“Equatorial orbit nailed”: the story behind the computer animations of ‘Alien’.

 

The retro-futurist design aesthetic of Ridley Scott‘s Alien lends authenticity to the depiction of the commercial towing vehicle, Nostromo, that veteran of untold ore-processing runs in the service of Weyland-Yutani’s extra-solar mining division.

The “truckers in space” conceit gains credibility through the unique computer graphics of that fictional vessel.  We can believe that the creepy leviathan is overmonitored by a semi-sentient computer brain that communicates with its supernumerary human crew through sophisticated animated graphics as they carry out their respective duties.

In the cloud of fan discussion surrounding the film, two men (whose names aren’t widely recognized) had tremendous impact on what was seen onscreen:  Brian Wyvill, Professor Emeritus, Department of Computer Science, University of Calgary; and George Mallen, co-founder and chair of software company System Simulation Ltd. (SSL).

I caught up with these men behind the images and share here with you — in Q & A style — what they had to say.  Join me, if you will, on a journey back to a time when there were no rule books for their endeavor, no opportunities to fall back on the work of their predecessors in the industry.

Cosmos incognita, if you will…

THE NOSTROMO FILES BLOG (TNFB):  Greetings, Brian and George.   Can you start things off by giving us some insight into who you are, what you do, and how your careers started?

GEORGE MALLEN:  I am co-founder and chair of software company System Simulation Ltd. (SSL).  Before SSL was founded in 1970, I was director of System Research Ltd., a contract research firm working on the cybernetics of human learning.  Prior to that, I was a Scientific Officer at the Royal Aircraft Establishment working on early digital simulations of air traffic control systems.

In 1968, I was co-founder of the Computer Arts Society and then helped create the Department of Design Research at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in the 1970s.  In the early 80s, I was appointed first Head of the Department of Communication and Media Production at Bournemouth University.  This still houses the National Centre for Computer Animation.

BRIAN WYVILL:  After doing a PhD in computer graphics at the University of Bradford, I went on to a post doctorate position at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London with Colin Emmett. [Editor’s note: Colin and Brian used the system for a project for the BBC, and in the film, Alien. Brian then spent four years as an industrial consultant working with the British Home Office and the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation in Vienna.  Since the early 1980’s, he has been building the GraphicsJungle research group at the University of Calgary, computer science department, where he is a full professor.  In the last ten years work has centered around the BlobTree implicit animation system, a vehicle for experimenting with new modelling and animation methods. (Bio credit: Eurographics]

TNFB:  Why did you choose a career in computer animation?

WYVILL:  I am an academic and went from the UK to work as an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, Alberta.  My research interest has always been in computer animation and I had a couple of computer animated shorts shown at the ACM Siggraph electronic theatre, back in the days before there were big CG studios.  So my career actually has been in research.

MALLEN:  My main interest was computer simulation and I recognized the importance of computer graphics for illustrating model behavior. This led to my trying to link visually educated art and design skills to the emerging technology of computer graphics.

TNFB:  Intriguing. What would you say was your creative break in the computer animation industry?

MALLEN:  In the early 1970s we (System Simulation Ltd.) worked on TV advertising graphics and this led to our work on Alien and for the original Channel 4 3D tumbling “4” logo.

WYVILL:  In the mid-1980s I became interested in a technique for representing models in computer memory known as implicit modeling [a hybrid modeling technique that calculates 3D contours by finding a field value for a large number of points in space to calculate the 3D contour, unlike most computer-based geometric modeling techniques, which are based on polygonal models or parametric surfaces].

I have made several research contributions in this area and have many published many papers and books, graduated many PhD students with theses on this subject.

TNFB:  What has been the pivotal piece of work you are most proud of?

WYVILL:  “The Great Train Rubbery,” shown at ACM Siggraph electronic theatre in 1988.

MALLEN:  I led the team which implemented the Ecogame project at the Computer 70 exhibition at Olympia in London, and at the First European Management Forum in Davos (Switzerland) in 1971.  Ecogame was the first interactive management game in which participants controlled a model economy and the effects of their decisions were fed back via computer controlled 35mm slide projectors, and via interactive graphics terminals.  I think this was the first multimedia immersive environment.

TNFB:  Fascinating, that it would revolve around management functions.  The general public think too often today of immersion for gaming alone.  Do either of you consider yourself a fan of science fiction?

MALLEN:  Not particularly.

WYVILL:   Yes.

TNFB:  Brian, if we could focus for a moment on a cool bit of trivia you mentioned on your website?  You point out an in-joke on the approach vector animation (depicting the orbital attitude of the Nostromo) that includes your nickname.  At what point in your career did you receive the nickname of ‘Blob’?

img_2826
In the “DEORBITAL DESCENT” header, there is a smaller box which reads:  SYSTEM :BL:  76.75  :OB:   The numbers change, but the BL:  :OB  stays the same.

WYVILL:  Good question!  I received this nickname at school and it got perpetuated through the rock climbing world.  Until recently, my computer account name has always been blob.

TNFB:  What is its significance?

WYVILL:  Just a silly name.

TNFB:  That’s good enough for me.  But more seriously, when was the last time you guys watched Alien?

MALLEN:  Some years ago, not sure.

WYVILL:  The first time I watched it in 1979. I was terrified. I have not seen it since!

TNFB:  I understand completely!  Do any of your family members know you worked on the movie?

WYVILL:  Yes.

MALLEN:  Yes.

TNFB:  What do they make of that?

MALLEN:  I think they just take it as one of the projects which Dad’s company did.

WYVILL:  Hopefully my kids think it’s cool that I worked on this movie. I have never really talked to them about it.

TNFB:  George, Brian mentioned that (at the time of the film) you were a researcher and lecturer at the Royal College of Art, ran Systems Simulation with the late John Lansdowne (and with him, a pioneer of computer art in Britain), and you ran the computer art society.   That is quite the heavy load!   What are your impressions of those days, back when computer graphics was in its infancy?

MALLEN:  It was a very exciting and energizing time. The Computer Arts Society played an important role in bringing together programmers, computer graphics technologists, and artists working in many fields.  Those of us involved benefited greatly from the interdisciplinary community so created.

TNFB:  No doubt. I also understand that Systems Simulation also landed the contract to do the scenes for Alien and that you worked to put artists and computer scientists together to do the work.  Could you explain how you came to be chosen for the project?

MALLEN:  The Ecogame project brought SSL and the Computer Arts Society some publicity.  Between 1972 and 1975, SSL had done a number of other graphics projects.  During that time, my colleague and co-founder of SSL, Mike Elstob, took up a full time lecturing post in the Cybernetics Department of Brunel University.  When the 20th Century Fox production team (under Ridley Scott) was looking for computer graphics expertise, they contacted Brunel University and a colleague of Mike’s, John Race, put them in touch with me.

TNFB:  The obvious benefits of networking!  Was there precedent for this kind of working partnership between the computing and the film industries?

MALLEN:  There were one or two companies developing computer animation skills, but no precedents for the kind of project we did for Alien, as far as I am aware.

TNFB:  Well, it is safe to say it bore the most enduring and oft-copied style of retro-futurist imagery, a direct result of the times in which they were created.  What was the general attitude of your programmers toward working with the artists?

MALLEN:  Our programming team was quite interdisciplinary, with experience working with artists, so the general attitude was one of being pleased and challenged to come up with the goods.

TNFB:  I imagine that helped tremendously. Amazing that one of the criticisms of the film, Prometheus, is that it’s computer graphics were too slick for the universe we have come to expect from the film franchise.

If we could turn a moment to you, Brian?  You mentioned on your webpage that, in 1975, you worked on a computer animation system when granted a Research Fellowship and that the work led to your involvement with Alien.  This sounds like a very interesting path. Can you tell us more?

WYVILL
I was lucky enough to get a post doctoral position at the Royal College of Art.  The department of Design Research, under Professor Bruce Archer, was a remarkably innovative institution.  All sorts of new things were going on there as well as computer animation.  I met Patrick Purcell, founder of the Computer Arts Society, who introduced me to the Arpanet, that became the internet.

TNFB:  Who supervised the work to which you were assigned?

WYVILL:  George directed the project.

TNFB:  So George, did you supervise the entire project?   How was the work structured?   With whom on the film production side did you work with?

MALLEN:  I didn’t supervise the entire project.  It was run as a collective, with different programmers taking on the various tasks as these emerged from the film’s production team.  Our main link with the production team was a fellow by the name of Anthony (I’m afraid I don’t remember his double-barrel surname).   He would bring the story boards and outline requirements from Ridley Scott and the production team.  But we also had close contact with Dan O’Bannon the screenplay writer.

TNFB:  O’Bannon had a strong vision for the film. I’m sure it was thrilling to work with him. Was there a particular piece of the work project that you are especially proud of?

MALLEN:  I think the orbiting sequence displaying the instrumentation as the Nostromo orbits the planet worked very well, and so did the rendering of the landscape contours as the ship landed.

TNFB:  Brian, did you work individually, or oversee a team of programmers?

WYVILL:  There were two teams working on different parts of the animation: I worked with a talented artist/programmer, Colin Emmett, and the other team was led by Alan Sutcliff.  At that time System Simulation was run out of the offices of John Lansdowne’s architectural company.

TNFB:  What kind of background information was given to you and your staff about the fictional world and starship being depicted?

MALLEN:  All the graphics were defined by Ridley Scott’s story boards.  Any queries or refinements were channeled through Anthony and Dan O’Bannon.

WYVILL:  We had the storyboard for the whole movie and I thought it looked like a B movie until I saw the finished product.  Ridley Scott had done a marvelous job of creating that gothic horror feeling within a futuristic spaceship!  Quite an achievement!  The artwork was fabulous and of course the acting superb with those great, partly improvised scenes.  None of the follow up movies came anywhere near the standard of the original Alien movie (IMHO).

TNFB:  It is my favorite, as well. It inspired my old website, “The Nostromo Files” back in the 1990s, the namesake of this blog.

George, for a project of this kind, are you provided with very detailed direction, or are you asked to follow a broad outline of ideas and develop the details with your staff?

MALLEN:  The main channel was the story board.  Our team would then decide which programming techniques were appropriate, draft solutions developed for approval, and then produce a final version.  So the final version would be some kind of compromise between what the production team wanted and what the technology was capable of.  Learning to manage these compromises was an important aspect and I don’t recollect any major upsets on these.

WYVILL:  We were given fairly specific guidelines.  Ridley Scott gave me some more ideas to enhance the effects when we met, as I described on my webpage.

TNFB:  Where there any specific principles you considered when making decisions on the look of the animations?  For example, given the kind of information required to be shown in the animation, how did you decide what it should look like to clearly and concisely convey the information to the film viewer?

WYVLL:  This was pioneering for Ridley Scott as well as for us. We didn’t really know what was possible, and nobody really thought about a look and feel as an artist would today.  I was just the geek on the job. Colin Emmett had more of an artist’s view of what was the right ‘look’.

TNFB:  Did your group interact with any other production departments?

WYVILL:  Not really.  We reported to George and he, ultimately, to Ridley Scott.

TNFB:  George, did you have the opportunity to visit the sets to see the animations in action?

MALLEN:  In general, no.  But I think one or two of our team, perhaps delivering final cuts to Shepperton (Studios), did see the set.  But not during filming.

TNFB:  How long did it typically take to compose the animations?

MALLEN:  There wasn’t a typical piece.  All were different.  The orbiting sequence was probably the longest to create.  I can’t recollect exactly, but probably it took a month or two.  I remember some simple text input was done in an afternoon.  Alan Sutcliffe’s 3D rendering of the landing site on the planet required the contraction of a polystyrene replica which he then digitized.  So that probably took some weeks.

WYVILL:  The whole thing took place over a few months, although there were other projects too.  I remember getting the train from where I was living in Redhill, Surrey to Didcot (Oxfordshire), to work at the Atlas Rutherford Laboratory, and staying up there for several days at a time.

TNFB:  Do you still have any of the original material you were given to create the animations?

MALLEN:  I think we do have one or two pieces of the story boards and some film.

WYVILL:  I came into the project after Colin (Emmett) had already started.  I think there were some storyboard guidelines, but I think a lot of it was Colin’s creation.  Although I did create some of the graphics, he was the main artist in our team.  I have some of the original film that we made but none of the hand drawn art work.

TNFB:  Nice moments, and certainly collector’s items.  Brian, someone posted at Television Tropes & Idioms that “the code for these [computer animations] was written in FORTRAN by British programmers on a Prime 400 microcomputer with 192 kB RAM.”  Is that accurate?

WYVILL:  I am not sure what machine the other team were using.  We were using the ICL 1904S (I think) at the Atlas Rutherford Lab.  The head of the lab was Bob Hopgood, somebody who always encouraged innovation.  Although we had graphics screens at the RCA in London, at the Rutherford lab we had access to FR80, a high resolution film plotter that could produce 35mm film directly.  To run the program and see the output took days.  It didn’t always come back from the lab as intended.  There were lots of problems and film coming back our stupid mistakes!

TNFB:  Right.  Sounds like a lot of “hurry-up-and-wait,” then repeat.

George, I reviewed System Simulation’s rather extensive catalog of products and services while preparing these questions: management systems for archives, digital assets, book collections and libraries, systems for developing touch screen kiosk interfaces, and dynamic graphic tools.  Quite an impressive array!   Other than museums, libraries and archives, what other entities does the company contract with?

MALLEN:  Since the mid-1990s, we have rather specialized in cultural applications.  However, our range is broad.  In the late-1990s, we provided systems for Getty Images, which allowed them to expand rapidly.  We were also providing software for CD-ROM publishing in the early-1990s.

A major product was Rock’n’Rom, an exhaustive database of information about rock music, but not the music itself.  This was the brainchild of Michael Wadleigh, the art director of the Woodstock film.  It was marketed by Penguin Books, but their pricing strategy didn’t work and it never achieved the sales we’d hoped for.

Prior to that, we had worked with the music industry and provided an advanced stock control system for HMV’s big store in Oxford Street.  We also provided software for Stanford Research Institute’s London office for business intelligence applications.

In the 1980s, we built systems for simulating industrial processes and built our own Unix-based computer-aided architectural design and product design system.

TNFB:  With such diversification and experience, it’s little wonder you have had such success in the industry.  Is any computer graphics work done for film or television?

MALLEN:  We haven’t done any graphics projects for film or TV for many years.  After we did Alien and the Channel 4 logo, we sold the graphics business to a firm called Talking Pictures, but they failed to develop the business.  After that we took in venture capital funds and developed the text search tools which now sustain the business.

TNFB:  To what do you credit the System Simulation’s long life?

MALLEN:  Difficult to say, but some combination of vision about what we wanted to do (i.e., leading edge challenging development areas), rather than product sales; finding niche markets which weren’t attractive to big players; finding early adopters in these markets who were prepared to fund our work; excellent staff; plus a very necessary element of luck.

TNFB:  I also noticed a press piece on the company site entitled, “Happy Birthday System Sim!” dated July 28, 2010, wherein the company history is noted.  What do your employees make of the company’s groundbreaking involvement with a now-classic feature film?

MALLEN:  They are very aware it is there and there’s a quiet pride in the company’s history.

TNFB:  How would you compare the computer animation industry then to now?

WYVILL:  There wasn’t an industry then.  It was us getting to use some very expensive equipment on sufferance!

TNFB:  What do you consider the strengths of the industry?

WYVILL:  It is huge now.  The strength is that it is driven by artists and not geeks. One of my old students, Andrew Pearce, heads up the research department at Dreamworks.  The really good thing is that directors still want to do what is impossible with the commercial animation packages, and the research department is there to give them the impossible!

TNFB:  Its weaknesses?

WYVILL In the animation industry, job security is a big issue, and burn-out also. Computer science graduates going into more traditional, engineering companies have a different life.  Smaller animation companies have the problem that they cannot afford to have a research department and are limited by what the animation packages can do, although they are getting better all the time.

TNFB:  What kind of research have you been involved with in the past few years?

WYVILL:  Implicit modeling has not seen a lot of usage in the animation industry. Dreamworks used it in Monsters vs. Aliens for the B.O.B. character (voice over done brilliantly by Seth Rogan).

img_2824
(c) Dreamworks Animation. 2009

I have worked with co-researchers in France and we had two papers in Siggraph on the latest techniques.  The technical breakthroughs are happening now and it will be a while before the animation software industry picks up on it.

TNFB:  What else are you working on?

WYVILL:  Well everybody has a novel somewhere hidden away and mine is an 18th-Century swash buckler with a dash of time travel; perhaps a kind of Patrick O’Brian meets Harry Harrison.  After ten years, and one long suffering editor later, I am at the point where I need to shop around for an agent – know any?

TNFB:  Don’t I wish!  Your novel sounds like an entertaining story!   Well, gents, this has been quite a captivating interview.  You have shared many bits of information I don’t think I’ve ever heard before, but that illuminate the “magic” (and tough work) involved in your tasks.  Is there anything else either of you would like to add that I have not touched upon?

WYVILL:  You have been extremely thorough!

TNFB:  Well, thank you, Brian.

MALLEN:  One aspect not touched on is our work on collaborative research projects.  Since the mid-1990s, we have taken part in a range of European Union-funded R&D projects and more recently in the UK’s Technology Strategy Board’s programs.  These involve consortia of private sector companies and universities and serve to keep our technology abreast and often ahead of state-of-the art technologies.

TNFB:  With the rapid advancement in the industry, that would seem a sound strategy that brings together research, development, and application in a productive way.

George, Brian: it has been a pleasure talking with you.  My hope is that your respective talents and expertise will continue to impact the industry in ways that promote its growth. Sincerest thanks for your time and efforts.


Weblinks:

Welcome To The Wonderful World Of Blob – Department of Computer Science

image


Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 8.56.45 PM

Happy Birthday System Sim!

System Simulation, Burleigh House, Covent Garden, London (© SSL)

Photo credits:
Brian Wyvill thumbnail © Eurographics: European Association for Computer Graphics.
George Mallen thumbnail: © Compart: Center for Excellence Digital Art.

14 thoughts on ““Equatorial orbit nailed”: the story behind the computer animations of ‘Alien’.”

  1. Enjoyed reading about this. I think the graphics and animations have held up over the years is due to the depiction of the ship as “work-a-day,” and purely functional. I liked the landscape graphic mentioned in the article that showed the ground under the ship as it descended.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great and informative read! I always equated the landscape contour renderings to the Joy Division album cover (Unknown Pleasures).
    It’s amazing that, to this day, nothing really comes across as ‘dated’.
    Great work is timeless, well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! I find it very impressive that so much time and detail is put into such a small time frame. Great interview.
    It is always nice to read/hear about all the hard work put into one of my favorite films of all time. I also admire the humbleness of the people involved.

    Best part of the interview is how you guys thought the film would be just another B-Movie until you actually watched the final product.

    Very inspiring stuff.

    -Charles U.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Charles: I think you hit on the two things pretty consistent with most ALIEN crew: they credit success to their collaboration, and nobody thought this would be the classic it has become. Thanks for making comment. Darrell

      Like

  4. Neat-o! I saw the movie in the 80s and I did not know that computer graphics guys back then put little in-jokes in the art they made. Cool that “Blob” got to leave his mark. The utilitarian look of the graphics really fit the “space trucker” mentality that guided the production design. And I liked the perspectives, mixing academic with business.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very nice and informative interview. The graphics used look perfect on the movie – highly functional, telling the crew in clear terms what they want to know. I also did not know about the in-jokes. I think my favorites are the ‘orbiting planet’ one as they go in to land and the landscape one showing the contours. Thanks for taking the time to conduct the interview and take part.

    Like

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