The Nostromo was originally yellow, and other stories from ‘Alien’s’ secret documentarian

Yellow Nostromo

Ridley Scott’s masterpiece is about to turn 40 – now’s the time to watch this treasure-trove of behind the scenes interviews.

I’m one of those people who still buy DVDs for the exclusive featurettes. Oftentimes good, sometimes great, those making-of docos don’t always have time to dive into the nitty-gritty of how a film was crafted by scores of artists coming together.

Enter Alien Makers, a series of video interviews almost silently orchestrated by Dennis Lowe, who himself worked on Alien as an SFX Technician. In multiple parts, Alien Makers provides a voice for those involved in the film’s model shop, set builds, creature construction, and other areas. What’s more, the interviews are all available for free to watch and download (check them out at Lowe’s website – a small excerpt is embedded below).

With Alien about to turn 40, befores & afters asked Lowe about his own experience on the film, how he came to make Alien Makers and some of the more unusual moments from production. Plus, we feature several behind the scenes images taken while Alien’s models, miniatures and sets were under construction.

b&a: Can you talk a little about your role on Alien and what some of the particular scenes were that you worked on?

Dennis Lowe: I worked as a SFX Technician with half a dozen others on the crew and we did anything that was needed working under Nick Allder and Brian Johnson.

We were all based at Shepperton Studios in the early days of the movie and another crew member Guy Hudson and I was given the task to make up the panels for the Nostromo bridge sequences. At that stage in the game nothing was planned too precisely so after a short 5 minutes with Ridley we set about constructing dozens and dozens of pre-made wooden blanks, we were left to our own devices as to what went where so we both enjoyed being left alone in our shed drilling, gluing, sawing all the odd components that originated from second hand spare aircraft parts the Art Department delivered to us. We must have gone through miles of flexible tubing as it fitted in with Giger’s design style.

Lowe works on Nostromo bridge panels
Lowe works on Nostromo bridge panels.

After what seemed to be a 6 week stint working on the panels in pre production I was sent over to Bray Studios where the models had stated to be built, it was there that I continued to the end of the production. The Nostromo was originally conceived in yellow and I will never forget that we filmed over 3 -4 months of work shooting every storyboard setup with that yellow model until Ridley had finished principal photography at Shepperton whereby he moved his base over to Bray and landed the bombshell that he had changed his mind over the colour of the Nostromo model……a lot of people on the crew saw this as more money in the bank including overtime (which was always well paid in those days) but I was a bit depressed having to do the whole thing over again. This soon passed as I realised that Ridley’s vision was more exciting as he kind of made it up as he went along which gave the whole shooting experience an organic feel.

Around that period everyone was still talking about Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Ridley wanted to have some kind of reference to it in the guise of the Nostromo landing sequence so I was the one picked to come up with something. It was decided to have a platform resembling the underside of the Nostromo and I would fit together flashing lights and neon strips to give a light show as the landing took place. What seemed months passed by as I worked on the platform wiring up neon strips that were specially formed and even aircraft landing lights that were to be the powerful engines blinding as the pulsed on their way through the smoke. All of the lights were switched by mechanical cams that were rotated at differing speeds to give a random effect.

Lowe notes
Lowe notes, on his website: “I spent a couple of months rigging the Nostromo with neon strips and spotlights that would mimic the Mother Ship from Close Encounters, these were sequenced using motorised rotary switches. Ridley came over from Shepperton after shooting and took a look at my work then made the decision to scrap the idea – such is life!”

Came the big day when Ridley turned up, the smoke machines started to fill the studio to the correct density and my rig was switched on and raised to the ceiling where the whole lot descended slowly while Ridley started filming a test, after a few minutes he took his eye from the camera and decided to not use it after all, by that time in the game I was used to disappointments and you got used to the fact that if it didn’t work then hell it was worth doing just for the experience and learn to move on.

One success that did work out was photographing the cloud effect that was eventually projected onto the alien planet as we descended into the atmosphere. Nick gave me this job as I remembered telling him that I did an experiment while at Art School playing with aluminum paint with white spirits in a tray and that if you turned a warm spotlight on its surface it would produce convection currents that looked weird. We hired a Hasselblad 6x6cm roll camera and filmed a load of transparencies using this method and there was one magical transparency that shone out and that’s the one we used.

planet textures
An example of how the planet textures were achieved, by heating up paint on transparencies.
A planet surface result
A planet surface result

b&a: What was the feeling at the time about that film in terms of what it might end up being like, and how did you feel after it came out and since given its place in modern sci-fi and effects history?

Dennis Lowe: We were just about to finish off on Revenge of the Pink Panther and the Alien script started to be circulated around the crew, I shared mine with John Hatt and Guy Hudson and I read it that evening back at home. The next morning I remember saying to Guy that this Alien film will not look good on our CVs because to me it read like a ‘B’ movie, it was crude and wasn’t helped by the fact that at that stage Dan O’Bannon was going to direct it. We had seen Dan looking lost as he wondered around Shepperton what seemed to be totally oblivious to anything around him, he didn’t give out a confident vibe….he was a nice guy but it was difficult to see him in that role, plus some of us had seen his student film ‘Dark Star’ and although he did a good job with no money it still looked half way there.

As the weeks passed rumors began to circulate that Ridley was about to get involved, we all knew of Ridley’s commercial success and of course his recently debuted The Duelist film so excitement mounted as it started to sink in that a different vision of the movie was about to be born and to top it all, Giger’s arrival cemented everything. From then on it didn’t take a genius to realise that we were on to a winner before initial photography started.

Neil Swann and Dennis
Neil Swann and Dennis Lowe with the Nostromo model.

Everything about that production had the right chemistry, every day seemed worth getting up for and doing your best, the interactions between the departments felt right and there was no doubt as to where things would lead. We had arguments as well but that’s all part of the creative process, it felt as though I was back at art school playing with images and experimenting with different ideas but still within the bounds of the script. As a group of people working on the film we all knew we had a success on our hands as soon as the production started properly.

At the crew screening I remember us all being transfixed throughout the whole movie as we obviously hadn’t had access to the editing and music etc but even after working all that time on the production it felt completely new and invigorating knowing what would happen but still feeling shocked when it did on the screen…..

Nostromo panels that Lowe worked on
Nostromo panels that Lowe worked on.

It has been interesting to see it’s evolution throughout the decades and how it has slowly begun to sink into the fabric of our culture as time after time that style has been used so much that maybe it’s time for another way of thinking?

b&a: What compelled you to take on the Alien Makers interviews? How and when did you get started doing this?

Dennis Lowe: During the work I was doing on Perfume I was diagnosed with Macular Degeneration in my right eye (only a small area but in the center of vision) and my left eye was normal so I made the decision there and then to retire after the movie was finished and do all the visual jobs I had always wanted to do but hadn’t had the time due to work commitments just in case I get it in the left eye. I had ideas for painting, mosaic work and making docs about the people I had worked with or heard about in my industry.

Ridley Scott and other filmmakers line up a shot
Ridley Scott and other filmmakers line up a shot.

Over the years I’d seen a few official documentaries on Alien and I remember thinking “That’s not the way I saw it as ‘backroom boy'” so I decided to have a go and do the documentary Alien Makers with the guys I worked with that smelt the glue, mixed the plaster and got their hands dirty. I was still in contact with some of the original crew members so I just turned up and pressed the record button with a view not to interrupt their flow, it used to annoy me so much in documentaries when an interviewer would try to get involved too much….so I developed a style by cutting out my questions where it was reasonable and editing it in such a way as to feel that the interviewee is speaking continuously so the attention is totally on the subject.

It was a perfect time to do this kind of film making as the cameras became smaller and more efficient so that I could have 4-5 camcorders all shooting at the same time with different lenses so I could cut easily without any interruption in the film process. Luckily it was also around the time that would have been the 30th anniversary of Alien (something that had completely passed me by) plus I had all these photos I had taken and not done anything with so I decided to scan and let them loose on the net (I used to have a nightmare scenario whereby I would die and those pics would end up in the skip with the rest of my rubbish) it was such a relief to get them out there. I also decided to make the docs free to watch and download to help distribute them quicker. I found that people were much more responsive to being filmed if they knew I was not making any money from the projects.

Andrew Kelly works on the yellow Nostromo
Andrew Kelly works on the yellow Nostromo.

b&a: What were the toughest things about lining up so many interviews? Any you missed that you really would like to have got?

Dennis Lowe: As I didn’t have a proper schedule for filming the series (no producers, no accountants, no stress…) I could take my time and as word got around people would contact me with help to find lost crew members etc. it was a really enjoyable process as some people I hadn’t seen Alien and it was good to catch up if only during the interviews as I expressly asked them to keep their stories for the cameras so as not to dilute the enthusiasm by telling it twice.

One of the hardest moments making Alien Makers was when I drove down to Zurich with camcorder kit in the boot (it was a 12 hour drive) and I stopped a few times to sleep in my sleeping bag on my back seat (this is in a Honda Jazz) and when I finally arrived outside Giger’s home the first thing he said was “I’ll give you 30 minutes”…even so I managed to get 45 minutes out of him but it was a bit of a drag coming all that way.

Nostromo, as taken from the lighting gantry, in this Pat Lowry negative scan.

I would really have liked to have interviewed more women who worked on the movie like Patty who worked in sculpture, from Fiona Latto who worked in administration at Bray Studios, more plasters, riggers etc but you can’t have everything and I feel 7 films are enough from my side of the fence.

b&a: You worked on the film, of course, but can you think of something you learned from doing the interviews that surprised even you in terms of how something was made or achieved on Alien?

Dennis Lowe: I spent most of my time on Alien in a darkened studio at Bray shooting models but we used to hear stories when guys used to come over from Shepperton Studios to the bar in the evening and tell us all the rumors and tittle tattle.

It wasn’t until quite recently when I was trying to coax Fiona Latto to do an interview (she worked as Bray Studio manager’s secretary and has some great stories) and she told me the story when Ridley ran out of money there was a meeting between him and the big knobs who wanted to pull the plug as the money had run out. In a furious rant Ridley thumped the table with his forefinger and promptly broke it sideways, Fiona had to rush out of the meeting, down to the bar and return with a glass filled with ice that she gave to Ridley. He dutifully stuck his finger in the glass and carried on shouting as if nothing had happened…….

A lot of the time I was there and looking back I have this feeling that we were experimenting with an artistic process while acting out our roles in an old Ealing Comedy film, that magical combination of serious play with the comfort of being in a family.

The 40th anniversary of the film is generating a swathe of new audio-visual and book-related releases.

Alien 40th anniversary
The Alien 40th anniversary 4K release.
The Making of Alien, by J.W. Rinzler.
The Making of Alien, by J.W. Rinzler.
Alien: The Blueprints
Alien: The Blueprints, by Graham Langridge.

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