Concept art of a holographic star field filling a cavernous alien spaceship for "Prometheus." Director Ridley Scott returns to the universe of "Alien" in a tale of human beings seeking out the origin of life - and coming face to face with death.
By CBSNews.com senior editor David Morgan
The scene as it appears in the film, as a humanoid robot discovers a holographic mapping system aboard an alien spaceship.
For "Prometheus" production designer Arthur Max (a two-time Oscar nominee, for "Gladiator" and "American Gangster") had to both extrapolate a believable technology for late-21st century human space travel and also design technologies for a civilization much further advanced. "You're trying to create not only an incredible world but also inspire the possibility of what could be real or imagined, known and unknown," he said. "We don't make documentaries!"
Director Ridley Scott on the set of "Prometheus," with Noomi Rapace.
Although the film is not specifically a prequel to Scott's 1979 horror classic, the story is set in the same universe as "Alien," in the decades preceding that film's events. Here, a scientific expedition to a far-off world uncovers not only evidence of an advanced civilization (dubbed the Engineers) but also the product of their genetic experiments.
The spaceship Prometheus features top-of-the-line technology in interstellar travel, and is designed to explore and land in any hostile environment or terrain.
Much was extrapolated from technologies currently in use or being developed by NASA and the European Space Agency. Max also consulted with the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in California.
"It gave us a certain amount of technical information, but then you also layer that with a kind of style which very often [portrays] another aspect of the story," he said.
Left: Concept artwork of the spaceship Prometheus, which Max called "a Cadillac of the skies."
The spaceship Prometheus.
A concept drawing of the spaceship Prometheus preparing to land.
The scene in the finished film.
"Prometheus" landing on an alien world.
"We always knew we would be landing in a hostile environment, worse than you can imagine on Earth - toxic atmosphere, unstable terrain," said Arthur Max. "We designed the Prometheus to deal with anything; it has a very complex landing system and levelling system, and it had every technology you could want for space exploration and exploitation."
The film boasts what Max calls "a very eclectic design, overlaying high technology and very archaic discoveries of an unknown culture that's probably many thousands of years ahead of us."
For inspiration Max looked at the "heightened drama" and alien landscapes of Chesley Bonestall (left) and the scientific detail of Robert McCall's paintings for NASA, as well as classical sculptures of antiquity.
The Prometheus crew goes on an EVA to an alien pyramid. It took 11 weeks to construct the crew's vehicles which could be driven on hostile terrain.
Although the production originally planned to shoot exteriors in the deserts of Morocco, the Arab Spring made filming in North Africa less tenable, and so the "Prometheus" crew settled onto the desolate, primordial landscape of Iceland.
That country's lush mountains and waterfalls were also the backdrop for the movie's prologue which mirrored the Greek myth of Prometheus, a god who gifted mankind with fire and was punished for it.
The human crew of "Prometheus" must stay in suspended animation during the two-year-long journey - watched over by a human-like robot.
Arthur Max also visited an experimental robotic medical trauma unit being developed for the military, which aided his design of the "med pod," a robotic chamber in which a patient could undergo surgery or other medical treatment.
Logan Marshall-Green and Noomi Rapace aboard the spaceship Prometheus in a scene from the film. The ship's two-tiered bridge featured a wrap-around glass cockpit.
Logan Marshall-Green aboard the spaceship "Prometheus."
Accommodations on board the Prometheus for executives of Weyland Industries, the corporation driving the expedition, are the height of luxury - and a far cry from the grungy space tug Nostromo in the original "Alien."
Left: Charlize Theron as Vickers, a Weyland executive overseeing the expedition to an alien world.
Vickers' quarters featured a virtual wallscreen environment (which shows scenes of nature or films, like a 3-D "Lawrence of Arabia"), designer furnishings, and a robotic medical pod for emergency surgeries.
Charlize Theron filming "Prometheus."
The highly-detailed sets were constructed on five sound stages at Pinewood Studios in England. The "007 Stage," one of the world's largest, still was not large enough and had to be expanded.
Also constructed was the massive alien compound (referred to as the Pyramid), with corridors opening onto ever-more mysterious chambers.
"Prometheus" shares more than a little DNA with the 1979 film "Alien." Production designer Arthur Max said director Ridley Scott wanted to do something that in an indirect way pointed to where his "Alien" began. "So in a way it was designing in reverse, and reconstructing what he and [concept artist H.R.] Giger had done originally.
"Ridley wanted something that was really turned the page on it. He didn't want limitations or restraints."
A chamber inside the alien Pyramid in "Prometheus."
The new film suggests the identity of the "space jockey," whose fossilized remains were discovered in the original film.
Below: The remains of the "space jockey" aboard an alien spacecraft are discovered in "Alien" (1979). Above: The alien craft as depicted in "Prometheus."
Filming "Prometheus." It was Ridley Scott's first film shot on digital, and in 3-D.
A mural inside an alien compound depicts a horrific creature, inspired by H.R. Giger's original "Alien" designs.
Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green in "Prometheus."
The space suits by costume designer Jandy Yates (an Oscar-winner for "Gladiator") followed Scott's demands to avoid "puffy" NASA-style suits. Yates' suits were lightweight and flexible, with an outer suit and an inner suit of Neoprene, and a globe-shaped helmet with no blind spots (something Sigourney Weaver would have appreciated in the original "Alien"!). The helmets contained nine working video screens, lights, oxygen supply, fans, and HD cameras with transmitter and recorder.
"You're trying to create not only an incredible world but also inspire the possibility of what could be real or imagined, known and unknown," Max said. "I think the history of film has always been about that. It uses the technology it has to expand what's possible in the imagination of the audience. And we tried to do that in 'Prometheus' more so than I think in any other project, because with science fiction there really are no boundaries.