Birmingham Made Me: Adventures with Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, June 2013

Birmingham Made Me represented a showcase of some of the creative regional design and innovation talent that exists within the Birmingham area. Often described as the Second City, Birmingham’s nomenclature could do with an upscale to match the creative talent on display at this year’s event; including work from Pashley Cycles, Aston Martin, Jaguar, JCB, Dunlop, Paul Smith. For further information on the awards, click here.  
 
 
 
Birmingham Made Me, for me, was an exercise in awe and wonder not dissimilar to David’s discovery of the intergalactic orrery in Prometheus (2013) and offered the opportunity to share my own passion for Ridley Scott’s work and the extension into the Alien narrative arc offered by his latest film. 
 
With the helmets from the film featuring as one of the key exhibits at the design expo, I was delighted to have been invited to present alongside Peter Turnock, Managing Director of CMA Moldform Ltd. whose company was responsible for the production of a range of optically clear helmets for the film. Examining the importance of design, our joint presentation investigated the necessity for the creation of believable science fiction worlds on screen and the role that props and set had to play in that process. Peter discussed the process of prototype design and production for cinema, while I examined the possibilities offered up by science fiction as a part of the creation process.  
 
 
 

My presentation Suspending Disbelief in Prometheus examines the way in which the Alien franchise has inspired ongoing creative engagement with the film series, with the concept art for the film built upon H.R.Giger’s Necronomicon and the original ‘biomechanoidal’ art used by Alien. This inspiration was not only contained in the original film Alien, but was also retained across into the narrative extension of Prometheus (2012). 
 
 
 
With Prometheus re-addressing the purpose of the space jockey of Alien (1979), to represent a renewed interest not in the alien xenomorph as the star of the original film, but instead to investigate the origins of the space jockey. Scott’s film Prometheus is not the first time that we have encountered these intergalactic space travellers, as they had already made an appearance in Mark Verheiden’s Dark Horse Aliens comic book extension of 1988. Known first as ‘the Other’, the space jockey represented a second alien species who acted initially as captors of the alien xenopmorph, but who were overrun in much the same way as the Nostromo and Sulaco, only returning to save the human ‘cargo’ for the sole purpose of revenge upon the xenomorphs. The Aliens comic book extension picks up the narrative arc at the point of an intergalactic war between the engineers and the xenomorphs. First known as ‘the Other’, Michael Jan Friedman’s Aliens: Original Sin (2005) renames them as the Mala’kak, revealing the space jockey to be an ‘engineer’ in a space suit.  
 
 
 
 

 

The Alien franchise has continued to challenge and represent growing anxieties about our place in the world and the possibilities offered up by the potentials of artificial intelligence (Telotte in Neale 103). However Prometheus also addresses the anxieties of the fans, in terms of the genesis of the alien race and the place of the space jockey within that narrative arc. For the fans, these origins are essential for narrative arc buy-in. Looking for fit, as a part of that narrative arc, if the fit is found to be lacking, then this results in a rejection of that extension as a franchise cash-in. 
 
 
As such it was essential for Scott to ensure that disbelief is suspended. Some of that work can only be done through the quality of the narrative extension itself. But, the rest of that power lay in the genesis of a world that is built upon half-truths and scientific potentials. The task of science fiction here is to create a world that can be narrated through the use of tangible, real-world possibilities, through the creation of hardware that is not too far removed from that already available to us, but that remains far enough removed from reality to strike us with awe and wonder. 
 
 
For the narrative worlds to be believable, we need to be able to invest in the truths presented there. According to Steve Neale ‘in science fiction, science, fictional or otherwise, always functions as motivation for the nature of the fictional world’ (Neale, 100) As such it is the exploration of scientific possibilities from either ‘fictitious science’ or through the ‘fictitious use of scientific possibilities’ (Neale, 100) that enable an implementation of the techniques that we see Scott put to convincing effect in Prometheus.

 

With the development of new real world technologies of 3D, Scott is able to create rich believable worlds, and through which the technology enables filmmakers like Ridley Scott to slow our experience of film right the way down into a cinematic half life, that renders our consumption immersive. With the use of the extended-orrery as an intergalactic star map and employment of 3D to allow us to revel in that creation,
Scott immerses us in a use of 3D technology which allows us to experience that world in a rich and tangible way. The extension of the narrative arc is offered a renewed invigoration through the spectacular display offered by the 3D experience, through which the technological developments afforded by 3D assists in creating a tangible space and an awe inspiring depth of vision. 
 
These fictional creations, which are based upon scientific fact extend the science fiction possibilities until eventually the science fiction itself becomes a possibility. Science fiction offers the potential to become science fact and acts as the inspiration for science-actual development. As such the creative possibilities become endless. Science fiction nurtures the possibilities for the generation of science fact, and within the film world, it is essential that the two cohere if they are to be successful. In the case of Prometheus, the real world creation of props, much like the on-screen worlds that they create and populate necessitate scientific development in order to make their functionality a reality. 
 

 

So, to create believable worlds on screen, it is essential for filmmakers to really create these believable worlds. For these worlds to be believable, the props have to stand up to that sense of verisimiltude and be believable accoutrements of the not too distant future.
But,
if the props don’t prop the film and the set doesn’t stand up to the demands set, then the audience scrutiny, under the recent trend for slow and extended-timing of the 3D experience delivery, will reveal those flaws and then you’re in trouble.

 
 
When it comes to science fiction cinema, design is key and within that design it is essential that the visual style and substance of the film world works to render ‘the unfamliar, the non-existent, the strange and totally alien…with a verisimilitude which is, at times, documentary in flavour and style’ (Sobchack in Neale, 101). Treading a fine line between the alien and the familiar, the sets and props need to live up to those increasingly demanding audience expectations, science fiction cinema would become little more than science fiction farce were it not for the attention paid here. 
 



Design is essential in the shelf-life of cinema. Create real and tangible worlds and disbelief will be suspended as we immerse ourselves in the believable artifice of science fiction cinema. This fascination for science fiction has never really left us and continues to fuel our creative vision for scientific potentials. Acting as inspiration for today’s science fiction to become the science fact of tomorrow, science fiction design enables us to suspend disbelief long enough for us to explore those possibilities.

 

Tom Dunkley, Production manager for CMA Moldform Ltd. discusses the process of the helmet design for Prometheus here:

 

Early promotional material for Prometheus can be found in the form of a Weyland Ted Talk 2023 and a sales advert for the Weyland Android. How long until the science fiction of Prometheus is extended in real time to become science fact… Birmingham Made Me 2023?  

Highlights from the event can be found here: http://birmingham-made-me.org/who-we-are/video-gallery/
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