Prometheus: Sets and Production Design
There are impressive, state-of-the-art CGI in Prometheus, but much less than in most contemporary pictures. Scott built enormous sets and shot the majority of the film live, and not with CGI. The 3D is superior because the depth of field actually existed, thanks to the practical, enormous sets; most of today’s films use CGI set extensions, namely, green screens.
Prometheus was built with depth and then shot on location with depth, by an artist who actually composed the shots in three dimensions. This also provides a tactile reality, with stunning sets: Scott built the greatest alien playground in the world.
The cast and crew were in awe of production designer Arthur Max and his team of artisans. “It is hard to overstate the impact of walking on those sets,” says Ellenberg. “It was inspiring on so many levels. There are so many understated, instinctual things that happen when you are filming on real sets. Everyone behaves in a more natural, organic fashion because it feels like a piece of reality. Every design detail was based on real world reference points, real world ideas, and real world notions. Some of these are fairly lofty notions, but they’re from our world. And if you are looking to scare people and engage with them, viscerally and emotionally, practical sets are the only way to go.”
The production filmed on five stages at Pinewood Studios in the U.K., including the famed “007 Stage” (one of the biggest stages in Europe, at about 59,000 square feet). With studio space at a minimum, the filmmakers had to make five stages work for more than 16 sets, as well as increasing the size of the 007 Stage by at least a third. Principal photography commenced in August 2010, although preliminary work had begun much earlier.
Arthur Max designed not only the spaceships and vehicles but also the landscape of the planet to which the expedition travels, and the structures and spaceship they discover there. For the ship Prometheus, Max says he wanted “to do something that was state-of-the-art, which would represent a flagship spacecraft with every technology required to probe into the deepest corners of the galaxy. We looked at a lot of NASA and European Space Agency designs, and played around with those ideas in the context of what space travel would be like a generation from now.” Max then worked out the ship’s interior architecture and how it would play to the exterior form.
The bridge of the Prometheus is a two tiered set marked by extraordinary attention to detail and dazzling technology, including a gigantic wraparound jewel-like and faceted windscreen fronting the structure. Perhaps the most elaborate set on the Prometheus is Vickers’ quarters, which are more akin to a plush Fifth Avenue apartment than a cabin on an interstellar vehicle. The space is resplendent with designer furnishings both old and new, including a Fazoili piano, Swarovski chandeliers – and a high-tech medical facility featuring a robotic medical pod (Med-pod) that can treat any medical need…or surgical emergency. The translucent casket-like pod figures in one of the film’s defining sequences, which mixes action, terror and horror in a way never before experienced on film. “What goes on there is simply the worst thing you can (or probably cannot) imagine,” says Rapace.
Other interior sets on the Prometheus include a laboratory, where the crew bring their findings for inspection; the ready room, where the crew get suited up in preparation for their mission; the hyper-sleep barracks, where David monitors the crew during their two year journey to the planet; the mess room, with an amazing array of high-tech equipment; and the space crew’s quarters.
Max’s epic sets that bring to life the alien planet include a Pyramid, which contains the Juggernaut, a ship similar to the crashed crescent shaped ship seen in Alien. Using a series of chambers, corridors and tunnels connecting the larger spaces to each other, and after post-production enhancement, the space is as enormous as the Empire State building. It was so cavernous that some crew lost their bearings.
Outside, on Pinewood’s backlot, Max and his team built the Prometheus Garage, one of three sets that sit beneath the main body of the ship. The enormous set houses the crew’s vehicles, which the production built from scratch. “We had to create vehicles that could actually be driven on a hostile surface, which is undulating and rocky,” says Max. “We needed transportation that would be industrial enough to deal with these environments but at the same time give us a futuristic characteristic.” It took eleven weeks to create these robust vehicles, complete with state-of-the-art technology, LED lighting, and padded seats, all presented in a dazzling metallic finish.
After 15 weeks at Pinewood, cast and crew relocated to Iceland to shoot the climactic sequences as well as the prologue. In the town of Hekla, the production captured epic action and thrills – while one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes threatened to erupt. Additional scenes were shot at a spectacular waterfall in Dettifoss.
Facing challenges every bit as demanding as those confronting Max was another of Scott’s frequent collaborators, Academy Award®-winning costume designer Janty Yates. “Ridley was adamant about avoiding the puffy, NASA-style spacesuit audiences know so well,” says Yates. “He loved the linear look so we went with a novel approach to spacesuit design that uses biomedical breakthroughs in skin replacement and materials to create a suit that could believably provide lightweight flexibility and comfort in any extraterrestrial environment. Each costume consisted of the outer spacesuit and a Neoprene under suit, a yoke to which a helmet was attached, and a backpack. Scott mandated a globe-shaped helmet with no blind spots. Each helmet had nine working video screens, lighting, an oxygen supply run on two fans with battery packs within the backpack. The exterior of the helmet features a fully functioning torch and HD cameras with a transmitter and recorder.
David’s onboard costume conforms to the human apparel, but with fine lines to provide a more linear look. Theron wears a beautiful silk mohair suit in ice silver. “Vickers is the ice queen. It was always our vision to make her look as sculptural as possible,” explains Yates. Keeping the naval simile in mind for Janek, Janty gave Elba a canvas-greased jacket giving the appearance that he’s been at the helm of a ship for many years. Marshall-Green as Holloway exudes a casual comfortable timeless look, in his hoodies, Thai fisherman pants and flip-flops.
The film’s new creatures are the work of Creative Supervisor for Creature Effects and Special Make-Up Effects Neal Scanlan and Prosthetic Supervisor Conor O’Sullivan. “We present the evolution of these nasty bits and pieces of creature evolution in a logical and biological fashion,” says Scott. Adds Scanlan: “Each stage of a creature’s life cycle has a distinctive purpose. For our xenobiology, we brought in new elements that are not necessarily backward from those in Alien, but are of a similar DNA. Many of Ridley’s references are derived from nature – plants, vegetables, sea creatures and other animals. Nothing is invented.”
Prometheus marks Scott’s first film shot digitally and in 3D, a format whose technical challenges and aesthetic opportunities were embraced by the filmmaker. Scott and Wolski used the technology to enhance the action and thrills in small confined spaces, as well within epic vistas.
In returning to the genre he helped define, Ridley Scott continues to push the boundaries of storytelling, both visually and thematically. As he notes, he’s all about the “everything”–from story structure to casting, from sets and costumes to new ways of telling a story. And while the renowned filmmaker is scaring and thrilling audiences, he never loses sight of the big picture. “After you’ve seen Prometheus,” Scott concludes, “you will have experienced something completely unexpected.”
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