From 1997’s “G.I. Jane” to the new “Alien” prequel “Prometheus,” production designer Arthur Max has begun each of his eight films with director Ridley Scott the same way.
“It’s kind of like speed-designing,” Max says. After meeting with Scott to discuss the script, “I throw as many images as seem relevant onto on the walls of the room — whatever room it is.”
Max began work on “Prometheus” in late 2009, gathering prints of classic 1950s and 1960s sci-fi illustrations by Chesley Bonestell and Robert McCall and other imagery while he and his team churned out original drawings and computer renderings.
By the time Fox toppers Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos came to check out the work just prior to greenlighting the film in May 2010, the 40 feet of floor-to-ceiling windows that lined one side of the art department’s offices were completely covered in imagery.
“I have a degree in science as well as art and architecture,” says Max. “We looked at what technology
had to offer,” culling ideas from NASA and the European Space Agency, as well futurists’ predictions for the late 21st century, when the film is set. “We wanted to explore where fantasy intersects reality. Every aspect of (the design) has to have a logic with Ridley. Why is it there, what’s the technology? It can’t just be made up without any reason. It has to be explainable.”
An accomplished painter and illustrator in his own right, Scott often explains his ideas in off-the-cuff drawings his associates refer to as “Ridleygrams.”
“He’ll just say, ‘Give me some paper,’ and he’ll start drawing,” Max says. “It’s part of his process of thinking as a director, of (deciding) how he’ll shoot scenes and light them.”
While the filmmakers didn’t copy the design palette of the original “Alien” (1979), they didn’t ignore it either. Max made copies of artwork and production stills from the film that are housed at the Motion Picture Academy Library and showed them to Scott, who was struck by an unused piece of conceptual art by H.R. Giger, whose iconic designs for the first film included the creature and the derelict ship.
“It was kind of a pig’s bladder balloon-looking mountain form, which was very biomechanical-looking,” Max says, “and that started Ridley thinking about what the structures on this alien planet could be like.”
The idea eventually evolved into the film’s largest set, which was so big it overflowed the 59,000-square-foot 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios in London.
“We extended the stage about 30% (with) a temporary structure so it ended up over 500 feet long,” Max says. “Then we put a giant greenscreen wall on stacked-up steel shipping containers to a height of about 65 feet,” so it could be extended even further in post with digital mattes.
At Pinewood, “Prometheus” occupied five soundstages, as well as much of the backlot, but it still came up short, space-wise.
“A lot of these gigantic sets
had to be prefabbed in little pieces like model kits,” Max says. “We had to keep them in storage in the workshops and then trot them out and put them together when we got a space to put them on.”
The sets were illuminated with built-in LEDs, which not only gave Scott the ability to shoot 360 degrees with handheld cameras without seeing a lighting rig, but also enhanced the visual aesthetic.
“You can mix over 1.6 million shades of colors with red, blue and green LEDs,” Max says. “The d.p. Dariusz Wolski
and I were very closely collaborating, so the colors change all the time depending on the tone of the scene. They were all computer-controlled from a master. You could pulse them. They could look like strobes. It was a big part of the design of movie.”
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