- The Nostromo is approximately twenty years old at the time of the events in ALIEN.
- One of the Nostromo models was twelve feet in length.
- The Nostromo model was built in 1/100 scale by Brian Johnson and Nick Allder.
Excerpted from the interview with Michael Seymour (Production Designer, Alien), by Alan Jones. Cinefantastique, Volume 9, Number 1. 1979.
[Michael] Seymour started on Alien and literally didn’t stop from that moment on for seventeen weeks. He took the trouble to research the production ills and budget problems of Fox’s previous space-bound bonanza, Star Wars. “They had more money than we did [Alien’s budget was around $8.5 million], but we had the same amount of problems,” he said. Of course, after reviewing the budget and re-evaluating the ambitions of the Alien project, Fox executives shelled out additional funds, giving Seymour and Scott a chance to do the movie the way it should be done.
“In the meantime,” explains Seymour, “I began the design process. Dan O’Bannon was with us at this stage, and Ron Cobb was concept artist. Cobb had produced some sketches that were clever but not in the way in which we had decided to treat Alien. Ridley and I had had long discussions on the spacecraft, and had decided that is was to be an intergalactic super-tanker schlepping its way through space. We wanted to avoid anything slick or shiny.” Seymour had made models of the Nostromo interiors before meeting Cobb. “Cobb was useful,” he says, “because you could pass him an idea or a model, and he would do an excellent sketch for people who can’t understand plans or models. I was really heading a design group on this picture in which everybody contributed, from the draftsmen, when he adds details as he draws something, up to the plasterer on the floor of the soundstages. Over a two month period, we all built up the concepts.
Seymour did a layout of the Nostromo where the various decks would be located, where the quarters would begin, end and intersect one another; this master plan included the bridge set, which Seymour feels was the most complicated aspect of the set design. “You never quite get the feeling in the final film, but we put so much effort into the finish of the ship’s interiors. We worked it out so carefully. There was the deck with living quarters where the bridge was, the next one down was the electronics deck, and the lower deck, where Harry Dean Stanton gets it, we called the under-carriage room. It housed one of those huge landing feet. We built one life-size foot and hung it from the ceiling in that set. We worked out carefully the placement of each compartment, where it would be below or above in relation to the next deck.” Seymour developed the sets with an eye toward practicality, blocking out the three soundstages used in Alien so the crew wouldn’t lose track of the maze-like system of corridors and levels. The interiors were all self-contained and enclosed: the rooms were four-sided and had ceilings – according to Seymour, “You really were in a real ship. We aimed at that all the time, to create a convincing environment that we believed in and that therefore the actors too would believe in. A lot of the interiors were broken-down aircraft sections remodelled almost like metal sculpture.”
Excerpts from “Directing Alien and Blade Runner,” an interview with Ridley Scott (Director, Alien) by Dan Peary. From Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies, Doubleday, 1984.
DAN PEARY: In Alien, everything looks old, inviting, bleak, disheveled. What was the look you wanted for your major set, the Starship Nostromo?
RIDLEY SCOTT: The look was really meant to reflect the crew members who, I felt, should be like truck drivers in space. Their jobs, which took them on several-year journeys through space, were to them a normal state of affairs. Therein lies the fantasy. The reality would not be like this for maybe a thousand years – but in our tongue-in-cheek fantasy we project a not-too-distant future in which there are many vehicles tramping around the universe, on mining expeditions, erecting military installations, or whatever. 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 in graffiti and very uncomfortable. We certainly didn’t design the Nostromo to look like a hotel.
PEARY: The characters in Alien seem more spirited than those in Blade Runner. But there is also a strong sense of melancholia, claustrophobia (which you’ve been quoted as saying frightens you most), and irritation. What personal views on space travel were you trying to get across? What about sex amongst the crew members? I know you cut out a sex scene involving Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Dallas (Tom Skerrit).
SCOTT: I think the crew members of the Nostromo seem spirited only because of their argumentative nature, which is due to the fact that they can probably no longer stand the sight of each other. It wouldn’t matter how it was worked out in the prevoyage stage, when a computer probably determined the compatibility of the unit. Like all crews in confined spaces, they’d get on another’s nerves and would be cutting each other’s throats in six months’ time.
I tried to glean as much as I could from the problems that present day astronauts go through preparing for prolonged periods in space. I then factored in ten years in space and tried to envision how a character would react to going off for that kind of period. Obviously it would raise all sorts of psychological problems, above and beyond claustrophobia and melancholia. The idea of spending really prolonged periods in space – say, of up to three years – is inconceivable and at the moment only exists in fantasies such as Alien.
We took out the scene where Dallas and Ripley discuss sexual “relief,” because after the scene in which Kane (John Hurt) is killed when the alien bursts through him from the inside, it just seemed out of place. That scene proved much more powerful, and successful, than I expected, and for the sex to follow would have seemed totally gratuitous. The “relief” scene was to be our token attempt to answer the question about sex in space.
If you think about it logically, the only way that mixed crews could work out on long missions is by neutralizing everyone and forbidding sex entirely, or by having free “open sex” for whoever wants it. Close relationships in tightly closed ships with small crews would certainly have to be discouraged. The problems that would result from some men and women pairing off and leaving other crew members on their own is obvious.
PEARY: Alien is the first space film, I believe, that features working class characters rather than a crew of scientists, military men or astronauts.
SCOTT: That’s absolutely accurate. At this point in time, I believe everyone in a crew can be a working-type. The Nostromo is driven by Mother, a computer, and as far as running the ship goes, the crew is secondary. Once on the ship, their function is minimal. They need to know how to work the ship’s basic equipment. That equipment can start itself, repair itself, think for itself, and act as its own monitoring system.
PEARY: At this point in time, has the value of humans diminished even further than today as far as the military-industrial complex is concerned? I am struck by the opening scene in which the ship’s computer and machinery “come to life” before the humans are revived from their suspended animation state.
SCOTT: It’s possible that the value of humans could have diminished. I’m thinking now on the level of the Big Brother idea of a lifeless megastructure and it’s attitude toward human employees who are considered expendable. In this instance, the machinery, information data, and cargo are of more importance to corporations than the individuals on their ships. I certainly think this situation has parallels today. But the fact that computers can run the ship before the humans are revived is meant to be logical and not as you suggest, antihuman, it really has nothing to do with Big Brother and an unfeeling company. Ships will be run by humans specifically for efficiency reasons.
PEARY: I see the corporation, even more than the alien, as being the villain of the film. It’s top priority becomes the alien, and it could care less about the danger it causes to the crew.
SCOTT: The industrial-government complex is responsible for the attitude that allows such an alien to be brought on board the Nostromo. In fact, it is already responsible for the paranoia prevalent on all the ships because of its insistence on placing a company man on each vehicle. In this case, he takes the form of a robot, Ash (Ian Holm). This would seem to be the normal development of a huge corporation trying to protect its interests. In this particular future, it would be very easy for “pirating” to exist. Corporations will have to find ways to assure that vehicles carrying minerals or vital information will not be hijacked.
PEARY: Was the intention of the corporation that owns the Nostromo to bring back an alien, any alien? And for what reason?
SCOTT: I think any corporation that sends probes into unknown territory is going to think of the possibility of finding something new. I’m sure that the crew members on all its ships would have been briefed to bring back anything of interest. It would be part of one’s job to bring it back. An alien would, of course, be of top priority. This particular corporation didn’t have a preconceived notion that an alien would be found on this mission, much less the particular alien that is brought onto the ship. The idea of bringing it back alive would not have been on the minds of the corporation executives when they first received the alien transmission. They just had high expectations when they ordered the Nostromo to investigate – it was purely out of curiosity.
From The Book of Alien, Paul Scanlon & Michael Gross, Heavy Metal Communications, 1979.
“I love to illustrate my own fantasies.” — Ron Cobb
Nostromo, the human spacecraft from Alien, is the end result of thousands of drawings, twice as many working hours, blood, sweat, and ink, a lot of second and third-guessing, and above all, imagination. Ron Cobb was there at the beginning and at the end.
A renowned cartoonist and illustrator and a Star Wars alumnus (he designed several of the Cantina creatures), he made preliminary sketches and paintings of things both alien and human, but later reduced his focus to the human ships, inside and out.
“I resent films that are so shallow they rely entirely on their visual effect,” say Cobb, “and of course science fiction films are notorious for this. I’ve always felt that there’s another way to do it: a lot of effort should be expended toward rendering the environment of the spaceship, or space travel, whatever the fantastic setting of your story should be – as convincingly as possible, but always in the background. That way the story and the characters emerge and they become more real. If you were to set a story on an ocean liner, there would be bits of footage to explain what the ship was like docked or at sea, but it would remain in the background of the story. It should be the same with science fiction.”
Cobb doesn’t have too much difficulty applying the ocean liner analogy to deep space: “I’m sort of a frustrated engineer because I have lots of opinions about how certain problems could be solved using present technology or even speculating about near-future technology. So in working on a film I like to take this challenge and design a spaceship as though it were absolutely real, right down to the fuel tolerances, the centers of gravity, the way the engines function, radiation shielding, whatever. And after I do that, I like to deal with how I can take this idea and hammer, bend, and twist it into something that will be appropriate to the film.”
A lot of bending and twisting took place in a dingy little rom above a workshop at Twentieth Century-Fox in 1977. Cobb was working mainly on interiors: Chris Foss was doing exteriors. Next, at the producer’s request, they were both doing ships (which seemed to be getting bigger and bigger), and Cobb finally outdid Foss and himself with a highly rendered drawing that he and Gordon Carroll eventually agreed looked more like a luxury liner than a spaceship. Everything seemed stalled.
But the film effectively gained another designer when Ridley Scott came on as director, and the logjam was eventually broken. He is very visually oriented. The end result was that the Nostromo became a tug – an eight-hundred-foot-long tug – towing a gigantic refining platform two miles long by one and one-half miles wide.
Back in England, the models began to take shape with the help of the usual pre-production frenzy. Using the drawings, and in some instances, Cobb’s interior blueprints to guide the external shapes, technicians came up with some reasonably good prototypes. The refinery towers took longer. “We did some test shootings and they looked pretty good,” remembers special effects supervisor Nick Allder, “and then we’d shoot a tower from a certain angle and it would start looking like a Disneyland castle. Se we’d tear all the detail pieces off and start over and keep doing it until we had it right. Finally, we had the towers sort of chunkied out, so they’d have this enormous, heavy feeling.”
A small army of model-makers handled the detail work. Once the basic outline of the ship – built with wood and plastic – was assembled, the craftsmen would swarm over it, using their own mold forms to create window sections and hatches, or any part of the ship in which specific requirements were dictated. Much of the fine detail work came from plastic model kits, the model-maker’s ultimate life saver. “Certain parts are very useful,” one technician explained. “It saves a lot of time, because if you had to cast every piece, the movie would be finished about 2,000 A.D.” So like many movie spacecraft before it, the Nostromo contains minute traces of battleships, tanks, and World War II bombers.
They wound up with three Nostromos: a twelve-inch version for medium and long shots, one four times that size for rear shots that would make the jet burn realistic, and a seven-ton rig used for an undocking sequence and scenes on the planetoid surface. The models were shot by a camera moving on a rail track while shooting at a snail-like two and one-half frames per second, rather than the usual twenty-four. This, Allder explains, “was to keep the models in focus. We were shooting very, very close to them and there’s nothing worse than a model shot out of focus.”
“Our system was a modification of the one used in 2001. The Nostromo moves very slowly, like an oil tanker that takes eight miles to slow down and another four to turn. We didn’t need the kind of system used on Star Wars. But we were holding shots a really long time. Some of them were running a minute, a minute and one-half, and that gives you a long time to look at the ship. First the detail, and then the shots themselves, had to be perfect.
“You could get away with murder a long time ago, you know. The thing it comes down to is that people won’t accept it today unless it looks right.”
“It’s just a monster of coordination.” — Art Director Roger Christian
The sum total of elements involved in production design is always large. In a special effects film it is awesome. Nostromo is divided into three levels. Each has a specific character, or personality. Each, because of the future technology involved in the human environment, is incredibly complex. And each, sitting up there on the big screen, must look real.
In this case, it begins again with Ron Cobb’s drawing board, along with Ridley Scott’s storyboards. In one way or another, Cobb was involved with the design of every room on the spaceship. Following his thesis of the “frustrated engineer,” Cobb designed rooms and details that were meant to look functional, and in many cases were functional. But this was only the beginning. To the actual overall design strategy, add the creative counsel of Gordon Carroll and Scott. To the implementation of same, add production designer Michael Seymour, and art directors Roger Christian and Les Dilley. For the cementing of reality include Brian Johnson and Nick Allder and their special effects team. And throw in three hundred more technicians and workers, each bringing their own special talents to the film.
“The [science officer’s observation] blister is on the lowest part of the ship,” says Les Dilley, “so when they’re down on the planet, Ash can sit there and watch them go by, and then he can monitor their position. He loves being down there all alone. The blister is his glory. It’s sort of the ultimate disc jockey’s booth.”
In a sense, Scott’s storyboards loom over this cornucopia of elements. “The film was done fairly quickly, all things considered,” he says. “I was an art director before, and when time got tight I’d say, ‘Well, it’s time to turn back to the old roots and art direct or draw a sequence very specifically for myself.’ It helps me think; once the pictures are right, everything else starts to occur from them.”
“But there’s also a certain thing about storyboarding that can work against you. It comes very close to comic strips, where you use single images in sequential form. When you get to the film, you have the image move, and there’s a connection between the images, which creates a different aesthetic effect. But it’s still good for me because I’ve done huge amounts of celluloid. And that’s why I think the boards work for me; it’s a way of expressing awareness of the medium.”
So there were Cobb’s drawings, Scott’s storyboards, and then there was a lot of good, old-fashioned interaction. “Ridley showed us Dr. Strangelove,” Roger Christian recalls, “and he kept saying, ‘That’s what I want. Do you see? Not that it’s a B-52 in outer space, but it’s the military look.’ You can’t really draw it … but I knew what he was saying because I had done Star Wars, so I said to Michael Seymour, ‘Let’s have a go at it.’ So we recruited some dressing prop people, got a hold of several tons of scrap, and went to work on the Nostromo‘s bridge.”
“We spent weeks and weeks building it up, encrusting the set with pipes and wires and switches and tubing and just about anything we could lay our hands on. Then we painted it military green and began stenciling labels on everything. Ridley came back from the States and said, ‘That’s it; you’ve got it,’ and then told us to keep going. For instance, we made a control panel out of airplane junk and about a million switches, and we just built banks and banks of switches and put lettering on them, and suddenly it was real. Sometimes you can spend weeks laying on layers of stuff and it looks terrible, and then, one day, it finally works.”
It’s not as chaotic as it may sound. Christian explains: “You need a crew that is mechanically minded. Instead of painting a wall you’re directing it with scrap. You can’t just stick it up at random, because it looks terrible. So you start, say, with pipes and you put them in neatly, then a bit of wiring, then some tubing, and if this underpinning looks good, you start putting on the barnacles.”
The bridge was one of the first sets constructed, and it was to establish the standard of realism for all the “human” sets in the production. Ron Cobb explains how it evolved: “My first version of the bridge was very spacious indeed; sort of split-level, California style with these huge windows. I had this idea for a spectacular shot where you’d see the approaching planet rolling by on console screens, and then suddenly the windows would open and light would flood in and there would be the actual planet outside doing the same roll as the one on the screen. But it was decided that we couldn’t afford it, and we’d have to got to a kind of Star Trek bridge with no windows and a viewing screen.
“But by the time I got to London, Michael Seymour decided he liked the window idea and came up with this hexagon-shaped bridge that was radially symmetrical. Then Ridley wanted overhead consoles, and wanted to make the set tighter, more claustrophobic, like a fighter bomber, and I just sort of started suggesting shapes and forms that would conform to that. The windows eventually became bubbles you could sort of get to in outrigger seats that would overhang the windows.”
There was a good reason for shrinking the bridge. “The set is deliberately designed to make you feel claustrophobic,” Ridley Scott says. “If you take the ceiling above the set, you never see it. When it’s there all the time – coming at you all the time – that’s different.” He chuckles. “The ceiling wound up at about six-foot-six, and we would have endless discussions with Gordon Carroll, who is about six-foot-three. He’d stand there, and he’d start muttering: ‘Gee, aren’t these a bit too low?'”
But there was also more to the bridge than encrusted detail and low ceilings. Much of it actually worked. “Brian Johnson’s team came into it,” says Christian, “and pretty soon it was no longer just a realistic facade.” Christian did a breakdown of the actors’ movements on the bridge, and then a decision was made as to what had to actually work. “Suddenly we were into actual technology; if you need to seat a real television within a console panel, you have to figure out how to work it in.”
Nick Allder found himself developing real hardware from sketches, and, occasionally, on a verbal request from Scott: “Whatever Ridley wanted, we actually gave to him. Luckily, we never had to strike a compromise anywhere down the line. A lot of things were basically programmed so that the actor could hit a button and something would really happen. For instance, the chair that rolls out over the viewing blister is completely remote; all we had was a fail-safe cutout switch if anything went wrong. The actor could push a button and go forward, or turn left or right. Of the panels in the bridge that work, we made sure that every button had a function so that the actors wouldn’t have to fool with dummy controls. After two or three days on the set, the actors really got into it, and I think it helped them.”
From Starlog Magazine, June 1979.
The hardware marvel of Alien is the Nostromo, the film’s mile-long starship. Most of its length is due to the massive oil refinery and mineral storage complex which it hauls. The interior sets for the ship are based on designs by Ron Cobb, one of the key production artists from Star Wars. Production designer Michael Seymour speaks with particular pride when describing the production crew’s work on these sets.
“We started by building model sets, then an actual section of the corridor, part of the operational bridge,” says Seymour. “After further discussions, we began building the sets in earnest.”
The ship consists of three levels – the bottom two are the maintenance and engineering levels. The top or “A” level holds the living and usual work quarters of the ship’s seven-member crew, consisting of the starship bridge, mess hall, infirmary, hypersleep area, computer room and other typical spacecraft facilities. Seymour states that the sets are built with actual corridors connecting each of the “A” level sets, “thus giving both the actors and the audience the feeling of being inside a vast starship – both huge and claustrophobic at one and the same time. We want people to have the impression that it’s a real place, that it’s more science fact than science fiction, and also that the whole place is well used, lived in and slightly battered after years of service.”
The most elaborate of the Nostromo interior sets is the bridge, which is largely constructed of parts from aircraft, automobiles, radios and television sets. “We must have spent thousand of [British] pounds on scrap from old jet-aircraft engines particularly,” says co-art director Dilley, “and it’s paid off handsomely because of its authentic look.” To add to the authenticity, each of the set’s hundreds of dials, switches and buttons has a genuine function. Some start hundreds of lights flashing, others open doors or ring alarms, while still others control the 40 television screens positioned about the bridge set. For the film, these screens, ranging in size from five to 22 inches, were fed computer readouts, maps, space vistas and other videotaped graphics from an intricate console commanded by video coordinator Dick Hewitt.
As principal shooting progressed at Shepperton Studios in England, the six months of special-effects work began at Bray Studios in Windsor, formerly the home of Hammer Films. Over $3 million were invested in the effects, which were supervised by Brian Johnson and directed by Nick Allder – best known for their SFX work on Space: 1999.
The major task for the crew was in simulating the flight of the massive Nostromo and its factory complex. The main section of the ship, said to be 800 feet long, is represented in most shots by an eight-foot model.
Instead of the blue-screen process which is used in most of the recent SF blockbusters, rotoscoping is used, a process involving frame-by-frame, hand-painted action. Advance reports suggest excellent results, including one long tracking shot which seems to zoom past myriad stars and planets, to close in on a full-length starship. The shot continues to angle in until crew members are visible through the port of the model ship.
RETURN: Overmonitoring Address Matrix
- Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies, Doubleday, 1984.
- The Book of Alien, Paul Scanlon & Michael Gross, Heavy Metal Communications, 1979.
- Cinefantastique Magazine, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1979.
- Starlog Magazine, June 1979
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