James Cameron’s 1989 film The Abyss is a big (some said bloated) undersea extravaganza that many viewers loved, and many did not. Whether it was actually a “good movie” was a toss-up (it stands as the least successful James Cameron film in terms of box office), but the special effects were overwhelmingly praised by critics and audiences. Even today, a lot of the visuals remain impressive, which can’t be said of most films made over 30 years ago.
Some credit needs to go to Jean Giraud, the French artist better known as Moebius, a co-founder of Metal Hurlant and arguably the best-known of the old-school Heavy Metal artists. Moebius was enlisted to design the underwater aliens, or NTIs (“non-terrestrial intelligence”) for The Abyss, and his images would be stunning illustrations worthy of publication even if the film had never been made.
Moebius worked on many films over the years, though his contributions weren’t always used (as with Masters of the Universe) or the films weren’t made (as with Jodorowsky’s Dune). His legacy on celluloid is probably best seen in cult classics Tron and The Fifth Element, both of which were really shaped start-to-finish by Moebius’ style.
On The Abyss, his contribution was limited to the design of the NTIs, but what beautiful designs they were. Here’s how these deep-sea visitors looked in Moebius’ sketchbook:
Thanks go to Monster Brains for originally posting these.
Other Artists’ Contributions
Other movie designers were involved as well, although everyone seemed to be working off the same instructions from James Cameron. Here’s a design by Steve Burg, who is a legend among sci-fi movie art directors, having put his stamp on Interstellar, Prometheus, Alien: Covenant, The Martian, and many other films. This piece may have been further along in the process, as it more closely resembles the creatures in the movie:
What They Looked Like on Screen
Here we have to thank a YouTube user for clipping out this sequence of the Abyss hero alien. The soundtrack by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition is just a bonus (rest in peace, Kenny):
How the Actual Things Were Made and Shot
If you’re interested in the story of building the actual aliens from polyurethane and fiber optics, and shooting the sequences in a million-gallon tank in San Pedro, check out this video series by Steve Johnson. There are several parts, this is the first: