The Catacombs Catacombs Reference Library
Brian Johnson interview

Space: 1999 copyright ITV Studios Global Entertainment
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Starlog (1979)

Brian Johnson: "We've had some pretty rugged locations on Empire. We've been to Norway, where it was 50 below zero. We are working full-out, but we are going to be very glad to finish the picture and have a rest next year. I haven't had a vacation in five years."

Brian Johnson rose to prominence in the U.S. when his work in Gerry Anderson's Space: 1999 TV series attracted so much attention. His work for this series and most of the photographic effects work in Alien took place at the specially equipped studios at Bray, near Windsor, England, where many of the Hammer horror films were made.

On Space: 1999, Johnson is credited as special-effects designer and supervisor. On Alien, as supervisor, Johnson "designed the way the effects were to be done. I determined the size of the models," says Johnson, "and their manner of construction. I selected the crew and drew up the budget. I decided how the various shots were going to be done."

On Space: 1999 his jobs included designing the models, painting original artwork, working on floor effects and directing the combined skills of his hand-picked, and highly efficient, 12-man effects and camera crew.

Nick Allder was born into the film industry. His father, the late John Allder, was a camera engineer. The younger Allder began his career as an assistant rostrum cameraman with a film company making commercials. Eight years later, he switched to camera special effects. He joined the late Les Bowie's special-effects company in the early 1960s where he worked on several Hammer films.

Allder spent 11 months in Egypt working on the epic KHARTOUM, the the Academy Award-winning A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS; after this he was off to Malta for a thriller, Twist of Sand, then two years on the aerial process photography for the mammoth THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN. His other films have included THE LONG DUEL, THE MEDUSA TOUCH, THE WILD GREESE, THE REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER and three years as special-effects cameraman on Space: 1999.

The varied backgrounds of Allder and Johnson prepared them ideally for the problems they encountered on Alien. Johnson remembers, "One of the difficulties with Alien was the way the project grew. With Ridley Scott you've got a man who keeps adding things and changing things. One has to be on top of the situation and say, 'Well, no, you can't do that at the moment, but give us a few days, a few hours and you will be able to do it.'

" We went through quite a number of evolutionary processes - equipment was modified or thrown out altogether as new ideas were generated. Usually the new equipment would be totally different from the original device. Eventually, we got what we hoped would be convincing on film."

Johnson and Allder found Scott's penchant for last-minute improvisation to be both a challenge and a joy. "This is why making motion pictures (even the most commercial) is still an art form," Johnson believes.

"You still have the joy of experimenting and discovering new things; whether it's a new chemical that gives you a weird texture to photograph, or just spending an afternoon dropping different substances on glass and photographing them. You look at everything in life from the point of view of what it would look like on the movie screen if you tried to photograph it."

STARLOG magazine visited Bray Studios last October. There, Nick Allder, at work on Alien, was kind enough to show us the NOSTROMO and its cathedral-like "processing refinery" in tow.

"The complete model," said Allder, "is about 18 feet long and weighs about 800 lbs. The detailing of the models is particularly rich, much of it manufactured and turned out on a lathe. From whatever angle and however close you wish to work the camera, the sense of scale and detail never diminishes."

Three models of various scales were built of the NOSTROMO. The ship's jets are rigged with high-intensity quartz lights and plumbing for the vapour jet. Allder explained, "We started using freon on Space: 1999 for rocket exhaust in space. Thank goodness we've left behind the pyrotechnic exhausts like we used in Thunderbirds. On this kind of work it would look very silly, and completely incorrect. The plumbing we have installed in the tail of the model for the exhaust jet is very sophisticated - it is electrically operated by remote control so that at a touch of a button the jet will switch on or off."

"We can get by with a lot of shots in which a starfield isn't necessary, or is in a different area of the frame. Where the ship must cross a starfield, however, we have rotoscoped mattes. Rotoscoping involves taking a sequence frame by frame, making line drawings, hand-painting the black mattes, then shooting that in high-contrast to actually create our matte and eventual effect. It's the only time we use an optical printer."

Lighting the NOSTROMO and its processing refinery, which even in model form are 18 feet long, so that the illumination appears to emanate from a single point source - the nearest star - was something of a problem. Allder pointed out that there are no double shadows on the model, even though several lighting instruments in a row are used to illuminate it from the camera. "We used a series of flags to cross one light over to the other. Where the shadow created by one flag starts, the light from the second lighting instrument in the row starts." By careful placement of flags and lighting instruments the model can be made to appear to be lit from a single point-source.

Brian Johnson: "My crew constructed a small NOSTROMO model - just the basic front section. I showed it to Ridley, who thought it might be alright, but that he would probably want to make a few changes. The talk went on and on and I was getting close to my shooting date and couldn't wait any longer. So I went ahead and built this huge model. When it was ready, we showed it to Ridley. I had my fingers crossed, because he could have turned around and said that he didn't like it!

"But he did like it...I knew, though, that somewhere along the line he'd want to modify it. He modifies everything as he goes along. We changed the colour about four or five times; it gradually got spikier, but the basic shape was always fairly similar. The rear end was altered slightly and it had lots of various probes and other things added to it."

The craft that the crew of the NOSTROMO finds on the surface of the planet is a Giger design. "We took Giger's sketch and sculpted a small replica without any detail - just the basic shape, for a test." Johnson explains the problems involved in transforming a two-dimensional sketch into a three dimensional sculpture. "It's a common problem. A director will come to you with a drawing; 'Hey, I've got this great sketch!' But it's a two-dimensional drawing, and when you put it into three dimensions it never looks the same. You have to be able to look at a sketch and say, 'That's going to look like a pile of rubbish. Why don't you let me have a go at making something that will be similar, but might have a totally different shape in three dimensions?'

"We showed the rough sculpted form of the Giger sketch to Ridley, who said that it was somewhere near what he would like. Then we built a huge one about 12 feet across that would be used for background establishing shots."

Allder recalls that "the model was built of polystyrene with a fibreglass 'skin.'" The model was also used in the long shots of the explorers as they approached the ship. "It was not a composite shot, however," smiles Johnson. "The explorers were tiny puppets with lights on them!"

With Brian Johnson and Nick Allder moving on from Alien to the set of The Empire Strikes Back, STARLOG asked Johnson to explain a bit about the role of a special-effects supervisor.

"Part of what being a supervisor is all about is being able to pick people who you know are going to come up with the goods. There's a lot more to it than just actually working on the movie. You're not a father figure, but you need to be something of a amateur psychologist. If you start having row amount the crew on a picture like Alien or Star Wars, you're in trouble.

"I'm a great believer in giving people responsibility and trusting them in the way they do things, but a the same time steering them in the direction you want them to go. In that way you get the best out of everybody. I do my best to get everybody a credit. The result is that you get total commitment.

" The effects on Alien are a total product of an amazing team of guys who worked together. If there are attributions of amazing special-effects work, you really must credit the work of the entire crew - they all worked their hearts out.

"A special-effects supervisor is only as good as the crew around him. With Nicky Allder and the rest of the crew, I think I've to the best special-effects team in the world!"

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