Ridley Scott is among the most acclaimed filmmakers of all time, but his landmark work in sci-fi cinema, especially the âAlienâ series, is arguable his greatest contribution to movies.
Released in 1979, âAlienâ is one of those genre-crossing works which changed both sci-fi and fright flicks forever. A haunted house horror film set in outer space, Scott assembled or was inspired by a range of artists to bring his dark vision to the big screen.
After 1982âs âBlade Runnerâ Scott wouldnât work in science fiction for almost thirty years, returning with 2012âs âPrometheusâ and following that up with 2015âs âThe Martianââwhich offered a more realistic trip beyond the stars. In 2017, he went back to the world of xenomorphs for âAlien Covenant.â
Scottâs background in art school and advertising has dominated his movies. He wants each film to look like nothing else out there and be intensely visual experiences. He is a world-builder as much as a storyteller.
Above: Neville Page designed the alien creature known as the “Engineer” seen in “Prometheus” and “Alien: Covenant.”
Primordial, uninviting landscapes have been a major feature of Scottâs sci-fi horror series.
While âAlienâ was shot at Shepperton Studios, outside London, in the summer of 1978, both âPrometheusâ and âAlien Covenantâ made use of exterior locations in Iceland and New Zealand to convey planets far from our own galaxy. The alien planet known as LV-426 (also known as Acheron) was filmed entirely on sound stages and the filmâs distinct gothic-horror look heavily recalls Mario Bavaâs âPlanet of the Vampiresâ (1966). There is much controversy about this low-budget sci-fi horrorâs influence on âAlienâ to this very day, but Scott denied ever seeing it. The director has only really spoken about â2001: A Space Odysseyâ (1968), âThe Texas Chain Saw Massacreâ (1974) and âStar Warsâ (1977) as direct influences.
Iceland and New Zealand are famed for their barren, majestic landscapes. In Iceland and New Zealand, Scott found primordial settings which encapsulated the otherworldly, the haunting and the frightening. All he had to do was heighten these natural wonders with CG embellishments. It is remarkable, that places on Earth can feel so alien to us.
Costumes in “Prometheus” and “Alien: Covenant” reflect the nature of the missions to alien planets.
Realism with hints of the fantastic is Scottâs approach to science-fiction. In âAlienâ, the spacesuits were bulky and extensively padded. For the 2012 prequel, âPrometheusâ costume designer, Janty Yates, in a 2012 interview with Clothes on Film website described the brief Scott gave to her: âWe wanted to go somewhere where it wasnât traditional spacesuits. Sleek and slimline, to avoid the sort of âMichelin Manâ look of the NASA suit.â Interestingly, the yellow piping around the costumes appears to reference âPlanet of the Vampires,â which sported a very similar look.
As with âAlien,â the crew also wore individualised costumes reflecting character preferences. Biologist Millburn sports a custom made white hood and vintage spectacles. The crew also wore flip-flops on board the Prometheus craft, as their comfortable and informal footwear. In âAlien: Covenantâ Danny McBrideâs pilot, Tennessee, wears a straw hat. As with Brettâs Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap combo in âAlien,â the ideaâindeed challengeâis for characters to express their own taste in clothing while being part of a crew. Scottâs attention to detail is painstaking.
Spaceships in the film series were designed with input from NASA.
The Nostromo is among the most unusual spaceships in sci-fi history. In âAlienâ, itâs basically a truck in outer space. The Nostromo is a towing vehicle filled with ore from floating refineries. It is unglamorous and built for commercial purposes. The Nostromoânamed after Joseph Conradâs 1904 novelâwas designed by a combo of Scottâs storyboard ideas and graphic artist Ron Cobbâs drawings. Three versions of the ship were built at Bray Studios, where second unit effects work was completed, to varying sizes, depending on what the shot setup was and what needed to be filmed.
Arthur Max ran the design department for âPrometheusâ and returned to Giger and Cobbâs work on âAlienâ for guidance. For example, the giant window platform at the front of the Prometheus was initially a design for the Nostromo. Whereas âAlienâ was full of practical effects and models, advances in technology meant the ship could be rendered digitally for some shots. The Engineersâ ship, known as the Derelict, was designed by Giger and a similar-looking craft returned in “Prometheus.”
The Nostromo, Prometheus and Covenant look very different, but they do share a commonality, in that each spaceshipâs functionality is grounded in realism or close to it. They are commercial vessels and while the theme of intergalactic travel is pure sci-fi, they have been designed to look realistic, and not merely fantastical-looking rocket-ships. The design functionality is key.
Top: Film still from “Prometheus.” Middle: Art by HR Giger. Bottom: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion by Francis Bacon, Â© Tate.
Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger (1940-2014) became involved with âAlienâ through screenwriter Dan OâBannon. The American was hired by Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky to adapt Frank Herbertâs âDuneâ for the big screen, with Giger on board too, as a conceptual artist. When that project famously fell apart, âAlienâ writer OâBannon remembered Gigerâs erotic, bio-mechanical creatures and gave Scott a copy of Gigerâs art book, âNecronomiconâ (1977), which sparked off the directorâs imagination. Giger was hired to provide conceptual drawings for what was known as the âstar beastâ and several significant sets (such as the derelict spaceship carrying the alien eggs and the “Space Jockey” character). The alien, later known as the xenomorph, was inspired directly from Gigerâs âNecronom IVâ painting. Giger won an Oscar, along with the rest of the Special Effects team, for his work and created one of the most enduring icons in horror cinema. âAlienâ and the sequels owe a lot of their distinctness to Giger and Scottâs decision to hire him.
The infamous chest-burster creature, however, took inspiration from Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion” (1944). The original design by Giger was deemed unsatisfactory, leading Scott to re-design the monster into something phallic-shaped and remembered Bacon’s surreal painting, which provided an image to work from.
Movie stills Â© Twentieth Century Fox | HR Giger artwork Â© HR Giger & Titan Books