Last night I attended a packed standing room only Q&A at Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Hollywood that was headlined by Neville Page, Steve Messing and David Levy. All three speakers were gracious and interesting hosts and were major parts of the concept team for Prometheus. They had a lot to say and show in regards to their concept art for the film and in regards to how some of those concepts evolved over time. There were some highlights that stuck out in my mind, particularly in regards to creature design since I am an aspiring creature designer and artist myself. I thought some of you would like to hear a recap:
- David Levy, who was responsible for more of the vehicle and set design showed artwork of his and Ben Proctor's that depicted several revisions of the RT01 transport vehicle. One interesting thing to note was that the concept they spent most of their time developing was thrown out by Ridley at the last minute and a month before the vehicle was to be created by the props team, he had David and Ben sit down and completely redesign the vehicle in a marathon concept session over the course of a single day.
- Steve Messing showed his matte painting-style concept artwork where he helped to define the look of the planet surface and landing sight by augmenting, painting and compositing photographs of landscapes they picked from both Iceland and Jordan. He confirmed what many of us observed in the "art of" books that due to the earlier JS script being the guiding factor in the beginning, they began by creating a world that was essentially LV-426. These early landscapes were covered in the recognizable smooth-yet-jagged spires and a dark cloudy atmosphere as seen in alienS. After Scott changed his mind many times about what the planet should be called (always an LV-some number) he finally settled on LV-223 and decided he didn't want the more exotic spires or the cloudy atmosphere and instead wanted the planet to feel like it had a massive scope and a long viewing distance. He specifically chose to have a clearer looking atmosphere with a giant snow capped mountain range that was several times larger Mount Everest.
- The visual language of the ship design was supposed to avoid a military or weaponized look. David Levy's quote was that they were told to make it look like "National Geographic with billions of dollars".
- Steve Messing showed a previously seen early concept of the planet that shows a pyramid and crisscrossing engineer structure with beams of light shooting up from all over the planets surface. He said at one point the idea was that the audience was only aware of the one base until they are all "turned on" and then we see the beams of light shooting into the sky all over and realize there are more bases. He said that this concept didn't feel like it belonged in the universe and looked "too stargate-y". Later they decided to go back to the Giger mounds instead of pyramids.
- Messing showed the planet view from space that is the first shot in the movie and explained that since he is multidisciplinary he painted, composited and projected the image of the surface onto a sphere in Cinema 4D and then re-lit it to create the final image. By doing this he ended up creating that first shot all by himself.
- Messing showed artwork of the original more alien/aliens style planet approach where the atmosphere was a mass of vortex clouds that were lit up by a network of lightning strikes. He kept reinforcing the idea that they started with something that was exactly like Alien and Aliens and that Ridley wanted something that felt more realistic, clear and broad in scope. This is why we ended up with a more earth like planet and several establishing shots of the ship appear so small in the frame that you can barely see it except for the telltale contrails it leaves in the sky.
- Steve Messing's Deacon design was always intended to be more of a placeholder but he was excited that it ended up inspiring Ridley somewhat when he sat down to design the actual creature later with Neil Scanlin studios.
- The hammerhead end and winged protrusion on the derelict/juggernaut ship ended up inspiring Ridley Scott to suggest how they should design the hammerpede. I find something amazing about this as it was essentially the one other time that an original H.R. Giger design directly influenced a creature design in this film and I find the hammerpede to be the most successful original creature in this film.
- Neville Page showed a lot of artwork that we have not seen before depicting the early incarnations of the Fifield monster that was not used. There were several quick Ridley Gram sketches that showed the creature lying all curled up with it's legs under it almost like a goat or a fawn. As a crew member approaches it, it was to stand up and uncurl to reveal itself to be a long armed and legged semi-humanoid/alien hybrid similar to the alternate Fifield we saw in the production artwork but slightly more alien. Alien features included the elongated but fleshy head, that contained eyes. Sometimes the eyes were above the surface and sometimes below the surface of the skin depending on the version of the design. I personally loved Ridley's sketches and found them to be better in overall shape and proportion than the more finished artwork from the creature designers. The Ridley Grams were, however, very very rough and open to interpretation by the viewer in some instances.
-Neville showed off several basic animation tests for the Fifield monster standing up, unfurling and revealing itself. The movement of creature was depicted by just morphing between several blend-shapes that he sculpted in z-brush since he is not an actual animator. This version of the creature had long (almost ape like in length) spindly arms that ended in two fingers. Both the arms and the legs were triple jointed so that they had an extra bend. The creature also had a small tail. The elongated bulbous head was referred to as baby-like several times. The creature was originally called the baby
-Later permutations of the design were more Fifield and less baby/alien although all of them had an elongated head. As he became more human in later versions they started to play with the idea of having the facial tattoo still be visible on the skin to show that it was the same person, just mutated.
-There were test animations for running and jumping that Weta created. These animations of the Fifield monster and the trilobyte/octopus creature felt very much like something that usually never seen by the public due to the rudementary lighting and flat grey shading. It was exciting to see these tests.
- All three designers spoke about the idea that it is sad to spend so much time working on a creature that is completely thrown out such as the Fifield monster but they understand it is about what is best for the production and is not personal.
- Page showed reference he has collected from google images and other places that show real people with massive congenital deformities both at birth, childhood and adulthood that cause encephalitis of the cranium, enlarged limbs, massive tumors and growths and festering wounds as well. They were horrifying because you really felt for the victims of this terrible diseases. Neville made it a point that he never felt excited to find a picture like this even if it was "great reference" because he also felt for the people depicted. He said that Ridley especially was deeply disturbed by the pictures of the babies and children with massive deformities. His handling of the subject matter was very classy in my opinion.
- A long detailed series of designs and rough animation tests were shown for the Trilobyte/Octopus adult creature but they were all subtle revisions on what was basically the final creature we got in the movie. Some had many penis like appendages, and vagina like orifices but all were very similar. This creature was his chance to "get my Giger on" as he put it in his slideshow. He felt more freedom to try and introduce sexually suggestive shapes in this creature.
-Save for one or two quick sketches, Neville never had time to design on paper and then reinterpret his work in zbrush. Instead he had to work directly in zbrush due to the compressed schedule. He hinted that he considers himself to be a traditional rather than digital artist so this was not his most comfortable MO but he enjoyed working on this film immensely and felt very honored as did the other artists to have the opportunity.
When I finally gathered the courage to ask I question I knew exactly the topic I wanted to bring up: Where was Giger? I asked the following run-on question (roughly verbatim): "Early on in the production I recall hearing reports both from Giger's wife and Ridley Scott himself that Giger was going to be personally involved in some design work for the film. Now if we all promise not to go home and write any gossip on the matter, can you guys answer, in a diplomatic way, what ever happened to Giger's involvement?"
There was an expected awkward pause, then they sort of looked at each other and each made small comments on the fact that apparently Giger did go and visit the art team in London and drew some sketches that did inform the murals (which they seemed to imply were the ones on the ceiling strangely enough. I wonder if they meant the wall mural which was much more giger-like, especially in the fact that it portrays parts of his older paintings) They then summarized by saying that he was indeed more of a consultant and that was it. Page in particular was sad because he was working from LA and therefore never got to personally meet Giger who he considers to be one of his heroes.
All three hosts were wonderful guests and charismatic speakers. David Levy particularly had us laughing at several points during the show. After 2 1/2 to 3 excruciating hours standing in a hot dark room with these amazing artists, the night was sadly over. I hope you enjoyed reading these bits of info. I will try to add more if I remember any other good insights they provided.
An additional note: Another major character design point that they covered in the talk was the design of the engineers. There were several concepts that Neville Page showed of the earlier, more statuesque engineers. Interestingly they original had breasts and were were sort of hermaphroditic. Neville did not like this approach and was relieved when they did not pursue it in the film. He did not show any of those designs. What he did show was that the design was primarily derived from greco roman statue-esque style of the ideal man. They also combined other examples of these same ideals that are found in the face of the statue of liberty, Michaelangelo's David and finally (and surprisingly) Elvis Presley's face. This actually became pretty clear once he spelled it out for us because Elvis had this type of romanesque nose, lips and profile. The skin started as essentially living marble, then when human like with caucasian skin tones and eventually to a more silicone or wax style white skin that we ended up with. Interestingly Neville tried to both sell Ridley on the idea eyes that were so far apart as to be inhuman and unsettling (which I loved because it separated it from regular humans). He also tried to have a skull that protruded in the back slightly but was only visible from profile view. Finally he tried adding these sort of modern cyberpunk style circular markings that signified sensor points where the engineer's suit could physically connect to his skin. Eventually Ridley steered Page back to a more traditional grecco-roman statuesque human body.
The 16 foot to 8 foot size issue was brought up and indeed they confirmed that the engineers were shrunk down to make framing of human and engineer sized characters in the same shot more natural as well as to make their physical interactions much easier to stage and pull off in camera.
Finally, on the subject of the engineers, Neville designed a series of tunics and samurai-like shorts for the opening sacrifice sequence and thankfully they went with the one used in the film that was more understated and less leather-fetish like. He was a good sport when we all giggled at the leather-like designs. The basic zbrush sketch of the suit that he ended up coming up with was another last minute on one day type of design. It wasn't until that change at the end that Ridley was inspired by Page's sketch to make the engineer's under-suit biomechanical.