The film that almost gave us an animatronic Hulk

Hulk figure
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Before Ang Lee was attached to direct Hulk in the early 2000s, the project began life as an attempt to make the Hulk with animatronics…


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Several years before Ang Lee bought his all-CGI Hulk to the big screen in 2003, there was almost a film that was going to go just as green, just practically with animatronics.

The Incredible Hulk has made many live action appearances over the years. For those of us of a certain age, the Incredible Hulk will be the green painted professional body builder by the name of Lou Ferrigno. The actor Bill Bixby would play his calmer alter ego, Dr David Banner. They starred in The Incredible Hulk television series from CBS that started airing in 1978. There were also three spin-off television films, with the last one airing in 1990.

We wouldn’t see the Hulk again until 2003, when director Ang Lee bought him to the big screen with Eric Bana portraying Bruce Banner and the computer wizards at Industrial Light and Magic bringing the big green man to life with computer generated imagery. However, this version by Lee almost never happened, and was an evolution of another project that came before it.

In 1996, in an event that seems unthinkable now, Marvel comics hit bankruptcy and had to find buyers to keep afloat. The toy company Tov Biz bought the comic side of the business and a producer called Avi Arad came out with a complicated deal that gave him the rights to Spider-Man and other various characters that had already been sold off earlier.

He was no stranger to the Marvel Universe as he’d already been  trying to get a Hulk project into production, along with producer Gale Anne Hurd, all the way back in 1990. She would produce many well-known films including the first two Terminators, Tremors, No Escape and many more. Work on the Hulk project continued when it moved into offices at Universal in 1992.

In 1993, Stan Lee and writer Michael France, who had written the script for Cliffhanger, and would go onto help reboot the Bond franchise with his script for GoldenEye, were invited to Universal for talks about Hulk. Universal wanted a story that involved the Hulk fighting terrorists, but France wasn’t very keen on the idea.

A year later, comic book fan John Turman was bought on board with the approval of Stan Lee. He wrote as many as ten drafts that included different enemies for the Hulk to battle and many elements taken from the original comics. These included the gamma radiation that would affect Bruce Banner originating from an atomic explosion, and his inner rage being caused by his abusive relationship with his father Brian.

Universal had mixed feelings about these scripts, but many parts would follow through to the final 2003 film by Ang Lee.

A year later in 1995, producer Gale Anne Heard bought her husband onto the project as a co-producer, the writer Jonathan Hensleigh. He started work writing for The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and his latest work at this point was the screenplays for Die Hard With A Vengeance and Jumanji.

Industrial Light and Magic was also hired to start preliminary CGI work – but this wasn’t going to be a full digital Hulk, as we’ll see later.

Universal tried again to convince France to write a script but changed their minds when Joe Johnston was hired to direct in 1997. Due to Hensleigh’s success with the Jumanji script, which Johnston had directed, they asked him to write the screenplay instead.

Johnston would drop out only a few months later and Hensleigh convinced Universal to let him have Hulk as his directorial debut. Turman was bought back on board for script rewrites as well as Zak Penn, who would later help write the X-Men films and the first Avengers team up.

Despite this, Hensleigh wrote his own script from scratch, and it was with this template that pre-production could begin in October of 1997.

Hulk model

This script, which is freely available on the internet if you’re so inclined, starts with three convicted criminals, Deacon, Novak and Hector, about to be executed for their crimes. But they are given another chance at the very last second.

Bruce Banner wants to help build a colony on Mars but to take building equipment up there is impractical and expensive. What if we could genetically alter humans to be stronger and more powerful?

With the help of the latest gene-splicing technology, a person could have the weight to strength ratio of an ant. A higher metabolism that means they would need to eat more but never sleep. Finally, the body could run at a higher temperature so they would be impervious to the effects of a much colder climate.

The three convicts are offered this choice and considering the alternative, duly sign up. After the three of them have had the relevant medical procedure, they all require a ten second dose of Gamma radiation to kickstart the mutation.

I think you can see where this is going.

When one of the convicts tries to escape during the procedure, it starts a chain of events that will see our hero, Bruce Banner, receiving a huge dose of Gamma radiation himself as well as the three convicts. While Bruce becomes the Hulk, the three convicts would mutate with elements of the insect DNA that had been introduced into their bodies. Two of the convicts were cast in the form of actors Lynn ‘Red’ Williams and Gregory Sporleder.

As these were the transition years between on-set practical effects and CGI, the idea was to build the Hulk for real. As you can see from these behind-the-scenes images, Steve Johnson and his Edge FX company were hired to create the Hulk in life size animatronic form – as well as the insectoid enemies. Johnson has had a prolific career in the special effects industry, creating and designing creatures such as Slimer for Ghostbusters, the aliens for The Abyss and Doctor Octopus’s tentacles for Spider-Man 2.

In an interview with Bloody Disgusting he revealed, “this was in the infancy of digital, nobody trusted digital back then so we were only going to use digital for really wide shots where The Hulk and these creatures were going to do things that you couldn’t possibly do otherwise

If building a life size Hulk wasn’t demanding enough, the script called for a Super Hulk for the film’s climactic set piece in a battle with a normal sized Hulk. This, too, was also under construction as Johnson went on to explain, “in those days one Hulk wasn’t enough, you had to have a Super Hulk for the climax. Super Hulk was some abomination of the gamma rays that was Hulk’s nemesis, and it was four times the size of Hulk and we were actually building that as well. Can you believe it? I mean it was Jurassic Park kinda shit. It was thirty feet tall, it was crazy!”

However, as you may have guessed by now, this story didn’t have a happy ending for Steve Johnson, his effects company and even director Jonathan Hensleigh.

All this work in pre-production had cost Universal $20m up to this point, and they estimated this was going to be a big film with a final budget of $100m. Considering this was under the control of first-time director Hensleigh, Universal were understandably nervous.

In an interview with, Hensleigh revealed he was ready to go. Universal wanted script rewrites to lower the cost but he replied, “I’ve been on this project for a year. I can’t wait around unless I have a 100% commitment that you’re going to make it.” But with Universal not being able to confirm that commitment, Hensleigh left the project. Like to think that he smashed his way out of the door, but the strong likelihood is that he just opened it, walked through it, and shut it politely.

How close was the project to filming? In the same interview he reveals that the moment Universal said go, he would have been shooting, “since I was in pre-production for so, so long running a crew… I mean, I had full staff – I had my First AD, my production designer, my stunt coordinator, cinematographer, we had done the full scouts, we had done all the pre-viz on the project, I had storyboarded the whole movie…

And Steve Johnson remembers when he received the fateful phone call from Hensleigh. “John called me up one afternoon and he goes ‘Universal just pulled the plug on The Hulk.’ You want to know what the worst thing about it was? I then had to go out to my team of 50 artists and engineers and say, ‘the movie’s over, go home.’ It was devastating, and it wasn’t about the money, it was about the passion for our art and not being able to show the world what we had been so excited to come to work and do every day for six months.”

Despite this news, the Hulk project carried on evolving and finally became Ang Lee’s all digital Hulk in 2003. These images serve as a reminder of possibly some of the most ambitious practical effects work the world never got to see.

Images: BigStock

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