by Julian Goldsmith

When excellence is an Alien encounter

May 27, 20125 mins
IT Leadership

As Ridley Scott’s latest film Prometheus is released in the UK this week, I’d like to take the opportunity to use his first film as an illustration of what it takes to produce excellence.

Alien, the original episode in the series released 35 years ago, is an outstanding example of British film-making.

Although it was funded and written in the US, film production was in the UK.

The documentary of how the film is made provides some useful insights on how this came to be such an example of excellence, which I think any manager can take on board to reach the same quality bar:

1 Planning and vision.The screenplay, written by Dan OBannon and Ron Shussett, was developed over an extended length of time.

The writers worked with conceptual designers long before the film was even accepted by financiers.

Although it was first thought of as a low-budget project, the writers recognised there were elements in their original idea that could allow the film to become much bigger in scale.

2 Solid financial backing.Any project needs financial support and film-making is incredibly expensive.

The writers were able to persuade producers at Brandywine Productions that their idea had commercial value.

Brandywine was able to negotiate with Twentieth Century Fox for a much bigger budget, possibly on the name of producer Walter Hill, writer and director responsible for The Getaway and The Warriors.

Without the expanded budget, the expansive sets and special effects that sets Alien apart from previous B-movie science-fiction horror movies would not have been possible.

3 Great timing.When Brandywine was touting for financial backing, the cinema world was being rocked by Star Wars, which broke the mould in the sci-fi movie genre.

It was a huge success and distributor Fox was keen to follow up with another space-age movie.

The only screenplay they had available was Alien.

4 Ambitious executives.The writers, producers and distributor were keen to exploit the potential in the project to make a classic movie, as was the director Ridley Scott, who had only one low-budget, although critically acclaimed, film to his name.

For Scott, this was either going to make his name in the movie world, or sink his career forever.

5 A mix of talent.The writers and producers of the movie were experienced film-makers, but the director Scott was new to large-scale film-making.

Scott’s production team in Shepperton Studios were all old-hands at movie making, but the cast was a mix of established movie names, like Tom Skerritt and Yaphet Kotto, stage and TV actors like John Hurt and Ian Holm, to complete newcomers, like Sigourney Weaver.

This mix led to a creative, but at times abrasive team dynamic that brought new ideas to the project.

6 Team disharmony.The film’s cast was filled with strong characters and some big egos. All of the actors knew their craft intimately. Not all of the personalities rubbed along well together. Kotto and Weaver clashed repeatedly.

On the other side of the lens, Scott’s production team felt he was uncommunicative on one hand and extremely hands-on at the same time, doing much of the camera work himself.

This constant working outside of the comfort zone for the whole team, meant that they had to innovate all the time to find new ways of approaching problems.

Only a highly professional group of people could have pulled this off, without the whole project falling apart.

7 Pushing the boundaries at the top.Scott and his design team constantly pushed the budget controllers for more lavish sets.

Scott would green-light set designs in secret so that the financiers didn’t know about them.

He also stuck his ground when the bean-counters tried to scale his ideas down.

Some of the sets for the movie, such as the alien planet landscape were the biggest in Europe.

8 Pushing the boundaries at the bottom.Many technicians complained that the work schedule meant that they worked seven days a week for months to get the sets ready.

Some of the sets and costumes were uncomfortable or even hazardous. Hurt nearly asphyxiated in his environment suit costume while filming the walk across the alien landscape, because the enclosed helmet didn’t let in enough fresh air.

This endurance by cast and crew enhanced the quality of the film.

9 Focusing on the bigger picture.Scott story-boarded the film (a process of drawing each camera shot on paper, like a comic strip) before he went into production, so that he had a clear idea how it would look.

On set, the actors, who were used to close collaboration with their directors often felt neglected by Scott, who was focused on the composition of the whole picture, not their individual performances.

10 An uncompromising dedication to quality, tempered by unbreakable deadlines.Scott had a very clear idea of how he wanted the film to look and drove the cast and crew to make his visions real.

Some scenes were re-shot over again until he was satisfied. However, he was up against a punishing schedule that meant he wasn’t allowed to let filming go over fourteen weeks.

The actors actually rehearsed their scenes in the sets as they were being built because time was so short.