Jon Sorensen: Alien Miniatures Experience

In November 2010 I contacted Jon Sorensen, who had helped build the Nostromo for the original Alien, to ask if he could clarify some questions of mine regarding the film. At the time, Jon was dealing with a personal loss, and said he would get to it at some point, no promises on an ETA, but that he would certainly get back to me. To my surprise and joy, I found this document in my email folder hours later. I would like to send all of my thanks to Jon for taking the time to share his experiences crafting one of the most iconic horror/science fiction movies ever. My regards and best wishes,
~ Valaquen.

I had spent some time studying photography in Glasgow, Scotland, and during that period had been inspired by the astonishing model work on a television series called SPACE: 1999 to the extent that I built my own miniature spaceships and shipped them over to my College to photograph them and strip into star and nebulae art done by myself. These I submitted as assignments to my bemused tutors whom I suspect thought I’d taken leave of my senses.

About this time STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS emerged which fired me up to make contact with luminaries in the film industry. One of these was the visual effects boss on SPACE: 1999, Brian Johnson. People were very kind and I travelled to many film studios and shoots to introduce myself carrying with me my large folio of work. On one of these trips I met Brian Johnson at Shepperton. Brian had written on letter-headed notepaper marked ALIEN, which I took to be the name of his company. Brian was sufficiently impressed by my selection of photographs, spaceships, landscapes, abstract composites and aerial photographs to say he might be able to use me on a film he was doing. He wanted photographic plates for the composites and said he was building some spacecraft miniatures which he felt I could probably help with. The film was ALIEN. Brian mentioned I would be on the film 10 weeks. I was on ALIEN for a year. It was the seminal miniature building and photography experience of my professional film life, despite doing much work on many other mainstream studio films subsequently. This was the background to my joining the miniatures and VFX crew on ALIEN at Bray and Shepperton Studios. What follows is a personal and subjective stream of artistic recollections which led to the final Academy Award winning result on Ridley Scott’s best film to date, ALIEN (1979).

I arrived at Bray Studios near Windsor around mid-day on 24 June 1978 carrying a small suitcase and £60.00, all the money I had in the world. (I had turned down a place at Harrow Art College on a film degree course to take up this job on ALIEN, which I felt then and have since to be the absolutely correct choice. The next year was to prove this. When the ALIEN crew finished work and disbanded a year later I cried for two days knowing something very special had passed). When I entered the workshop I was greeted amicably by what would turn out to be an extraordinary group of artists from all walks of life’s spectrum. Moreover, my eye was caught by the hulking shell of something being constructed in its early stages, the NOSTROMO tug. I was transfixed. One drawing by Ron Cobb, whom I later met on a few occasions, showing a yellow spacecraft also caught my eye and this turned out to be the basis of the model under construction. This had been built by Ron Hone and Brian Eke. It transpired that they and we were to be given a pretty wide latitude of creative decisions over the models since they had had to interpret this Cobb drawing as they saw fit. (There were never any blueprints for any of the miniatures). The Cobb drawing became our mantra and inspiration.

Ron Cobb’s ‘Nostromo A’.

I was put straight to work. The first section I was given was the whole detachable back section of the large NOSTROMO model, the part containing the rocket motors and engines. We were subsequently all given responsibility for sections and out of this the whole grew organically. I found myself working alongside Simon Deering, John Pakenham, Ron Hone and Bill Pearson on these tasks. Eventually the large NOSTROMO was completed, artworked and sprayed the required and agreed yellow and moved to the shooting stage, whereupon we then started constructing the large refinery in the workshop. While tests were being shot on the tug, I was sent to take large plate photographs of it plus a collection of 35mm reference shots from which I was then to spend an additional 6 weeks painstakingly recreating all the detail on a smaller version, about 5 feet long, (the large version was easily 10 feet long, the given supposed real life size of NOSTROMO being 800 feet from nose to rear engine).

The actual refinery we were directed to make look “Victorian Gothic” by Ridley Scott. The miniature was around 14 feet square with the four towers, taken from a Ridley sketch, standing around 5 feet tall. The supposed length of this refinery was one and a half miles. Again we took responsibility for sections. Using a natural sense of design we were supposedly hired for, each of these sections was micro-managed by the person doing it to suggest a balance and precision almost in a real graphic sense. Point and counterpoint and balanced “visual weight”. Again it grew organically amongst the many hands, using plexiglass scored to suggest detail and sections, EMA tubing for running pipes, storage tanks, some hobby kits for fine detail. There was a lot of detail on that miniature. We spent about three months doing the bulk of it and it looked stunning, otherworldly, “retrospective futuristic” and entirely credible. It had to definitely suggest an Earth origin so as to underpin the surprise when the audience saw the “alien derelict” and space jockey later in the film’s visuals and story.

The Nostromo, seen here in an early test shot, was originally painted yellow. When Ridley arrived at Bray Studios after shooting the bulk of the film’s interior footage at Pinewood, he decided that the ship should be repainted a gun-metal gray. All of the previously shot spaceship footage had to be scrapped as a consequence.

My abiding memories of this construction period are camaraderie, humour, creative freedom and a certain innocence, co-operation, support, two wonderful bosses, Brian Johnson and Nick Allder, coupled with our oxygen at the time; the wonderful and heady smells of plastics, adhesives, paint, wood, fibre-glass, the sight of sections of pure sci-fi being put together everywhere you looked and an overall feeling of working on something worthwhile which we all felt. One even took a personal emotive view of the models. Being a film fan, I was aware, for example that Jon Finch at that time had been cast as Kane in the movie, our movie, and I remember thinking “Cool, Jon Finch is going to be flying in this spaceship”. This is how one humanised the models and really felt that they and we were part of this very special feeling project and that we were all telling a story together and had a personal investment in it. It was a small movie, hand-made, no computers. Every piece of detail on those models felt important. The Associate Producer, Ivor Powell, visited us and once said, tongue firmly in cheek, “You guys are having way too much fun”.  The feeling at Bray, bathed as the whole enterprise was, in one of the sunniest, warmest summers any of us could remember, was notable and infectious. The sunshine was just as well at that period for I then requested to move to the model shooting stage for the next 6 months where I not only fulfilled my own stills work but assisted in the shooting of the 33 storyboarded spacecraft shots required for the movie.

We had completed all of using the Yellow/Green NOSTROMO. Fitted out with hundreds of feet of fibre optics to suggest windows and practicals, she was beautiful. Utilising a grid plotting system devised by Brian Johnson and Nicky Allder for SPACE: 1999, we shot original negative in the camera, simply rewinding the film as much as 18 times to produce the beautiful composites in-camera. Ridley Scott then arrived from Shepperton to take an interest in the models and everything changed radically in terms of tone, colour and look. The yellow was sprayed over a uniform grey. Sections were rebuilt. We started over, discarding all previous footage. There was no anger at this. Surprise maybe. But it was Ridley Scott’s film. We liked him. So we entered the ALIEN model shoot Part Deux. I recall Bill Pearson and I talking once on what we thought was an empty, lunch-time model stage when a voice spoke from the shadows. Ridley, asking what we were discussing. We answered that maybe that part might look better moved over to there, (we were discussing the refinery). He smiled back and I guess that signalled what was true; we’d go all the way to help him. That night he bought both Bill and I a beer, a move which astonished the Assistant Director, Ray Beckett who complained that in 10 years of working with Ridley, he’d never been bought a beer. So we bought Ray one instead.

The remainder of the shoot was fluid, adaptive, ever-changing and involved very long days. It was, even so, a pleasure. Ridley constructed all his shots through the viewfinder,  experimenting and learning, often involving models being pulled to pieces on the spot and dressed to camera. We got there. But it was and remains a great pity that the original yellow NOSTROMO was obliterated, the footage discarded. Beautiful composites and a spacecraft which hadn’t been seen up to that time set against original negative deep space nebulae,  unseen planets and twin suns, all of which made you feel light years away in “alien” territory where anything could and was scripted to happen in the Lovecraftian nightmare Dan O’Bannon had created on the page. (I was given a script to read when I arrived on ALIEN, and have never since been so excited and taken with the possibilities).

“Victorian Gothic” – the Nostromo’s refinery drifting through space.

The dark sense of impending chaos where mankind counted as nothing that Dan penned has been largely discarded in all the sequels. The dark forces hinted at dispelled by “smart” machine gun fire and nuclear weapons. The genius of ALIEN was to suggest through Dan’s script, Ridley’s vision as conductor of everyone’s input and Giger’s occultish designs a universe totally ALIEN. Threatening, unreasoning, “dark forces” ,which once made aware of man, would simply sweep him away or see him in a truly predatory sense, something simply to be harvested.

It would be a blessing to get back to that “sense of wonder”. Still and all, it was a life event to have been a small part of the genesis in 1978-79, working with a unique crew at a unique time on this hand-made ribbon of dreams. A true labour of love and a seminal professional experience for all who were lucky enough to have been there on this most human of projects. A movie landmark where all the creative and cosmic tumblers actually came into perfect alignment.

Jon Sorensen

3 November 2010.

Jon with the Nostromo refinery's underside, 1978.

Jon with the Nostromo refinery’s underside, 1978.

Visit Jon at http://www.jonsorensen.co.uk/

This essay, and an album of very rare photographs, have been added to Jon’s Alien-orientated site. Visit Recollections of Alien!

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