Tag Archives: Nostromo

Ash’s Blister


Ash’s blister, as it is identified in the script by Walter Hill & David Giler, is, from the outside, a small glassy protuberance on the belly of the Nostromo. The compartment first appeared in Dan O’Bannon’s script, albeit as a glass apse situated on the roof of the ship. From this location the screenplay’s characters find respite from their work and engage in philosophical and existential discussions on the nature of eternity and their limited and ephemeral place within it. Throughout the later script revisions by Giler and Hill the dome became the scene of Dallas and Ripley’s lovemaking, and then, with further revisions and the addition of the android Ash, it was relocated and re-envisioned – no longer a communal or solitary getaway spot, it became the work station of the Company’s very own inside man.

Fantastic Films: “One of the lovely touches in Dark Star was the guy sitting in the dome on top of the ship, just staring off into space. He’s gone stir-crazy.”
Ridley Scott: “They say actually if you have a porthole you spend most of your time staring at space. Maybe it is a sort of space sickness. That you could become so entranced with the idea of what you’re in.”
FF: “I see Ash’s bubble as a direct outgrowth of Dark Star.”
RS: “There was a bubble in O’Bannon’s original screenplay. That’s where the love scene took place … I guess the Ash ‘blister’ was all that was left of that [aesthetic] intention.”
~ Fantastic Films magazine, 1979.

The change in design, name, and location may be incidental, but altering the dome from a glass bauble on the roof of the ship to a ‘blister’ on its underside tonally changed the location from a vista to the stars, to a rather dingy ‘cave’ to which the insidious Ash can secrete himself away, like the monster Grendel after committing his murders. In the film, Mu-th-r’s control room also doubles for this sort of purpose; a haven for plotting, or ‘collating’, with the ship’s computer (from where you can perhaps draw another thin Beowulf allusion). “Love this cockpit,” Ridley Scott said of the blister, “somehow it’s very fascist … I always liked those blisters at the bottom of the Blenheim bomber, or Wellington Bomber, and that’s where you put him, in his own blister.”

Ron Cobb's design of the observation dome.

Ron Cobb’s design of the observation dome.

Concept of the blister.

Concept of the blister.

Ripley and Dallas’ sex scene was scrapped from the movie, and though it was filmed for Sigourney’s screentest, it was shot with an improvised, mid-constructed set, rather than the dome/blister. Another scene intended for the dome/blister was the reappearance of Kane’s corpse, which knocks against the glass to frighten Ripley.

From Hill and Giler’s script:


Looks around the blister.
Satisfied it’s deserted.
She puts down the flamethrower.
Methodically begins to search for the key.
Faint tapping sound.
Then stops.
She looks around.
Sees nothing.
Resumes searching near blister window…
Ripley finds key…
Tapping sound.
She whips around to see: Kane’s disfigured face slapping against the plexiglass.
She stifles a scream.
Drops the key onto the curved surface of the blister.
Fishes for it…
Kane’s bloated face swings in…

With the excision of this scene, Ash’s blister only figures into the film’s first act, and is unexplored throughout the rest of the movie. From here, Ash surveys the sojourn to the derelict craft and begins to plot against the crew.

One of the Nostromo's landing legs, with Ash's blister being constructed in the background.

One of the Nostromo’s landing legs, with Ash’s blister being constructed in the background.


Filed under Alien

Space Sorrow & Sex

Boxed in, no day, eternal night …

During the Industrial Revolution skilled labourers such as agricultural workers or skilled artisans found themselves being made increasingly obsolete by the introduction of factory machines. In turn, they became mere factory hands, turning dials and cranking the levers of machinery that was prone to chew up their limbs. This once-valued strata of people became a mere commodity, easily trained and as a result easily replaced and utterly expendable. In Alien’s future once-vaunted engineers, trained navigators, and astronauts find themselves marginalised by a new technological revolution – the rise of the automated machine, spaceship-driving computers, FTL travel, the android, and the commoditisation and trivialisation of space. 

“I guess if you spend a lot of time together in space the camaraderie will  gradually disappear,” said Ridley Scott on the topic of the Nostromo crew, “and each person will become isolated with their own thoughts and their memories of where they’ve been and where they’re going to. And therefore, all of the characters are designed as not really being comrades. There’s a kind of cold relationship amongst all of them.”

“I think the crew members of the Nostromo seem spirited only because of their argumentative nature,” Scott said in 1984, “which is due to the fact that they probably can no longer stand the sight of each other. It wouldn’t matter how it was all worked out in the pre-voyage stage, where a computer probably determined the compatability of the unit; like all crews in confined spaces, they’d get on one 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 present-day astronauts who 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.”

“Well, one of the things that I want to straighten out, because I don’t know if Ridley ever did. I liked Sigourney Weaver from the moment I met her. Ridley told me, ‘No, no, don’t start cosying up with Sigourney.’ He wanted me to annoy the crap out of her, which I did. He told me to get on Sigourney’s nerves; stop speaking to her on the lunch breaks, dressing rooms, etc. All for the end of the movie at that moment when she blows up at Parker and takes over leadership. I did exactly as Ridley told me. To this day, I don’t know if he ever told her. I will never let a director do that to me again! I asked him when I saw him in Canada at their film festival and the release of the Director’s Cut and I don’t think he had.”
Yaphet Kotto, KultFilmFreak.com

Upon release, Alien was criticised for lacking character development. However the characters are very well defined, and their relationships and attitudes shift and change both overtly and in the undercurrent. “This film was so brief in terms of each piece of characterisation,” Ridley told Cinefantastique Online in 2008. “That’s the sign of a really good script: there’s no fat; it’s all lean. The actors are able to squeeze in as much as they have to for this kind of film … Every one of them had his own bit of individual, built-in subtext and implicit story that he didn’t have to voice. It was all just part of the character.” Ridley also maintained that: “I loved the minimal dialogue, the minimalist characterisation – what do you need to know? Once this thing is loose, I don’t want to have scenes talking about mum and dad back on the planet.”

Throughout the course of the movie the crew bicker and out-right fight. They trade barbs and blows. After the snatching of Dallas both Ripley and Parker jostle for command. The crew loosen at the seams when Ripley refuses to allow Dallas, Kane and Lambert back on board after exploring the derelict silo, and they unite after Kane’s apparent recovery and subsequent funeral. Parker, the irreverent, tough and apparently selfish member of the group, dies tackling the Alien to save Lambert. In a deleted segment, Brett’s last word is Parker’s name. In other deleted scenes, Lambert slaps Ripley for attempting to quarantine them outside the ship. Lambert and Ripley discuss any sexual relations with Ash. Dallas and Ripley sleep together. When Ripley incinerates Dallas within the Alien’s nest, the two actors played the scene as departing lovers.

Sex between the Nostromo crew members was also to be a prevalent element in Alien, with some frank discussion between Ripley and Lambert and even a sex scene between Ripley and Captain Dallas. All of these elements were either filmed then cut, or never made it to principal photography. In the case of Ripley and Dallas, this scene did make it in front of the cameras – but only for Sigourney Weaver’s screen test. The role of Captain Dallas was filled by actor Ray Hasset (who would go on to play a minor Rebel Officer in The Empire Strikes Back.)

“It’s a pity that the one scene we did have in the screenplay that had sex in it had to be cut. It showed that you can’t afford to have love affairs in deep space. If you do, you immediately have two groups aboard. The pair who are in love and the rest of the crew. That’s the beginning of problems unless you are a space pioneer and settle down with your family.”
~ Ridley Scott, Fantastic Films, 1979.

The Ripley/Dallas sex scene can be traced back to Dan O’Bannon’s script, where it takes the form of a discussion between Captain Standard (later Dallas) and Melkonis (a character who resembles Lambert more than any other early O’Bannon character). As such, there is no sex involved, nor any prelude to sex, as in Walter Hill and David Giler’s drafts. Instead, the scene riffs on O’Bannon’s earlier movie, Dark Star, which features an ennui-ish discussion between crew members Talby and Doolittle inside one of the ship’s observation domes.

Ron Cobb’s design for the observation dome in Alien.

Talby inside the observation dome in Dark Star, featuring a ship also designed by Ron Cobb.

“It is dark and eerie here,” reads O’Bannon’s Alien, “under the stars of interstellar space. A few glowing panels provide the only illumination.” The discussions in Dark Star and O’Bannon’s Alien follow the same lines, with both Melkonis and Talby feeling quietly despondent. “We are completely, utterly alone,” says Melkonis. “Can anybody really visualise such a scale of distances? Halfway across Creation…”

Fantastic Films: “One of the lovely touches in Dark Star was the guy sitting in the dome on top of the ship, just staring off into space. He’s gone stir-crazy.”
Ridley Scott: “They say actually if you have a porthole you spend most of your time staring at space. Maybe it is a sort of space sickness. That you could become so entranced with the idea of what you’re in.”
FF: “I see Ash’s bubble as a direct outgrowth of Dark Star.”
RS: “There was a bubble in O’Bannon’s original screenplay. That’s where the love scene took place … I guess the Ash ‘blister’ was all that was left of that [aesthetic] intention.”

The most direct correlation between Dark Star’s observation scene and Alien’s planned observation scene, aside from the design of the dome and the elegiac nature of the discussion, is the topic of time and space. “Time and space have no meaning out here,” mutters Melkonis. “We’re living in an Einsteinian equation.” In Dark Star, Doolittle says, “Figure it this way: twenty years in space and we’ve only aged three, so there’ll be plenty of time to stare around…” Both of O’Bannon’s scripts stress not only the monotony of space living, but the slow crawl of time and the sobering and maddening effects of living without a circadian rhythm.

When Walter Hill and David Giler rewrote O’Bannon’s script, they seized upon his “the crew are interchangeable for men and women” tag and cemented their genders, installing two females amongst the crew. This allowed for the rise of sex politics, and O’Bannon’s observation dome scene became a prelude to an emotionless sexual encounter that served to mechanise the crew, who embrace one another not for love and comfort, but mere “relief”.

Here is Dan O’Bannon’s scene:

STANDARD: I thought I’d find you here.

MELKONIS: I was thinking of a line from an old poem: ‘Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.’ All that space out there, and we’re trapped in this ship.

STANDARD: That’s the one about the albatross, right?

MELKONIS: We can’t even radio for help; the carrier wave wouldn’t reach its destination till long after we’d died and turned to dust. We are utterly, absolutely alone. Can anybody really visualize such a scale of distances? Halfway across Creation…

STANDARD: We came out here, we’ll go back. A long time by the clock, but a short time to us.

MELKONIS: Time and space have no meaning out here. We’re living in an Einsteinian equation.

STANDARD: I can see you’re putting your spare time to good use. Let me tell you something: you keep staring at hyperspace for long enough, they’ll be peeling you off a wall. I’ve seen it happen.

MELKONIS: (smiles at him) We’re the new pioneers, Chaz. We even have our own special diseases.

STANDARD: Come on — let’s go above and see how they’re coming with the gear.

And Walter Hill and David Giler’s. Unlike O’Bannon’s version, this scene takes place within the Narcissus shuttle, rather than under the dome:

RIPLEY: I thought I’d find you here.

Dallas continues to stare.

DALLAS: Are the nets finished?


RIPLEY: We’ve got an hour … Look I need some relief.

DALLAS: Why did you wait until now?

Ripley leans forward.

RIPLEY: Let me tell you something. You keep staring out there long enough, they’ll be peeling you off the wall.

Ripley begins taking off her boots.

DALLAS: We’re the new pioneers, Ripley. We even get to have our own special disease.

RIPLEY: I’m tired of talking.

She rises and removes her upper garments.

DALLAS: You waited too long.

RIPLEY: Give it a try anyway.

Though the scene never made it into the final movie, a trace of O’Bannon’s ennui-riddled space traveller theme made it into the scenes of Dallas sitting alone in the Narcissus, listening to music and possibly contemplating his situation. “The whole mood and feel of the thing has survived essentially unmodified,” said O’Bannon of the change from his script to Giler and Hill’s revisions. “I mean I remember what I was thinking and feeling when I was writing the thing, and I can see what’s on the screen.”

Dallas and Ripley’s sex scene was cut from the movie, according to Scott, because it “just seemed out of place.” He told Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies in 1984: “[The chestburster] 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 of sex in space. If you think about it logically, the only way that mixed [gender] crews could work out on long missions is by neutralising 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.”

Ridley did, briefly, consider the idea of same-sex relations between the Nostromo crew members, saying in 2003: “There was a line through the movie which had a … more by innuendo than anything else, that there was something going on between Dallas and she [Ripley]. And then later, I thought what was really curious was -could be interesting- there was something going on between her and Veronica, which I thought was far more probable. I mean a hundred years from now, you know, that’s certainly not gonna be remarkable in space. In fact, in space relationships are probably gonna be discouraged, and if you have the need for sex, it can be with either gender. Really doesn’t matter, right?”

“Should we have an inference of a lesbian or gay relationship or not? It would have been kind of interesting. Today I’d probably do that just to thicken up the layers in the characters.”
~ Ridley Scott, Alien commentary.


Filed under Alien

Space Truckin’ – the Nostromo

The Nostromo towing its refinery through the inky blackness of space.

“I was really influenced by three films,” Ridley Scott told Fantastic Films in 1979, on the subject of the Nostromo and its claustrophobic corridors. “Not so much in terms of Star Wars, but definitely from 2001 and Dark Star.” The latter film, directed by a young John Carpenter and written by, and starring, Alien writer Dan O’Bannon, was an inverse, comedic take on 2001 – where Kubrick’s film was cold, sterile, clinical, and philosophical in scope, Dark Star was cramped, crowded, shabby, dirty, irreverent and yet also elegiac. “There was a great sense of reality, oddly enough, in Dark Star,” continued Scott, “especially of seedy living. It showed you can get grotty even in the Hilton Hotel if you don’t clean it. Everything starts to get tacky, even in the most streamlined surfaces.”

“When we did Dark Star,” said O’Bannon, “which was in the wake of 2001, we thought we wanted -partly for the novelty, partly because it was realer, mostly just for laughs- we wanted to show this once-sterile spaceship in a rundown condition, like some old bachelor apartment.” For O’Bannon, Dark Star‘s ‘used universe’ was not as strong a visual element as he had hoped, and Star Wars’ “didn’t come across all that clearly either.” For Alien, O’Bannon instructed Ridley Scott that “if we want this spacecraft to look industrial [and] beat-up, you’re gonna have to make it about three times messier to the naked eye than you wanna to see it. And Alien probably was the first time where an audience clearly saw a futuristic machine in a run-down condition.”

The design of the Nostromo and the ‘used universe’ aesthetic would be drawn from O’Bannon’s earlier sci-fi effort, coupled with the realism of Kubrick’s Discovery One. “It’s futuristic,” Scott said of Kubrick’s approach to 2001, “but it’s still hung on today’s reality … In two hundred years things won’t change that much, you know. People will still be scruffy or clean. They’ll still clean their teeth three times a day.” Though Star Wars itself utilised a used universe (or, as Akira Kurosawa called it, a “maculate reality”), Scott wanted to create a tangible reality opposed to Star Wars‘ fantasy-hinged settings and ships. “I wanted to do the truck driver version, the hard-nosed version,” said Scott. “It was supposed to be the anti-thesis of Star Wars. The reality, the beauty of something absolutely about function.”

Before Scott came onto the project as director, writer Dan O’Bannon commissioned his friend and Dark Star spaceship designer Ron Cobb to draw what his script was then calling the ‘deep space commercial vessel Snark’ – a nod to Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. O’Bannon had promised Cobb a job on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, but when that film dissolved Cobb, who had terminated the lease on his home and prepared to move to Paris with his wife, was left standing empty-handed. To make up for the letdown, O’Bannon immediately hired Cobb for Alien, which allowed the artist to bounce back from a slump. “He was paid about $400 a week,” Cobb’s wife, Robin Love, told the LA Times in 1988. “We thought it was wonderful!”

When Dan met Ron: “I was working on my first sci-fi film, John Carpenter’s Electric Dutchman, which would ultimately metastastize into the feature-length Dark Star. I tried to reach Cobb to get him to design the whole film, but he was unreachable. For weeks his phone rang without an answer, and then it was disconnected, and then I got his new unlisted number but it was invariably answered by one of the girls who were living with him, who always told me he was out. It was impossible. It took another year and a half to track him down and get him to agree to design us a nice, simple little spaceship for our simple little movie. Finally, one night about ten pm, Carpenter and I drove over to Westwood and rousted him out of a sound sleep. He was hung over from an LSD trip and I felt kind of guilty, but I had to have those designs. We took him over to an all-night coffee shop and fed him and got him half-way awake, and then he brought out this pad of yellow graph paper on which he had sketched a 3-view plan of our spaceship. It was wonderful! A little surfboard-shaped starcruiser with a flat bottom for atmospheric landings. Very technological looking. Very high class stuff.”

“The first person I hired on Alien, the first person to draw money, was Cobb,” O’Bannon said. “He started turning out renderings, large full-colour paintings, while Shusett and I were still struggling with the script – the corrosive blood of the Alien was Cobb’s idea. It was an intensely creative period – the economic desperation, the all-night sessions, the rushing over to Cobb’s apartment to see the latest painting-in-progress and give him the latest pages.”

“I just sat down and started blocking out a ship – which I love to do. Anyway, Dan’s original script called for a small, modest little ship with a small crew. They land on a small planet. They go down a small pyramid and shake up a medium-sized creature. That’s about it. He meant it to be a low budget film, like Dark Star, and I loved the idea. So I did a few paintings and Dan scurried off with them and a script.”
~ Ron Cobb

“And he was doing some incredible stuff,” continued O’Bannon. “Wow! I was really happy during this period, seeing the movie appear under Cobb’s fingers. Of course, we usually had to go over and sit on his back to get him to do any work -otherwise he would just party on with his friends- but how beautiful were the results.”

One of Cobb’s early Snark designs.

Coupled with Cobb was English artist, Chris Foss, who O’Bannon had come to know during their tenure together on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune. “Alejandro wanted Doug Trumble to do the special effects [for Dune],” Foss told MTV in 2011, “and of course, Trumble was a big important American, and certainly wouldn’t succumb to Alejandro’s manipulation. So he picked up this gauche American film student, Dan O’Bannon. He was quite hilarious, he said to me once, ‘Hey, these streets are so goddamn small.’ This is Paris, which had some of the widest streets in Europe. Of course, it was only when I got to Los Angeles that I saw what he meant.”

Though Dune would never come to fruition under Jodorowsky, the experience in France influenced O’Bannon’s approach to designing Alien. Jodorowsky had gathered together Chris Foss, Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, and HR Giger to design his film, and the eclectic team would be later reunited by O’Bannon to design his grungy sci-fi horror movie. “Dan said [to Twentieth Century Fox], ‘Hey, we’ve got to get this guy Chris Foss over here.’ So off I went to Los Angeles …

A sketch of the temporarily named Leviathan, by Chris Foss.

A sketch of the temporarily named Leviathan, by Chris Foss.

Another Foss sketch. The nose and wings of the ship resemble those of the final design.

Another Foss sketch. The nose and wings of the ship resemble those of the final design.

The early stages of designing Alien were done in an almost ramshackle, low-fi manner. “We were put through shed after shed after shed,” said Foss of the times, “and they were going through director after director after director.” Ron Cobb told Den of Geek: “I soon found myself hidden away at Fox Studios in an old rehearsal hall above an even older sound stage with Chris Foss and O’Bannon, trying to visualize Alien. For up to five months Chris and I (with Dan supervising) turned out a large amount of artwork, while the producers, Gordon Carroll, Walter Hill and David Giler, looked for a director.”

Foss was largely critical of Brandywine’s apparently disinterested approach to setting up the embryonic film. “Walter Hill was very busy smashing cars up for one of his ‘streets’ films,” he told Den of Geek. “He couldn’t be arsed – much too busy! He walked in after months of work and just said, ‘Yep, roomful of spaceships’ and just walked out again.”

Ron Cobb, Steven Speilberg, and aliens: Cobb told bttf.com: “I first met Speilberg when I was working on Alien, at one point Speilberg was considered as a possible director for the original Alien. It was just a brief thing, he could never work out his schedule to do it, but he was interested.” Later, one of Cobb’s early story pitches to Speilberg, an alien horror tale called Night Skies, eventually became 1982’s E.T. Though Cobb cameo’d as one of E.T.’s doctors (“I got to carry the little critter,”) he wasn’t pleased with the family-friendly direction that the film took from his initial idea: “A banal retelling of the Christ story,” he told the LA Times. “Sentimental and self-indulgent, a pathetic lost-puppy kind of story.” Luckily for the artist, a clause in his contract for E.T. (he was originally to direct before the story took a turn) detailed that he was to earn 1% of the net profit. His first cheque amounted to $400,000. Cobb’s wife quipped: “friends from Australia always ask, ‘What did you do on E.T.?’ And Ron says, ‘I didn’t direct it.'”

When Ridley Scott took over the directorial duties, Cobb and Foss were shipped to England to continue their work. Around this point in time, HR Giger was drawing up the film’s alien, and Moebius was commissioned by Scott to design the film’s space suits, which would be brought into reality by John Mollo. The Snark went through a variety of designs, from a ship embedded in the rock of an asteroid, to an upended pyramidal design, to a hammerhead shape and other varieties of ship with white or yellow or more kaleidoscopic paint-jobs.

One of the more unusual designs. “Fanciful Nasa.” By Ron Cobb.

After many months of scribbling and painting spaceships, the production was no closer to settling what the vessel would actually look like. Due to script rewrites, it also changed names, from Snark to Leviathan before the name Nostromo was settled on. “I called the ship Nostromo from [Joseph] Conrad,” Walter Hill told Film International in 2004, “[For] no particular metaphoric idea, I just thought it sounded good.”

However, indecision was still rife on the actual look of the thing.

Scott on O’Bannon: “He’s great. A really sweet guy. And, I was soon to realise, a real science-fiction freak …  He brought in a book by the Swiss artist HR Giger. It’s called Necronomicon … I thought, ‘If we can build that [Necronom IV], that’s it.’ I was stunned, really. I flipped. Literally flipped. And O’Bannon lit up like a lightbulb, shining like a quartz iodine. I realised I was dealing with a real SF freak, which I’d never come across before. I thought, ‘My god, I have an egg-head here for this field.'”

Scott on Cobb: “O’Bannon introduced me to Ron Cobb, a brilliant visualiser of the genre, with whom he’d worked on Dark Star. Cobb seemed to have very realistic visions of both the far and near future, so I quickly decided that he would take a very important part in the making of the film.”

Cobb on Foss: “Creating spacecraft exteriors came easily to Foss. His mind and imagination seemed to embody the entire history of the industrial revolution. He could conjure up endless spacecraft designs suggesting submarines, diesel locomotives, Mayan interceptors, Mississippi river boats, jumbo space arks, but best of all (ask Dan) were his trademark aero-spacecraft-textures like panels, cowlings, antennae, bulging fuel tanks, vents, graphics etc. As the months passed, along with two or three temporary directors, Chris began to have problems caused by his spectacular creativity. No one in a position to make a decision seemed to be able to make up their mind and/or choose one of his designs. I think Chris was turning out spacecraft designs the decision makers found too original.”

Ridley himself had input on the design: “I was looking for something like 2001, not the fantasy of Star Wars. I wanted a slow moving, massive piece of steel which was moving along in dead, deep silence … The concept was to have the hull covered with space barnacles or something. I was unable to communicate that idea, and I finally had to go down there and fiddle with the experts. We gradually arrived at a solution.”

Foss paints a more hectic process. “Finally what happened was that the bloke who had to make the [Nostromo] model completely lost his rag, scooped up a load of paper -they had a room full of smashed-up bits of helicopter and all-sorts- and he just bodged something together. So the actual spaceship in the film hadn’t anything to do with all the days, weeks, months of work that we’d all done. It’s as simple as that.”

Cobb explained: “Brian Johnson, the special effects supervisor under pressure to build the large Nostromo model, went into the deserted art department and, out of frustration, grabbed all the Chris Foss designs off the wall and took them to Bray studios. There he would choose the design himself in order to have enough time to build the damn thing.”

However, Johnson had also scooped up Cobb’s art, and though Cobb was concentrating on the designs of the ship’s interior, one of his exterior pieces met with approval over Foss’ designs. “Well I soon found out that Brian found and took all of my exterior design sketches as well,” said Cobb. “About a month later I was told that Brian had used my sketch, ‘Nostromo A’, as the basis for the model, even to the extent that it was painted yellow. Ridley found the colour a bit garish and had it repainted grey.”

Cobb’s grey Nostromo.

“Ridley had his own very firm ideas about what he physically wanted to do,” Foss said of the process, “and he almost studiously ignored everything that had gone before … I kind of got the impression that Ridley was quietly going his own way, trying to get on with it and get it done, a bit like just another job. I’ve just got dim memories of Ridley being like that and really just ignoring months of input … I just have these memories of feeling a bit miffed that things weren’t put together so much better. And poor old Dan O’Bannon, the bloke whose concept it was, just got absolutely shafted. He was almost like patted on the head: ‘Yeah Dan, yeah Dan, that’s cool.'”

Cobb’s sketches, drawings and paintings for the interiors were also okay’ed by Scott and the production. At first Cobb’s designs were slightly more fantastical, with giant screens and computer readouts and windows covered by protective shells that would open up to reveal alien planets ahead of the ship. Though these ideas were scuppered due to time, money, and logistics, many of Cobb’s early designs and ideas were revisited in Prometheus.

“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 go to a Star Trek bridge with no windows and a viewing screen.”
~ Ron Cobb.

“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 started suggesting shapes and forms that would conform to that.”
~ Ron Cobb.

The ship’s auto-doc, as conceptualised by Cobb.

The Nostromo’s life-boat airlock, by Ron Cobb.

In addition to designing the Nostromo’s exterior, its bridge and auto-doc, Cobb also designed the ship’s airlocks, cyro-tubes, corridors, bulkheads, an observation dome (not built), Ash’s ‘blister’ observation unit, some of the film’s uniform patches and ship signage, the ‘flying bedstead’ maintenance vehicle (not built), and even Jones’ cat-box. Cobb told Den of Geek that, “My problem with designing Nostromo’s interiors, the control bridge, corridors, auto doc (or med lab), bulkhead doors, the food deck, etc., was that I grew up with a deep fascination for astronomy, astrophysics, and most of all, aerospace flight. My design approach has always been that of a frustrated engineer (as well as a frustrated writer when it came to cinema design). I tend to subscribe to the idea that form follows function. If I’m to arrive at a cinematic spacecraft design that seamlessly preserves, as in this case, the drama of the script, the audience has to experience it as something impressive and believable.”

“We’re beyond 2001 in terms of scientific advances,” said Scott of Alien‘s futurism, “our capabilities are more sophisticated  but our ship’s still NASA-orientated, still Earth-manufactured … 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 with graffiti, and uncomfortable. We certainly didn’t design the Nostromo to look like a hotel.”

“I didn’t want a conventional shape [for the refinery,] so I drew up a sketch and handed it to the model makers. They refined it, as it were, and built the model. I originally drew it upside-down, with the vague idea that it would resemble a floating inverted cathedral … I think that the machine that they’re on could in fact be 60 years old and just added to over the decades. The metal-work on it could be 50 years old … I would have liked to see it covered with space barnacles or space seaweed, all clogged and choked up, but that was illogical as well.”
~ Ridley Scott, Fantastic Films, 1979.

The Nostromo model was built under the supervision of Nick Allder and Brian Johnson at Bray Studios, not far from Pinewood, where the live-action scenes were being filmed in parallel with the model shots at Bray. For the refinery, Scott instructed the teams at Bray to make it appear “Victorian Gothic,” with towers and spires and antennae. Bray shop worker Dennis Lowe explained: “At that same time in the workshop Ridley was talking about his first concept of the refinery and he was describing an actual oil refinery with pipes and spires, eventually the term ‘Battleship Bismarck in space’ came up to describe the detailing of the model.”

“I spent a couple of months rigging the Nostromo with neon strips and spotlights that would mimic the Mothership from Close Encounters. These were sequenced using motorised rotary switches, Ridley came over from Shepperton after shooting and took a look at my work then made the decision to scrap the idea – such is life!”
~ Dennis Lowe.

When Ridley arrived after concluding filming at Pinewood, he further revised the ship’s look, removing many of the spires from the refinery, repainting the Nostromo from yellow to grey, and scrapping every piece of footage shot to date, taking it upon himself to re-direct the scenes. “It was a difficult situation,” said Scott, “Brian Johnson was over there [at Bray], working out of context away from the main unit. I could only look at the rushes while I was working with the actors, and that’s not a very satisfactory way of working. In the end, I think a director must be heavily involved with the miniatures, and that’s why I shot them myself.”

According to model builder Jon Sorensen, there were no real hard feelings over the redesigns and reshoots. “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.”

Early shot of the yellow Nostromo approaching the alien planet.

The revised Nostromo hanging in orbit.

The revised Nostromo hanging in orbit.

The Nostromo interiors were overseen by art director Roger Christian, who had helped craft the sets for Star Wars. Christian told Shadowlocked.com: “I art-directed Alien for Ridley Scott with my team because he was struggling to get the designer and the art department to understand ‘that look’ I created with the dressing on Star Wars … I went into Shepperton, and we built and dressed the first corridor section – actually for a test screen for Sigourney Weaver, who the studios were not sure about. I brought my little team of prop guys who’d understood then the process of what to strip down and how to place it. Because it was not something you just do randomly. It had to be done based on a kind of knowledge.”

“Roger is a brilliant set dresser,” Scott told Fantastic Films. “Though his department was not designing the corridors and sets, their ‘cladding’ of the walls made everything look absolutely real. He would go out with his buyers and prop men and visit aircraft dumps or army surplus stores and drag masses of things in for me to see.”

“With Alien I was able to go much further with the oily and gritty look than in Star Wars,” said Roger Christian, “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.”

“[The Nostromo’s] like the bloody Queen Mary. Do you get a sense of scale in the interior? That it’s big? We couldn’t build the two to three-hundred foot-long corridors which it would have but it’s supposed to be like one of these huge Japanese super-tankers. Three quarters of a mile long. The refinery behind it god-knows how big. I mean… I dunno. A mile square?”
~ Ridley Scott, Fantastic Films, 1979.

“Ridley saw the ship very much as a metaphor for a Gothic castle,” said Ron Cobb on the subject of the ship’s interiors, “or a WWII submarine … a kind of retro, accessible technology with great big transistors and very low-res video screens.” However, at one point, Scott had other ideas for the Nostromo’s technology: “I wanted to have wafer-thin screens that are plexiglas, that just float on clips -and of course today you’ve got computer screens exactly like that- because I figured that’s where it [technology] would go. I really got those things off Jean Giraud, Moebius, when he’d been drawing and speculating. A lot of his stuff you see thirty years ago is now.”

Cobb acknowledged the Moebius influence, as well as the ship’s other, perhaps subtler, inspirations: “The ship is a strange mixture of retrofitted old technology, a kind of industrial nightmare, like being trapped in a factory … Ridley’s a wonderful artist and he wanted it to look a lot like a Moebius-designed ship, with all kinds of rounds surfaces and with an Egyptian motif.” This Egyptian motif is prevalent in the Weylan-Yutani logo, a wings of Horus design which adorns the uniforms of the crew in addition to their coffee cups, beer cans, etc. The hypersleep chamber also evokes a burial chamber, with the cryo-chambers arranged in a lotus shape. In addition to the Egyptian motif, another influence was Japan. “The owners of the Nostromo are Japanese,” Scott told Fantastic Films.

"The interior of the Nostromo was so believable," HR Giger told Famous Monsters, "I hate these new-looking spacecraft. You feel like they're just built for the movie you're seeing. They don't look real."

“The interior of the Nostromo was so believable,” HR Giger told Famous Monsters, “I hate these new-looking spacecraft. You feel like they’re just built for the movie you’re seeing. They don’t look real.”

“As I was working with the art director,” said Ridley, “I decided to make it faintly glittery. I wanted to have sort of anodized gold everywhere. Not steel, gold. Did you know that space landing craft are covered with gold foil? Amazing! So I thought, Why make this out of steel? Let’s make it all warm and oppressive, massive, and gold.'”

The glittery look can be seen in the opening shots of the ship’s computers bleeping into life, and the gold sheen is most prevalent in the ship’s maintenance area, where Brett finds the Alien’s discarded skin moments before his death. Scott explained the design process for the ship’s golden-hued maintenance garage: “We got hold of marvelous, actual parts of actual huge jet engines and installed them, and they’re like a coppery metal with some steel. We used them as four main supports, like columns, and they give a lot of the feeling of a temple. We played the same music we used in the derelict alien craft and we had two temples. The idol I wanted was through these massive gold doors which were as big as a wall, with a gap in them through which the claw [landing leg] can be seen. When that set was dressed, it looked like Aladdin’s Cave … [the garage is] filled with the equipment that the crew would use in their work on and around the refinery, and when they land on various planets – land crawlers, helicopters, other flying machines.”

“Ridley has this lavish, sensual visual style,” summarised Dan O’Bannon to Fantastic Films in 1979, “and I think that Ridley is one of the ‘good guys.’ I really think that he was the final pivot point responsible for the picture coming out good.  And so a lot of the visual design and a lot of the mood elements inherent in the camerawork, while they’re not what I planned, are great.  They’re just different.”

O’Bannon also nodded to the contributions of Cobb, Foss, Shusett etc., to the picture: “Also, it’s not 100% Ridley either. It’s Ridley superimposing his vision over the cumulative vision of others, you see.  Now this could be such a strong director’s picture because Ridley’s directorial and visual hand is so strong.  There will probably be tendency among critics to refer to it as Ridley Scott’s vision of the future.  And he did have a vision of the future.  But it was everybody else that came before, that’s what his vision is … if it sounds like I’m knocking Ridley, I’m not.”

The Nostromo at rest on the alien planetoid.


Filed under Alien

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!


Filed under Alien