The Alien model build was a very organic process and the actual model builders were called upon to interpret the concept art and fill in lots of blanks. A good example of this is the Narcissus. This charismatic little ship only really comes into it's own at the end of the film as Ripley blows the shit out of the Nostromo and the refinery and plows off into deep space in her undercrackers.
This is the Ron Cobb concept art that was used for the basis of the Narcissus design. As you can see, it's focussed primarily on the engines. This is often a good approach to vehicle design and I always liked the look of the four exhaust arrangement. In design terminology the Narcissus has a sexy arse. However, this particular illustration gave the model team some issues when they had to actually build it. They were unsure of the sense of perspective in the artwork so they were unsure how long the front of the ship should be. So they just rolled their sleeves up and did what they thought was best.
You can clearly see the shape they settled on in the image above. It turned out it was originally intended to be more of a hexagon but I think we can agree that the finished model is absolutely beautiful. I have to admit, I love the way this vehicle was portrayed in the film. It only appeared briefly but it was perfectly used in the story and my tiny child's mind got just enough of a look at it to fall in love. I watched Alien on UK television when I must have been about ten and it scared the shit out of me whilst simultaneously blowing my mind. I was alone in a room in a hotel and was supposed to be asleep. Nope. I was sat cross legged with my face about three inches from the screen, wide-eyed and drooling. I can clearly remember wanting Ripley to get away safely SO badly. The moment where she boards the shuttle and the door hasn't closed still gets my heart in my throat.
I like the way the Narcissus is white, like it's new and never been used. I guess there's an argument to be made as to why the crew didn't descend down to LV426 in the shuttle in the first place instead of de-coupling the entire Nostromo and then smashing it up quite badly on the landing. I guess it's a small ship so let's just be say that it's a ship-to-ship vehicle and never intended to de-orbit.
This sort of chat is often redundant. Once a film is released, some people love to pore over the details and figure out how everything works. It can go two ways. Sometimes things haven't been thought out 100% and you'll get film fans taking a layout they've drawn up through painstaiking frame-by-frame reference of an interior and overlaying it over an exterior miniature, then getting upset that they don't fit. When you're making a film you don't always have time to connect all the dots and to be honest, a lot of this sort of reflective, analytical deep thought often throws up inconsistencies. However, true pro's of the kind you would find in the Alien model-shop would have thought of this and I could go on to say that the Narcissus's underside is clearly featured on-screen and it doesn't have any evidence of landing gear, supporting my theory that keeps the plot intact and the character's on-screen actions solid. Blah blah blah ooh look, a space-ship!
This memorable vehicle was created primarily by modelmakers Martin Bower and Phil Rae who, fortunately for us, were very keen at doccumenting their work. Here's a few images from Phil Rae showing his work-in-progress build. Look at the detailing.
I was always a big fan of the scene where the shuttle "garage" opens prior to launch, it just looks so cool. This sequence was filmed upside-down with the Narcissus lying on it's back.
This whole sequence looked great on-screen and I had extra geek-love for it because it was one of the few moments where you could clearly scale a person next to the rest of the Nostromo. Even though you couldn't tell exactly how big the space-tug was, you do, once again, get the sense that the Nostromo is absolutely HUGE.
The detailing on these miniatures is amazing. Like the Nostromo, there was only one complete Narcissus model built and Ridley Scott had it destroyed after filming. This might sound harsh but a lot of the smaller stuff from Alien was burnt when they wrapped. This was because smaller props of this kind of quality tend to change hands and once that happens they could easily be re-used. The fear was that they would end up migrating to a TV production who would be unable to resist using them in something like Blakes Seven. Thus, when Alien came out a few months later, the audience would already be familiar with the artefacts (a helmet here, a space-ship there), and so it would cheapen the overall production. This is why sometimes only bits and pieces of models from old films still Exist. When we were making Moon, Modelshop Supervisor Bill Pearson showed me the engine room window miniature set he built for Alien that was used on-screen when Ripley triggers the self-destruct mechanism. He secretly stashed it when the rest of the model was destroyed. Good lad.
Quick shout out to my mate Phellim O'Neill for explaining exactly what these mystery images are below. They are actually a partially built forced-perspective model that was built to facillitate the front-on angles where Ripley would be optically inserted into the shot so she could be seen through the windows. Shout out to Hans Kim for the first couple of pics.
The detail on these sets was phenomenal - here's the side of the Narcissus garage.
Whilst I'm cooing over the detail on these models, I might as well go all the way and show some more images of the overall model shoot. Please forgive the indulgence, it's just that I'm very fond of this sort of thing and there's something magical for me about these images. If you think I'm getting too carried away, please close your eyes...now.
As lovely as these old pics are, there's something about black-and-white photographs of a film being made that somehow have that extra bit of class, so I'll leave you with these. Hell of a job. Go team Alien!