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Immersed in Movies: Dissecting ‘Prometheus’ with Scripter Damon Lindelof and VFXers

Immersed in Movies: Dissecting 'Prometheus' with Scripter Damon Lindelof and VFXers

While it’s not surprising that critics and journos are deeply divided over “Prometheus,” it helps to have low expectations. In my case, I came away with more than I expected. I found Ridley Scott’s return to sci-fi enthralling. He seems to have transcended the “Alien” universe by combining it with “Blade Runner.” In a sense, watching “Prometheus” is like experiencing a hybrid of both, and exploring the dualities that are a part of their shared DNA: beauty and ugliness, creation and destruction, humanity and inhumanity. Ultimately, “Prometheus” is Scott’s summary film — his “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Lawrence of Arabia” yet filtered through his existential lens.

It’s no accident that screenwriter-exec producer Damon Lindelof channeled the roots of Scott’s passions in his “Prometheus” rewrite. He was eager to revisit this sci-fi icon. “The experience of working with Ridley was intimidating, and incredible and fulfilling and terrifying all at the same time,” he says. “It was a very surreal experience. He gets uncomfortable when you praise him and he waved me off and said let’s [get to it].”

Lindelof found the script by Jon Spaihts to be a straightforward narrative prequel and brought out more thematic subtext to the surface about the search for God and immortality, which is what animated Scott. “The audience is going to see a bit of the [tropes] because, if you go to a Rolling Stones concert, they’d better play ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’ I looked at my job as a rebalancing and so I flipped the 70% ‘Alien’ and 30% new idea. As the development process went along, we were talking more and more about this great sci-fi principle, which is: Do not thou ask where thou comes from. ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ are still the movies that Ridley is interested in: one is about gestation and creation and delivery: an abomination inside yourself; the fear of coming from within. And ‘Blade Runner’ asks, ‘why am I here and why do I have to die?'”

The dynamic between android and human from “Blade Runner” is flipped in “Prometheus,” so we get something different out of Noomi Rapace’s seeker and Michael Fassbender’s android. Yet it’s still about the hubris of the quest to meet our maker.

Ridley and Lindeloff would talk about one scene, the entire arc of the movie, and even devoted one whole day to David Lean movies.” It was the best film school that one could ever ask for. It was about sublimating my own ideas, which was a huge relief after six years of having a tiger by the tail with ‘Lost.'”

Meanwhile, the VFX and 3-D challenges were considerable as Scott was dragged into the 21st century with more CG than he’s used to and the introduction of 3-D. The old-school director is now a convert to both. Why, he even embraces previs as a helpful tool, thanks to Halon.

“Ridley wanted to shoot it like a 2-D film and still rely on all the regular depth cues that he’s used to using over the years with lots of atmosphere and smoke and haze,” explains Richard Stammers of MPC and the production VFX supervisor. “The general approach to 3-D was relatively conservative. However, ‘The Orrery’ sequence [witnessed by Fassbender] allows us to pass through these holographic effects [pertaining to the creation of the universe].”

MPC in London was the lead VFX studio and created the planet environments, space shots, and space ships. Stammers says Scott was inspired by locations in Wadi Ram, Jordan, which became the basis of the planet’s barren yet beautiful landscape.

Weta Digital was responsible for the four alien creatures, including the Adonis-like humanoid called The Engineer. However, instead of just doing a fully animated creature, Weta was tasked with matching an actor on set with full silicon prosthetics. “Ridley is one who likes to shoot as much as possible in camera and so it was very much the antithesis of a virtual studio in many ways,” suggests Weta VFX supervisor Martin Hill. “And that presented a bit of a challenge for us because if we’re going to make a digital creature, we want to add musculature and make it as physically real as possible. But we’ve got this slight dilemma in trying to match this onset Engineer and other creatures later on and making them convincing. What we found was that we can make a digital humanoid with pretty convincing skin. But we had to advance our technology with enough subsurface so he didn’t appear too waxy. And so we carved vein patterns into slabs of silicon to get it right.”

Sounds a bit like “Blade Runner” again, as “Prometheus” keeps turning inside out. Somewhere Ray Bradbury, who passed away this week, must be smiling at Scott’s return to sci-fi and the continuing impact of his legacy.

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