Alien poster art by Brian Taylor
By Tim Pelan
Ripley’s words to the Xenomorph in Alien 3 sum up how we all feel: “You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else.” And now forty years of hurt has director Ridley Scott’s original Alien, a self-proclaimed “Texas Chainsaw Massacre in Space” coming home to screens big and small in this, its 40th anniversary year, in eye-poppingly, chest-burstingly clear 4K goodness. In a sense, the Commercial Towing vehicle Nostromo has always been in a state of arrested return from Thedus, a noir voyager, subject to unwelcome intrusion. Bumps in the night terrors of a collective psycho-drama, unfolding on a loop, viewed repeatedly by horror-hungry hordes who’d never seen the like of its deadly piston-jawed pulse pounding dysmorphia before—those too young to see it until snatches on home video aversing themselves with passages from the novelisation—“Mother wouldn’t let us chase this beacon, Nobodaddy Dean Foster was our guide.” (A Portrait of ALIEN as a Young Man, by Simon Barraclough.) Guessing at cryptic centre spread photo captions of what awaits the hapless crew, awakening from a central lotus (each slow dissolve in the film on John Hurt’s rising, bleary eyed Kane (John Hurt) like a further blossoming petal), Jonesy the cat impervious to their suffering—“Snatched stills, radio trailers, schoolyard rumors from older brothers, fever dreams of suffocation, choking hazards, Heimlich birth pains, H. R. Giger counters.” If Star Wars was a passage into another world far, far away (“My primary influence was 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars,” Scott stated. “That first Star Wars was formidable. But Star Wars was a fairy tale.”) Alien, and Scott’s later Blade Runner, were seminal grown up works of unsettling quietude and dread, benchmark standards for immersive science fiction world building and naturalistic next-door normality, for all their futuristic settings. Repurposed NASA jumpsuits, detailed signage worthy of an article of its own, and tonnes of recycled junk and aeroplane carcasses a living, breathing blue-collar workplace do create. And what we create, the Alien, “a tough little (and growing!) son of a bitch” destroys.
Speaking of memory, that word was the originally attached moniker to the genesis script by Dan O’Bannon, who collaborated with John Carpenter on his student film Dark Star, expanding it from fifty to eighty-three minutes for a cinema release. As well as writing duties, he also helped edit and design the film (along with future Alien concept designer Ron Cobb), and played the role of Pinbacker, the slacker astronaut responsible for bringing an alien on board. Dark Star’s astronauts, bored in space “in this once-sterile spaceship in a rundown condition, like some old bachelor apartment,” would be a nascent form of the inured, bickering Nostromo crew. “There was a great sense of reality, oddly enough, in Dark Star,” Scott believed, “especially of seedy living. It showed you can get grotty even in the Hilton Hotel if you don’t clean it. Everything starts to get tacky, even in the most streamlined surfaces.”
O’Bannon was stuck on Memory (the name suggestive of Kane’s post face-hugger wakeful recollection of only a “smothering”), and was contacted by fellow struggling screenwriter Ron Shusett, hoping to collaborate. Shusett was struck by the strength of the opening, which follows closely Alien’s structure, down to the chestbursting exit. After that, Shusett recalled, “The monster wasn’t clear, and he (O’Bannon) didn’t know where to take it,” so he suggested taking it to low-budget schlock-meister Roger Corman, until Chilean auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky interrupted the flow with his grand idea to bring Frank Herbert’s celebrated sci-fi novel Dune to the screen. For that, amongst a gallery of other collaborators (Chris Foss, ship design, Metal Hurlant artist Moebius for space suits, and of course Swiss artist H. R. Giger for the alien designs), he wanted O’Bannon for the effects. He’d already asked and dismissed 2001’s Douglas Trumbull, believing him to be arrogant and hide-bound, preferring instead O’Bannon’s more youthful (malleable?) energy.
The then impossible to realize affair inevitably collapsed, only getting as far as an extensive pre-visualisation bible. O’Bannon suffered a breakdown and was admitted briefly to a mental institution. He returned to L.A broke, sofa surfing (as opposed to Dark Star’s space surfing) with Shusett. Necessity being the MU-TH-ER (Nostromo’s corporately coerced computer system) of invention, they dug out the Memory script and got to work. To move it on, they employed a discarded O’Bannon idea called Gremlins, about a WWII B17 bomber returning from a raid on Tokyo, besieged for real by the critters that crews blamed for mechanical failures. The B17 became spacecraft The Snark, after Lewis Carroll’s poem, wherein each crewmember would be picked off one by one until a final confrontation (the ship’s name switched to Leviathan, then finally Nostromo). The script was now entitled Starbeast. Roger Corman was interested, but friend Mark Haggard, a writer/director, believed he could hook bigger fish. Ron Cobb was asked again to bring his laser sharp design eye to concept illustrations to sell the project. “You could almost use them as blueprints,” Scott said later, retaining the artist, as he did with Giger, Foss and Moebius. O’Bannon now felt the title was strictly B-movie stuff. Struggling to think of anything better, he settled on the elegant simplicity of Alien (“I loved that it was both noun and adjective.”).
A deal was struck with production company Brandywine, headed by Gordon Carroll and David Giler, and writer/director Walter Hill (The Driver, The Getaway, 48 Hrs, Southern Comfort, and many others). Hill was initially going to direct the script which was by now heavily redrafted by him and Giler. The original writers were retained as visual design consultants on the 20th Century Fox vehicle, now greenlit by then head Alan Ladd Jr. Hill decided directing this cumbersome beast wasn’t his bag, and eventually Brit Ridley Scott was chosen on the basis of his sterling work on his 1977 Cannes “Best Debut” winner The Duellists. After being delivered the script, which he devoured, he was in Hollywood in 24 hours to lay out his approach, struck immediately by the fact that, for him, “it had the beauty of something that is absolutely about function.” The project, a “perfect organism” now had the status of “elevated horror”, to use a contentious phrase from today. Albeit still on a tight, inventively employed budget of 8.5 million dollars. Every dollar well accounted for, as Scott, a talented artist who’d studied first graphic design at West Hartlepool College of Art, then via scholarship, a course in Theatrical Design at London’s Royal College of Art, methodically storyboarded everything himself. His detailed sketches have become known as “Ridleygrams”. “My technique, my style, if you will, really comes from my education and by finding my own way through the commercial field,” Scott has said. “If I were pressed to describe my style, I’d have to say it is called reality. No matter how stylized it gets, underneath it’s real.”
“We live as we dream—alone,” now quoth the cover of Alien’s script forebodingly, the words from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, just one of the author’s influences on the film—the knackered space tug/ore refinery Nostromo is named after Conrad’s novel of corruption, revolution, and corporate amorality. A novel where individuals are “swallowed up by the immense indifference of things.” In the film translated to the stark, brutal indifference of the void of space and the terrors it hides, and “The Company,” who seek only to profit at the expense of their own. Discomforting music plays over a slow pan to the right over a ringed planet, whilst white monolithic slabs slowly form the ominous title—Alien. If the monolith-centred drama of 2001: A Space Odyssey invited us to consider the birth, ascent and re-birth of mankind into a “star child,” gazing serenely upon the Earth and us, the viewer, with untold possibilities, then Alien represents the Freudian nightmare tucked away in the recesses of the mind. A disturbing perversion of birth: life from death, invasive and toxic.
The ship is a character in its own right, and from the off, it is unsettling. As the crew sleep in suspended animation, the camera prowls and glides slowly through the darkened, empty corridors and cluttered spaces, human detritus, such as empty paper cups, left behind from the last period of activity. The camera is never still, our wary eye on what horrors are to come down these shock corridors.
“At the culmination of many long voyages, each covering many years, these ships—no doubt part of armadas owned by private corporations—look used, beat up, covered with graffiti, and uncomfortable,” said director Ridley Scott. Artist Ron Cobb designed the grungy, industrial Nostromo interiors, with an emphasis on functionality, and a definite hierarchy. There’s the bridge, with its assigned stations; the pristine cryo chamber and ship’s computer Mother’s blinking Zen bubble; the raucous, sloppy Mess; and the underworld, or hold/garage level, with clanking chains and dripping leaks, oily floors and walls, and venting steam. The refinery the vessel tows was itself based on the power stations of the UK’s South Shields, near where Ridley Scott grew up. The director added the towers, reminiscent of the cooling towers from his youth.
Scott and his director of photography Derek Vanlint made use of the corridors built in lighting to light the scenes, the sets so real and claustrophobic there wasn’t room for normal rigs. Dimmer switches adjusted lights while dry ice simulated steam. John Hurt on the maze-like set: “There is no escape. It is one of the elements of a thriller.” As much as the gut-wrenching reveals of the star beast when it does burst forth, either from Kane’s stomach or later descending from the garage shadows to Jonesy the cat’s detached observance, the ship is equally unsettling: the camera glides, and we never know what’s around the corner. Instruments and alarms, steam and the ever-present thrum of engines, penetrate our psyche. Joshua Comaroff and Ong Ker-Shing, in Horror in Architecture state that:
“Modern buildings (or spaceships!), like modern subjects, thus come to contain unspeakable cavities… Those who work in design and construction are familiar with these obscene and recessive spaces, how they contradict the resolved bourgeois exterior.”
The monster from the id invades the workaday environment: from the earlier mentioned Portrait of ALIEN as a Young Man, by Simon Barraclough in the BFI Film Classics Alien book:
The little learning in my throat was stillborn
while yours is using airshafts and is always
in the corners, in the basement, in the shuttle.
Ah yes, the monster. Or creature, as it more often referred to. A biomechanoid “thing,” homicidally intelligent, possibly artificially created and gestated in those “eggs” within the crashed “Space Jockey” horseshoe vessel, also known as “The Derelict.” Who are you? Who, who, who who? Rock band The Who were testing their laser on the sound stage next to Scott’s at Shepperton Studios, where the party of Kane, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) investigate the sepulchral cargo. Scott borrowed the band’s laser for the thin film hovering over the eggs (“like a placenta”). When Kane breaks the seal, the yokes on him (sorry!). Nottingham Lace? In yer face!
Giger created the majority of the creature life stages (except the iconic chestburster—his design for this resembled a plucked turkey. Roger Dicken refined the idea into a “penis with teeth”), and also the derelict vessel and its doomed pilot, the space jockey, body fused to his control chair, rib cage exploded out, a harbinger of horror to come. Giger was initially to have only a small advisory role. The Swiss avant-garde artist was renowned for his fever dream paintings of erotic “biomechanicals”—particularly arresting to Scott was his collection of paintings in a book entitled The Necronomicon, which O’Bannon showed him. Scott knew a version of this was his beast. He was alternately hired and fired by queasy bosses, before Scott put his foot down, and he was retained in a design role for six months. Giger demanded bones for his unearthly sculpted corridors and vaginal vessel. From Roger Luckhurst’s Alien BFI Companion:
“The search of the craft is rigorously uncanny, in Freud’s sense that what seems the most dreadful and unfamiliar leads back to what is most ‘homely’: the mother’s womb. The sexualized architecture of the ship was consciously constructed that way, and they let Giger have free play with the design of the interiors: vaginal openings into the derelict craft, the uterine, organic corridors resembling the extruded mastications of an insect nest, the appalling scale of the fossilised Space Jockey they find peering into a telescope or perhaps down the barrel of a giant, phallic gun. This set was a brilliant realization of Giger’s fusion of the biological and mechanical.”
(For those disappointed with Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien-verse with Prometheus, in a quest to examine the backstory of who the Space Jockey and his kind were, or for those who just appreciate such things, there is a fan-edit by @JobWillins (real name Daniel) called Derelict, in which he fuses Prometheus with, as Ridley Scott described the link between the two, its “Alien DNA.” Daniel states that, “Prometheus wasn’t exactly an Alien prequel, but this treats it as such by intercutting the events of Alien with Prometheus in a dual narrative structure. Derelict is also in black & white to better marry the visual quality of the two originals (and also because both films look great in black & white). Roughly 30 minutes has been cut from Prometheus and about an hour of Alien has been used in its place. Some content from the deleted scenes of Prometheus was also used.” You can view it on Vimeo via this link (password is squidbaby).)
Someone (unattributed) on the Alien set recalled of Giger that,
“All these trucks pull up one day loaded with bones. They had been to medical supply houses, slaughterhouses and God knows where else, and the next day the studio was full of bones and skeletons of every possible description… You’d go into Giger’s studio and you’d see this guy looking like Count Dracula, dressed all in black, with his black hair, lily-white skin and blazing eyes… I don’t think he dares take off those clothes, because if you did you’d see that underneath he’s not human. He’s a character from a H. P. Lovecraft story.”
Beneath that fanciful facade though even Giger gagged at what he was delivered, flesh and detritus still clinging in spots to the bones. He used only cleaned and blasted dry bones in his work. Not such a vampire after all…
The other image, apart from The Necronomicon that defined the look of the fully grown Alien was Leni Riefenstahl’s photograph of a two-meter tall, rail thin, Nubian warrior. To achieve the look he wanted, Scott reluctantly accepted he needed a man in a suit, and the search began.
It didn’t take long. Casting agent Peter Archer bumped into the very man by chance in a London pub. Kenyan Maasai student Bolaji Badejo was studying Graphic Design in London, and was simply asked if he wanted to be in a movie. At six feet ten inches tall, lithe and pencil thin, he was perfect. He studied Tai Chi and mime to achieve the slow, purposeful and graceful movements of the creature creeping around the Nostromo’s dark and dank passages and air ducts. He also had to be able to spring into sudden, violent action. “I remember having to kick Yaphet Kotto (the engineer Parker), throw him against a wall, and rush up to him. Veronica Cartwright was really terrified. After I fling Yaphet Kotto back with my tail, I turn to go after her, there’s blood in my mouth, and she was incredible. It wasn’t acting, she was scared.”
One difficult shot the director and Bolaji tried to pull off was to have him suspended from a rig, “nesting” high up in the ceiling of the dank hold, where Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) comes to find Jonesy the cat. He was supposed to be curled up and slowly unfold, lowering down to grab Brett, but the rig was too uncomfortable for him. This is probably where stunt double Eddie Powell came in.
Eddie was a regular stunt performer for Hammer Films. No slouch in the height department either, he regularly doubled for the vertically affluent Christopher Lee. He went on to perform in many genre favourites, such as Aliens (again as an alien), James Bond, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman, Krull, and Enemy Mine. Eddie replaced Bolaji in the harness, but even he found the requisite shots difficult in the alien suit. In the end the longer shots of the alien quietly descending and raising the hapless Brett up to his doom were achieved by several close-ups and quick cuts.
Another time for Eddie to shine was when Dallas is hunting the alien in the air ducts. The memorable moment when Lambert sobs for him to get out as the signal of the creature draws nearer, and he turns to find it spring at him: that was Eddie in the suit. Bolaji simply couldn’t fit in the tight space, fully suited up, and perform.
The alien costumes, created by Carlo Rambaldi from Giger’s design, cost more than $250,000. The iconic fibreglass head was shaped around a human skull. With the head on, Bolaji stood at over seven feet, towering on many occasions above the height of the sets around him. He could only wear the heavy head piece for up to twenty minutes at a time. “They must have had about 2000 tubes of KY jelly, just to get the effect of that slime coming out of his mouth,” he said.
But it is surely the chestburster scene, the final moment the entire crew are together, after the facehugger has detached from Kane and the crew partake of a “last supper” before re-entering hypersleep for the voyage home, that sealed Alien‘s reputation as a classic. A little known influence for this was screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s Crohn’s disease, a digestive disorder. According to Jason Zinoman’s book Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood and Invented Modern horror, “The digestion process felt like something bubbling up inside of him, struggling to get out.” From this pain came the idea of the alien punching its way out of John Hurt’s chest.
A popular misconception is that this was Hurt’s first scene, after his 11th-hour replacement of Jon Finch, who took ill on the set of the bridge his first day, having to be lifted bodily out of his seat, a sickly yellow: he was diabetic. Scott drove to original choice Hurt’s Hampstead home that night, the actor now available after a previously contracted obligation collapsed. There was no time to read the script, he essentially got “a long pitch” and was in. “We must go on,” as his Kane would say, ever the oblivious boy scout, eager to explore. “We have to go on.”
After Kane has been attacked by the facehugger bursting forth from the disturbed egg on the Alien craft, he is brought back aboard Nostromo. When it surprisingly detaches itself later and he awakes, seemingly unharmed, the crew retire to the mess for a last meal before returning to hypersleep for the trip home. On page 59 of O’Bannon and Ron Shusett’s script, the next cycle of the alien lifeform makes its shocking exit, and entrance:
“Kane’s face screws into a mask of agony. A red stain, a smear of blood, blossoms on his chest. The fabric of his shirt rips open and a small head, the size of a fist, punches out.” As Kane begins to choke and struggle, watch science officer Ash (Ian Holm) initially casually observe, detached (pun intended). There’s something off about him, as the crew discover later. He’s the Company cuckoo in the nest, an android tasked to ensure that whatever they discover and pick up as a result of the signal they’ve been diverted to, gets home for investigation and exploitation.
When Hurt begins to react violently and thrash about, the other actors restrain him across the table. A clever edit from one side to the other allowed a gap for technicians to place Hurt beneath the table. Only his head and arms remained above, and a fake chest cavity lay across the table, from which the beast would burst forth. Amusingly, during the long set ups, Hurt would remain in that position, smoking a cigarette.
The other actors had of course read the script, but they had no idea how visceral the scene would be. The stage direction merely read, “The creature exits out of Kane’s chest.” The chest cavity was stuffed full of organs and pigs blood from the local meat factory. Under the hot studio lights the smell quickly became revolting. When the actors came on set, the crew were all wearing waterproof ponchos. Four cameras were ready to roll for optimum footage. Sigourney Weaver (Ripley) could see the screenwriters huddled in the corner, gleefully awaiting the mayhem to come.
A thin cut was made in the cavity T-shirt so that it would rip easily when the puppeteer below thrust the creature upwards. At first it didn’t come through, so when they tried again the actors were already leaning in, and the amount of blood that burst forth really shocked them. Veronica Cartwright got a face full and actually flipped right over in surprise on the now slippy floor. She realised the cameras were still rolling and had to scramble back in shot.
To have the creature then shoot off across the table, a slit was cut through it, and someone yanked the puppeteer, who was lying on a small camera dolly. The tail whipping back and forth was achieved by inserting a thin tube through it and pumping it with compressed air. It is telling that there are no outtakes of actors or crew bursting into laughter. The atmosphere was highly charged: nothing like this had ever been seen before.
The film critic David Thomson can attest to the stories of audience members leaving when the scene came up, repulsed and disturbed: his wife left, he stayed, fascinated. “I think very few people then foresaw that the monster was going to demand birth from Kane’s body,” he recalled later. “We had not really understood the title, Alien, until this scene, and the absolute parasitic subduing of one organism by another. We did not know, and had not yet acquired, that metaphoric sense of invasive illness that has been conveyed by AIDS. Cancer was the most evident route of the metaphor. And the nausea, the gulping and retching, came in the sudden upheaval of understanding, of what had been down Kane’s throat. For the man had been made pregnant.”
The relatively well-known John Hurt’s brutally early dispatch was akin to star Janet Leigh’s surprise early killing in Psycho’s shower scene. But this was the 1970′s, and blood was spilled in eye-popping claret, not squeamish black and white.
In space, no-one can hear you scream, Alien’s tagline read. But across the world, at each fresh screening, audiences would be heard to scream, and scream again. Horror, specifically body horror, would never be the same.
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
Ridley Scott talks about the hundreds of problems involved in taking an essentially fantastic idea and making it real on-screen. This article, Flashback: The Filming of Alien, originally appeared in American Cinematographer August 1979.
When, as a director, you are offered a project like Alien—or any science-fiction film, really—it is an offer to start with and becomes a confrontation afterwards. The problems gradually emerge, and on Alien there were many, many, many of them. People ask me, “What is the single individual problem you had the most difficulty with?”
There wasn’t one. They were all difficult—and if you had let one of those problems slide by without solving it, a weakness in the impact of the film would have been the result.
I want to emphasize that I don’t think of Alien as an “effects” film. It’s not. I had decided in advance that it wouldn’t be an effects film, in the usual sense of the term. I think there is a danger in that sort of designation. All too often what people refer to as “effects films” won’t stand on their own, because of weak story or weak characterizations. I felt that Alien should be primarily a film with a story about seven real characters—and that this would be the strength of the film, not the effects.
Now, it so happens that you can’t do a film like Alien—which does involve effects—without making sure that they are going to be up to the standard set by Star Wars, Close Encounters and the Big Daddy of them all, 2001: A Space Odyssey. One has to try to reach that level. The best thing that happened to Nicky Allder and his effects team was having a strong story and characters who were very strong. These elements were essential to creating a “real” film.
As for the problems—there were thousands of them, all happening together, but I feel that we had probably the best outfit I’ve worked with in ten years of filmmaking. They had the kind of reliability of someone saying, “Yes, I’ll make it work by such-and-such a date.” And, Bingo, it happens! That’s pretty rare, but they were an absolutely amazing outfit. A lot of them were sort of artists in their own right, even though they were dealing with equipment and things like that. There’s a kind of free-thinking in Nicky’s Allder’s mind, for example. You can see him piecing together the problem you have presented him with. Then he’ll say, “Oh, yes—I can use a little bit of this and a bit of that.” I found him ordering 12 memories for a tracking dolly he had devised himself. He thinks in very simplistic terms: “I want 12 memories—one for pan and tilt, one for diagonal right, one for diagonal left, etc.” There is that great simplicity that one usually finds in the great artists.
In the beginning I didn’t quite know what I was going to be getting myself in for, because I’d never gotten involved with effects before. I had never really been a science-fiction fanatic, although I felt that at some point I would like to have a shot at such a subject.
When the script was offered to me, I went to Hollywood to meet the producers and discuss changes and budget. The proposed budget was $4.5 million, which was impossibly low for that particular movie. In London we had been doing a kind of cost breakdown of the script and had estimated the budget at about $13 million, which was far too high for 20th Century Fox. I used to be an art director, so I had the tedious task of storyboarding the film, which took five or six weeks, while everybody else was budgeting along behind. We came down eventually to $8.5 million and went forward from there.
The project seemed to gather momentum very quickly. Even while we were still budgeting and there was a sort of on/off feeling, we were talking to cast and things like that, because an impossible starting date—only four months off—had been established. That was ludicrous in terms of preparation, especially since we were trying to press-gang the best people, who were already sort of semi-involved with something else. But getting the best was absolutely the key to making the film.
The storyboard I did was essential, because the whole thing has an abstract spirit of intention until somebody sits down and says, “Physically we are going to do this and we are going to do that and it will look this way.” You can’t budget on an abstract basis—which means that, in the very early days, you’ve got to get very specific about how things are going to be. For example, it helps tremendously if the effects man knows how a sequence is going to go. He is able to very carefully structure around that, knowing what things he can legitimately hide.
Once we had done the overall, sort of general storyboard, there was then drawn a storyboard for each day of shooting. That day-by-day planning added up to a four-inch slab of storyboards. It was just huge. Drawing it all out like that is very tedious, but necessary in the sense that while you are drawing you are actually helping yourself think. It’s like a writer with a problem who, by doodling, can focus his attention and get things flowing. I’ve seen voluminous storyboards on King Kong and The Hindenburg, both of which relied much more on opticals and mattes than our film did, but they certainly simplified matters. In Alien there were no mattes or opticals or cheating—just pure physical effects, which seems to be the best way of achieving reality.
To explain my method for choosing a crew, and particularly the cinematographer, I have to backtrack a bit in my own career. I came out of BBC television where I had been doing drama series and drifted into advertising. I had found television quite frustrating because there were so many people involved in the making of it that it eventually drove me mad. You could never quite get to the point of visual perfection that one wanted to achieve. Also, working with tape, it was almost impossible to get a satisfactory result. Even if you are shooting for television, you’ve finally got to go to film in order to get something that is really successful. Ten years ago I entered the television commercials field, which was then relatively new in England. I worked in it for a year as an art director, then started getting offered advertising commercials to direct.
At that time—10 years ago—I had a lot of trouble dealing with what I call “traditional feature cameramen” because they underestimated the whole field of advertising film. They would, therefore, just do it and walk away from it. I found myself having to hire feature cameramen who weren’t particularly interested and I got very frustrated by this. I then came across a couple of guys who were new to the field. One had been a rostrum cameraman (Frank Tidy) and the other (Derek Vanlint) had been a still photographer with a studio in Soho, but wanted to get involved with film.
I suddenly found it much easier working with these cameramen because I didn’t have the huge pressure of a very experienced feature cameraman who was trying to employ a very heavy, big feature shooting technique. I liked a more natural approach to lighting for the sake of realism.
So I’ve worked with Frank Tidy and Derek Vanlint for 10 years and we’ve gotten to know each other very well. All this time, while making advertising films, I had it in the back of my mind that I would at some time be doing feature films, and the people working with me have, in a funny sort of way, come along the same route. Frank Tidy photographed my first feature, The Duellists and Derek Vanlint, of course, photographed Alien.
In evolving a visual style for Alien (most of the action of which takes place inside the spaceship), there were certain special problems. If you are dealing with conventional rooms—whether they be Napoleonic or modern-day New York or whatever—you have a definite place that your light source is going to come from—normally your windows or the lamp on the table. In this instance there were no such sources.
I originally had the idea of lighting everywhere at once, so that I would have total freedom of movement through the corridors of the spaceship. It was a big set and I wanted to avoid the process of setup-by-setup shooting—which finally is the best way, actually. I loved the way 2001 looked, but we didn’t want to emulate it by going high-key with a lot of overhead light coming through ceilings filled with plexiglass. We wanted our lighting to be very directional and, for the sake of the mood of the story, rather low-key, gloomy, melancholy, depressing.
So we made up a section of set and started experimenting. We got into a terrible tangle of variations because I wanted to use some tube [fluorescent] lights, but mixing them with tungsten lights and an occasional Brute meant that you had three different types of light and Derek Vanlint was nearly driven mad trying to get the right combination of filters to balance everything correctly. It was murderous, because even going by the book didn’t quite work out. We went through two or three weeks of just having someone standing in the corridor, changing the whole combination of lights and filters, but we could never quite get a satisfactory balance. It was always a little off.
Also, my ideal notion that, by lighting the entire set, you could put an actor anywhere in it and, with a little bit of flagging, be ready to shoot just didn’t work. It started to look as though we were shooting TV. Both Derek and I were unhappy that we just weren’t getting what we wanted visually, and also we were tending to throw away a lot of the niceties of the set. So we just went back to normal shooting, which was basically: find your setup, have whatever bulb combinations you wanted for set purposes, but light the scene with more conventional equipment. Frankly, I prefer that method—and certainly for a project like this. It was better than trying to out-think yourselves simply to move along at great speed.
To Derek and me—coming from where we have come from—the visual aspects of a film are terribly important. They’re not everything, but they’re a hell of a lot. A cameraman ought to be involved in the sets, but frequently he isn’t. He often just walks in, looks at the set and lights it. But Derek was drawn into everything, including colors, textures and that sort of thing. In the filming of commercials we’re used to incorporating everyone into the planning process, so that everybody will know what everybody else is doing and everybody will be working off everybody else for the visual aspect of whatever the subject is. That’s a honing process, and it’s as important to me as the actors and the script.
There is an immense schedule pressure in the making of feature films, but the process of feature-making is, by its very nature, slow. The more you go for quality, I’m afraid, the slower it gets. There’s no point to shooting simply to stay on schedule. You’ve got to see it through the viewfinder, and if it’s not there you haven’t got it. That quite frequently can become a nightmare for the director as well as for the cinematographer.
Making a feature is marvelous, I think, but it’s a nightmare while you’re doing it—a sort of love-hate process. It was that way for me and for Derek, as well, on Alien. I think it’s very important to have the sort of relationship with a cameraman where you can go into the corner and say, “It’s not working today, is it?” You can then discuss it quite calmly and find out why it’s isn’t working, what you’re doing wrong. It is usually a very private thing between these two individuals only. It would be frustrating to have such discussions with actors sitting and waiting, but I’ve discovered that the best way for me to work is not to have the actors near the floor at all when I’m lighting. I’d rather just have them out of the way, in their dressing rooms reading or sleeping, because there’s nothing worse than having actors standing around and waiting. It drains them. You can see the adrenalin falling out of them while they are hanging about, so we are usually very careful about scheduling actors in.
In the making of Alien we were, of course, confronted with something more than actors. Once you accept a script like that, the next question that comes up very fast is: What form is the creature going to take? In this case the problem was made four times as difficult, because the Alien changes in varying degrees on several occasions. Therefore, you were dealing, in this instance, with four different entities. One could argue for months about what shapes they were going to be.
We went and saw visuals of what had been done before, where you get the old Blob crawling across the floor, or a dinosaur with claws and bumps and warts, and I said, “Oh, God—it can’t be that!” but the form that the Alien would take became my primary concern, and when I went to Los Angeles I saw some artwork in a book by H. R. Giger. There was a half-page in that book that was just amazing. I’ve never really been so shook up about anything. I just said, “This is the basis of the creature.” From that point on we had a very factual, very specific, superbly rendered representation of what the Alien would finally be. It was valuable to know what his final stage would be, because then you could work backwards and biologically create stages of his development. In this case, it was necessary to do that. You had to be, in order for it to look real. You had to develop a basic understanding of how it would work, how it would move. It’s the same with any biological sort of creature that you are constructing. You’ve got to think of it in anatomical terms.
In this case we went from the final stage of what he was and jumped back to what he would look like as a baby. There had to be a certain shape related to the final stage, and that’s partly how we arrived at the nasty one. The thing that sprung out of the egg—the “perambulatory penis,” as we used to call it—is the father. It is an abstract entity, in a sense, because all it does is plant a seed. Once having conceived, it dies, and the next generation takes on characteristics of whatever life form it landed on. It could have been a dog, in which case the Alien would have taken on a dog form. The result is a combination of two elements: the original creature and whatever host it uses.
During the course of designing, the Alien went through many changes, becoming more refined and more animal-like. I wanted it to look animal-like rather than fantastic—because the word fantastic means “not quite real,” and I wanted it to look real.
Designing the creature in all of its phases was a difficult problem—getting the forms and textures right and all that—but getting from the design on paper to the actual thing was the worst area. What may look great on paper you may never be able to get to look right when you construct it, or you may have such a colossal weight problem that it becomes an impracticality. The mechanism of how we would make the face and head function became just too much, in the short time that we had, for Giger to tackle. We had put a workforce of people around him that would come up with all the elements involved in the derelict spaceship, the interior of the derelict, and the Alien. Sculptures and working scale models of these would then be handed to the Construction Department, which would have to build them and make them work. Every process was difficult, and to keep it within its budget was even more difficult.
At this point, Carlo Rambaldi, who is a mechanical genius, came onto the project. He was an industrial designer originally, so there was a great deal of practicality attached to his artistry. He looked at the head, loved the artwork and the whole intention of the film and, even though he was up to his eyes in other things, he was somehow able to say, “Okay, I can get involved in the face and make various things happen.” and so, he came in for three or four weeks, working with Giger.
Carlo Rambaldi designed the mechanics of the head, made the lips work, made the jaws function. Normally you can’t stand to have the camera take a close look at things like this, but it was so good and I was so pleased with it that I just did a huge closeup on it.
I feel that in the process of feature-making, the director should be involved straight through—and so I have been. The editor, Terry Rawlings, was cutting the film behind me all the way. As I was shooting he was editing, so every night I was able to see what was happening. We would discuss it and he would make refinements, then carry on making assemblies as the footage was coming in. This worked so well that eight days after the end of shooting in October we were able to show 20th Century-Fox a two-hour and 22-minute cut.
Of course, long before that stage was reached, the people at Fox had got wind of the fact that we were working on something special and I think that it grew in their estimation from the original $4.5 million film they had planned to something that might really have a shot for them the following year. And so, very soon, the May 25 release date became a fact that we had to stick to. Consequently, Fox then kept a very close eye on it all the way through.
We had to keep showing cuts four times during the filming—leaving huge gaps here and there for special effects shots and miniatures. The Fox people were fully convinced that they were going to run the film in theaters on May 25, so, at whatever cost, we had to get it out. This meant that at the end of shooting the principal action there was no let-up whatsoever. I had to go crashing straight across from Shepperton to Bray Studios, where the effects and miniatures were to be shot. Derek had finished at Shepperton and now I was joined at Bray by the miniature effects director of photography, Denys Ayling, and special effects supervisor, Nick Allder, who came across with his floor effects unit from Shepperton.
I got involved with the model-making and shooting and found it to be just amazing, really interesting. I had my editing rooms at Bray, so I was editing while still shooting. The process of filming miniature shots carried on right up to the last minute. You do it and it’s not quite right, so you do it again—and maybe again, until eventually there comes a point where you have to be practical and say, “That’s good enough.” The whole process was a railroad track right through to May 25. There was no let-up at all.
In the making of a film like Alien, there is a whole large group of individuals who tend to get overlooked and who don’t get enough emphasis really. The art department is a prime example. Their budget alone approached $2 million. That means that there was a huge amount of designing apart from the overall visual concept. Then there was the challenge of taking that visual concept and building it in the form of sets that will work on film. You are then actually constructing reality. That can be well done or it can be really badly done. I feel that in the case of Alien it was extremely well done.
There were several key people in the art department who worked closely with Michael Seymour, my production designer, who really steered the whole thing in terms of the way it looked and who designed an awful lot of separate things. It takes a lot of courage to handle a budget like that but he made it work.
Mike had two great guys working with him—art directors Roger Christian and Les Diley. It was Diley who really designed a lot of the exterior planet work and who was very involved in the model of planet terrain that was placed around the derelict spaceship. The derelict was a miniature about four feet across and it was sculpted by Peter Boysey. It was an absolutely superb sculptural work.
Roger Christian is a very special talent in that he is a master draftsman. There is an absolute art in what I call “graffiti” and it involves layers on layers of detail. It really is a form of graphic sculpture and everything looks like it works.
Then there was the construction manager, Bill Welch, who saved the film company a lot of money by holding strictly to the schedule and always knowing where he was in relation to his budget. The carpenter and painter units working under him totalled nearly 200.
It takes an army of dedicated people to make a feature film—and on Alien we had a marvelous army.
“The currently running 40 Years of Alien: 40th-Anniversary exhibit at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts has unveiled several previously unseen production documents from the making of the original 1979 film. Most notable among them are ‘Ridley’s Notes’—the original character biographies drafted by Ridley Scott to provide the cast with material to base their performances upon. These notes were previously mentioned in interviews with Scott and others, but have never surfaced online until now. While they were believed by some to be the source of the character biographies featured on the original 1999 Alien DVD and the crew dossiers shown during the inquest scene in Aliens (and featured as an isolated bonus feature on the Alien Anthology Blu-ray set), this is now established to not have been the case.” —Alien Archives
Good middle class background.
Product of Officer Training Academy; following father’s footsteps.
First class passing… out… geologist first and first class pilot second.
Became Midshipman (apprentice) on passenger vehicles.
Disliked the life, for the same reasons that Dallas preferred not to do it. (Captain’s table bullshit.)
But unlike Dallas is a good socializer and politician (petty).
Made it to first officer easily.
Volunteered for long range super tanker stint—not for shares—but ambitious to see other side-of-hill.
Instead of adventure finds tedium, routine and jaded companionship—still believes she will find the “Grail”.
Has never been tried—never been under duress—interesting to see how she could/would react under pressure situation.
She can come on strong and tough even to Parker.
She finds total authority.
Follow her own personal doubts.
Finds she has high sense of morality—“Can’t leave this […] around in space
Or simply she doesn’t like to lose.
In addition to the character biographies, several other preproduction documents have also been displayed, including previously unseen casting and audition notes.
“So at first I thought I would have Cobb doing that monster—he’s quite superb—it just didn’t happen to be any of his monsters that I landed upon in my head when I was thinking about the script. When they started to do it the big way, the first guy I started pushing at them to do the monster was Giger. I had a heck of a time trying to get the producers to hire Giger. They really didn’t want to get involved because he’s not a movie professional, he was some ‘whing-ding,’ in Zurich. They wanted to find somebody who had done this before, that they could count on. Well, when Ridley came to the project; while Ronnie was rushing up with the original draft of the script I was rushing up with copies of Giger’s work. Ridley saw Giger’s stuff he was showed. He said ‘This is it!’” —Dan O’Bannon on Alien
Screenwriter must-read: Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay for Alien (Walter Hill & David Giler made revisions and additions to the script) [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray (4K UHD) of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
To celebrate the movie’s 40th anniversary, author J.W. Rinzler takes you behind the scenes with never-before-scene images, interviews, and more: The Making of Alien.
“Like Alien itself, this issue of Mediascene—a large format, newsprint-style magazine—is now forty years old, and includes a three-part selection of interviews, concept art, Ridleygrams and more, as well as a beautifully pulpy Alien centerfold. Reproduced here is all the Alien-related content from the issue. Due to the problematic size of the magazine, our digital reproduction is not of optimal quality, but the images are sharp and the text is legible throughout.” —Alien Archives
Although Alien is only Ridley Scott’s second film, it plants him squarely in the midst of a rare breed of directors. While there is controversy over Alien’s, comment and content, the word critics are using most often to describe the film’s visual integrity is: splendid. Twenty-odd years ago, Scott was a youngster with an artistic bent-and no clear idea what to do with it. “I went to the Royal College of Art in London,” he says, “but at that time their film department consisted of a steel wardrobe with a Bolex camera in it and an instruction book. No classes whatsoever.”
I felt the role was going to be a tough one. All the characters and relationships in the film were written very loosely and the casting people were trying to choose actors who would bring an individuality to the roles. As a matter of fact, after I read the script I came back and they said, “Well, what do you think?” And I told them I felt that the human relationships all seemed very bleak. I thought it was best to put all my cards on the table because if they really wanted a “Charlies Angel” I knew it wouldn’t be right for me. But they were the first to admit that it was going to take a lot of development and close working together. —Sigourney Weaver, 1979
I was excited about being in a movie and since it was my first time out, I was very easy-going. I didn’t realise until the four months were over that I’d been experiencing such tension. Every day Ridley would let me get behind the camera to look at each scene and I could tell Alien was an incredible film to be a part of. It was always fascinating seeing Ridley work and how he put it together. He’s an amazing man, a genius, and I think Alien is beautifully directed. He is one of those directors who will come up to you after you’ve done a scene who will say, ‘Well, I don’t fucking believe that.’ At first I’d be taken aback and wonder, ‘Where’s the stroking, where’s the diplomancy?’ And there just wasn’t any. And that’s why I liked him so much. In an industry where there’s so much bullshit I really appreciated his just getting to the point. We didn’t have to waste time. We rarely rehearsed and if we did it was only a day in advance of shooting. It was a high-pressured set. Ridley operated the camera. He hadn’t worked that much with actors and I think one of his priorities today is to become not an “actor’s director” but to be better with them. I remember one time I asked for his help on a problem I was having with Ripley. And he thought about it for a long time and then he came over to me and said, ‘What if you are the lens on… (and he named a sophisticated camera)… and you’re opening and shutting…’ And there was a long pause. Finally I said, ‘Ridley, I’ll have to think about it,’ And he looked crestfallen because he hadn’t helped me and he added, ‘Well, let me think too.’ He really wanted to be part of the process. But having me be the iris of a lens? I said, ‘That’s okay, Ridley. I’ll figure it out myself.’ And I did. But I loved him. —Sigourney Weaver, 1984
Storyboards for Alien drawn by Ridley Scott, with his handwritten notes, show how the director visualized the first encounter with the extraterrestrial monster. Courtesy of DGA Quarterly.
“In the video below, a laid-back Scott, cigar in hand, discusses how storyboards, sketches, and other pieces of hand-drawn imagery help him make movies. Telling how he’s found locations, envisioned scenes within them, and used drawings to build those scenes, Scott offers an insight into the look and feel of his own work and useful advice to fellow creators, whether or not they work in a visual medium. His inspiration begins with an activity as simple—but nonetheless a source of ‘great enjoyment’—as looking at industrial landscapes out the window of a car. Sometimes he even begins thumbnail sketches then and there, in transit. Not only does his drafting background enable him to do that, but it leads to closer working relationships with his professional storyboard artists. Conferring with them mentally prepares him to ‘hit the floor’ and shoot the scene. He reveals that, whether you’re directing a $120 million motion picture, painting a painting, or even writing a blog post, you face the same challenge: ‘Get rid of the white canvas. Get something right across the canvas. Otherwise you’re always looking at that area of white, which is like a blank sheet.’ He notes that his methods have led to some calling his films ‘overdesigned and over-thought out,’ but admits that, at this point, ‘I’ll probably just stay with the plan.’” —Ridley Scott Demystifies the Art of Storyboarding
DEREK VANLINT, C.S.C.
Lighting a gigantic spaceship with low-ceilinged, four-walled sets and many special effects—plus the vast terrain of an alien planet, called for methods that were out-of-the-ordinary, to say the least. This article by Derek Vanlint, Flashback: Alien and Its Photographic Challenges, originally appeared in American Cinematographer August 1979.
My involvement as director of photography of Alien came about as the result of direct contact with its director, Ridley Scott, over a period of years, working on advertising films. My experience with feature films was very limited. I’d done a couple of small pictures (which I’d rather not talk about), but Alien was to be my first big feature. I had been asked to do features many times before, but had always walked away from them, based on the money difference between director/cameraman on commercials and the money they offer European cameramen to do American films. However, Ridley is a very talented guy and a very graphic director and has always been fun to work with. Since he was to be involved, I knew from the word go that the picture would end up looking nice and that it would do me no harm whatsoever to be involved in it.
I’m not a technical cameraman. I’m very much a “put it up, look at it and light it” person. I can’t go into vast detail about how I pre-plan this and pre-plan that. In Alien the way everything looks is the result of discussions with Ridley—how he felt about the visual aspects of certain scenes, the lighting style that was dictated, the particular mood of the moment in relation to the sets that were involved.
The sets and corridors were all built with very low ceilings. They were four-wallers, so that meant lighting through grills or hiding lights or having in-shot lamps. I think the look of the film is due to the nature of the sets, plus the fact that I could light with non-conventional equipment‚ such as 747 aircraft lights, “panic” lights, a certain amount of neon and fluorescent units, and a great deal of special effects light.
We did very limited tests, unfortunately, on fluorescents before we started shooting, and we could have done with starting two weeks later than we actually did. The construction manager, Bill Welch, asked for the picture to be put back two weeks, but because of bookings and distribution schedules we had to go ahead on the date that had been set. This did create some problems for me in that I had to have three crews on at once throughout quite a good part of the picture—rigging, de-rigging and pre-lighting. I suppose a lot of people have experienced that.
It was a big challenge but, fortunately, I had a good lighting gaffer, Ray Evans, who gave me excellent support. The two giants in England, Samuelsons and Lee Lighting, were very, very helpful to me, knowing that it was my first feature, and they did come forward with quite a few suggestions in terms of equipment and lighting that would go into certain restricted spaces.
Ridley had done one feature before, The Duellists, which had received quite good notices and, as a result of that film, he got Alien to do. I think producers are basically nervous at the outset about schedules and getting finished on time, so for the first three weeks or so, until they saw things on the screen, it was all a bit nervy. After the first three weeks, when I think the people back in America realized that the picture had a good style, things eased down a bit. Not having experienced big features before, I don’t know whether this kind of feeling prevails on every picture, but I found it a bit more nerve-wracking than doing commercials.
The governing factor in establishing a lighting style for Alien was the requirement that there be three levels of light—the ship before people came out of deep sleep, a working level of light for the ship when the ship goes bananas and all of the conventional light sources are going out, one had to create the impression that the illumination was coming from explosions, panic lights and things like that.
I’m a reasonably low-light photographer under normal conditions, but I had to work at even lower levels for the neon-lit scenes. In addition, there were the low ceilings, close walls and high percentage of camera movement to be taken into consideration. We were also using two cameras during most of the picture, shooting our crosses at the same time—so, whereas I normally key from ¾ back, it was virtually impossible to do this with the two-camera technique—especially since we were shooting anamorphic and had to worry about keeping lights out of the shot. One had to be able to sort of cheat lights through grids and use practicals that actually existed in the shots, but most of the time there was the necessity of overriding the fluorescents, because of the problems we all experience with mixing fluorescent and normal incandescent light.
I found a reasonable balance level between the ordinary warm-glow fluorescents and putting something like a half-blue on the incandescent lights and using a very gentle gelatine, like an 81B to knock out a little of the blue. But dimmers and things like that helped tremendously on the incandescent lights. The flames from flamethrowers held close to faces were, I suppose, a bit unpleasant for the artists, but they were very, very good about it.
For the planet sequences, where they touched down looking for the source of electrical impulses that the spaceship was receiving, I used a couple of searchlights and a light that has become lovingly known in England as the “Wendy Light.” It was designed by Bill Chitty and built by Lee’s for David Watkin [BSC] to use in lighting the night exteriors for Hanover Street. This merely meant that I could cut down on the number of lights needed to light H Stage. Several people were a bit wide-eyed when they saw how few Brutes I had on the stage for lighting the whole thing, but the effect worked quite nicely. The searchlights gave me the possibility of playing them on long shots and I don’t think anyone notices too much that I panned them around a bit.
Just to kind of define the Wendy Light: It is a whole series of quartz bulbs made up in four panels. I seem to recollect something like 81 bulbs per panel, times four, and I had to be pulled up on chains. It’s a pretty impressive light and it blew a lot of people’s minds when they saw it going into the studio. As I’ve said, it was designed as an exterior night light and I think they lit three streets with it in one mean go on Hanover Street. For us this light really was a great time-saver. When you are working basically with only three lights on a huge set it does make life easier than when you have a whole series of Brutes that can keep getting into the shot.
In addition to Alien being my first big feature, it was also my first real experience with the anamorphic format, and it took a few days for me to get used to it. At first I hated it, because I like to box my lights in very, very tight to people—and because of the nature of the lights I like to use and the particular style I work with. However, after a few days I got used to it and loved it, Frankly, I found it very difficult, when I went back to the commercials, to get used to the smaller format. It’s a bit like an Englishman who goes abroad and drives on the right-hand side of the road; it seems to be more difficult to get used to driving on the left when he goes back to England. At least, that’s been my experience.
There was a great deal of discussion prior to the start of filming about light levels and the synchronization of the TV monitors that were spaced all around the ship, in the mess area and through the corridors. Very early on I suggested that we should shoot the picture at 25 frames rather than 24, which would put us in a kind of automatic sync and save us messing around with shot widths. It would just be a question of bar lines. I think there was no problem at all where the PVSR camera was concerned. We were using the PVSR mainly and, at times, the Panaflex. I forgot the reasons why we seemed to have to wait to get rid of bars and things, but all-in-all, it was quite efficient. One or two times, when the spaceship was blowing up, we did go out of sync with it, but we knew we were out of sync and left it that way, because with the running bar line in the middle of the picture, it helped accentuate the panic and chaos that were going on in the ship, and that things were not as they should be—so it was quite a useful graphic.
Throughout the picture we had two operators. Ridley operated principal camera and I operated second camera. We tried to work out all sorts of tracking devices to get through the corridors with their limited widths and sharp bends, and we had a really sweet guy come in and demonstrate the Panaglide, but we felt that within our time limitations it would take us too long to get used to it, and we really wished to operate the cameras ourselves.
For our pre-title sequence, we did put tracks down and used a Fisher dolly. It looked quite nice. But most of the other movements were too fast or too wide to use tracks, so a lot of hand-holding was done. Most of the hand-holding, especially the panic stuff, was shot by Ridley, who’s a bit more physical than I am and quite good at running backwards. He fell on his seat a few times, but generally it worked out quite well.
We had originally pre-planned a general set lighting for quite a good part of the spaceship, in order to avoid taking time to light each setup individually. I had worked it out with Ridley and Mike Seymour, our production designer, that with certain light panels and with selected sections of the ceiling covered in plastic, we would use quite a lot of overhead light coming down to blend with the floor light. However, it didn’t quite work out the way we planned, because the actors, while very, very good, were laid-back types who tended to work out where they were going to stand and how they were going to make exits. More often than not they ended up in very muddy areas, and the way we hoped would work—speeding through with one-set lighting—just didn’t happen. I think it was a slight pot dream on our part to begin with, because it could never work for us that way.
Another factor that had to be considered was that we had a black actor (Yaphet Kotto) in the cast, and one obviously had to bring the light up on that sort of skin and use reflective light. It was a slightly harder quality of light than I usually like to use, but it was very, very necessary—especially in low-light areas.
Once again, being sort of new to feature filming, I was absolutely intrigued by the matte shot kind of developments that were taking place on H Stage. I had a section of the derelict spaceship 100 feet across by 30 feet high which, once we decided the actual shape of the shop, where the light would be hitting it and how the matte artist would build onto it, was easy to light because of the nature of the surface. We also kept everything wetted down all the time and the ¾ back to backlight that I was using was absolutely emphasized by the water.
When I first saw the giant derelict vehicles set on the storyboard it frightened the life out of me, but once you switch that first light on, you find that it’s the same as any other set—only bigger. While reading the script and seeing the artwork for those giant sets on the planet initially worried me, the real difficulties were encountered in the light, small setups where people moved around a great deal—especially since you were covering them with two cameras and had television monitors in the scene to worry about.
I think that in one or two instances I could have put in a bit more fill than I did but when I saw Gordon Willis’s Interiors it made me feel a lot happier to know that there was someone else who was coming down to that kind of key.
During the sequence where the spaceship is blowing up, most of the light was coming from spinner lights, which are like the panic lights that you put on top of your car at night if it is broken down. In fact, they gave me more illumination than the approximately 15 10Ks on trip switches that I had pushing through the side of the grill. They never had a chance to come up to maximum because the grills cut out 60% or 70% of the light and we were also beaming them through tracing paper to sort of hide the fact that we were using, in fact, packing case grills put together.
For that blowing up sequence I was also using what we call “scissor arcs,” which are open arcs with two carbons coming together and being pulled apart manually, without any mechanism at all. They are the lights we use for lightning effects. They produce just a series of flashes, but make a hell of a noise. During that sequence I noticed that Ridley used the sound of the scissors arc for one of the explosions.
Photographically, the final look of Alien, especially in terms of light direction, bears no relationship to my kind of advertising show reel, where I use a great deal of diffusion and really go pretty heavily into putting tracing paper and Plexiglas in front of my lights. As far as possible, when everything was alright aboard the spaceship, I tried to make the lighting look as though it was coming from natural sources. But when the ship was ready to blow up, the low level and extreme movements made it necessary for me to use more hard light than I normally use. But this was the effect that was required for the mood of the picture, and it was vastly different from anything I had done before. I was quite pleased with the finished result.
In the communications room of the spaceship, where Tom Skerritt talks to Mother, there were I forget how many thousands of little bulbs covering the walls, and the actual color tone was governed by the bulbs we were using in there. They were well down in color temperature—somewhere around 2000 degrees Kelvin. I came in through the ceiling with something like a 1000-watt lamp diffused through tracing paper and with a half-MTA gelatine to keep it kind of yellow, so that it looked like the room was lit by the actual small bulbs. I put very little additional light in there, but we did put the image from a 16mm projector onto the faces of Skerritt and Sigourney Weaver while they were in there, in order to simulate the reflection from a television monitor. It was a piece of film with a few numbers on it and a lot of black and splashes of varnish.
For the sequence showing the eggs in the hold of the derelict vehicle, we used a kind of general light and then put a laser across the top of the place and a lot of smoke into the set. Then we took the camera up and down through the laser beam. It was great fun, but I wish we’d had a bit more time to experiment. The sequence was shot right near the end of the schedule when time was short and we had people on our backs to get off the set so that they could revamp the eggs. One of the eggs had a top that opened for a hand model to come through with a few pounds of liver and a sheep’s stomach and David Watkins in particular, seemed to absolutely thrive on that sort of thing.
There was a separate egg that we played around quite a bit with, trying to get the shape inside it to move. We bought a hand puppet in rubber with claws and we put it on a platform so that I was able to get a light underneath it and behind it. It frightened the life out of me when I saw it in the rushes.
When we did the chest explosion for the first time (the sequence at the beginning of the film that special effects did so well) we showed some pretty hairy things. It’s the first time I ever had to walk out of rushes and, funnily enough, it was the footage from the camera I was shooting. It was just the welter of blood that got all over Veronica Cartwright when the creature came through the chest that I couldn’t take. I went out and was rather ill—and I was ribbed quite a bit about that for the rest of the picture.
I had a very short time before shooting started to do tests, but I did very little more than test equipment because the sets were not finished until the day we actually started. The stuff that I had pre-rigged, unfortunately, had to be moved out because ceilings had to be dropped in and there were masses of carpenters and painters at work.
Our first sequence, after the characters had awakened and come out into the cabin of the spacecraft involved tucking 500-watt and 1000-watt spotlights under seats and the poor devils who were acting had to climb over these lamps and, at times, must have got their knees very, very warm, but they were quite good about it.
The Allen sequence in the escape craft I photographed with a CSI spot with a dimmer on the front. It was a direct spotlight to give a general strobe effect. Also, if I remember correctly, I was using about four of the ordinary strobe flashlights—all of them fixed to a kind of very, very small stomach dolly to give an out-of-sync, random strobe effect. So it was a mixture of half-frame exposures and full-frame exposures not at any particular time interval. I thought it looked very, very good in the escape vehicle when the creature climbed out of the wall. It was a bit difficult for people to work in, because they ended up getting quite dizzy over a period of time. I remember that when we were setting up in the escape vehicle we had to switch them off, because they were the principal source and one became very, very dizzy with them.
Photographing Alien was for me a unique and challenging experience, but also a stimulating one. The audiences seem to be responding to the film as we had hoped they would, and I’m quite pleased with the result.
TERRY RAWLINGS’ ‘ALIEN’ EDITING SCRIPT
In loving memory of Terry Rawlings, Film Editor on Alien, Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire (4 November 1933—23 April 2019)
When Ridley was going to do Alien, I got a call from his office because he wanted me to do the sound. I said I didn’t want to do the sound, I wanted to cut it! So he said “You better come and meet the producers then”, which I did, and they were so interested in Watership Down, they kept asking me about it, and so I was talking all about that, and then at the end of all this I just said, “Well, can I be the editor on this film?”, and Gordon Carroll and David Giler, who were there, said “Of course!” I tell you what, I was flying my 747 home! It was fantastic! But I’ve never worked so hard as I did on that film. We spent hours doing that picture. Alien was one of the most exciting periods of editing I have ever had, I think, because I was doing this really for the first time on my own, having done Sentinel. Watership Down wasn’t quite the same. But this, even though it wasn’t a big film when we first started—it was going to be just an ordinary little horror film, or a little space journey film, nothing special—and yet it just developed into this monster, literally! —A Conversation with Terry Rawlings
Thanks to the wonderful effort of Dennis Lowe, as well as the Alien Experience website, we’re able to check out legendary film editor Terry Rawlings’ Alien editing script, which contains a lot of material that was either cut from the film, or never shot in the first place, scanned in its entire 240 pages of invaluable historic testimony. You can download the PDF document here (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). Rawlings’ rich resume includes work on Blade Runner, Chariots of Fire and both Scott’s and Fincher’s installments in the Alien series.
A gem from 1979, Carolyn Jackson interviews Ridley Scott about his film, Alien. The discussion ranges over a variety of topics including Scott’s move from directing commercials to feature films, his decision to both direct and act in the film, and choices that affected the film’s MPAA rating (“If you start reducing those elements, then you start watering down the film.”) He also talks about the special effects used in the film, explaining the process of rotoscoping. Footage is awful for the first few seconds.
“Released in 1980 by Thinking Cap Company, ALIEN: The Authorized Portfolio of Crew Insignias from The UNITED STATES COMMERCIAL SPACESHIP NOSTROMO was a limited edition, individually numbered collector’s kit featuring prints, patches, buttons and notes by concept artists John Mollo and Rob Cobb. Sold out for nearly 40 years now, presented below are the complete ‘Concepts and Derivations’ booklet notes, which never seem to have found their way online before, as well as the previously reproduced art prints.” —Alien Archives
THE BEAST WITHIN: THE MAKING OF ‘ALIEN’
This made-for-DVD documentary treats horror and science fiction film fans to a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Alien, the terrifying classic about a spaceship crew trapped with a hideous monster that’s hunting them one by one. Features interviews with director Ridley Scott and master designer H. R. Giger, as well as with star Sigourney Weaver and other members of the cast and crew, who share their experiences from working on the project and discuss the special efforts that went into bringing it all together.
The new book Alien Vault gives you a terrific insight into the insane amount of craftsmanship—and the craftsmanlike touches of insanity—that went into Ridley Scott’s Alien. Ian Nathan’s new book is a ridiculously comprehensive and beautifully assembled tribute to one of science fiction’s all-time great movies. And nowhere is it more impressive than in delving into the creative process of H. R. Giger. —How H.R. Giger’s Brilliant Madness Helped Make Alien “Erotic”
H. R. Giger worked in the Shepperton Studios near London from February to November 1978, creating the figures and sets for the film Alien (1979) directed by Ridley Scott. The film became an international success, earning Giger an Oscar. In the transcribed Alien Diaries, published here for the first time as a facsimile, H. R. Giger describes his work in the studios. He writes, sketches, and takes photographs with his Polaroid SX70. With brutal honesty, sarcasm and occasional despair, Giger describes what it is like working for the film industry and how he struggles against all odds—be it the stinginess of producers or the sluggishness of his staff—to see his designs become reality. The Alien Diaries (in German transcription with an English translation) show a little-known personal side of the artist HR Giger and offer an unusual, detailed glimpse into the making of a movie classic through the eyes of a Swiss artist. The book contains almost completely unpublished material, including drawings, Polaroids showing the monster coming to life, and several still shots from the plentiful film material that Giger took in Shepperton.
Giger’s Alien is the rare documentary on the artist H. R. Giger that was directed by J. J. Wittmer and H. R. Giger himself. It was filmed in 1975-78 and had a very limited release overseas on VHS and LaserDisc. You are taken inside his studio to watch him create one of his famous pieces, carving a mountain of clay into the famous Alien from the movie of the same name. You will also see him designing the Alien Eggs and the Derelict ship and interior use in the movie, as well as rare deleted scenes from the movie itself.
2018 BAFTA Fellowship recipient Ridley Scott talks making his way from directing commercials to sci-fi classics like Alien and Blade Runner.
Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror about a lethal extraterrestrial predator stalking the crew of a ship flying through deep space, is 40 years old this year. Watch the original trailer.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Ridley Scott’s Alien. Photographed by Bob Penn © Brandywine Productions, Twentieth Century-Fox Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below: