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Exclusive preview: Roger Christian's 'Cinema Alchemist'

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Star Wars and Alien art director Roger Christian talks of establishing the look of the Nostromo for Sigourney Weaver's Alien screen test, in this exclusive preview of his upcoming book Cinema Alchemist...

Roger Christian

"Ridley used to come in with a red mark on his forehead, so I asked him one day what happened. Apparently he relied on hitting his head on the steering wheel of his Rolls Royce to stop him falling asleep and get him home at midnight to 1am in the morning"

Looking back on the Alien production unit in 1978, a few things spring to mind. As on Star Wars, the pressure on the Art Department was almost inhuman. I didn't have a day off in months; the only way my girlfriend ever saw me was to go down to Shepperton Studios and have Sunday lunch on the Old House lawns. At night I fell asleep regularly whilst eating my late meal. The Book of Alien quotes my words from that exhausting period as a headline: It's Just a Monster of Coordination.

Yet it was one of the most exhilarating times in my career. Ridley used to come in with a red mark on his forehead, so I asked him one day what happened. Apparently he relied on hitting his head on the steering wheel of his Rolls Royce to stop him falling asleep and get him home at midnight to 1am in the morning.

Building the special corridor for Sigourney Weaver's screen test was an important and poignant moment in creating the look of Alien

Ridley Scott had requested a specially built section of the Nostromo corridor, as he didn’t want to film Sigourney Weaver against a white wall with a plant, the usual way of screen testing actors. Michael Seymour had added a cargo area at the end of the corridor made from PVC warehouse palettes placed as walls and a ceiling, to give an idea of how the lower decks would look.

I was placed in charge of art-directing the corridor, to show the team exactly how to create the look of the Nostromo. This was based on the technique I had invented of using scrap airplanes, junked office machinery, telephone exchanges and miles of PVC drainpipes for set dressing Star Wars.

I hated the plasticky, over-designed look of science fiction movies before Star Wars came along. Finally, with a visionary director who wanted the same look, and a brilliant designer in John Barry, we shared the same vision. George’s mantra was 'Make it look real' - as if we had just found and rented the ships and the props. This gave Star Wars that reality-based, used look for the first time in science fiction cinema. I feel this allowed audiences to identify with the future for the first time, as the worlds we created looked and felt familiar.

Alien allowed me to go much further; Ridley wanted a 'used trucker' look for both the Nostromo and the crew - a mix between a submarine and a B52 bomber cockpit.

This test corridor we built was the first look at the interior of the corridors of the Nostromo. It established the look of Alien for the very first time. When 20th Century Fox executives saw the rushes, and Ridley's visionary look for the film - the shut-in, military feel combined with his amazing storyboards which pre-visioned the entire movie in detail - they elevated the budget. Sigourney, relatively unknown at the time, but championed by Ridley, got hired immediately. Guided by Ridley, she created the first really intelligent female action star.

With Alien I was able to go much further with the oily and gritty look than in Star Wars, and for the first time create a totally believable 'space truck', as Ridley described it. The set ended up looking as if we had rented a well-travelled, well-used, oily, dirty, mineral carrier - an unmistakably real and claustrophobic space vessel. I think this really helped audiences to identify with the movie, as the characters were so like space truckers, trapped in a claustrophobic nightmare.

Here are a few extracts from different parts of the chapters on building the test corridor from my forth-coming book Cinema Alchemist...


Ridley had decided to have a section of corridor built especially for the test, and also for us to create a hold area, so he could film Sigourney in action, as if hunting the alien. Talking it through with Ridley and Michael Seymour, Ridley felt the best way for everyone to understand how the look of the Nostromo interiors could evolve was for me to prepare the test corridor based on my Star Wars experience, using scrap airplane parts. This way I could create the look of the Nostromo that Ridley had talked about, and sketched out in his storyboards and they could all see exactly what was involved - and the time it took to complete the dressing. They were all entering unknown territory. It would also give a very good idea of the type of scrap we would need, and what exactly to buy from the airplane junkyards.

"It was the fastest script-read I ever had; Alien moved like a stripped-down, non-stop, tension-fuelled drama"

Ridley and Michael had hired Les Dilley and myself as Art Directors, Les was an expert at construction; this was especially needed on Alien for converting H.R. Giger's designs to three-dimensional sets. I often partnered on movies with Les, and I took charge of the dressings and props and the look of the interiors. We made a very comprehensive team together, which was fortunate to become part of thanks to Lord Delfont...

I was designing Life of Brian with Terry Gilliam for the Pythons at the time, and when Lord Delfont finally read the script, he cancelled the production on the spot, deeming the movie blasphemous. Ridley called me himself almost as the news hit the streets, and told me to get to Shepperton that same day; in fact he said “get your arse down here right now”.

It was the fastest script-read I ever had; Alien moved like a stripped-down, non-stop, tension-fuelled drama, and knowing Ridley’s visual genius, I knew we could raise the barriers of sci-fi craft design to new heights. I instinctively knew how to make the Nostromo interiors into a fully functional spacecraft, and looking at Rid’s storyboards, knew exactly what he was looking for.

Ridley had shown everyone Doctor Strangelove, to try to understand the encrusted, real and utilitarian look that he wanted for the Nostromo Bridge and corridors, but it was difficult to comprehend, as there were no real visual reference-points to look at beyond his description of the ship as a 'space truck'.

After the Strangelove screening, Ridley had described wanting the bridge as 'covered in hair', meaning the entire surfaces encrusted like a bomber cockpit - but no one really understood what he meant. Michael and Les said to me afterwards, “What does he mean 'covered in hair'?”. Having spent months on Star Wars evolving the techniques of using airplane scrap, I had short-hand knowledge of how to encrust the sets like this, so I understood Ridley’s language.

For a director making a science-fiction film, this is the hardest part of the process. Each film enters new visual territory, and at that time there were no visual reference points. We were like cinema revolutionaries breaking new ground. It was even harder for George Lucas on Star Wars, as this was truly a first.

Joining the team on Alien was just as exciting a moment for me as meeting George Lucas in Mexico and being hired on Star Wars. I knew Ridley well from working on commercials with him, and from his beautiful debut film The Duellists, and knew he would turn this into a monster of a movie.

Ridley and Michael Seymour agreed I should take charge and start work on the section of corridor for Sigourney Weaver’s screen test immediately. Bill Welsh, the construction manager who had worked on Star Wars with us, had already constructed the shape and skeleton frames of the Nostromo. The shell of these corridors were built of wooden armatures already beginning to snake around the two large Shepperton stages, joining the infirmary, bridge and crew quarters together in one complete interior - like skeletons of the monster to come.

Ridley wanted the interiors of the Nostromo built as a single complex, so he could track around the interiors and create the claustrophobia of a submarine-like interior. This way he could immerse the audience with the crew, trapped inside a nightmare with no escape, as the mysterious alien pursued them, one by one.

My charge hand dressing prop on Star Wars, Joe Dipple, was hired with two of his dressing prop men. I had taught them how to break down the airplane scrap into suitable dressing and how to assemble it in the corridors to look like a real spacecraft. Also how to break down airplane jet engines - these, especially, were filled with amazing pieces of suitable dressing.

To illustrate just how revolutionary this technique was on Star Wars, as the first low loader trucks and trailers arrived at EMI studios laden with masses of airplane parts, Frank Bruton - the legendary Prop Master who had commanded movies like 2001, Ryan’s Daughter, Clockwork Orange, and many more - was standing by my side watching. More used to conventional dressings, such as furniture, or with everything being designed and scratch-built as it had been on 2001, he watched the massive trailers come to a halt and quietly, without looking at me, said: “You know you’re mad, boy, don’t you?"

Frank never wavered in his support though; he was an amazing and kind man who helped me through Star Wars, not the easiest film for the few of us at the heart of it to make. In his usual understated manner, Frank turned to me and said, “okay, tea's on in my office - come and tell me exactly what you want.”

Corridor sets in 'Alien'

"The sight of these slowly-developing skeletons was a daily and daunting reminder to me of how much dressing would be required over the next few weeks"

The shape of the Nostromo corridors made them look the part of a working intergalactic spacecraft. They were in fact a little similar to the airplane cabin that had inspired the kitchen in Star Wars that John Barry had designed for Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s Homestead on Tatooine. The same principal applied to the idea behind their construction: the Lars Homestead would be built in repetitive sections and transported to Tatooine, a desert-mining outpost with nothing much but natural resources available. The Nostromo corridor was more military-looking, and by making the corridors from a standard element that could easily be duplicated, it saved a huge amount of cost and also looked authentic.

This is how it would be done in the real world. Safety and the cost of construction would be the major considerations for any type of craft, and the octagonal structure could withstand the atmospheric pressures of long-haul space flights. In between each section were built-in handholds, so that any crewmember passing through could grab on in case of turbulence. All this attention to detail is essential to create a working world that was authentic, and I think this was what made the difference in helping the audience believe in the world we created - and helped drive huge box-office in science fiction movies for the first time.

Ron Cobb created illustrations for corridor designs. He had an inherent, engineering-based understanding of the requirements for space travel and its associated hardware. The corridors were designed in sections, with angled panels that we would encrust with switches, lights, pipes and all manner of small technical gizmos.

Walking through the maze of corridors in construction, I could easily visualise that once they were dressed, painted in a dark shade of military green and aged down, they would look amazing. A totally different environment to the Star Wars ships. The sight of these slowly-developing skeletons was a daily and daunting reminder to me of how much dressing would be required over the next few weeks, and just how much scrap, pipe work and switches we would need to source and buy to achieve the look of a working spacecraft. The Nostromo's corridors alone were well over two or three hundred feet in length.

"Once again, just as it was at the beginning of Star Wars, it was impossible to explain exactly what the results would be, as we had no prior reference material"

A 'Ridleygram'Bill Welch, the construction manager, quickly assembled the test corridor section from a sketch Les Dilley did under Michael’s guidance. Also I had Ron Cobb’s amazing and quickly drawn sketches. As a final endorsement, Ridley’s own storyboards were a gem of information. The movie was all there in his sketches, and enabled everyone to at least get a sense of what he wanted.

The test corridor would be a great way for Ridley to test out a look for the movie and try out the lighting. For me it was an opportune chance to build a piece of the ship to show the entire team how I envisaged the interior of the Nostromo to look, built using my scrap and junk techniques. Once again, just as it was at the beginning of Star Wars, it was impossible to explain exactly what the results would be, as we had no prior reference material to show everyone.

"It takes a visionary director like George Lucas or Ridley Scott to have enough faith and trust to allow one to push the boundaries"

At least this time though, because of Star Wars and the look I had achieved for the cockpit, the lower levels of the Millennium Falcon and the crew-hold with the chess scene, I was able to describe what I was envisioning. That set had encrustations of pipe-work and terminals and switches on every available surface. It meant that I had Ridley’s trust that I knew what I was doing. It takes a visionary director like George Lucas or Ridley Scott to have enough faith and trust to allow one to push the boundaries and go where no one had ever been before.

So I was left alone to assemble my crew and get on with it as fast as possible. I explained to the production buyer Jill Quertier just what we needed, and also briefed set decorator Ian Whittaker, the set decorator. I needed to give Jonathan's very inexperienced assistant strict instructions of what was required.

I had to explain by example that it is not as simple as buying any old scrap and sticking it into a set and expecting it to work. I tried to show them that there are serious disciplines involved, and procedures to follow, like anything that is really worthwhile. You start with the basics, like pipes and larger pieces, and add into it by layers. Every piece has to be placed with logic behind it, as if it were on a real working craft. We are asking an audience to believe they are in a working space-craft, and never to question it.

The most successful design in a movie is that which is unnoticed and unquestioned. Whatever the era, period or genre, the audience is sucked into the story and absorbed in the drama without ever noticing that the world they are watching is created. That’s cinema alchemy.

The trick was order and repetition to the dressing. Sticking switches randomly to fill in an area did not look right. Nearly all engineered machinery and plane parts have a basic symmetry and order to them. Then you can dress in the more complex and interesting pieces.

The best examples are submarines and warships. Their corridors and control areas have this look. Airplanes and submarines also have a secondary operating system running alongside the prime controls, providing a security net in the event of a failure. Repeating this with the scrap, and duplicating controls again, gave the requisite reality.

"Scrap was traditionally sold by weight, and airplanes are made of the lightest metals available...now it has become so expensive that it was cheaper for producer Rick McCallam, on The Phantom Menace, to fly it in from the Arizona airplane graveyards"

I had Jill buy us quite a lot of the various diameters of the plastic drainpipe we had used so copiously on Star Wars. There were ideal holes in the design of the corridor sections, both along the ceilings and the walls, where I could run piping. This would look exactly like ducting designed to carry liquids around the ship, and also for all the electrical wiring that one could imagine would be there by the mile to run such a complicated craft on space journeys.

I also had her buy more suitable scrap for us. I needed a lot of aircraft jet engines to break down, and sections of cockpits and navigation areas. Tubing and ducting and pipe work were all from scrapped airplanes. Fortunately at this time it was still cheap. Scrap was traditionally sold by weight, and airplanes are made of the lightest metals available. The situation is a lot different now. I started an entirely new industry, as subsequent sci-fi movies used the same technique - now you have to hire the scrap from specialised companies. In fact it has become so expensive that it was cheaper for producer Rick McCallam, on The Phantom Menace, to fly it in from the Arizona airplane graveyards.

I went to see Nick Alder in the special effects workshops, and went through what we would need. Nick was really pleased to see me again. Nick is a genius at floor effects, and another talent who could always be relied on to deliver whatever was thrown at him. He was also under huge pressure because of the time constraints. His team were hard at it, and his workshops crammed with all manner of hydraulics and sections of equipment that would be needed to fabricate parts of the Nostromo. He had a large team assembled, and they were working like dogs to try to get ahead of a seemingly impossible task - with a shooting date looming.

Ridley needed a large gun for Sigourney to act with, as if she was hunting the alien in the test corridor, something that would lend her the look of the powerful female warrior that Ripley was to become as she gathered strength throughout the film. Nick Alder and I discussed ways to create a weapon from found objects; it had to be a mean-looking weapon, because Ridley wanted Sigourney to look really tough. She was playing a masculine role, but as an attractive woman.

I needed panels that would fit into the corridor sections, layered with switches and lights, and we would need hundreds of these. So we decided that two of Nick's team would concentrate on building these; Guy Hudson and Dennis Lowe would create three different prototypes for us to look at, one totally encrusted, one more in the style of 2001 and one that was half-and-half of each. To boot, they would make the switches and lights interactive.

"This was my pet peeve with sci-fi movies up to then. When someone was piloting a ship, they pressed plastic knobs and nothing happened"

This was my pet peeve with sci-fi movies up to then. When someone was piloting a ship, they pressed plastic knobs and nothing happened. This is not what happens in the real world. When you press buttons and switches, lights come on and reactions happen on the cockpit panels, and I wanted everything interactive. This really helps the actors when they are working. They can imagine they are at actually piloting the craft, and thus help to create the reality-based feeling that Ridley needed for the movie to work.

Our main problem throughout all this preparation was exactly the same as on Star Wars: not enough time, and not enough budget. On Star Wars, the problem was that science-fiction films prior to it had never done significant business at the box office, so there was little faith in a 'children’s fantasy' and mythic fairy tale. Alien, despite the massive success of Star Wars, was destined to be the first R-rated science-fiction horror film, so the studios were leery of how it would succeed. This resulted in us working to an almost impossible schedule and budget again - but then again what’s new! British crews are famous for getting their heads down and getting on with it, and usually with a cynical sense of humour to alleviate the stresses of the intense days.

The results speak for themselves, and this screen test can be seen on the Alien Quadrilogy special edition, as well as the new Blu-ray release. Ridley talks in both releases about creating this test corridor and setting the look.

It was a training exercise and served its purpose really well. It indeed looked like a cross between a submarine and a bomber, and showed everyone how I envisioned a spacecraft of this type would be. This was the first set dressed on Alien, and it set the style for the Nostromo’s interior. The screen-test looked awesome. The way Ridley lit it and used his signature smoke excited 20th Century Fox, and Sigourney looked so strong in the test that Alan Ladd Jr. signed off on her immediately. I think it also gave Fox a lot more confidence in their director. Star Wars had demonstrated that there was a massive audience out there for science-fiction films, but Fox were still unsure if there was one for a much darker horror film in that genre.

Screen test: Sigourney Weaver (corridors - no audio)

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Screen test: Sigourney Weaver (comms)

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Roger Christian official website


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Comments 

 
#1 RE: Exclusive preview: Roger Christian's 'Cinema Alchemist' thomrob 2011-01-21 04:19
"British crews are famous for getting their heads down and getting on with it,..."

I've thought that BR would have been a much less painful production and probably an even better movie if Ridley had done it in England instead of LA.
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