The Technology Behind the Technology in Prometheus Steals the Show
Prometheus, the prequel to the Alien film franchise, opened this weekend in theaters across North America. The film has earned over $50 million so far at the box office, as viewers flock to see the stunning technologies of the future dreamed up by director Ridley Scott and his team. Although the fictional technology in the film is impressive, the real technology that was used to create the 3D universe in Prometheus steals the show.
Prometheus was in production for four years and cost approximately $130 million to make. The film contains close to 1,300 digital effect shots that simulate space travel, space ship explosions, and alien attacks. It is an achievement for Ridley Scott, who directed the first Alien movie in 1979. This time around, he has a lot more than physical scale models of spaceships to work with. To create the technology for the story – set 80 years in the future – Scott’s team used a unique set of tools to take the viewers on a ride through space with the main characters.
Scott originally was apprehensive about using digital visual effects because he believed that physical sets were more cost effective. After prodding from cinematographer Darius Wolski, Scott changed his mind and hired on MPC Film and Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital to lead the visual effects of the film.
The team hired 3ality Technica to provide the training and equipment for 3D filming, which included four Atom 3D rigs that were configured with Red Epic 3D cameras. These were used continuously during filming to deliver the depth of field required to give viewers the experience of being on the ship Prometheus. The fifth camera used was as steadicam. The decision to film in 3D added $10 million to the film’s budget.
Because 3D filming requires bright lighting, the team used visual effects to create the darkness inside the Prometheus ship that is characteristic of the Alien franchise. The lack of light in the films adds to the suspense and the claustrophobia that viewers expect.
Marc Streitenfeld, who has collaborated with Scott on a total of five films, composed the music for Prometheus, which was recorded at Abbey Road Studios with a 90 piece orchestra. The film contains close to an hour of music, which is more than most. To translate the unnerving feeling of the film into music, Streitenfeld recorded some of the score backwards. This approach is unusual because he did not record it normally and then play it backwards – he actually wrote the sheet music backwards, had the orchestral play it backwards, and then digitally flipped it so that it plays as the original score. The resulting sound is just a little off, which creates a slightly off-putting auditory environment.
The film’s sound engineers used a AMS Neve DFC console with reverb from two Audio Ease Altiverb Pro Tools plug-ins: a Lexicon 960 dual-head and a dual-head 480. According to sound effects mixer Doug Hemphill, “I also used a Fulltone ETC-1 tape delay at 15 ips with mastering-quality analogue tape. This device allows a unique feedback sound; it was first used on our stage when Paul Massey and I mixed Walk the Line.”
The technology of Prometheus upstages the plot, according to many critics. To create the mechanical and digital devices used by the characters 80 years in the future, Scott hired conceptual artists and researchers to develop realistic technologies. The film’s science advisor, Kevin Hand of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is a planetary scientist who also offered advice to Avatar‘s team. Hand helped create the planet LV-223 that the ship lands on by advising the team on elements that could make a planet potentially habitable by humans.
The ship’s Fully Automated Medical-Procedure Pod that the film’s main character Elizabeth Shaw uses during a key plot point is based on real technology as well. For example, doctors at St. Thomas’ Hospital in the United Kingdom have been experimenting with using Microsoft‘s Kinect technology during surgical procedures.
One of the consistent character types that connects Prometheus to the first Alien movie is the humanoid android. The android in Prometheus, David, is central to both moving the plot forward and embodying the film’s theme of creation. Actor Michael Fassbender, who played David, based his acting on the replicants in the film Blade Runner rather than on the other androids in the Alien franchise. David is an eighth generation android in the film, so his specifications have been updated to include a 99 percent emotional sensitivity level, enhanced language comprehension, and a cadmium alloy endoskeleton that can withstand over 1,000 pounds of compression force.
To create the spectagraph mapping drones that fly into the interior of the alien structure, the team based its designs on a composite of technologies that already exist, including a light detection and ranging technology that scientists at the National Science Foundation are already using to map disasters and explore water erosion. These LiDAR technologies, as they are called, can currently detect height differences of less than four inches and map coordinates within four to eight inches.
While Prometheus brings viewers into the future, it is amazing to think that the technologies used to create it are just as mind-blowing as the futuristic devices featured in the film. Ridley Scott has once again created a visual masterpiece thanks to the advancing behind-the-scenes technologies.