Prometheus: we meet the designers behind the film

Feature Ryan Lambie 10 Oct 2012 - 07:36

With Prometheus out now on Blu-ray, we met with some of its design team to discuss their work, and take a closer look at their designs…

In a murky chamber beneath the subway lines of London Bridge, an alien lies stretched out on a slab. It’s approximately seven feet long, and clearly very, very dead. Its hairless head is tilted back, its mouth agape. Further evidence of an unpleasant demise can be found on its torso, which is split open by a force now long gone.

This alien corpse is but one of the practical effects the creature designer Neal Scanlan brought to the screen in Prometheus, and being able to walk around it is very different from seeing it projected in a movie theatre. Up close, it’s easier to appreciate the blue veins embedded beneath its alarmingly clear skin; if you were brave enough to touch it, the alien’s flesh would quiver realistically. On its biomechanoid suit, you can just make out hundreds of little iridescent plates, a little like the scales of a fish.

It’s the kind of insane intention to detail that’s difficult to appreciate while the lights are down in a cinema, but it’s one example of just how much work was put in behind the scenes. This is something that became supremely apparent when 20th Century Fox invited us along to its Prometheus press day, which brought together some of the movie’s technicians – production designer Arthur Max, costume designer Janty Yates, creature designer Neal Scanlan, documentary maker Charles De Lauzirika, and linguist Anil Biltoo – to talk about their work on the movie.

Released in cinemas earlier this year, Prometheus was a sci-fi adventure movie set in the Alien universe. It was about the excitement of exploration and discovery, and about meeting ancient gods and realising that they’re seven-foot aliens who are hell bent on wiping out the human race they created.

The story behind the making of Prometheus is remarkably similar. A group of artists and designers – the engineers behind the Engineers – excitedly set out to create a space ship, vehicles, and an alien world. Guiding them was Ridley Scott, a director with an unwavering eye for technical detail.

For Neal Scanlan, an effects designer who began his career at Jim Henson’s Workshop on movies like Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Prometheus provided the chance to work on something darker and harder-edged. His enthusiasm for his work is still evident, and infectious. As he talks to us about his effects, he excitedly waves a snake-like Hammerpede (the creature which attacks one terminally curious character in the movie), and it wobbles, jelly-like, with each anecdote. 

He lifts up the eerily life-like, taloned hand of a Deacon, a blue-hued proto alien that looks like a murderous baby goat, and demonstrates how he operated a rod-puppet version seen late in the film. He prods a hideous-looking silicone placenta; he probes the grotesque cavity of the deceased Engineer. 

“Ridley Scott wanted to shoot as many of the sequences live as he could,” Scanlan told us, between shakes of an alien’s arm. “CG is so superb, and there’s so much you can do, that in the last few years, we are playing a much more secondary role as far as animatronics are concerns. Prometheus turned that upside down. He only wanted to fall back to digital effects where he couldn’t get what he wanted practically. That created a real enthusiasm through the whole team.”

Sometimes, this behind-the-scenes effort remained largely off-screen. Although Scanlan got to bring all his gleeful creativity to bear on Prometheus’ menagerie of creatures, he had to be a little more restrained when it came to gore; surely, we asked, this could easily have been an 18-rated movie, instead of the 15-certificate Prometheus we now have?

“I’d have loved for it to have been an 18-rated film,” Scanlan says with a laugh. “The first film was incredibly scary, and there was a lot of suggested horror. I’d have been more than happy to go off the Richter scale.”

With the studio still undecided as to whether to make Prometheus a 12A, or go for a more full-blooded approach, Ridley Scott and his filmmakers decided to “Start clean and go dirty” as Scanlan describes it. The now infamous med-pod scene, for example, was shot with as many as five different cameras, and while the version seen in the finished film was arguably its most disturbing moment, Scanlan suggests that it could have been gorier still. 

“I remember one of the last things I did to poor Noomi was literally pour half a pint of blood all over her in one enormous splatter,” Scanlan told us. “There does exist, somewhere in the archives, some really quite horrific footage!” 

Scott’s uncompromising quest for detail and realism, and his equally ruthless method of paring the story back in his final edit, is evident in every conversation about the film. Production designer Arthur Max spoke of the numerous creature effects that never made it into the final cut, some of which can be found in the book, The Art Of Prometheus.

“It was quite daunting,” Max said, “to have Ridley ask me to get involved with such a big responsibility, for someone who’d never designed anything but a Coca-Cola commercial that had a science fiction theme.”

During his Q and A session, Max spoke of the months of pre-production work with an increasingly large group of designers, which swelled from two personnel to as many as 35 by the time Prometheus got the green light. Moving from a darkened office somewhere in Hollywood to a more spacious space with windows at Shepperton Studios in the UK, Max and his team began creating space ships, vehicles and creature designs at a furious rate.

“We had so much that we could embellish and reject a lot of work that was actually quite good,” Max told us, before adding that some of those unseen monsters and designs might one day make it into Prometheus: part two. “If there is indeed a sequel to the prequel, you may see some of that on the screen.” 

Ridley Scott’s exacting design specifications were similarly felt in the costume department. For costume designer Janty Yates, creating a new form of figure-hugging space suit was one of the film’s greatest technical challenges. Scott wanted to get as far as he could from the space suits in the original Alien, which were bulky, low-tech and frequently made the actors inside them hot and claustrophobic.

“The space suit and the helmet were the hardest part to get right,” Yates told us. “It started off as something very simple, and just grew and grew and grew. We needed to make sure the actors weren’t going to suffocate. Then in the next prototype, Ridley wanted lighting all around the actor’s face. 

By the time the prototyping stage was finished, the resulting space suits were fully outfitted with cameras, built-in lights, air conditioning, two-way radio communication, and as a final creative flourish, an array of 12 tiny, working LCD monitors tucked away inside the helmet. 

Even standing in a moodily lit subterranean London building, where we saw it, the space suit once worn by Noomi Rapace looks both svelte and surprisingly realistic. Although its armoured parts aren’t as weighty as they look, its detailed painting and myriad lights make it look like an outfit a space adventurer might wear at some point in the future – and closer inspection reveals that, yes, those little LCD monitors inside the egg-shaped Perspex helmet really do work.

“It was absolutely essential that they have all that technology around them,” Yates replied, when asked whether this was another example of Scott’s obsessive attention to technical detail. “So everything’s monitored – temperature, blood pressure, all of that.” 

While the design department worked away on the visual aspects of Prometheus, linguistics professor Dr Anil Biltoo had a painstaking task of his own: creating an entire alien language. Dr Biltoo, who appeared briefly in the movie as a holographic teacher for Michael Fassbender’s duplicitous space butler David, spent several months constructing the Engineers’ language for the production – an embellished form of very earthly Proto Indo-European languages.

For some, this might immediately raise a question: why go to such extraordinary lengths to build a fictional language? Wouldn’t it be just as easy to have the actors improvise some weird, alien-sounding noises and hope for the best? 

“First of all, if you work with Ridley Scott, you don’t have that option,” Dr Biltoo replied when we put this question to him. “He’s a real stickler for detail. ‘I want something to sound like this. I want it to look like that. No, actually, I want it to look like that.’ His eye and ear for detail is uncanny.”

The use of a language grounded in earthly history also served to underline the Chariots Of The Gods-inspired (or At The Mountains Of Madness-inspired) notion that the Engineers had been quietly meddling with humanity’s upbringing. “All you have to do as an audience is join the dots,” Dr Biltoo said. “The Engineers must have been coming back to Earth to check on their experiment. In antiquity. In olden times. We have, in some shape or form, messed around with by the Engineers since that initial point of contact.”

For one sequence in the film, Michael Fassbender was required to learn a slab of Proto-Indo-European dialogue, which was, Dr Biltoo told us, roughly “the length of the Lord’s Prayer”. Ever the committed actor, Fassbender spent around 17 hours committing this complicated, apparently nonsensical collision of vowel sounds and guttural clicks to memory. On the day of filming, however, Ridley Scott had a last-minute change of creative direction; after Fassbender uttered his first line, Scott yelled, “Cut! Thank you, that’s a wrap.” 

Other scenes containing Dr Biltoo’s alien language were also removed from the final print. David’s conversation with a revived Engineer was reduced to a relatively brief exchange, as was a section of dialogue originally filmed for Prometheus’ enigmatic opening. But in spite of its relatively brief appearance, Dr Biltoo’s hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed; shortly after the movie premiered, her received an email from a post-graduate student in Indiana. The email contained a link to an online forum that had not only figured out the origins of the Engineers’ language, but had also attempted to translate the dialogue’s meaning.

“They’d guessed that the language was Indo-European. All from that three-second snippet of dialogue,” Dr Biltoo told us. “They got the translation so close, I was slightly unnerved.”

It has to be said, of course, that while Ridley Scott was obsessive over technical details, the finished film was widely criticised for, among other things, being rather too coy with its answers. Unusually, the Blu-ray release has been put together with some of the theatrical version’s fan reaction in mind.

The Blu-ray aims to “address some of the comments from fans”, filmmaker Charles De Lauzirika tells us. He’s the director behind the Prometheus Blu-ray release’s extensive documentary, The Furious Gods, which is a refreshingly unvarnished account of the Prometheus’s making. Although we’re only shown brief snippets during his presentation, the frustrations and trials of making a movie as big as Prometheus appears to be honestly portrayed.

“It’s a candid look at the making of the film,” Charles told us. “For me, that’s much better than the ‘Oh, he’s a genius’ type of documentary. It’s not just fluff.”

Lauzirika also confirmed that, although there’s an alternate beginning and ending on the Blu-ray, the cut we saw in cinemas was indeed Ridley Scott’s approved edit – Fox even offered Scott the opportunity to put together an extended cut, but he declined. “No, this is my cut” the director reportedly said, “but here are 30 minutes of deleted scenes to put on the side.”

We were shown a few of these deleted scenes on the day, and it seems that many were either taken out to keep up the pace of the movie, and also to retain a constant sense of ambiguity; there was, for example, a much longer version of the opening sequence which more obviously depicts some form of ritual sacrifice. The semi-nude Engineer who drinks the cup full of goo is, in this version of the opening sequence, joined by a group of much older creatures, clad in Jedi-like gowns and standing ominously in the background. 

Although not without its faults in terms of plot and characterisation, the quality of Prometheus’ design, and the sheer hard work that went into it, is there to see in the film – and seeing some of that work close up gave us a greater appreciation of how detailed it all was. Much of that hard work is also documented in Lauzirika’s film, providing an idea of some of the many ideas that never made it to the big screen.

“I always love to see when there’s so much work put into things, and those get put to one side because they didn’t mesh with other ideas in the film,” Lauzirika said. “That, to me, is always interesting. What are the abandoned ideas? I love that part of it.” 

Aside from documenting Prometheus’ making from beginning to end, Lauzirika also managed to put his finger on why the movie, despite its mixed reviews, was still a success with audiences.

“I went to see The Avengers,” Lauzirika said, “and I came out of it thinking, ‘Wow, that was a fun movie. That was great, very enjoyable. Now, where are we getting dinner? Where did you park? And that was it. We maybe had five minutes of discussion about The Avengers.

"With Prometheus, we’re still arguing about it months later. And that’s what I love about this film: love it or hate it, there’s stuff to talk about in this film. There’s stuff to debate, and that’s what makes it a compelling experience.”

Prometheus is out now on Blu-ray 3D Collector’s Edition, Blu-ray and DVD.

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