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My work on the Alien
System Simulation and the Royal College of Art
In 1976 I worked at the Royal College of Art in London, in the department of Design Research as a postdoc. My boss was Dr. George Mallen who ran and still runs a company called System Simulation. Syssim, as we affectionately called the company, had an interest in computers in the Arts, led also by the late John Lansdowne, a pioneer in this field. John started the Computer Arts Society and ran regular meetings at the offices of Syssim in Russel Square in London. Syssim had been doing some early work in computer animation in the 1970's, some of which had come to myself and my colleague, an artist called, Colin Emmett.
Colin worked on the ANTICS package with Alan Kitching at the Atlas/Rutherford laboratory near Didcot, which had been used for several sequences, the most notable being a movie entitled Finite Elements.
The Alien Movie
After my one year post-doc, I got married and proceeded to take off on a climbing expedition with my air-hostess wife and several months later I returned to the UK looking for work. George contacted me and said that Syssim had a big contract to make some sequences for a Hollywood movie, could I help? The money was good, seven pounds an hour, a fortune for me at that time. I promptly kissed my wife goodbye and set off for the Atlas lab. where Colin was having a very hard time making his software, FROLIC, behave well enough to finish the required sequences which were notably late. I settled down to helping out, debugging Colin's code and adding new features to the system. The reason that we used the Atlas lab. was that they had an FR80, a very high resolution vector film plotter that would output 35mm film. Colin showed me the storyboard for the movie, it looked pretty far fetched to me and there was a definite hominess about the waking astronauts and their cat which I didn't think Science Fiction fans would buy, how wrong could I be?
Eventually our part of the movie was just about done. The ship. NOSTROMO, receives a distress call and the computers wake everybody up and show on the screens a simulation of the orbit around the planet which sent out the message. Our part was making the simulated orbit. George Mallen asked me to go with him to meet the famous director, Ridley Scott, and show him the rushes, to see if all met with his approval. Well, he kept us waiting three or four hours, which I didn't mind, I was being paid seven pounds an hour! George was not so pleased. Now, Ridley Scott, I believe is British, but even at that time he had spent sufficiently long in Hollywood to develop what I would call a mid-Atlantic accent. Even after 20 years in Canada my friends tell me I sound like I just got off the boat so I had a suspicion that he was putting this on a little to impress us.
Meeting Ridley Scott
When he eventually showed up, Ridley Scott was accompanied by an entourage of movie people and even had somebody carrying the traditional canvas backed chair. I seem to remember that he was not very pleased with us since our part of the project was late. He spoke through members of his entourage, rather than directly to us and made us feel very uncomfortable. The great director's speech was punctuated with words such as: "logistics" and "status" the latter word he pronounced as in the American fashion (short 'a') impressed me at the time. He looked at the rushes a couple of times and eventually spoke to me directly. "We have not reached the final status with this project, ah, I want to see something busier, some computer output which makes the status of the computer orbit logistics clear to the viewer. Savvy ?" (Or words to that effect!) I nodded my head, overawed by the great man, and rushed off to my nerdly duties at the Atlas lab.
A Question of Credits
After a discussion with George I had learned that Syssim would receive a credit, but it seemed unlikely that workers on the "factory floor" like myself would get any mention in the movie. So I set about complying with Ridley Scott's request as well as to get myself a mention on the screen. I built a vertical and horizontal message area around the computer display of the Nostromo's orbit as can be seen in the accompanying frame from the movie. (One of the few I managed to preserve, I wish I had kept the storyboard but perhaps George has a copy.) Where it says: DEORBITAL DESCENT there is a lower box which reads: SYSTEM :BL: 76.75 :OB: The numbers change rapidly, but the BL: :OB remain on the screen. For those that know, my nick name forever has been Blob, so in a way I had got myself a small credit on the movie. If you look carefully at the text on other frames there are messages such as: Logistic Status then a flag which reads, ON or OFF. Maybe this will be more easily seen on the DVD version, I await it eagerly! The final irony was that System Simulation did not get their credit so I was the only one of our group that could find his name on the big silver screen.