Prometheus, written as a prequel to Alien, was released in 2012.
“There was one question no one asked in all four movies, much to my amazement and surprise,” Ridley Scott said in a behind the scenes feature. “Who’s the big guy in the seat?”
Referencing what most referred to as the space jockey, he thought to explore the origins of the film. Story became the focus of the film, revolving around his original question. As a very hands-on director, Scott put together his production team and started fleshing out different ideas. John Spaihts was hired to write the script and put a lot of effort into doing so. The film, called Paradise in December of 2010, was beginning to take shape. Scott approached 20th Century Fox with a request for a $250 million budget and a project with a more adult audience in mind. The studio was reluctant, wanting a film that would gain more profits by appealing to a lower age-rating.
What began as a sort of proofreading of his script by Damon Lindelof, a screenwriter, comic book writer, and producer, turned out to be a replacement for Spaihts. Paradise, now Prometheus (confirmed in January of 2010), was not going to be an Alien prequel, but its own film exploring larger questions not always posed in science fiction horror. Lindelof pulled back on the Alien aspects of the film, feeling as though they had been diluted by the previous films. Eight months were spent on this new script, one which brought the character of Shaw into the forefront. To differentiate her from Ripley, the new script showed the events of the plot were a direct result of Shaw’s actions.
Charlize Theron was sought for the role of Elizabeth Shaw. Prior commitments to Mad Max: Fury Road made this impossible. Michelle Yeoh and Angelina Jolie were also considered.
Lindelof stated, the film would rely on CGI only for on-set, pre-visualization of external space shots. For the rest of the film, practical effects would be what the film relied on. In agreement, Scott cited Doug Trumbull when he said, “If you can do it live, do it live.” Trumbull worked on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Sets for the movie were built on sound stages. Some of them were over forty feet high and three hundred feet long. Because of time constraints, many of the sets had to be done so they could accommodate two or three different purposes. The interior of the pyramid had to be combined with the derelict ship of the first film. Some of the space was extended by using digital additions. Scale was important so the five large sets had to be planned down to the last foot. It was important to build the sets so the actors, and the audience, believed they were immersed in another, accurate world.
Scott said, of the practical sets, “The importance of the environment is everything.”
Scott decided to film in 3D, adding $10 million to the film’s budget. The equipment used to film Prometheus was based on the same equipment used on Avatar in 2009. Because this sort of filming needed high lighting levels, all of the darker, more shadowy effects an Alien movie was known for would be added in post-production through the process of color grading, a way of adding color saturation, contrast, and other effects via the computer.
Green screens were used less than six times during the shoot. Instead, 3D cameras on dollies and tripods worked around 3D rigs and the actors were given practical items to focus on for where they should direct their attention. The details would be added in post-production.
Scott wanted to involve Giger in the design process for newer species and creatures. The artist was invited to the set where he looked everything over and offered feedback. Time constraints prevented any real, hands-on collaborations but designers insisted on staying true to the Swiss artist’s initial plans and sketches.
Conceptual artists, Davy Levy and Ben Proctor worked alongside visual effects director, Steven Messing to recreate the Engineer pilot and the room it occupied. The initial designs were lost so they could not go to any sort of archival source and recreate from there. They had to do extensive research on construction of the original.
“(We used) Giger’s original illustrations, that preceded that sculpt of the original movie,” Proctor said. “But that also incorporated new functional requirements that simply were not seen in the movie.”
Working out the mechanics to get the whole thing to work was the most challenging. They utilized the more mechanical aspects of Giger’s biomechanical approach to design. To emphasize the mechanical did not mean they ignored the biological. The room, itself, represented an organic aspect. There are some very sexual aspects to both the room and the Engineer’s seat. These were always aspects of Giger’s work, some of which Vernica Cartwright commented on in the first Alien film. “…so erotic,” she would say. “The whole thing is like you’re going inside of some sort of womb…it’s sort of visceral.”
Levy described the new approach as marrying the “monolithic” with the “organic” to produce a perfect blend of both. In the main room containing the chair from the Alien film, the designers added to the basic design. Scott envisioned the outer shell of the Engineer as an organic sort of space suit, not the skeleton most fans thought it to be. Levy, Proctor, and the others took some convincing. When they were confronted with the idea, most of them hated it. As things went on, Scott did not change his mind on what he envisioned for the Engineers.
Neville Page was then brought onto the project. Page is a British-American film and television creature and concept designer. While most fans might know him from his appearance on Face Off, he worked on Cloverfield, Avatar, Star Trek, Super 8, Tron: Legacy, and Watchmen.
To design the overall aesthetic of the Engineer, Page was given the references of David (the sculpture), The Statue of Liberty, and Elvis Presley. “I understood, though, as you look at those three images,” Page said. “It’s that specific mouth, that nose, and these eyes.”
Scott wanted the Engineers to be almost beautiful in their exotic nature.
During the film, one of the characters becomes infected. He then impregnates another character, who gives birth to a new iteration of an alien creature. In tandem, a snake-like creature attacks, then enters one of the crewman. As it uses his body as a host, it grows until it leaves his body and attacks the Engineer. It’s very easy to see the parallels to Alien but Scott wanted this to be a sort of deconstruction of the original creature.
“It was clear we’re not trying to do Giger’s aesthetic. We weren’t going to do the facehugger, and we weren’t going to do any kind of metaphor to the first film,” Page said of the designs. “But, at the same time, this trilobite (the creature Fifield hosted) became like the uber-metaphor of the facehugger, in a way, because it’s very tentacular, it’s very sexual…”
Again, in this instance, the sexual aspect of the creature was about staying true to the organic aspect of Giger’s original designs. It’s something any fan of the films can see in almost every aspect of the creatures and the original Alien movie.
Conceptual artist, Steve Burg was brought onto Prometheus to do the “human technology.” He did the concept work for the various vehicles and habitats. The ship, Prometheus, was meant to be the flagship of the Weyland Corporation. Production designer, Arthur Max worked on the production design for the ship, as well. It was his idea to make the ship sleek, equipped, and more like a “complex,” of a kind. Burg began with this idea as he started to design the ship.
Prometheus brought a kind of sculptural beauty to the Alien world. The effects of the film gave this quality to its ships, creatures, and the Engineers. Costume designer, Janty Yates made specific decisions to highlight character attributes. A mohair silk suit for the character of Shaw differentiated her from previous female characters in Alien. Its architectural form gave Shaw a sort of soft edge.
The various suits the characters wore needed to be very different from other films. Along with stiff orange piping along the oversuit, LED lights were installed in the oval-shaped, clear helmets. The suits and helmets were wired for sound and microphoned. Air from the backpack was circulated through the helmet, as well. Overstitching of jackets and pants gave them a distinctive, structural look. The Weyland logo, along with the winged figure of Prometheus (who was not an angel, as the patch suggests) are used on almost every piece of clothing and on every prop.
“in this movie, there is quite a corporate presence of the Weyland logo,” Yates said. “We’ve used it on every single piece of metal that might be on the armor. It’s even on the boots.”
Prometheus relied a lot on practical sets and props. Kate Dickie, who played Ford, said that the practical aspect of the set was one which helped her, as an actor, deliver on her performance. “I thought, that on the day, they were going to say, ‘okay, so you can imagine this head…” However, the animatronics department was on set for the entire sequence. So, the head in question was a literal prop in front of the actors. Their reactions to the head are genuine, much like the original crew’s reaction to the initial chest-bursting scene. “As an actor, it’s a dream,” Dickie went on to say. “Because you can react to what’s right there in front of you.”
The film was a success, even though the North American returns were not what the studio expected. Overall, Prometheus made $126.4 million and was the 18th highest-grossing film of 2012. It was the second largest opening for a film directed by Ridley Scott, falling behind Hannibal.
Prometheus was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
2017 saw one more Alien film release in the form of Alien: Covenant. Directed and produced by Ridley Scott, this film was written by John Logan and Dante Harper from a story by Michael Green and Jack Paglen. This film was seen as a sequel to Prometheus but was the sixth in the Alien franchise. The film had an approximate budge of $100 million, which did not include marketing costs.
The set for the alien spacecraft used in Prometheus had to be recreated, as the majority of it had been destroyed. Just as he did with other Alien films, Scott built full-scale, elaborate sets. Some would be built with hydraulic lifts so they could move, while others had to be grounded and stable so the actors could run, jump, and dive on them. The entire medical bay was practical, as were the living area, sleep chamber, and corridors.
“The ship is fully intact when we’re shooting,” Amy Seimetz, who plays Faris, said. “So, you actually feel like you’re on a spaceship.”
The feel of the new ship, Covenant, was different than the Prometheus. There is a real sense of utility about the space. It has nine storage units full of weaponry, something we did not see in its predecessor. There is very little comfort about the Covenant, even though it has the same newer quality. The audience gets a sense of minimalist purpose when looking through its rooms and corridors. This was the same feeling the actors had, while working on the film.
Michael Fassbender, who plays David, said, “The corridors, the bridge, the sleep chamber, all these sort of production designs (are) so detailed, so sophisticated, so complete. It’s very believable. You disappear into that world, very quickly. And, you can relate to dealing with something that’s in the future.”
Because Scott could draw, he brought a lot of sketches to the production team. These sketches were detailed and showed his vision for sets, ships, and the version of the alien creature to appear in this film. As it predates Alien, the creature’s earlier form should do the same. It should have a different skeletal structure, a different way of moving, but be no less threatening.
Tackling the visual effects, Conor O’ Sullivan, creature design supervisor, and creature effects supervisor, Adam Johnson said they went back to the original Giger artwork. To get a greater understanding of the creatures they were fabricating, they looked at drawings of the Swiss artist and drew inspiration there. Because the original film used a somewhat primitive way of doing the effects, this new team had the benefit of combining the practical suits with digital versions to get the best of both versions.
First seen in this film, the neomorph had to be built as a practical model. High definition cameras captured every detail of the creatures so it had to be done well. As the neomorph grows into the “goblin” version, actors, models, and puppets were all utilized for the practical version. Digital details such as color, texture, and other aspects would be added by a visual effects company (MPC). The eggs were all practical pieces. O’Sullivan and Johnson worked on the eggs, building and wiring them to get them to move in the way Scott wanted.
O’Sullivan said, “I think the alien carries with it a lot of baggage, as far as people’s expectations, and hopes.”
Andrew Crawford, an accomplished ballet dancer, played the lead alien. Crawford was described by a dance critic as having “the wingspan and majesty of a golden eagle.” In Alien: Covenant, he brings a strange grace to the menacing alien creature, as well as an eerie presence. In addition to knowing how to move, he was required to navigate the different corridors between sets with an efficient speed. The costuming required wearing stilt-like carbon-fiber running blades along with the alien body and an animatronic head. To prepare for his role, he watched earlier films to create his own movement style.
MPC (Moving Picture Company), a visual effects team, led by supervisor, Charley Henly created over seven hundred shots for Alien: Covenant. There is an excellent, four-minute video which shows a visual breakdown of the work MPC did for the film. It’s worth a look.
In spite of its overall positive reception by fans, Alien: Covenant underperformed. It grossed $240.9 million. Having been released in other countries before the United States, the film opened at number one in nineteen of them. Critics of the film called it “interesting,” and “impressive,” and few came out in any direct way with scathing reviews. Still, this film would be the last (for the moment) of the Alien franchise. It seemed, to many, that Alien, Prometheus, and Alien: Covenant told the story Ridley Scott wanted to tell.
SpFX part 15: Prometheus
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