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Lighting and Visual Effect in Alien (1979)

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 1607 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Alien is a science fiction film released in 1979 and directed by Ridley Scott. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest science fiction films of all time due to its excellent story and visuals ahead of its time. The plot follows a crew of seven people the ship captain named Dallas, Ship Officer Kane, Officer Ripley, Ship Navigator Lambert, Biological Scientist Ash and two Engineers, Parker and Brett. aboard a spaceship that is on its way back to earth from an asteroid mining mission but stopped in their tracks by a transmission coming from a small moon. This leads to Officer Kane to be the host to an unknown organism which later plants an egg into his chest and eventually hatching and bursting open through his chest killing him after this the alien escapes, quickly growing to maturity terrorizing the whole crew preventing them to go back home. In this  paper I will explain how the different types of cinematography techniques are used in Alien to make the viewer feel like they were inside the spaceship along side the crew.

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As you could imagine lighting a giant spaceship is no easy task but that’s one of the big hurdles the cinematographer had to jump over. All throughout the film the lighting was different depending on the mood or the specific setting the cast was in. For example the scene where the Space Jockey was located, the whole room was very dark with the only lighting being focused on the Space Jockey, which was a giant dead alien at the center of the room. This particular lighting gave the viewer a sense of curiosity and suspense which matched the emotions of the crew members who were both investigating the body and trying to look for an exit. Also the lighting on the Space Jockey was accompanied by a high angle shot showing the audience the scale of the massive alien compared to the crew which were dwarfed. In another part of the set, back on the ship there were the corridors along with the rest of the set. In a quote said by the filming staff they said that “the corridors were built with very low ceilings and were four wallers”(Asc 2019). This meant that they had to use some creative lighting techniques like putting lights behind grills and using unconventional lighting tools like 747 aircraft lights. Which did a good job giving the corridors a spaceship vibe but not looking unrealistic. Also the use of low light while the xenomorph was hunting the crew help immersify the viewer by making them feel the same suspense that the crew felt, because seeing something black in a low light area creates that fear of the unknown and builds suspense because you don’t know when or where the alien could come from. A good example of this would be Brett’s death scene due to the fact that the whole room was dark and the alien was dangling from the roof the entire time, it was visible but very hard to see. It’s only when we get to the part where the alien drops down behind him where it is clearly visible. Keeping the lighting low was a great way to make this scene effective in giving us the same feeling Brett felt right before his death. This is why lighting is a great method to use in the movies cinematography to immerse the viewer and allow them to feel the feelings of the crew members.

Another method of cinematography used in the movie to immersify the audience is the different shots used all throughout the film. As discussed before, on the Space Jockey set the cinematographer used a high angle shot to display the size of the Space Jockey and to create a sense of scale on how big the alien is compared to the crew exploring the spaceship. There are all sorts of different shots used to create immersion or to display a mood. One of my favorite shots used in the film is during Parkers death scene towards the end. While parker is trying to fend of the alien he is pushed to a corner and the alien is about to end his life by using its second mouth. The shot used in this scene is an over the shoulder shot used on the alien. Making it seem like we are right there in the scene with Parker watching him fight against the alien. This shot is also used a lot throughout this movie especially with the alien. Somewhat early on in the movie Officer Kane seems to be feeling healthy after the strange alien mysteriously detached itself from his face making it seem like Officer Kane is going to be okay but in reality the alien laid eggs into his body and this gave birth to one of the most iconic scenes in science fiction history and its the chest burster scene. In this scene everyone seems to be happy that Officer Kane is healthy but in a moments notice Kane fell onto the table with something seemingly trying to come out of his chest and then it does, an alien bursts out of Officer Kanes chest killing him. Something that most people don’t know is that while filming this scene none of the actors knew that something was going to burst out of their fellow actors chest. So when it happened we got genuine reactions out of the actors. The shot used to make the viewer seem like they were in this scene is the master shot, this shot was used to make it seem like the viewer was there at the dinner table with all the crew because they were all in frame while the alien was bursting out of Officer Kanes chest. Another shot used to create realism is the point of view shot used while the crew members were operating on Officer Kane while the alien was attached to his face. While the doctors were discussing what they have to do to save the life of their friend we get a shot from the perspective of what Officer Kane would be seeing if there wasn’t an alien attached to his face. This gives the viewer that feeling of being on an operating table and about to be operated on and that’s not a pleasant feeling it creates a sense of anxiety from the surgery that’s about to take place in the scene.

One of the greatest things about this film is the actual design of the alien, in over 40 years of science fiction films there has never been a more realistically terrifying design for an alien. As stated by the director Ridley Scott “During the course of designing, the Alien went through many changes, becoming more refined and more animal-like. I wanted it to look animal-like rather than fantastic because the word fantastic means “not quite real,” and I wanted it to look real”(Asc 2019). This quote shows that the staff that was designing the alien were really going for a realistic design rather than a more intense or more detailed one. This makes the alien more realistic for one and it helps achieve the one thing that all horror movies want to do and that is to terrify the viewer well after the movie has ended. The simplicity of the aliens design and its realism really make it one of the most terrifying creatures in science fiction history.

The best way this film helps immerse the viewer is the visual effects used all throughout this movie. One scene where the visual effects really immersified me the viewer was when they were walking on the moon where the transmission was sent from. From the crazy wind effects used to display the harsh environment of this moon to the towering mountains in the background of the scene. These were all visual effects used to create realism for the viewer. This realism allowed the viewer to feel like they’re walking on the moon alongside the crew. Also the sound effects used in this scene were spectacular because the screeching wind made it hard to hear some of the words that crew was saying to each other. But the best part about the effects used in the film is that they were limited, Ridley Scott said “The best thing that happened to Nicky Allder and his effects team was having a strong story and characters who were very strong. These elements were essential to creating a “real” film”(Asc 2019). This quote shows that the filming crew wasn’t prioritizing flashy effects but they were really trying to build the movies realism by using strong actors and a good story.

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So in conclusion I explained how the different types of cinematography techniques are used in Alien to make the viewer feel like they were inside the spaceship along side the crew. I did this by talking about various methods like lighting, certain types of shots, the design and the visual effects that the film staff used to create this masterpiece of a movie. I hope more science fiction films in the future will take inspiration from this movie and make something just as good but for now all we can do is rewatch the classics and see all the great film techniques used and the great ideas that were thought of during the time of this great movie.

   Work cited

  • Asc. “Flashback: The Filming of Alien.” An International Publication of the ASC, The American Society of Cinematographers, 20 May 2019, ascmag.com/articles/the-filming-of-alien-directing.
  • Asc. “Flashback: Alien and Its Photographic Challenges.” An International Publication of the ASC, The American Society of Cinematographers, 8 Feb. 2019, ascmag.com/articles/alien-and-its-photographic-challenges.
  • Jacob Stolworthy @Jacob_Stol. “The True Story behind John Hurt’s Legendary Alien ‘Chestburster’ Scene.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 28 Jan. 2017, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/john-hurt-dead-alien-chestburster-scene-ridley-scott-true-story-a7550656.html.


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