« Alien model Build - The Narcissus | Main | Spaceships that became other Spaceships #2: The Colonial Viper »

Getting There: The Nostromo

I think we can all agree that Alien features some of the finest sci-fi visuals ever brought to screen. But besides Sigourney Weaver stripping off for for hypersleep, there were some pretty cool looking spacecraft in there too. Especially this monster, Commercial Towing Vehicle 180924609 otherwise known as the Nostromo.

This thing looks EPIC on-screen and one of the reasons I like it so much is the way it gives off such a sense of mass. It looks really really heavy. Of course, a large part of this is the way it was filmed but apparently the design of this beast was a bit of a shambles and it all came together pretty much at the last minute in the modelshop.

The two main artists that were working on the ship design were Chris Foss and Ron Cobb. If it's serious looking spaceships you're looking for you can go and put the kettle on - it's covered. The original brief was that the vehicle was a tug for a futuristic space-worthy bulk carrier. Eventually the cargo was designed as an entire refinery complex and the Nostromo itself was treated as a seperate vehicle. The ship was originally called "Snark" as you can see in the Ron Cobb concept piece below. I like that you can see the design element at the front of this ship that eventually became the observation blister that housed Ash's science station in the film.

The ship went through another name change before it appeared on-screen. The next moniker was "Leviathan" as illustrated below by Chris Foss.

The ship design was moving around quite a bit as the artists were working off to one side of the production with Dan o'Bannon and putting out an impressive amount of concept art without getting approval on a final design.

I do enjoy the fantastical nature of Chris Foss artwork and I wished he'd drawn more black and white comics when I was a kid. I know he did a couple of covers for 2000AD as a guest artist but imagine him doing Ace Trucking Co. or Nemesis the Warlock.

The closest Chris Foss came to a final "Leviathan" design was this piece below. You can see the design carried across from an earlier unfinished piece he did (above) for a Guild Spice Transporter from Alejandro Jodorowsky's ill-fated attempt to bring Dune to the screen. This occured prior to Alien as Dan O'Bannon was working on that project too and brought his concept team across, which included Chris Foss, Ron Cobb, Jean Giraud (Moebius) and certain Hans Rudi Giger. Getting this pre-production team along with Dan O'Bannon was a hell of a win for Ridley Scott. This Chris Foss design never made it into the film of course but it did make it into a beer ad in the early 80s and the cover of his book, 20th Century Foss.

I always find alternate options fascinating and the idea of the Nostromo ending up on-screen like the image above is hard to imagine. it would have changed the whole feel of the opening of the film. At the same time, Ron Cobb was pursuing alternate options for the look of the Nostromo.

These following pieces are interesting as they introduced the idea of a yellow paintjob to the ship. This idea stuck and the Nostromo model was originally finished in yellow before being re-painted to a more neutral grey as Ridley Scott wasn't too keen when he saw it.

Being an artist myself, I am fascinated by other artist's processes. I enjoy seeing the avenues that were explored with this ship particularly as they are all so different from each other. We can see the design starting to come round in the two images below.

Ron Cobb also did a few more cinematic paintings featuring his ship designs to give an idea what they might look like on-screen. His original "Snark" design is featured in the image below.

In the end the model team took over and just got to work in the model-shop. Here's the finished Nostromo in the original yellow paint scheme. Didn't last too long.

Here's the yellow Nostromo dirtied down and ready for photographic tests. As you can see, it looks quite different.

Some of the later Ron Cobb designs were used as a jumping-off point but a lot of it was made up as they went along and Chris Foss' contribution was marginalised. I guess that's how production goes but at least we get to enjoy their artwork retrospectively. The final design looked beautiful on-screen and had quite a bit of function with lots of internal lighting and a working CO2 system for the engines during the landing and lift-off sequences.

There was only one full-size Nostromo ever built and it recently underwent restoration. It had to really becasue it had been sitting down the end of somebodys garden for 20 years and looked like this. You can see where some paint has peeled and exposed the original yellow paintjob underneath.

The Prop Store of London organised a team to restore this legendary miniature and now the surgery is complete you'll be happy to know the patient made a complete recovery.

One of the main reasons I'm writing this blog (apart from the fact that I enjoy banging on about the art of science-fiction and film-making), is that I'm hoping that you might get a little bit of daily inspiration. So in that spirit here's a picture that I find inspirational. Look! He's making the fucking NOSTROMO! How cool is that!

References (2)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (5)

I loved the fantasy of Foss but was a Cobb kid, doing little ship books as a kid. I loive the interesting angles they tried to capture for a landing craft, not sure why the crew would want to climb up stairs though?

Great Blog as usual, thanks.

September 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

ONE full-size (I assume you mean 'complete') Nostromo?!! Come on, Gavin, you worked with Bill Pearson, you should know better! LOL!

There was a smaller 4' model with engine lights, used for the shot where the Nostromo moves away from the refinery after un-docking; a 12-14" model in scale with the complete refinery;and there was even a rudimentary Nostromo on Martin Bower's 14" 'long-shot' refinery!

Lift your game! ;)

July 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJD

When I said there was only one "full-size" model of the Nostromo, I was, of course, referring to the "hero" model, of which only one was built. The others were quite a bit smaller and less detailed, which is why I used the term "full-size" to differentiate. Perhaps I shouldn't have used the term "full-size" as it is a bit ambiguous...

July 30, 2012 | Registered CommenterGavin Rothery

Great article. I love reading stuff like this because it reminds me how much a lot of practical FX have turned out to be better than most CGI nowadays. Modelmaking such as this is truly a labor of love.

Now where's the model of the refinery? That would be a ronky ponky addition.

December 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTim Ponk

one interesting thing-I had the Japanese LP soundtrack to ALIEN, and it included a large poster with different shots. On of them was a pic of the large Nostromo, and you could see its side, from an angle and the numbers, painted large were clearly 180286-yet on some computer screens and Ripleys radio ID call, the ships registration number is 180924609-anyone know the story on that?

March 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMark

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>