimes hostile and
other times it leads to a warm and fuzzy relationship. And that’s made for some
powerful storytelling. Are they good or are they bad? What would we do if they
try to communicate with us? I think those are their names. So what are we gonna call them? Science fiction has stuck around as a major
Hollywood genre for decades, with more advanced visual effects technology in
recent years, filmmakers had more room to experiment with the alien form. But even with the right tools it can be hard to break out of what we already know. Normally there’s a bit of a history for the film, there’s some DNA that you want to follow. For
example the Neomorph in the new Alien is effectively like a new creature that Ridley wanted to create, but it had the DNA of the original alien,
so obviously features relate to that. That connection creates a strong
sense of nostalgia for franchises like Alien, but sometimes when creators break
away from that DNA, that leads to new forms. In The Edge of Tomorrow, there’s a
creature called a “Mimic” and we did some design work for that originally. But the brief for that was it shouldn’t be humanistic obviously and it should follow the normal
laws. And that’s a difficult task for filmmakers. But the challenge with anything like that is that if
it doesn’t follow the laws that we know, They need to come up with something totally new, but also have
it makes sense to us. Often, the trick is to find inspiration
in nature. For example, the Neomorph, we referenced these Goblin sharks which
are quite rare, found in the deep sea and they have a particular quality
to the skin, but also just the mechanism of how their mouths open. Or the ink-squirting Heptapods in Arrival: they’re otherworldly but still familiar. And even Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. Who effectively is an alien, but you know not in any classical sense. Like he was kind of made… like he’s made out of a tree. The design brief there is to make him friendly, but also figure out the
technicalities of how it’s gonna work. These aliens come from someone else’s
imagination and they might not be entirely rooted in science, but the
depictions make us think about life beyond our planet. We’re all sort
of wondering about the same thing. And I think some people draw pictures of
it and some people make movies about it and some people make music about it and some people talk to their friends and family and some scientists try to
determine the answer using the principles of basic science and
observational astronomy, but it’s all part of I think the same human question. Which is of course:

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