Alien: Building the Refinery



a) Initial directions
Ron Cobb had an idea for the refinery that had big cargo modules with no gravity orientation to them, but instead a line of thrust orientation and no one could understand it including Ridley Scott, they instead wanted a gravity orientated look because of Nostromo lander already had one with a bottom and a top.

He was busy thinking "If I could come up with a really clever design for a big cargo carrying ship that, in the design itself, people could recognize how it works, it would be really nice to get it by the producer."

But instead, Ridley insisted on towers that had the look of something out of Disneyland with its fantasy towers, and Ron was very annoyed, he didn't want it to look like a castle .

Ridley Scott's sketch of the refinery as shown in Alien The Archive 
but inverted.  I placed this one upside down because I wonder if this 
was the sketch Ridley did that had the towers upside down.
 See also: Early sketch of the refinery


Ridley had drawn a sketch and handed it to model makers, which they refined and built. Originally he drew it upside down, with the vague idea that it would resemble an inverted cathedral, and soon he realized that it resembled the mothership from the movie "Close Encounters of The Third Kind" and so it took another form. He didn't want a conventional shape because he thought that the machine could be sixty years old and just added to over the decades. The metal work on such a refinery could be fifty years old because it's only going grow old to a certain extent being in outer space, and so instead of corroding , it would simply grow obsolete. Ridley didn't want it to look too much like something from outer space in a fantasy sense, he had no urge to streamline the design, but on the other hand he would have liked to see space barnacles or space seaweed on it, all clogged and choked up, but that would have been illogical as well.

The "Close Encounters" mothership

In a last ditch effort, Ron Cobb tried to redesign the towers to make them look like as if they actually did something. So he turned them into giant trash compactors almost, for compacting ore that the ship was hauling. However Ron was sure that Brian Johnson would save the day

b)  Prototype Tower
Bill Pearson remembered that they were shown Ridley's storyboards by Brian Johnson as a starting point which showed the Nostromo lander and refinery. They were very gothic in style. The first job that they had to do was a tower for the refinery from Ridley's black and white boards. Simon Deering and Bill made one prototype tower together. He tried to mimic what Ridley had drawn. They made the  structure very transparent and there was a lot of latticework in the platforms. It was a kit bashed structure. Nick Alder would do some test footage of it. It was possibly that Ridley had said he wanted to see how the towers looked when painted black, and so Nick Alder lit them in various ways and shot them black and in some of the shots, they looked silver. He proved a point that they didn't have to be black and they could be black lit to look silver. That tower ended up on the Nostromo refinery and turned out to be one of Ridley's favourite pieces of "wiggetry"

c) High on Evostik 
Martin Bower was soon put onto the refinery because Bill Pearson was on it as well and they knew each other and so could work together. Bill had done an initial spire gantry and Martin Bower was told that they needed another three, and Martin set to work. He had an ability to visualise without having to do any drawings, and kind of see what's in his  mind, which is, which is a lucky ability to have. Ron Hone built the platform out of plywood and two by one, etc but Nick Aldham made a metal frame for it in the way he had done for the Nostromo. Martin Bower remembered when he and Martin Grant were covering the top and bottom of the platform of the platform with 16th inch thick perspex, and there they were on top of the thing getting high on Evostik glue that they were painting on, saying to one another "eh, this is really good, you know this is really good", and they did this to the whole thing and they had to get everything down exactly right while they were getting high, because if they got it wrong, they would have had trouble getting the tiles off.

d) Victorian Gothic
Jon Sorensen remembered that they were directed by Ridley Scott to make the actual final refinery look "Victorian Gothic" although this didn't seem to be something that Dennis Lowe would recall later. In hindsight, Jon thought that it may have come as information through Brian Johnson,  he remembered thinking back then in response, "That's a clue!" and then he and other applied a lot of girders and latticework reminiscent of Isembard Kingdom Brunel and such, Even when the brief would change later, a lot of that "Victorian Gothic" detail remained on the base sections around the towers even after Ridley changed the direction that the model would go and it would feature in the movie. The miniature would finally be about fourteen feet square with the four towers taken from Ridley's sketch, standing around five feet tall, while the supposed length of this refinery was one and a half miles . The members of the team all took responsibility for the various sections, each micro-managing their own section suggesting a balance and precision to the design. Simon Deering started covering his tower in red oxide part constructed girders.

Jon Sorensen working on his section of the refinery. Note the
small model of the derelict in the centre of the background

e) Bismarck!
However there came a point when the towers of the refinery became grew very elaborate when Ridley Scott was trying to describe what the whole Nostromo ship should look like with the refinery that it was pulling, and his description mentioned lot of turrets and spires and it sounded very much like something out of World War 2

Dennis Lowe asked "you mean like the Bismark in space?"

Ridley replied "that's right , I want it just like the Bismarck in space"

So it seemed that he wanted it just like the German world war 2 war ship.

Dennis returned to Bray studios with the news , and still they were not working with any concept drawings.

"Oh, it's erm, I know what it's like," Dennis told everyone" it's like the Bismarck in space"
To him it was as if they just needed to get some photographs of the Bismark and adapt them, and it caught on because that's what the refinery eventually ended up looking like until Ridley Scott turned up and looked at it

f) Change in direction
Martin Bowers said to Ridley " the brief I was given is that it had to had to have these spires and things."

Ridley in a nicest way replied "I'm not having this fucking stuff, you don't mind if I do a bit of work do you?"

Then he literally put the hammer and chisel to knock parts off the tower and simplify them.

Martin confused protested ""uh! You know, you know that was six weeks work!"

He followed this with a solution " right, all that detail there, cover that over with a sheet of perspex with loads of loads of grid lines on it",

This meant that they get a piece of 3/8 inch perspex and run it across a circular saw, criss crossing it, to make very complicated criss cross sets of line and then cover over the detail of the refinery with these pieces. Nicky Allder revealed that this continued to go on during the shoot to make sure the towers had a heavy feel to them rather than a Disneyland castle look

With EMA tubing for running pipes, storage tanks and some hobby kits for fine details, there was a lot going on in that miniature. They spent about three months doing the bulk of it.

The battleship Bismarck


g) See: Probes from the refinery transplanted elsewhere

h) Moving the towers around

In the final film, the towers would be moved around the platform, so they would not always appear to be in the same place because Ridley would say to Bill Pearson "Get us that tower, put it in to this corner, I'm over here shooting,"

Members of crew were reeling over the changes that Ridley was making. Bill Pearson and Jon Sorensen had stayed on the model shooting stage chewing the fat together. Ridley was standing off to one side looking at the refinery.

Suddenly he looked over and said, "What are you two talking about? What?"

Jon replied,"We were just thinking that THAT tower would look better there and THAT one over there".

(Remember, a lot of people were reeling at that time at his changes).

He beamed and grinned as though someone was actually on his side at last.

Bill said, "You want us to change them around now?"

"Sure. Please" said Ridley.

That evening Bill and Jon were in the Bray bar. To their surprise, Ridley blew in. "Would you guys like a drink".

They had the drink. Ridley had half a bitter so Jon recall. He drank it with them and left. Whatever the conversation was, Jon wouldn't recall in years to come but remembered Ridley looking at them both very closely.

After he left the bar, Ray Beckett came up to Bill and Jon. He was quite bemused and said, "I've worked with Ridley on commercials for 10 years and never had a drink bought for me. How did you guys do it?"

Source Quotes
  1. FF:  Who designed the refinery?

    Ridley Scott: I did. I didn't want a conventional shape, so I drew a sketch and handed it to the model makers. They refined it, as it were, and built the model. I originally drew it upside down, with the vague idea that it would resemble an inverted cathedral.

    FF: It looks rather like Close Encounters' mothership

    Ridley Scott: I soon realized that as well, so it took on another form. But I knew I didn't want to do a conventional shape because I think the machine that they're on could in fact be 60 years old and just added to over the decades. The metalwork on it could be 50 years old because it's only going to grow old to a certain extent

    FF: It would never corrode, but just grow obsolete.

    Ridley Scott: Yes, absolutely. So it was a sort of conglomerative objective which I didn't want to be spacey in any sense of the word. There's absolutely no reason for streamlining. I would have liked to see it covered with space barnacle or space seaweed, all clogged and choked up, but that was illogical as well

    FF: But the Nostromo had to be able to fly both in space and under atmospheric conditions?


    Ridley Scott: I saw it as a gigantic maneuverable jump jet. Therefore it was able to get wherever it wanted on various planets, landing in a quite narrow, rocky terrain. So that's the only streamlined object in the whole thing.  The refinery itself is a conglomerative mountain of technology.


    FF: What was the refinery carrying?


    Ridley Scott: Ore, I suppose. They'd do all the work inside once the "picker" (the smaller craft) would put the stuff aboard. The ore would be turned into liquid or gas for easier transference back to Earth (Fantastic Film US#12/ GB #2, p20)
  2. Ron Cobb: So it's (The Nostromo) is pretty much right off my drawings. But the platform behind. I had an idea, I thought would have been a lot of fun, big cargo modules with no gravity orientation to them. It was a line of thrust orientation and they couldn't understand that. They wanted a gravity orientated look because the lander part does - it's got a bottom and a top.
    Fantastic Films: I can see the problems you must have had in relating those concepts to people who had neither exposure to science nor SF.

    Ron Cobb: I was intrigued by the idea of just getting things by them. I said to myself, "If I could come up with a really clever design for a big cargo carrying ship that, in the design itself, people could recognize how it works, it would be really nice to get it by the producer."

    I would sneakily insist on working all the details out, how the platform worked, why it was there and why it was attacked to the other ship in the way it was

    They couldn't understand it. In this case even Ridley couldn't understand it. He insisted on a kind of Disneyland thing, fantasy towers, which really annoyed me. As a last ditch effort I tried to redesign the towers to make them look like they actually did something. They became giant trash compactors almost, for compacting ore they were hauling

    I think Brian Johnson will probably save the day. He'll make them look very good, 'cause its not even explained. I'm afraid the tower, the big section behind the ship, will look kind of like a castle.
    (Fantastic Films, July 1979, p30-34)
  3. Dennis Lowe: Ridley Scott was trying to describe what the whole Nostromo ship should be like plus the refinery that the Nostromo's pulling, and in his description he mentioned lots of kind of turrets and spires and er, really like World War 2 type stuff you know and I mentioned,  I said oh I said you mean like the Bismarck in space, and everybody's got a classic idea of what the Bismarck looks like with the kind of spires in black and kind of like a warship and he says that's right , I want it just like the Bismarck in space, I was, I kind of clocked that straight away, I thought, right, (86:00) Bismarck in space, so when I went off to Bray, in some respects they were still fumbling around in the dark because they didn't get a lot of working drawings of the Nostromo and the, and the refinery, and it was still in the concept stage. And I said "Oh" I said "it's erm, I know what it's like, it's like the Bismarck in space", just like, get some photographs of the Bismarck and just like adapt them and I think it kind of caught on, you know with the model makers because their refinery eventually ended up looking like the bloody Bismarck in space and Ridley Scott came over to have a look and he hated it (laughter) and he put the hammer to it, and I think what happened, they all gave me that kind of quiet look (laughter) and I think I had to wear that because I like promoted the Bismarck in space and he came over and said "I'm not having this fucking stuff" (87:00), I thought that was the end of my influence. (Alien Makers IV)
  4. Phil Pearson: The first stuff what we got was actually Ridley's storyboards. Uh, I mean I know who Ridley was, I've always been a bit of a filmophile, so I had seen The Duellists and thought it was a great piece of work. Everybody else on the film said, "Oh, it's the guy who did the Hovis Ad, is directing this picture so god help us" and even when you know you'd... on the shoot, you'd get some of the guys in the background whistling the Hovis theme, um, I don't know what Ridley thought about that, but I'd always had a tremendous amount of time for him and I knew that he had been an art director at BBC, and also it was rumoured that when he came on board Alien, he had directed over a thousand commercials at that time,. So the guy knew what he was doing, there was.... of that there was no doubt, and , and also he was a damn fine artist. So, the storyboards were our starting point. Brian gave us the relevant frames of... the Nostromo lander and refinery. In Ridley's storyboards, they were very gothic in style and the first job we had to do was, erm, a tower for the refinery from Ridley's black and white board.  We made one tower, one protoype tower, that was Simon Deering and myself 'putting that together. It was, as I say, very very gothic. You could,  I was trying to mimic what Ridley had drawn, so it was very transparent, ah, there was a lot of latticework in it, platforms, er, so, we kit bashed it mainly and Nicky Alder did some test, some actual test... ah... footage of it. Er, I believe Ridley had said that he wanted to see how the towers would look painted black, so Ridlet... ah sorry, Nickt Alder lit them and shot them  black he lit them in various ways and in some of the shots, they looked silver, so you proved a point, they didn't have to be black
     He proved a point that they didn't have to be black and they could be black lit to look silver. and silver look like black. That tower ended up on the Nostromo refinery and it seemed to be one of Ridley's favourites after all that time. If you watch the film very closely, you'll find that the towers do move 'round quite a bit but not always in the same place because Ridley would say "Oh Get us that tower, put it in to this corner, I'm over here shooting,"  So, he did have his favourit pieces of Wiggetary.  (Alien Makers 1, interview with Bill Pearson)
  5. Jon Sorensen: Bill Pearson and I had stayed on the model shooting stage chewing the fat together. Ridley was standing off to one side looking at the refinery. Suddenly he looked over and said, "What are you two talking about? What?"

    I replied,"We were just thinking that THAT tower would look better there and THAT one over there".

    (Remember, a lot of people were reeling at that time at his changes).

    He beamed and grinned as though someone was actually on his side at last.

    Bill said, "Y
    ou want us to change them around now?" "Sure. Please" said Ridley.

    That evening Bill and I were in the Bray bar. To our surprise, Ridley blew in. "Would you guys like a drink". We had the drink. Ridley had half a bitter I recall. He drank it with us and left. I'm damned of I can recall a word of the conversation we had. I do recall Ridley looking at us both very closely.

    (He did that. I remember coming into Bray one day with a new haircut. Ridley stood staring at me. "Anything wrong?", I said. "No", came the reply.
    Next day Ridley came in with a haircut. (He soaked EVERYTHING up. Everything. A true visualist).
    Anyway, after he left the bar, Ray Beckett came up to Bill and I. He was quite bemused and said, "I've worked with Ridley on commercials for 10 years and never had a drink bought for me. How did you guys do it?"
    So, a couple of Scottish kiss-asses? No. he'd lived in Scotland, had Ridley. I think he liked Scots.
    Who knows? Whatever, that's a true possible insight into the man.
    Anyway your painting is terrific so stop beating yourself up about it! Just stunning.
    Remember, Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reitz and Tony Richardson said, "Perfection is not an aim".
    But we say, "Why not?"
    (www.alienexperience.com)
  6. Martin Bowers: And Ridley came to Bray Studios and it was like a hurricane hit the place and he said "right" and he'd go around and look at all the different models and I started explaining things,  and pins... nice bloke, you know, 'e... 'e... 'e was, 'e was saying (36:00) "what,, What, you know this", I said, well you know, the... the... brief I was given is that it had to had to have these spires and things", and he sort of said "well, we're not having any fucking of that stuff", and he picked up a chisel, I remember him picking up a mallet and chisel, and 'e said, 'e said you don't mind if I do a bit of work do you, something like that, you know, with 'is, 'e's.. north-east accent, and he started whacking bits off of it and I'm going "uh! you know, you know that was six weeks work", and off he's.. literally, people think I'm exaggerating it but you probably remember it, he knocked all these pieces off and he said "right, all that detail there", that's like three weeks work, "cover that over with a sheet of perspex with loads of loads of grid lines on it", so what we'd have to do, get piece of 3/8th inch of perspex and run it across a circular saw, criss crossing it, to make these really complicated sort of criss cross sets of lines and then cover over the detail that we spent all this de.. all this time on with all these (37:00) pieces of perspex, so I was really, you know, re-doing the whole thing of course, because we'd shot it all with spires and now we had this thing which I must admit fitted the story better, so Ridley's obviously quite right, although it was obviously a bit of a shame covering up that detail, he had his own ideas so essentially he shot the whole thing again, because he came to Nostromo  (Alien Makers I)
  7. Simon Deering: I was immediately put into one workshop with er, it's very hazy actually the beginning of that, who I was with, there was about three us and it was quite early pre-production and we went into, one of the ones, the studio workshop where we were building the refinery and there was I think, three or four of us and we took a tower each and I remember my tower, was covering it with red oxide part constructed girders, yeah, but the studio itself was a wonderful place to work in, never forget it, yeah.(Alien Makers I) 
  8. Nick Allder: We did some test shootings and they looked pretty good, and then we'd shoot a tower from a certain angle and it would start looking like a Disneyland castle. So we'd tear all the detail pieces off and start over and keep doing it until we had it right. Finally we had the towers sort of chunkied out, so they'd have this enormous heavy feeling. (Book of Alien, Scanlon& Gross)
  9. Jon Sorensen: The actual refinery we were directed to make look “Victorian Gothic” by Ridley Scott. The miniature was around 14 feet square with the four towers, taken from a Ridley sketch, standing around 5 feet tall. The supposed length of this refinery was one and a half miles. Again we took responsibility for sections. Using a natural sense of design we were supposedly hired for, each of these sections was micro-managed by the person doing it to suggest a balance and precision almost in a real graphic sense. Point and counterpoint and balanced “visual weight”. Again it grew organically amongst the many hands, using plexiglass scored to suggest detail and sections, EMA tubing for running pipes, storage tanks, some hobby kits for fine detail. There was a lot of detail on that miniature. We spent about three months doing the bulk of it and it looked stunning, otherworldly, “retrospective futuristic” and entirely credible. It had to definitely suggest an Earth origin so as to underpin the surprise when the audience saw the “alien derelict” and space jockey later in the film’s visuals and story.(source: alienseries.wordpress.com)
  10. Dennis Lowe: At Shepperton We all started immediately after 'Pink Panther' and that must have been around March way.

    At the beginning Brian asked Guy and myself to make an example of a control panel for Ridley to look at and to use the same design they used to have from Space 1999 which had a very stylized clean graphic look to it. We both thought that this was a little too simplistic so we came up with a second version which included parts from ex government surplus equipment and the famous umbilical tubing sprayed down with a dusting of matte black.
    Ridley came in and of course picked the dirty one.
    This sealed our fate and we were both commandeered to do the whole lot!
    (Re: ALIEN Makers Documentary June 26, 2009)
  11. Dennis Lowe: At that same time in the workshop Ridley was talking about his first concept of the refinery and he was describing an actual oil refinery with pipes and spires, eventually the term 'Battleship Bismarck in space' came up to describe the detailing of the model.( Re: ALIEN Makers Documentary June 26, 2009)
  12. Jon Sorensen: There was also talk of a "Victorian" feel on the towers.( Re: ALIEN Makers Documentary June 26, 2009)
  13. Dennis Lowe: Did Ridley talk about this Victorian feel then? I guess it would be a hybrid between Giger's designs and the refinery brutalism (Re: ALIEN Makers Documentary, June 26, 2009)
  14. Jon Sorensen: It must have come from Ridley through Brian Johnson, Dennis. For I remember thinking, "That's a clue!" and I and others applied a lot of girgers and lattice and details reminscient of Brunel and such. Even when the brief changed, a lot of that "Victorian" detail remained on the  base sections around the towers and feature in the movie.It must have come from Ridley through Brian Johnson, Dennis.For I remember thinking, "That's a clue!" and I and others applied a lot of girgers and lattice and details reminscient of Brunel and such. Even when the brief changed, a lot of that "Victorian" detail remained on the  base sections around the towers and feature in the movie. (Re: ALIEN Makers Documentary, June 26, 2009)
  15. jon Sorensen: Yes, between the biomechanical and the classic refinery look we see on refineries even today. Pipes and tanks. And I loved the "Victorian" phase because it suggested Gothic. Exactly right for a horror movie. And we were at Bray, where Hammer had made THEIR Gothics...Draculas and Frankensteins and so on. It felt all of a piece to me personally. I loved the notion that we were somehow carrying that heritage. You know, I think Brian (Johnson) actually did some "Hammer Horrors" with Les Bowie in his early career? (Re: ALIEN Makers Documentary, June 26, 2009)
  16. Dennis Lowe: I think Brian was a clapper loader on '2001' (Re: ALIEN Makers Documentary)
  17. Ridley Scott: In fact I wanted the whole vehicle to have the scale of an aircraft carrier, and of course it was a refinery with four towers (Alien Legacy)
  18. Ron Cobb: We wanted to evoke, erm, a very very scary place, almost like a gothic castle, or, or erm, or a sunken submarine or all those things had to be, had to be there as subnotes.(Alien Legacy)
  19. Ridley Scott: The towing vehicle of the Nostromo was the tug basically (Alien Legacy)
  20. Brian Johnson: That was the part that detached from the refinery and went down to, to find the alien. There was one, there was one sort of about two feet and there was one about, er, six feet, and then there was a gigantic one or reasonably gigantic, gigantic in terms of weight, because of the way we started off building it, and because of the additions we had to put on it, the amount of plastic cladding that was involved, and made it, must have made it a ton and a half or something (Alien Legacy)

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