Oscar Effects: How Prometheus explored the future by looking into the past

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As in previous years, five films are nominated for an Academy Award in the “Visual Effects” category and they each offer a nice look at the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams can pull off on the big screen. In recognition of these five films and one of our favorite Oscar categories, we’re putting the spotlight on one “Visual Effects” nominee each day leading up to Sunday’s broadcast.Previously, we looked at The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Avengers, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Life Of Pi. Our final installment in the series looks at Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, the prequel to his 1979 sci-fi horror classic Alien.

To say that anticipation was high for Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe in last year’s Prometheus is an understatement of cosmic proportions. Ever since Scott announced his plans to revisit the franchise he spawned with his 1979 film about a terrifying alien creature that kills off the crew of the mining ship Nostromo, there was no shortage of interest – and secrecy from the Prometheus team – regarding the project.

When Prometheus finally premiered in theaters, the amount of debate it generated rivaled the pre-release buzz surrounding it. Among other heated topics, critics, fans, and casual audience members alike argued about its greater meaning, whether it lived up to the hype, and how it fit into the over-arching Alien universe. And while this could be considered one sign of success for Scott and the Prometheus team, this year’s Academy Awards also honored the film with a nomination in the same “Visual Effects” category won by Alien more than two decades ago.

Set almost 30 years before the events of Alien, Prometheus presented an interesting challenge for Scott and the visual-effects team that worked on the film: creating future technology that would seem advanced for our time, but would still seem like an ancestor to the tech that filled the 1979 film.

A purist who prefers practical effects over computer-generated imagery, Scott eventually hired Moving Picture Company to handle the bulk of the film’s digital-effects shots, with other studios such as Weta Digital assisting with certain effects-driven sequences. (The opening scene with the disintegrating “Engineer” was produced by Weta). In the end, approximately 1,300 shots were created from digital effects, with Scott charging production designer Arthur Max with the task of deconstructing the visual elements of Alien and “reverse-engineering” them for Prometheus while retaining the dark, eerie blend of sci-fi and horror that gave the first film such a unique tone.

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“[CGI] has been added, but you don’t smell it, the way you do on other films,” Max told Wired UK. “There’s enough traditional filmmaking to seduce the audience, so they feel it’s a real place and it’s really happening.”

Scott’s affinity for practical effects resulted in the production moving to the massive Pinewood Studios complex in the U.K., where Prometheus sets filled out all 5,480 square-meters of the Albert R. Broccoli 007 stage (the largest in Europe) and eventually spilled out of the studio for another 45 square-meters of detailed set pieces. Precise calculations of where the practical sets needed to end and their digital counterparts should begin were needed at various stages of production, with the team even collecting samples of local rocks and terrain at each of the external sets to find a proper match in the digital realm.

“Ridley has said to me, on every film we’ve done, ‘These sets are great, but they’re really not big enough,'” Max said. “They are never big enough! We build fragments – huge fragments – so the actors are interacting with physical space, and then the beyond-ness is extended digitally.”

The decision to film in 3D added another wrinkle to production, as traditional 3D shooting tends to require bright lighting. Anyone familiar with the Alien franchise will tell you that “bright” isn’t exactly a theme in the series, so digital effects were used to darken scenes to a level more in line with the rest of the franchise.

The creatures of Prometheus also benefited from a mix of digital and practical effects, with Scott revisiting some of the techniques he used for Alien when applicable, supplementing these shots with computer-generated material. For example, the snake-like “Hammerpede” creatures the crew encounters in their early visit to the planet were animated using wires and animatronic controls and then manipulated digitally to add certain effects (such as a new head regrowing from the decapitated creature).

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And though some have criticized how bright and modern some of the technology used in Prometheus seemed in comparison to the grimy, dirty environments of Alien (which was supposed to occur 29 years later in continuity), Scott and others have cited the difference in purposes served by that technology in the two films. While the Prometheus crew was commissioned as a private expeditionary team fully funded by a corporation and tasked with finding and analyzing new technology and sciences, the Nostromo ship and its crew from Alien were a simple mining team  called off their normal routine to investigate a mysterious planet.

As one might expect, this explanation hasn’t appeased all the film’s critics when it comes to this issue, but one element that does seem to evolve within the continuity of the franchise is the humanoid androids that play a role in the Alien films. While the Prometheus’ resident android David (Michael Fassbender) is stated to be one of thousands of identical androids and serves as the ships all-around maintenance agent and crew’s assistant, subsequent androids –  from Ash (Ian Holm) to Bishop (Lance Henriksen) to Call (Winona Ryder) – each take on a higher level of autonomy in the worlds they inhabit. By the time Alien: Resurrection rolls around, it becomes uncertain whether particular characters are human or android.

Still, Scott’s demand for a high level of practical effects supporting the movie stands in stark contrast to many of the film’s peers in the “Visual Effects” category, which has become dominated by projects that skew toward CGI over real-world sets and practical set pieces.

“You can pretty much do anything you want with digital technology, and [veteran effects supervisor] Doug Trumbull once said to me, ‘If you can do it live, do it live,'” Scott said during the Prometheus presentation at San Diego Comic-Con International in 2011. “That was 29 years ago. Even though we have remarkable digital capabilities, I still say do it live.”

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