Ridley Scott’s upcoming sci-fi action movie Prometheus 3D brings explorers and scientists to an inhospitable, barren environment. With a strange and vast alien structure, Scott assures the audience that it looks like nothing that has been seen before in science fiction.
“What if you could meet God but God turned out to be the Devil?” So asks Prometheus Executive Producer Michael Ellenberg of the themes at the heart of Ridley Scott’s first return to science fiction since his seminal work on “Alien” and “Blade Runner.”
At the core of Scott’s story are the eternal questions of human existence: Who are we and where do we come from? As Michael Fassbender who plays the android David in the movie summarises: “It’s basically about trying to find out if there was intervention in the birth of civilisation on planet Earth by other beings, which we come to know as Engineers, and whether they had a master plan in mind for us.
For director Ridley Scott, the themes of Prometheus are a reaction to an abundance of post-apocalyptic cinema. Prometheus isn’t necessarily about looking forward, at what we might become, but it’s about looking back, at where we might have come from.
Shot in Iceland, “Prometheus” production designer Arthur Max reveals that Morocco was the first choice of location for the movie. “We were planning to shoot in Morocco,” shares Max. “But with all the geopolitical turmoil in North Africa, we weren’t able to do so. So we had to rethink.” The change means a very different aesthetic to the look of the planet – Morocco’s deserts have been replaced by the cold, icy rock of the Iceland location.
In addition to shooting on location in Iceland, the production took over the 007-Stage at Pinewood Studios, just outside London. At 374ft long, it is the largest soundstage in Europe and boasts more than 59,000 sq ft of usable space. For Prometheus, it wasn’t big enough by half.
The production started on the backlot behind the stage, constructing the Prometheus’s cargo bay and a small replica of the planet surface. This spilled onto an extension built to house more of an alien pyramid mound interior set, before finally connecting, and filling, the main space inside 007-Stage.
In the end, the production added 150ft to the stage’s length. “I knew, looking from end to end, it was never going to be big enough for this set,” says Scott. “I hate working with green screen. I like the actors to have their proscenium and see what they’re doing; see the arena they’re in. It’s partly that. To do that blue screen thing and say, ‘the monster’s coming down the corridor!’ It’s really boring.”
“The scale meant we could do a nice, big exploration scene in there,” explains Max. “We’ve got a 250ft network of tunnelling in there, 150ft of chambers and 25ft high doors.”
For Michael Fassbender, Scott’s attention to detail in the set design of the planet surface was second to none. “Have you gone into 007-Stage yet?” he exclaims with disbelief. “You have to see the space colon, as I call it!”
The practicality of the set makes his job easier as an actor, he explains. “What’s great is Ridley will do something on a piece of fishing line if it works, and stick a bit of green screen up in the corner. He knows technology but what’s great about him is he’s very primal. Even the technology in the film, you’re like, ‘That’s totally feasible.’”
Arthur Max says he and Ridley Scott have learnt, over many years of working together on films like GLADIATOR, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, and BLACK HAWK DOWN, that sometimes it’s better to achieve something practically than with CGI. “I think balance is the key in how much you build,” he says. “You have to get a convincing base, and when you speak to the visual effects department, they’ll tell you that they want enough reference material to work from. It’s especially tough on this, because almost every shot has a visual component and everything has to be constructed from scratch. You can’t go to a back lot and you can’t go to a prop house.”
The centerpiece of the alien set at Pinewood was a 32ft tall monolithic head, which can be glimpsed in posters for the film. This was built practically by Arthur Max’s team. “The idea there is that it’s part of the culture of the Engineers,” says Max of the race of aliens at the heart of the story. “This race of interplanetary visitors who have given us upgrades – mentally and physically – over the millennium.”
Max summarizes the key challenge of envisioning the alien environment: “The people who inhabit this planet, called the Engineers, and their technology, is beyond anything we’re able to know or understand, but it has to be visually interesting. That’s, I think, the hardest challenge, too, because we have to compete with the most iconic science fiction creature ever. Trying to come up with something that’s going to rival that is the real trick.”
“Prometheus 3D” lands very soon on June 7 in theaters nationwide from 20th Century Fox to be distributed by Warner Bros.