Ridley Scott's Prometheus is one of the year's most visually stunning movies. It's full of astonishing images that live on in your mind's eye after you leave the theater — and every single one of those images was the result of hours of work by a team of designers who worked literally around the clock.
We spoke to six designers who worked on Prometheus, and delved into the untold mysteries of this film's creation. Here are 10 things you absolutely did not know about the design of Prometheus — plus some exclusive concept art.
The exclusive image above comes from Prometheus: The Art of the Film, released by Titan Books. It's a gorgeous look inside the design process of this film, from its conception as a straight-up Alien prequel to the finished movie. It's chock full of beautiful, scary and moody art. See the full version of that image below. All other images below are courtesy of Steven Messing, and some of them have appeared elsewhere.
For this article, we spoke to production designer Arthur Max, concept artists David Levy, Ben Procter and Steven Messing, creature designer Carlos Huante and senior art director Mark Homes. Plus writer Jon Spaihts.
With that out of the way, here are 10 secrets we learned about Prometheus:
10. We could have gotten to see Mars being terraformed.
The designers did "some very nice work" on the orbiting space station where Peter Weyland has his office, according to production designer Arthur Max. This included "a very interesting space colony that was orbiting around the planet Mars. There was a base for terraforming Mars." This whole sequence got cut before shooting, because it was too lengthy and slowed down the pacing of the film. But you can glimpse a teeny bit of it in the hologram released by the Weyland Corporation.
Writer Jon Spaihts says his drafts involved a meeting in Weyland's office — which at various times was either on a space station, or actually on the surface of Mars, right in the middle of the terraforming project. "Terraforming was much more Mr. Weyland's burning dream in my drafts," says Spaihts.
Oh, and as for why Weyland is played by Guy Pearce in old-man makeup, Spaihts says Damon Lindelof's script showed the android David going inside Weyland's dreams while he was in hypersleep — and in his dreams, Weyland is a young man, on a yacht surrounded by beautiful women. These dream conversations got cut, but Pearce's casting was already locked in. Scott had originally wanted to cast Max von Sydow as Peter Weyland. (In Spaiht's script versions, Weyland isn't aboard the Prometheus at all — instead, there's a hidden squad of company soldiers.)
9. Any resemblance between the Prometheus and Serenity is purely accidental.
"The Serenity was absolutely not a reference," says Ben Procter, who did most of the design work on the exterior of the Prometheus — in spite of some fans' insistence that the movie's ship looks a bit like the famous vessel from Firefly. But there were hints of the Nostromo in there, and maybe a bit of a shout-out to artist Chris Foss, who worked on the original Alien.
The early work on the Prometheus was done by Steve Burg, who left the project early on. Says Procter:
Steve's early illustrations showcased the major features which were of interest to Ridley and Arthur early on — the four main thrusters which could pivot radically for different modes of flight, a descending airlock which allowed vehicular access to the planet surface, and an overall imposing "oil platform" look when the craft is standing on the ground with all of its work lighting on. There's no question the ship has Nostromo DNA in it, but in continuing Steve's work I also kept in mind Ridley and Arthur's desire for more aeronautical elegance and performance. It's a flagship prospecting vessel, not a "tow truck", and Ridley said it could hover and dive "like a Blackhawk". The final result is meant to look muscular but beautiful, with a speedy look but also enough exposed hardware to feel tough and functional. I explored many color schemes and the one Ridley picked is actually a bit Fossian with its bold black and yellow stripes.
Adds Levy, "As opposed to the Nostromo, a very rudimentary ship, Prometheus is a Rolls Royce." Levy worked on the expedition Rover, with Joe Hiura, and aimed for something that looked "modern, scientific and very well thought out, as opposed to military or derelict." Everyone involved with the film had "a real passion for space travel," and was constantly consulting NASA imagery for the latest designs, adds Levy.
8. The movie's creature designer also worked on Alien Vs. Predator
And Carlos Huante says the two experiences were very, very different. (You can see his designs for AVP here.) Says Huante, "Prometheus was a very serious approach to things that already existed in a successful universe that Ridley himself created. We were imagining the origins of some of those creatures and it was very high minded. I mean, real science fiction, where science played a big part." Meanwhile, the AVP film "was more about what would look cool as a different type of Predator helmet." The guiding principle behind working on AVP was to keep the art direction consistent and everything cool-looking, because it was more about fun than about making a serious film. Huante says he enjoyed working on both, but Prometheus was special because Ridley Scott was so personally involved in everything.
7. Pretty much all of those sets were built practically and modeled in 3-D.
And that includes the weird caverns and chambers on the moon LV-223, as well as the interiors of the ship Prometheus. Says Ben Procter, "While some sets were redressed as different locations within the ship, there was still a lot of acreage to wander, if you were so inclined. The garage airlock was just enormous — nearly 200 feet long, if I recall correctly. The giant landing foot that explorers crash into during the sandstorm was built practically, up to a height of 28 feet."
And David Levy says that the Med Pod where Noomi Rapace gives herself emergency surgery needed to be "built and function in real life." The Med Pod went through a lot of different versions, including some early, more "opaque and heavy" versions, says Arthur Max.
Arthur Max, the production designer, says he pushed the concept artists to draw set dressings in 3-D so that the set designers could work from those 3-D schematics. The concept artists working on the film had to get used to creating set dressings that could be rotated in 3-D and viewed from every angle, something that they weren't used to doing. "I introduced a kind of 3-D set design process, that ended up on the workshop floor that was very useful," says Max — and this allowed huge and complicated sets to go up in a hurry.
"You can design anything," says Max, but "Ridley wants the set built. He doesn't want surprises. He wants feet and inches." Everything had to be able to fit into the space available, so you would know right off the bat that it was achievable. The only drawback of this method was that it allowed people to work so quickly that sometimes Ridley would ask for changes in a particular set — and the Los Angeles-based artists would rush those revisions to the U.K. set designers, only to find that the set had already been built.
Some of the set pieces were 35 to 40 feet high, and the sculptors needed to be able to cut up huge chunks of polystyrene in bulk, so they could be fit together, says Max. So having incredibly detailed 3-D renderings from the concept artists helped them to know how these should look. Meanwhile, "some of the steel work was very big and curving, and specific shapes that they needed to be able to measure," says Max. "These things were all done in differnet workshops and different stages, and on different days. They all needed to be able to come together and fit together." And it all had to come in under budget, on time.
6. Ridley Scott was constantly sketching and storyboarding.
Ridley Scott is famous for his "Ridleygrams," in which he not only storyboards his movies, but does tons of his own sketches and ideas. At left is a Ridleygram from Prometheus, via Alien Prequel News. Says Procter, "Ridley draws all the time. It's fantastic. Every meeting left us with a pile of Ridleygrams, often loose sketches rather than formal storyboards. These were always scanned and filed, and often proved invaluable." And Messing says that Scott "would often come in and sit next to us and draw for hours at a time. That truly was a unique experience." According to Levy, the job of the concept artists was often to take Scott's sketches and flesh them out, adding lots of variations for him to choose from but staying close to Scott's original idea. Says Levy, "He is an incredible artist, with an amazing eye for design and compositions."
5. The surface of LV-223 is a mixture of real-life vistas from Earth and NASA images.
Messing worked heavily on the sequence where Prometheus lands on LV-223, based on Scott's storyboards. And there were two huge sources of inspiration for the view as you descend to the moon's surface: NASA reference imagery, "especially vortex cloud structures." And actual aerial plates, shot by Richard Stammers and his team, of real-life locations in Iceland and Wadi Rum. Says Messing, "A lot of the final environment work is a combination of real photography and 3d set extensions. Ridley and VFX Producer Alan Maris wanted to keep the film grounded in reality, and tried to shoot plate elements whenever possible."
As for the actual surface of LV-223, Messing says:
Most of the natural structures were drawn from the original film. The swooping rock pinnacles were toned down a bit as Ridley felt they were a bit too fantastical. He was a bit more reserved in this film and wanted the environment to feel believable. We looked at Olympus Mons on Mars and several large mountain structures on earth for reference. Ridley felt that once the ship broke through the planet's cloud layer we would see an amazing landscape — in the original the ship was shrouded in darkness and a storm with zero visibility — Ridley felt that he wanted to achieve the opposite here — scope and grandeur at a massive scale. We shot a lot of amazing plates in Wadi Rum and different regions in Iceland. I painted over dozens of these plates and gave Art Direction to the VFX team.
Levy adds that the team had a visit from NASA specialists, who talked about the potential look of different exo-planets, and these real-life scientific ideas informed a lot of the artwork. The team also had access to photos of ice being expulsed into the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Enceladus, and Levy talked a lot to the NASA team about different rare phenomena in our own solar system.
4. The Prometheus art team started very, very small.
Originally, says Max, the design team on Prometheus was just himself and artist Steve Burg, who came up with sketchy but "evocative" designs. At one point, they had two weeks to come up with a pitch session that presented the studio with designs for the whole movie, from start to end. "Truth be known, we repurposed some Alien stills that we painted over, because we had no time," says Max.
After Burg left the project, Max hired a few new designers, but it remained a small team, trapped in a conference room 30 feet away from Ridley Scott's office. "Essentially, we had Ben Procter designing the Prometheus ship, David Levy working out vehicles, props, and various set pieces, and me focusing primarily on the planet environment and Alien spaceships/architecture," says Messing. "We all had to be quite versatile in our skill set. There was also Carlos Huante and Neville Page working on creatures remotely." According to Max, they covered every wall in the conference room with art, until they ran out of wallspace and had to resort to covering the windows, "going from a brightly lit room to a black box."
Later, it became a 24-hour art department, with people working in both L.A. and London, collaborating via Skype and sending files back and forth for people in both countries to modify.
3. There's an altar to H.R. Giger inside the "Head Room."
Another set that I worked on was known as the "Head Room." This was a ceremonial room that contained hundreds of ampules beneath a giant sculpture of an Engineer's head. Julian Caldrow did an amazing job of working out all of the details for this environment and created the set drawings. The final set was built at full scale and was incredible to walk on. I also sculpted an altar area for this set that paid homage to Giger -it is a relief sculpture hanging from the wall and has the impression of an alien form with flowing structures surrounding it. There are a lot of easter eggs in this sculpture — including several hidden Giger motifs that were not used in the original film.
Messing also worked on the Juggernaut, the huge alien ship that becomes the Derelict — although artist Alex Kozhanov really designed the shape language that wound up being the basis for Messing's designs. Another ship that Messing worked on was the "Pebble," the big smooth ship that glides overhead in the opening moments of the film — it went through many different concepts before ending up with something very stark and simple.
2. A chiaroscuro-style balance of light and shadow is at the heart of the film's aesthetic.
The main guiding idea behind the aliens in Prometheus was their paleness, says Huante, the creature designer:
Once I realized that this film's timeline was taking place before the Giger-esque esthetic would come into effect, I started homing in on a design aesthetic [that] I felt would complement the beautiful Giger style that saturated the first film. I wanted everything white and embryonic. Ridley and I were right in tune with each other on this. I mean, Ridley was looking at paintings that had white ghost like creatures, as reference for the Engineers. I loved the idea of pale white and started developing that as an over-all concept for all the creatures.
And Messing says that some of the iconic shots in this film "pay homage to Chesley Bonestell with strong graphic elements of light and shadow." Other art references include old Giger drawings, national monuments, large installation sculptures — and the Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota.
1. The creatures could have been much more monstrous.
Carlos Huante says he came up with some primitive, scary creatures, based on the real-life goblin shark. (At left: Some video of goblin sharks, that Huante says he shared with Ridley Scott.) There was the Deacon, which eventually turned into "that blue thing that comes out of the Engineer" at the end of the film — but Huante's version was very different. Also, there was a creature that everybody called the "Beluga Head," that he really wanted to make the cut, but sadly didn't. Both of these creatures were supposed to have "some of the mouth structure from the goblin shark, or at least the concept of how the mouth shot out," says Huante. "The Goblin is very delicate, and my creatures were not delicate. I wanted them to be elegant but wickedly strong."
Max adds that the designs for the creatures kept evolving into something that was "a bit too monstery." Ridley Scott really wanted to "keep it real" and avoid anything that looked too overtly monstrous. In the end, the creatures in the film were "collages of creatures, that were recombined for anatonmy and skin type," and they stayed "within the realm of the real." There was a lot of time spent visiting Natural History museums. Often, Ridley would decide that he liked the texture of a creature's head, and he wanted it all over the creature's body, which meant a very time-consuming total resculpt. "Yes, but I want it," Scott would reply.
For the creatures in this movie, Carlos Huante says he and Scott also pored over binders full of references, including natural creatures but also paintings by William Blake and J.M.W. Turner, and "books of classical sculpture" for the look of the Engineers. Early, Huante came up with some other types of precursors to the original film's face-hugger and Xenomorph, plus a "primitive Alien creature" that got cut.
Top image: Prometheus: The Book of the Film. Image is ™ & © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.